Abstract In this study, two different agricultural soils were investigated: one organic soil and one sandy soil, from Stend (south of Bergen), Norway. The sandy soil was a field frequently tilled and subjected to crop rotations. The organic soil was permanent grazing land, infrequently tilled. Our objective was to compare the diversity of the cultivable bacteria with the diversity of the total bacterial population in soil. About 200 bacteria, randomly isolated by standard procedures, were investigated. The diversity of the cultivable bacteria was described at phenotypic, phylogenetic, and genetic levels by applying phenotypical testing (Biolog) and molecular methods, such as amplified rDNA restriction analysis (ARDRA); hybridization to oligonucleotide probes; and REP-PCR. The total bacterial diversity was determined by reassociation analysis of DNA isolated from the bacterial fraction of environmental samples, combined with ARDRA and DGGE analysis. The relationship between the diversity of cultivated bacteria and the total bacteria was elucidated. Organic soil exhibited a higher diversity for all analyses performed than the sandy soil. Analysis of cultivable bacteria resulted in different resolution levels and revealed a high biodiversity within the population of cultured isolates. The difference between the two agricultural soils was significantly higher when the total bacterial population was analyzed than when the cultivable population was. Thus, analysis of microbial diversity must ultimately embrace the entire microbial community DNA, rather than DNA from cultivable bacteria.