07- The Tale of Three Societies: I. The Premodern

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I. The Premodern

Theme: Leaders are Embedded in Three Worlds

Fundamental Question

How do we lead, consult and coach in such widely differing social systems that now exist in our 21 Century world?

We now live in a world that supports three different types of social structure. One of these social structures has been present for many centuries. A vast majority of the people now living reside in this type of social structure. This structure goes by many names: “traditional,” “primitive,” “developing,” “third world,” “agrarian” and “neo-feudal.” I have chosen to use the term premodern in identifying this social structure, in large part because the other terms tend to be value-laden or restricted to non Western countries. Throughout this book we will identify many positive features of premodern societies and certainly do not wish to consider it less “developed” than other social structures. Furthermore, many social structures that exist in the Western World are clearly premodern. They do not just exist in the “third world” nor are they found only in societies that are dependent on agriculture.

The second type of social structure is so prevalent in the world in which most of the readers of this book live that it is taken for granted. This is the modern society that has existed in Western Europe since the beginning of the industrial era (early 19th Century), in North America since the early years of the 20th Century, and in urban settings in other parts of the world since World War II. We would suggest that there is now a third type of social structure that (for want of a better word) I shall identify as postmodern. This social structure now exists in many parts of the world and is rapidly assuming a prominent role at the start of the 21st Century.

We propose that the profound nature of the transition that premodern societies have made in their shift to modern social structures is being matched by the profoundity of the transition that is required in the shift from modern to postmodern social structures. Furthermore, I propose that the transitions from premodern to modern and from modern to postmodern are essentially irreversible. We can never go back to a former world—though (as we have noted throughout this book) we can (and inevitably will) borrow from previous social structures as we seek to create new forms to meeting emerging needs and serve new functions. While the past fifty years might best be described as an era of adjustment (the modern day organizational pendulum), we are now entering an era of fire. In this new era, old organizational forms, structures and processes will be consumed and new forms, structures and processes will emerge, like the mythic Phoenix, from the ashes of fiery consumption. This new era will not be composed entirely of new organizational elements. Rather it will offer a hybrid of . . .

  • very old, premodern elements of our society,
  • modern day elements of our society (as exemplified in many organizations that reached their zenith during the second half of the Twentieth Century), and
  • newly emerging elements that bear little similarity to either their premodern or modern day precursors.

We will briefly describe each of the three social structures to make some initial sense of these rather sweeping generalizations and will focus on the general economic and social characteristics of each type of society. A description of the first social structure is contained in this blog. The second and third social structure will be described in my next blog.

Premodern Societies

These societies are economically based in the extraction or cultivation of natural resources: agriculture, mining, forestry, fishing, ranching and related activities. It is also founded in craftsmanship—these crafts ranging from the production of tools to the creation of artistic works. While some premodern societies are very loosely structured and formed around nomadic patterns of living (the gathering rather than extraction or cultivation of nature resources), most premodern societies that exist today are founded in small villages or other closely-knit communities. The loosely structured forms of the premodern society are most likely to exist in regions of the world where there are harsh climates and sparse natural resources (e.g. Siberia, Alaska, North Africa, Central Australia).

The premodern society is also typically dependent on strong and enduring extended family systems. This extended family (usually consisting of grandparents, parents and children) serves not only as the primary economic unit of the community, but also as the primary source of most social services (health, education, child care, and so forth). While the community (and in particular the church or other philanthropic organizations) is available to support the family in an emergency (for example, loss of property or unanticipated death of family member), family members are expected to provide most of the social support. There are no medical plans, disability plans, retirement plans or social security systems in premodern societies—family members are expected to take care of their injured relatives and aging parents.

Bartering is the primary unit of economic exchange in the premodern society. Working within the context of a trusting and norm-enforcing community, men and women exchange commodities (such as tables or seed) or services (such as home construction or plowing of a field) for other commodities or services. In such a community there is little need for money or legal institutions. One natural resource—gold—that comes from a premodern extractive process (mining) does become a medium of exchange in most premodern societies, as do certain other natural resources (such as silver, pearls, spices and art works) that are prized for their beauty or scarcity. Given the absence of any elaborate trade system or of any way in which to preserve perishable commodities (other than through a salting or drying process), the primary focus in most premodern societies has been placed on the cultivation or extraction of sufficient resources to sustain life and on high quality craftsmanship (quality rather than quantity).

Governmental institutions are typically minimal in size or scope—usually focusing exclusively on the protection of national boundaries against invasion. While there may be a rudimentary community government system (village council or town hall meetings), the primary authority resides within the family and in the informal control exerted by the most economically powerful families in the community. Even today, we find that many premodern societies are essential feudal in nature, with power residing with a few members of the community who, in turn, assume overall responsibility for the welfare of the community and all of its residents.

While most premodern societies are established in small communities, relatively large cities obviously existed throughout the world long before the 19th Century advent of industrialization in Western Europe. Premodern cities such as Paris, Rome, London, Cairo, Istanbul, Bombay and Peking were usually not much more than very large (and often quite unwieldy) extensions of the small village. Minimal government existed in these urban centers and tightly knit ethnic neighborhoods took the place of the village community. Extended families still played a dominant role and bartering was prevalent. The premodern city played a critical role in supporting limited international trade and the more sophisticated crafts (such as printing and the construction of large buildings). They also typically housed the central administrative offices of the only two organizations of any significant size in the premodern world—namely, the military and church. A large cathedral or temple usually dominated the central core of the premodern city, while the military typically provided protection at the outskirts of the city: the gates to the city, and/or the towers and walls surrounding the city.

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