ANT 352 Readings


Traditional and Modern Societies: A Comparative Look

What are we talking about?

“Traditional” refers to those societies or elements of societies that are small-scale, are derived from indigenous and often ancient cultural practices.
“Modern” refers to those practices that relate to the industrial mode of production or the development of large-scale often colonial societies.
These co-exist in the world today.

It is stupid to divide things up into dichotomies or dualities, but it is sometimes useful as a heuristic device.
Even though there is no such thing as a completely traditional or completely modern society at the present time, the collision between the two forms of organization has great significance for everyone alive today.

The principle of social analysis.

Even the idea of separating society or daily life into ‘components’ (economy, religion, political organization, social relations, etc.) does not make sense in the traditional worldview, in which they are all inter-penetrated, a Gestalt.
The domination of Western ways and thought of all others, by military and economic force, may be a historical fact, but is not necessarily a permanent state of affairs.

Subsistence and economy.

Traditional: Production for use or subsistence.
Simple division of labor (age, sex); cooperation.
Units of production family, clan, village, age-set (organic social units).Units of distribution and consumption socially-based (family, etc.).
Consumption to satisfy basic needs or ritual.
Little transformation of produce (crafts, metallurgy, cooking…)
Tasks organically interdependent.

Modern: Production for profit, growth.
Complex division of labor (specialization, differentiation).
Individualized, mechanized; units hard to identify (not social).Units of dist. are individual, mechanical, commercial, corporate.
Consumption needs and competitive (over-) consumerism.
High degree of trans., commoditization.
Dependence on others’ skills, knowledge.

Material culture.

Traditional: Accumulation for redistribution, exchange for prestige, alliance.
Collective ownership.
No distinct economic sphere; inter-penetrated with kinship, age, ritual.
No work for pay; no formal contract; no “labor” or “shadow”.

Few possessions; similar standard of living.

Modern: Resources not always used for social ends (self). Cult of wealth.
Private ownership.
Distinct economic sphere, with distinct domains.
Pay for goods and services; contract-based; shadow work.
Many possessions; inequitable distribution of resources and wealth.

Cultural ecology.

Traditional: Subsistence strategy related to ecology, population size and structure, settlement pattern.
Sacred land and commons.
Use value of environment.

Transport by human or animal energy.
Individuals have variety of skills; make tools and control them.
Human, plant, animal and solar energy.
Migration and diverse settlement.
Limited but nutritious diet.

Modern: Techno-economic system unrelated to environmental, social and cultural factors.
Restricted access (private), but few sacred places or commons.
Resource exploitation, domination of nature.

Machine transportation; chemical energy.
Expertise replaces skill and general knowledge.
Chemical, mechanical energy intensive; muscular is leisure.
Urbanized. Rural supports growth.
Varied, but questionable diet (commercialized).

Political and social features.

Traditional: Inherently democratic, decentralized power kin-based.
Public goals (good of group over individual).
No bureaucracy.
Foreign policy is trade, raiding, negotiation, or retaliation.Age, kin, and gender (some) dominance.
Groups in society inter-mixed.
Community cohesion; hospitality ‘law’.
Face-to-face relations, everything negotiable; consensus important.
Family important.

Modern: State tends away from democracy; centralized. Oligarchy.
Some public and personal goals.
Conquest, commerce, assimilation, colonialism.Class, caste, stratified hierarchy of elites, also.
Social separation (apartheid).
Little sense of community.
Impersonal, distance communication, everything pre-defined.
Family pulled apart.


Traditional: More leisure, more time; time means lived life.
Spiritual focus.
Mythological basis for taboos and rules. Informal social control.
People entertain themselves. Conversation is an art.

Modern: Less leisure, no time; time is independent of life; time is money.
Secular or religious.
Legalistic or doctrinal. Formal social control.
People are entertained by specialists. Consumption replaces conversation.

Less leisure, no time; time is independent of life; time is money.
Secular or religious.
Legalistic or doctrinal. Formal social control.
People are entertained by specialists. Consumption replaces conversation.