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54 Characteristics of Traditional Society

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Traditional societies are organized social groups that are oriented towards the past with a prominent role of tradition in shaping systems, norms and way of life. These include historical societies and societies that exist now often within the borders of larger modern societies. In describing the characteristics of traditional society, it is important not to overgeneralize. For example, you might say that they have subsistence agricultural economies but some are hunter-gathers and still others may participate in modern markets in some limited way. The following are characteristics of traditional societies that are broadly applicable.
Ancestral worship
Close relationship with nature and dependence on natural resources
Collective defense and protection
Communal ownership of land – may view large territories as ancestral lands
Communal sharing of resources and responsibilities
Cultural taboos and prohibitions
Customary laws and norms
Dishonor can result in social stigma, shame, exclusion or ostracism
Division of labor often based on age, gender and status
Elders as authority figures
Emphasis on verbal communication
Establish boundaries and borders – possibility of territorial disputes with outside groups
Extended family structures
Folklore and mythology at the center of culture
Hierarchical social roles
Honor code - unwritten rules and expectations
Honor-based society
Intergenerational transfer of knowledge and skills
Knowledge of local flora and fauna
Land and territory is closely tied to sense of identity
Limited division of labor
Limited freedom of movement – may be expected to stay within community lands
Limited individual property ownership
Limited individualism
Limited interaction with outsiders
Limited social mobility
Limited use of technology
May make some use of commodity currency or money
Often involved in farming, hunting, fishing and/or gathering resources
Reputation is of utmost important
Respect for ancestors
Respect for authority figures and elders
Rites of passage
Rituals and ceremonies
Sacred sites and rituals associated with nature
Seasonal celebrations
Self-sufficiency with minimal reliance on external resources
Sense of collective identity
Sense of community
Sense of connection with the past
Sharing economy – reciprocity in the exchange of goods and services
Storytelling, music and ritual are used to pass knowledge
Strong community bonds and support
Strong social cohesion
Traditional aesthetics and decorative items
Traditional clothing and attire
Traditional crafts
Traditional gender roles and expectations
Traditional medicine and healing practices
Traditional music and dance
Traditional production methods handed down from the past
Value stability over aggressive change
View problems as having spiritual dimensions
Worship of natural elements or forces
It is a myth that ecological stewardship is an innate feature of traditional societies with over-utilization of resources being the norm1.
It is a myth that traditional societies have an economy based on barter but rather use money, commodity money and a system of reciprocity2.
It is quite difficult to state universal characteristics for all traditional societies as there tend to be many exceptions to each. For example, the Amish of North America are Christians who don't conform to religious characteristics that are often associated with traditional societies such as worship of natural elements.
Traditional societies also change, particularly when they face increasing interaction and trade with modern societies.
above: Himba women shopping in a modern grocery store
Overview: Traditional Society
Organized social groups that are oriented towards the past with a prominent role of tradition in shaping systems, norms and way of life.
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Traditional Culture

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1. Fennell, David A. "Ecotourism and the myth of indigenous stewardship." Journal of Sustainable Tourism 16.2 (2008): 129-149.
2. Strauss, Ilana E. "The myth of the barter economy." The Atlantic 26 (2016).

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