What is an Agrarian Society?
An agrarian society focuses its mode of production primarily on agriculture and the cultivation of large fields.
Throughout history, societies have continuously transitioned and evolved becoming more and more complex and diverse in shape and functions. Starting from hunting and gathering society (the simplest of the societies), societies have progressed through multiple phases and ended up into industrial societies.
It was around 3000 B.C or 6000 years ago that the invention of the plough had led to the beginning of the agrarian society. Agrarian societies first arose in ancient Egypt. The societies were based on the introduction of the plough and the harnessing of animal power.
Characteristics of an Agrarian Society
An agrarian society is different and unique in its characteristics from all the previous phases of society.
Cultivation of Land through the Plough
Based on the invention of the plough around 3000 B.C, the ‘agrarian revolution’ marked the beginning of the agrarian society. This invention has enabled people to make a great leap forward in food production. It is because the use of plough increased the productivity of the land by bringing the nutrients to the surface that have sunk out of reach of the roots of plants. Moreover, it also returns weeds to the soil to act as fertilizers.
Furthermore, the use of animal power to pull the plough enabled great productivity of the soil. The animal-drawn plough could do the work of many working with sticks or hand hoes.
Hence, combining irrigation techniques with the use of plough increased productivity and made the increased yields more reliable. Further, it has also made it possible to work on the same patch of land repeatedly by cultivating it again and again. Thus, it resulted in the permanent settlements of societies and communities in one area.
An Increase in the Size of Society
The size of the agrarian society is much greater than that of horticultural or pastoral communities. It relieves the burden of working in the field for a fairly large number of people who can engage themselves in other types of activities on a full-time basis. Thus, the full-time specialists who engage themselves in non-agricultural activities tend to concentrate in some compact places which ultimately led to the birth of cities.
The Emergence of Political Institutions
Agrarian societies, in course of time, lead to the establishment of more elaborate political institutions. As land is the basis for wealth in an agrarian society; thus, landowners enjoy more power and prestige than those lacking lands. Thus, power is concentrated in the hands of few individuals (the landowners).
In well-established agrarian societies, a formalized government bureaucracy emerges duly assisted by a legal system. Moreover, the court system of providing justice also emerges. These developments make the state the most powerful separate institution.
Evolution of Distinct Social Classes
Agrarian societies produce relatively greater wealth which is unequally shared. As a result, a small minority enjoys the surplus produced by the working majority. Thus, for the first time, two distinct social classes – those who own the land and those who work on the land of others – emerge.
The land is the major source of wealth and is individually owned and inherited. This actually creates the major difference between the social strata. The old feudal system of Europe is an example of such differences between the strata.
The Emergence of Clearly Defined Economic Institutions
Agrarian societies provide the basis for the establishment of economic institutions. With the produced surplus, the members of the society engage in trade with other societies. Thus, trade becomes more elaborate and money is used here as a medium of exchange.
The trade which takes place on an elaborate scale demands the maintenance of records of the transaction, crop harvest, taxation, government rules and regulations. These developments provide an incentive for the enrichment of systematic writing which is found only in these societies and not in the previous ones.
Religious Becomes a Separate Institution
As societies become more and more complex, religion also becomes more complex with the status of a separate institution. A religion requires full-time officials which an agrarian society can easily provide given that it relieves the burden of working in the field for a fairly large number of people who can give their full-time to religion.
Warfare and Empire Building
Agrarian societies constantly fight amongst themselves. Hence, warfare becomes a regular feature. Moreover, these societies also engage themselves in systematic empire building.
These developments necessitate the formation of an effective military organization. The evolving sense of saving land and properties from foreign invasion also necessitates the formation of military force.
Thus, for the first time, full-time permanent armies make their appearance. These armies require the development of proper roads and waterways. Such developments in the field of transport also bring the previously isolated communities into contact with one another.
Enrichment of Culture
Since the agrarian society produces more food than is necessary for subsistence, it is able to support people whose sole purpose is to provide ideas to the culture. Hence, poets, writers, historians, artists, scientists, architects and such other talented people spend their days cultivating wisdom and beauty rather than fields.
Surplus agricultural resources are now invested in new cultural artefacts such as paintings, statues, public buildings, monuments, palaces and stadiums.
Revolutionary Transition in the Social Structure
In comparison with many other less evolved types of societies, the agrarian society has a far more complex social structure and culture. The transition from the previous social structures to the present one has been revolutionary.
The number of statuses multiplies, population size increases, cities appear, new institutions emerge, social classes arise, political and economic inequality becomes built into the social structure, and culture becomes much more diversified and heterogeneous.
Disclaimer: The ideas and information provided in this write-up have been mainly taken from the book Sociology, Principles of Sociology with an Introduction to Social Thought by C.N. SHANKAR RAO.