||This article may be too technical for most readers to understand. (January 2013)|
Traditional society has often been contrasted with modern industrial society, with figures like Durkheim and Pierre Bourdieu stressing such polarities as community v society, or mechanical v organic solidarity; while Claude Lévi-Strauss saw traditional societies as 'cold' societies in that they refused to allow the historical process to define their social sense of legitimacy.
However theories positing the simple, unilineal evolution of societies from traditional to modern industrial are now seen as too simplistic, relying on an ideal typology revolving round such polarities as subsistence/growth;face-to-face/impersonal;informal social control/formal social control;collective ownership/private ownership. Recent work has emphasised instead the variety of traditional cultures, and the existence of intermediate forms as well as of'alternative' modernisations.
Fredric Jameson saw 20th century modernisation as encountering two main kinds of traditional society - tribal, as in Africa, and bureaucratic imperial, as in China and India - although a much wider diversity of traditional societies has existed over time.
For most of human existence, small tribes of hunter-gatherers leading an almost static existence formed the only social organisation: where they survived into the twentieth century, as in Australia, paintings, songs, myths and rituals were all used to cement links to a deep-reaching sense of continuity with ancestors and ancestral ways.
The invention of farming some 10,000 years ago led to the development of agrarian societies, whether nomadic or peasant - the latter in particular almost always dominated by a strong sense of traditionalism. Within agrarian society, however, a wide diversity still existed. Homeric Greece was a society marked by powerful kinship bonds, fixed status and rigidly defined social expectations; with the classical polis, however, though festivals, in M. I. Finley's words, still "recreated for their audiences the unbroken web of all life, stretching back over generations of men to the gods", new and more complex voluntary forms of social and public life balanced traditional society in a new equilibrium.
Medieval Europe was an intensely local society of self-perpetuating peasant households, living within a slow moving culture dominated by customary law and by respect for ancient authority and pervaded with an ahistorical political mentality focused upon the concepts of experience, usage, and law-as-custom.
Enlightenment and post-traditionalism
Much of the focus of Enlightenment thinking was directed at undoing the mindset of traditional society, and replacing a focus upon such concepts as rural/hierarchical/customary/status with one centred around the ideas of urban/egalitarian/progressive/contractual. Modernism and modernity continued the process of challenging and overcoming traditional society.,
Jameson however has seen as a defining feature of postmodernism the global elimination of residual, 'traditional' enclaves, giving it its one-dimensional, temporal nature - no longer offset by living examples of the past alongside the new.
Global media such as the Internet have been seen as effective means of re-creating traditional cultures. However, a key contrast now with traditional societies as they were is that participation has become voluntary, where before it was ascriptive: fixed in space, social stratification, and role expectations.
- S. Langlois, Traditions, Social
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- Langlois, in Smelser
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