Society, in general, addresses the fact that an individual has rather limited means as an autonomous unit. The great apes have always been more (Bonobo, Homo, Pan) or less (Gorilla, Pongo) social animals, so Robinson Crusoe-like situations are either fictions or unusual corner cases to the ubiquity of social context for humans, who fall between presocial and eusocial in the spectrum of animal ethology.
Cultural relativism as a widespread approach or ethic has largely replaced notions of "primitive", better/worse, or "progress" in relation to cultures (including their material culture/technology and social organization).
According to anthropologist Maurice Godelier, one critical novelty in society, in contrast to humanity's closest biological relatives (chimpanzees and bonobos), is the parental role assumed by the males, which supposedly would be absent in our nearest relatives for whom paternity is not generally determinable.
In political science
Societies may also be structured politically. In order of increasing size and complexity, there are bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and state societies. These structures may have varying degrees of political power, depending on the cultural, geographical, and historical environments that these societies must contend with. Thus, a more isolated society with the same level of technology and culture as other societies is more likely to survive than one in close proximity to others that may encroach on their resources. A society that is unable to offer an effective response to other societies it competes with will usually be subsumed into the culture of the competing society.
The social group enables its members to benefit in ways that would not otherwise be possible on an individual basis. Both individual and social (common) goals can thus be distinguished and considered. Ant (formicidae) social ethology
Sociologist Peter L. Berger defines society as "...a human product, and nothing but a human product, that yet continuously acts upon its producers." According to him, society was created by humans, but this creation turns back and creates or molds humans every day.
Sociologist Gerhard Lenski differentiates societies based on their level of technology, communication, and economy: (1) hunters and gatherers, (2) simple agricultural, (3) advanced agricultural, (4) industrial, and (5) special (e.g. fishing societies or maritime societies). This is similar to the system earlier developed by anthropologists Morton H. Fried, a conflict theorist, and Elman Service, an integration theorist, who have produced a system of classification for societies in all human cultures based on the evolution of social inequality and the role of the state. This system of classification contains four categories:
In addition to this there are:
- Humanity, humankind, upon which rest all the elements of society, including society's beliefs.
- Virtual society, a society based on online identity, which is evolving in the information age.
Over time, some cultures have progressed toward more complex forms of organization and control. This cultural evolution has a profound effect on patterns of community. Hunter-gatherer tribes settled around seasonal food stocks to become agrarian villages. Villages grew to become towns and cities. Cities turned into city-states and nation-states.
Many societies distribute largess at the behest of some individual or some larger group of people. This type of generosity can be seen in all known cultures; typically, prestige accrues to the generous individual or group. Conversely, members of a society may also shun or scapegoat any members of the society who violate its norms. Mechanisms such as gift-giving, joking relationships and scapegoating, which may be seen in various types of human groupings, tend to be institutionalized within a society. Social evolution as a phenomenon carries with it certain elements that could be detrimental to the population it serves.
Some societies bestow status on an individual or group of people when that individual or group performs an admired or desired action. This type of recognition is bestowed in the form of a name, title, manner of dress, or monetary reward. In many societies, adult male or female status is subject to a ritual or process of this type. Altruistic action in the interests of the larger group is seen in virtually all societies. The phenomena of community action, shunning, scapegoating, generosity, shared risk, and reward are common to many forms of society.