A Chronology of Social Formations

A few years ago I used to run a special option for medical students on social change in modern Britain. It was a bit like the general studies we had to take in the sixth form at school, intended to broaden outlooks. While my focus was on the volatility of the present, it is not so easily separated from either past or future, and I liked to start with an historical reference or two. One year I asked the group of 15 or so when the European Renaissance occurred. After a longish pause one student volunteered ‘the 1920s’. My expression must have revealed a certain disappointment because another quickly chipped in with ‘no, the 1930s’. These highly intelligent students were victims of a lack of education, having specialised too much too soon (as indeed I had done in the late 1960s).

Historical timelines are two a penny in bargain bookshops these days. Less common are chronologies of social formations. How many sociology students have an informed sense of the unfolding of the history of societies? There are tensions between historians and sociologists in these matters of course, the former as suspicious of social structure as the latter are of agency. To serve my group of students I culled a chronology of sorts from various sources, but mainly from the work of historical sociologists. It may irritate specialists but it seemed to meet a need at the time and I reproduce it here in case it is of interest. For myself, I find such chronologies useful mapping devices. I end with a paragraph or two on the present.

From the beginnings of the Neolithic revolution, occurring around 8000-3000 BC socio-political evolution encompassed four principal stages:

  1. Bands – small nomadic groups of up to a dozen hunter-gatherers; democratic and egalitarian (close to Marx’s ‘primitive communism’);
  2. Tribes – similar to bands except more committed to horticulture and pastoralism, ‘segmentary societies’ comprising autonomous villages;
  3. Chiefdoms– autonomous political units under permanent control of paramount chief; centralized government with hereditary, hierarchical status arrangements; ‘rank societies’;
  4. States – autonomous political units; centralized government supported by monopoly of violence; large dense populations characterized by stratification and inequality.

3000 BC witnessed the emergence of fully-fledged agrarian states, displaying a number of core characteristics and remaining the predominant form of social organization until around 1450 AD. These core characteristics can be summarized as follows:

  • A division of labour between a small landowning (or controlling) nobility and a large peasantry; this was an exploitative division backed by military force;
  • The noble-peasant relationship provided the principal axis in agrarian societies: it was a relationship based on production-for-use rather than production-for-exchange;
  • Differences of interest between nobles and peasants, but not overt ‘class struggle’;
  • Societies held together not by consensus but by military force;
  • Societies relatively static and unchanging: there was a 4500-year incubation period prior to the advent of capitalist states.

The transition to capitalism took place in the ‘long sixteenth century’, that is, between 1450 and 1640. Marx saw this transition as of major significance, noting three vital characteristics of the new capitalist system:

  • Private ownership of the means of production by the bourgeoisie;
  • The existence of wage labour as the basis of production;
  • The profit motive and long-term accumulation of capital as the driving aim of production.

It is customary to discern reasonably distinct stages of capitalism. Thus a transition to ‘merchant capitalism’ is typically dated from 1450 to 1640, followed by a period of consolidation and solidification, characterized by slow, steady growth between 1640 and 1760. 1760 is often cited as a marker for a switch to ‘industrial capitalism’, which is itself often divided into stages:

  1. 1760-1830 – textile manufacturing dominated by Britain;
  2. 1830-1870 – railroads and iron dominated by Britain and later the USA;
  3. 1870WW1 – steel and organic chemistry, with the emergence of new industries based on producing and using electrical machinery, dominated by the USA and Germany;
  4. WW1-1970 – automobiles and petrochemicals, dominated by the USA;
  5. 1970 onwards – electronics, information and biotechnology, dominated by the USA, also Japan and Western Europe.

Notes on the Present: Modern/Postmodern, Modernity/Postmodernity

Some have seen 1970 as the beginning of a new era of post-industrial or financial capitalism (I have now adopted the term financial capitalism in publications and in previous blogs). Others have defined this same era or stage of capitalism as postmodernity, implying the end of a prior era of modernity. These remain disputed terms, but I have arrived at my own tentative resolution.

By common consent the advent of the modern can be dated from around the time of the (English) industrial and French revolutions; more precisely perhaps, it dates from the European Enlightenment towards the close of the eighteenth century. It has less to do with capitalism than with:

  • the emergence of a secular, universal reason, promising:
  • a scientific understanding of the natural and social worlds, leading to:
  • a steady and ineluctable progress towards the ‘good society’.

Modernity as a social formation, on the other hand, has come to be identified with the progressive economic and administrative rationalization and differentiation of the social world. More specifically, it is associated with:

  • the nation-state, embedded in an international system of states;
  • a dynamic and expansionist economic system based on private property;
  • industrialism typified by Fordism;
  • the growth of large-scale administrative and bureaucratic systems of organization and regulation;
  • the dominance of secular, rationalist, materialist and individualist cultural values;
  • the formal separation of the ‘private’ from the ‘public’.

Postmodernity signals the replacement of the idea of the modern by that of the postmodern, plus the arrival of a new social formation. Many associate the idea of the postmodern with the demise of the Western or Eurocentric Enlightenment project, arguing against the latter’s flawed foundationalist defence of universal reason, rationalist metanarratives and broken promises. Considered as a social formation, postmodernity is typically associated with:

  • the declining importance of the nation-state and nationalism;
  • a growth in supra-national bodies;
  • a globalisation of markets and communication systems;
  • a concurrent process of ‘re-tribalisation’ or displacement of national by local political and cultural loyalties;
  • a shift from mass to segmented production, primarily oriented to consumerism;
  • new post-industrial or post-Fordist ‘flexible’ work patterns;
  • the increasing salience of the mass media and information technologies;
  • shifts in the social production/circulation of knowledge;
  • the superceding of ‘old’ class-based politics by ‘new’ social movements around lifestyle and identity;
  • a fragmentation, diversification and relativization of culture commonly seen as liberating.

For my own part, I remain reluctant to write of the death of modernity and birth of postmodernity. Indeed, I prefer the term ‘high’ to ‘late modernity’ when analysing the present. I see a lot of continuity (as well as some discontinuity) at the level of social structures. On the whole I now favour writing of a new stage or phase of capitalism, financial capitalism. When writing of cultural change post-1970, however, I have allowed myself to write of a thoroughly relativized ‘postmodern culture’. I see this postmodern culture, after Habermas, as a form of neo-conservatism, and as disinhibiting rather than liberating. I also believe, like Habermas again, that a reconstructed (post-foundationalist) Enlightenment project must be and is possible. But I am putting the cat amongst the pigeons now I suspect.


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