Basic sociological question: “what does civilization as we know it rely on?”

Big questions about society can be great for Introduction to Sociology courses. Here is are the sorts of questions that I think could work quite well:

So, what sort of machines do you need to create an industrial civilization—kind of like the ones we have now, but more sensibly sourced. I remember taking a sociology course years ago where we started out with a similar question, although we conceived the question more broadly—what does civilization as we know it rely on? The answer then (decades ago, before the impact of The Whole Earth Catalog had been felt) was something along the lines of “technology.” But this is a much better question.

If we stuck with the second question here, “what does civilization as we know it rely on?”, I could imagine a class could generate a lot of answers:

1. The Internet. In the vast scope of human history, this may seem silly. But for people raised in the Internet era, it would be pretty hard to imagine life without it.

2. Electricity. This makes all sorts of things possible.

3. The steam engine. This helped give rise to the Industrial Revolution.

And so on. But these are all technological changes that could go back to the plow and the wheel and illustrate the human capacity to create and utilize tools. We just happen to live in an era where such technological change is rapid and our daily lives are full of machines. But what about more cultural or sociological phenomena?

1. Language. The ability to communicate in formalized ways gave rise to oral traditions, writing, etc.

2. Government. This doesn’t necessarily have to mean the big bureaucracies of today that impressed Max Weber. But just a form of ruling or authority that helped bring about communities.

3. Sustained agriculture. This has been the traditional answer to how humans were able to create more complex societies in the Fertile Crescent. This is now being challenged by a new argument based on evidence of early religion in Turkey.

I’ll have to think about using these questions in class. They seem particularly good for helping students consider the basic building blocks of human social life before diving into specific sociological phenomena.

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