According to sociologists, a society is a group of people with
common territory, interaction, and culture. Social groups consist of two or more
people who interact and identify with one another.
Territory: Most countries have formal boundaries and territory that the
world recognizes as theirs. However, a society’s boundaries don’t have to be geopolitical
borders, such as the one between the United States and Canada. Instead, members of a society,
as well as nonmembers, must recognize particular land as belonging to that society.
Example: The society of the Yanomamo has fluid but definable land boundaries. Located in a
South American rain forest, Yanamamo territory extends along the border of Brazil and
Venezuela. While outsiders would have a hard time determining where Yanomamo land begins and
ends, the Yanomamo and their neighbors have no trouble discerning which land is theirs and
which is not.
Interaction: Members of a society must come in contact with one another.
If a group of people within a country has no regular contact with another group, those groups
cannot be considered part of the same society. Geographic distance and language barriers can
separate societies within a country.
Example: Although Islam was practiced in both parts of the country, the residents of East
Pakistan spoke Bengali, while the residents of West Pakistan spoke Urdu. Geographic distance,
language differences, and other factors proved insurmountable. In 1971, the nation split into
two countries, with West Pakistan assuming the name Pakistan and East Pakistan
becoming Bangladesh. Within each newly formed society, people had a common
culture, history, and language, and distance was no longer a factor.
Culture: People of the same society share aspects of their culture, such
as language or beliefs. Culture refers to the language, values, beliefs, behavior,
and material objects that constitute a people’s way of life. It is a defining element of
Example: Some features of American culture are the English language, a democratic system of
government, cuisine (such as hamburgers and corn on the cob), and a belief in individualism and
The United States is a society composed of many groups of people, some of whom
originally belonged to other societies. Sociologists consider the United States a
pluralistic society, meaning it is built of many groups. As societies modernize,
they attract people from countries where there may be economic hardship, political unrest, or
religious persecution. Since the industrialized countries of the West were the first to
modernize, these countries tend to be more pluralistic than countries in other parts of the
Many people came to the United States between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth
centuries. Fleeing poverty and religious persecution, these immigrants arrived in waves from
Europe and Asia and helped create the pluralism that makes the United States unique.
Some practices that are common in other societies will inevitably offend or
contradict the values and beliefs of the new society. Groups seeking to become part of a
pluralistic society often have to give up many of their original traditions in order to fit
in—a process known as assimilation.
Example: When people arrive in the United States from other countries, they most likely speak
a foreign language. As they live here, they generally learn at least some English, and many
become fluent. Their children are most likely bilingual, speaking English as well as the
language of their parents. By the third generation, the language originally spoken by their
grandparents is often lost.
In pluralistic societies, groups do not have to give up all of their former beliefs
and practices. Many groups within a pluralistic society retain their ethnic traditions.
Example: Although Chinese immigrants started arriving in the United States 150 years ago,
Chinese-American communities still follow some traditions, such as celebrating the Lunar New
In a truly pluralistic society, no one group is officially considered more
influential than another. In keeping with this belief, the United States does not, for
example, put a legal quota on how many Italian Americans can vote in national elections, how
many African Americans may run for public office, or how many Vietnamese Americans can live on
a certain street. However, powerful informal mechanisms, such as prejudice and discrimination,
work to keep many groups out of the political process or out of certain neighborhoods.