What Is an Agrarian Society?

Man walking through field of crops
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An agrarian society focuses its economy primarily on agriculture and the cultivation of large fields. This distinguishes it from the hunter-gatherer society, which produces none of its own food, and the horticultural society, which produces food in small gardens rather than fields.

Development of Agrarian Societies

The transition from hunter-gatherer societies to agrarian societies is called the Neolithic Revolution and has happened at various times in various parts of the world. The earliest known Neolithic Revolution happened between 10,000 and 8,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent — the area of the Middle East stretching from present-day Iraq to Egypt. Other areas of agrarian societal development include Central and South America, East Asia (India), China, and Southeast Asia.

How hunter-gatherer societies transitioned to agrarian societies is unclear. There are many theories, including ones based on climate change and social pressures. But at some point, these societies deliberately planted crops and changed their life cycles to accommodate the life cycles of their agriculture.

Hallmarks of Agrarian Societies

Agrarian Societies allow for more complex social structures. Hunter-gatherers spend an inordinate amount of time seeking food. The farmer’s labor creates surplus food, which can be stored over periods of time, and thus frees other members of society from the quest for foodstuffs. This allows for greater specialization among members of agrarian societies.

As land in an agrarian society is the basis for wealth, social structures become more rigid. Landowners have more power and prestige than those who do not have land to produce crops. Thus agrarian societies often have a ruling class of landowners and a lower class of workers.

In addition, the availability of surplus food allows for a greater density of population. Eventually, agrarian societies lead to urban ones.

The Future of Agrarian Societies 

As hunter-gatherer societies evolve into agrarian societies, so do agrarian societies evolve into industrial ones. When less than half the members of an agrarian society are actively engaged in agriculture, that society has become industrial. These societies import food, and their cities are centers of trade and manufacturing.

Industrial societies are also innovators in technology. Today, the Industrial Revolution is still being applied to agrarian societies. While it is still the most common kind of human economic activity, agriculture accounts for less and less of the world’s output. Technology applied to agriculture has created increases in the output of farms while requiring fewer actual farmers.