Greek society has developed over a period of nearly 3,000 years, with only few interruptions, in a physical and geographical environment that contributed unique qualities and facilitated widespread dissemination of the elements of its civilization. Despite centuries of occupation by Roman and Ottoman empires, the Greeks maintained an unusually homogeneous ethnicity that today includes only very small minorities. Greece's ethnicity is reflected in the 97 percent of Greeks professing membership in the nation's established church, the Orthodox Church of Greece.
The homogeneity of Greek social traditions, which combine to represent the sense of "Greekness" that unites the nation, has overcome regional diversity--historically, populations have been divided by mountains and the sea, as well as class differences-- until the second half of the twentieth century, the majority of Greeks tilled the land and led a quite separate existence from the urban elite.
For all of Greek society, the fundamental social unit is the nuclear family, membership in which is the most important element in individual identity. Although urbanization and Westernization have modified that institution in recent decades, ties of kinship, patronage, and ritual kinship still cut across classes and unite rural and urban Greeks. Urbanization and Westernization have also changed the traditional role of women, expanding their range of acceptable activities to include most of the areas formerly reserved for men. Social changes already underway were ratified as law after the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Panhellinion Socialistiko Kinima--PASOK) came to power in 1981 with a platform of modernizing and secularizing social relationships. Although the program met substantial resistance from the church and elements of secular society, the changes and compromises that emerged have speeded the transformation of traditional society.
Since World War II, the Greek population has urbanized to a dramatic extent, predominantly in Athens and Thessaloniki, and social services have kept pace unevenly with that movement. Health services and social welfare programs are state run, but insurance and delivery are fragmented among several agencies and organizations. Education is very highly respected in Greek society, and its broad availability has steadily increased the middle class since the 1800s. The state monopoly over education at the university level has encouraged students to complete their educations outside Greece, however, because the number of university places has not kept pace with population growth. The curricula of primary and secondary schools have been modernized from the centuries-old forms of classical education only in recent decades.
Greece's physical environment, dominated by its mountains and the sea, has set the conditions under which society and the economy developed. Topographic and climatic regions vary from mountainous, isolated Epirus in the northwest to the sunny, windswept Cyclades Islands in the southern Aegean Sea. The sprawling metropolis of Greater Athens, containing over one-third of Greece's population, lies on a coastal plain at the southeastern tip of the Greek mainland. Rapid postwar industrialization and inadequate planning have created crisis conditions in air and water quality and land usage, most notably in the large metropolitan areas. Effective management of environmental problems has proved difficult, however, for both government and nongovernment agencies.
The Greek culture, with its roots in classical civilization, has always placed high value on education. Especially in the postwar period, the urbanization of the Greek population has been closely connected with the desire for education, which since the nineteenth century has been considered by much of society as the key to upward social mobility and a better life.