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A society is a system for facilitating interdependent social relationships according to the values, norms, and ideologies of a shared culture while, at the same time, providing sanctions against individuals who engage in what are seen as antisocial behaviors. Among the primates, humans are unique in their capacity to develop large-scale systems of interdependence by means of culturally transmitted, group-level social systems; in other primate species, cooperation is generally limited to relatives, there is little division of labor, there is little or no social cooperation to care for the sick or wounded, and there are no formal social mechanisms (let alone cultural norms) to stop dominant males and females from taking whatever they wish from weaker members of their group.
As the term is generally understood in sociology as well as in commonsense usage, a society is assumed to have three fundamental characteristics: (1) it is bounded by readily discernible territorial borders; (2) it is structurally and culturally distinctive; and (3) it possesses an objective existence that is independent of the wills or actions of individuals.
Generally (if problematically), a society’s boundaries are assumed to be those of a nation: Thus we speak of “Canadian society” versus “American society.” Moreover, the boundaries of all of a society’s institutions, including economics, kinship, and religion, as well as politics, are assumed to be roughly coterminous. A society is not hermetically sealed from others, of course; every day, thousands of Americans and Canadians cross the U.S.-Canada border, and U.S.-Canadian trade is a vital component of the economies of both countries. Still, the fact that a society is essentially a culturally mediated system for facilitating interdependence means that, in principle, such relationships are more easily undertaken within the society rather than with outsiders. At the same time, it is clear that, with the advent and gathering momentum of globalization, a global society is emerging that is characterized, in part, by the formation of mutually beneficial social structures of unprecedented scope and size, including a new international division of labor in manufacturing.
Each society is unique in the way its various components have been altered and adapted so that they can be integrated with each other. Canada’s system of parliamentary democracy is modeled after the British system; however, it has had to adapt to the existence within Canada of a large, French-speaking, and potentially separatist regional minority, centered in Quebec. In part to address the legitimate language discrimination grievances that fuel Quebec separatism, the Canadian system has moved away from the British model toward that of a constitutional democracy with enumerated rights for French speakers. Despite their internal differences, the members of a society are aware of their society’s distinctiveness and their vast store of shared experience, and this awareness informs their identity. When asked what is important or very important to their identity, many Canadians mention language, but nearly all of them stress the uniqueness of their society and their country’s unique historical experience.
Society has an objective existence that precedes the individuals who live within it, exists independent of their will and subjective perception, and constrains their thought, beliefs, and behavior. This is so because a society consists not only of one-to-one relationships, which to some extent can be negotiated and altered, but also of organizations (such as courts, schools, legislatures, and hospitals) that possess vastly greater power and resources than any individual could muster. In addition, the members of a society are affected by collective outcomes of one-to-one relationships, such as economic recessions and depressions, which again are beyond the capacity of individuals to control.
Taken together, these assumptions argue strongly for a social science that seeks social explanations for social phenomena, and these assumptions collectively define what might be termed the classical sociological perspective (c. 1880s to 1960s). At the same time, each assumption is problematic. Contemporary sociology examines these assumptions critically and asks whether they can be shown to apply empirically.
The English word society has its origins in the Indo-European sek”_ , “to follow,” from which derives the Latin societas, “partnership, fellowship, association, alliance”— that is, followers of a common, mutual interest or common ideal. In line with its Latin origins, the English word can be applied not only to collective historical formations such as “Canadian society,” but also to de novo associations that are deliberately created to provide mutual benefit, such as professional societies or mutual assistance societies. In popular usage, society is sometimes intended to refer to a leisured, cultured, wealthy, and fashionable elite (“high society”).
The word society can be used scientifically only with caution and critical reflection. It connotes systems of mutually beneficial relationships into which individuals, perceiving the benefits, freely engage. Whether social interdependence is indeed mutually beneficial, let alone entered into freely, is an empirical question.
Society Versus Community
All modern societies are capable of creating large-scale structures that facilitate interdependence, such as markets and the division of labor. The resulting structure extends to communities within the society, but more importantly, it also draws into its web of interdependence people who have never met each other and never will. As traditionally defined, a community is a group, such as a neighborhood or the congregation of a synagogue, that is characterized by face-to-face interaction in the context of shared local customs and traditions. As understood in classical sociology, communities are necessarily limited both in population and geographic extent because they depend on face-to-face interaction (rather than large-scale interdependence) as a means of achieving group solidarity,
In classical sociology, the modern distinction between society and community owes much to Ferdinand Tonnies (1855—1936), who redefined two German words to capture the distinction. Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society). In the Gemeinschaft, people are held together by organic ties and communal ideology; in the Gesellschaft, social relations are impersonal and based on a perception of mutual interest. Tonnies believed, pessimistically, that Gesellschaft would obliterate the remnants of Gemeinschaft, to the detriment of the human social experience.
Today, most sociologists accept that communities arise, not necessarily from face-to-face interaction, but rather from shared meanings. Because they are capable of promulgating shared meanings on an unprecedented scale, new communication and media technologies (including newspapers, motion pictures, radio, television, and computer-based communications) are capable of creating communities that vastly transcend the limits of face-to-face interaction.
Society Versus The State
In contemporary usage, a society’s boundaries are frequently assumed to be the same as that of the nation-state with which it is equated, a fact that testifies to the growing ability of states during the past two centuries to circumscribe the sphere of social relationships in which their subjects engage. It should be noted, however, that the concept of society is by no means synonymous with the concept of a state. A state is a political formation that is fundamentally concerned with the acquisition, use, and protection of power. In contrast, the term society refers to all the culturally mediated, patterned forms of social interaction, including political interaction, that create the conditions for interdependence among a society’s members.
The term civil society is often used to differentiate between the state and society. Classically, the term refers to a zone of public social interaction that is positioned between the state, on the one hand, and the private lives of individuals and families, on the other. It consists of a variety of public but nongovernmental institutions and organizations such as voluntary associations, clubs, youth organizations, mutual benefit societies, community organizations, coffeehouses, charities, trade unions, social movements, and media such as newspapers. In a prosperous society, it is assumed, civil society is vibrant.
One of the most crucial functions of civil society lies in its capacity to foster the public sphere, a zone of public social communication in which free, open, rational, and critical conversation can take place concerning the proper ends of society—and, especially, whether the state’s policies are serving those ends. For some theorists, especially Jurgen Habermas, a healthy public sphere is a vital component of democratic self-governance.
Theories Of Society
It is possible to find antecedents of the society concept in classical Greek philosophy and, especially, in the work of the Islamic social historian Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406); however, the concept of society as it was understood in classical sociology is generally traced to the mid-nineteenth-century work of Auguste Comte (1798-1857), who is also regarded as the founder of sociology, the English social philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), and especially Emile Durkheim (1858-1917).
Observing what Durkheim took to be the decline of communities held together by religion and tradition, the anonymity of an increasingly urbanized society, and the prospect of endemic conflict caused by the increasingly violent confrontation between capital and labor, he asked whether modern societies possessed a core of common sympathies that could serve the integrative function formerly provided by rural folk communities and traditional cultures. Of crucial concern to Durkheim was the increasing division of labor generated by urbanization and industrialization. To the cynics of the time, the widening gulf between capital and labor presaged the collapse of social solidarity and, ultimately, the end of European civilization; for example, Karl Marx (1818-1883) believed that the conflict between capital and labor testified to a fundamental contradiction in capitalist society that would inevitably result in revolution, peaceful or otherwise. Yet Durkheim had read Comte and Spencer, and was able to counter this view with the organic analogy, which interprets the various components of society as if they were organs in a body: Each of them contributes, in its own differentiated way, to the mutual benefit that stems from their cooperation.
From this analogy, Durkheim went on to argue that the widening division of labor in industrial society did not necessarily raise the specter of social disintegration. On the contrary, Durkheim argued, to the extent that society is understood as an interdependence-fostering structure, the widening scale and scope of industrializing societies would require a corresponding intensification of new modes of social differentiation to serve as the foundation for subsequent, mutually beneficial interdependence. In addition, Durkheim argued that, despite the apparently widening gulf between capital and labor, there still existed enough shared culture and shared identity to overcome the divisiveness seemingly inherent in the new industrial economies. The key, Durkheim argued, lies in recognizing that shared culture and shared identity are not causal factors in themselves, but rather epiphenomena that result from sustained, mutually beneficial, and socially structured interaction. For this reason, Durkheim did not doubt that industrial societies would generate cultural and moral orders capable of social integration on an unprecedented scale, and history has vindicated his prediction.
Durkheim’s understanding of society was informed by likening its constituent elements to an advanced, highly differentiated organism. Scientific and technological advances in the twentieth century made new metaphors available to sociological theorists. Drawing on the emerging fields of cybernetics and systems theory, in the 1930s American sociologist Talcott Parsons (19021979) depicted the interdependence of social phenomena in terms of a hierarchy of intercoupled systems and subsystems. Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998), a student of Parsons, drawing on chaos theory, depicted society as a complex, self-organizing system.
Beginning in earnest in the 1960s, sociologists revisited and often criticized or rejected the core assumptions of Durkheimian sociology, often adopting new metaphors to capture their perspectives. With the rise of symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology, and particularly the work of Erving Goffman (1922-1982), society could be understood as a stage on which performers create and shape social reality. Drawing increasingly on resource mobilization theory, work on social movements suggested that society is like a game in which teams compete with each other, both to acquire necessary economic, social, and political resources and also to frame their activities symbolically in a winning way. As Marxist perspectives found their way into universities in the 1960s, society came to be seen as a battle between social classes with fundamentally opposed interests. Still, rational action theorists, such as James Coleman (1926-1995), depicted society as an economy in which actors develop elaborate networks as they attempt to maximize their self-interest.
Influenced by developments in semiotics and French literary criticism, some postmodern sociologists have likened society to a battle between contending texts or a discourse of signs; others have argued that capitalism has so infected our consciousness that virtually all social activities can be understood by comparing them to producers and consumers in a media-driven marketplace. The production of new analogies shows no sign of abating; for example, society has recently been compared to a restaurant menu, a theme park, a collection of machines, and a set of warring tribes.
Criticisms Of The Concept
Criticisms of the classical concept of society focus on its several problematic aspects, including the assumptions that societies are neatly bounded, that the interdependence fostered by social relationships is mutually beneficial, that society has an objective existence, and that meaning and affect are mere epiphenomena of social relations.
Until recently, sociologists have paid little attention to the problems created by uncritical assumptions regarding a society’s boundedness. To the extent that it is meaningful to talk about “Canadian society,” for example, it is because Canadian society constitutes a field of social interaction within which Canadians are more likely to interact with each other than with outsiders. Yet, in the context of globalization, Canadians will increasingly interact with foreigners; at the same time, it is clear that Quebec could be seen as a society within a society. For some critics, sociology’s willingness to equate societies with nations shows that the discipline has made an uncritical accommodation to nationalist ideology. New directions in sociological theory employ spatial and ecological analogies to tackle the boundedness problem; the boundaries of social interaction are seen as a matter to be determined by empirical investigation rather than facile assumption. In addition, cultural sociologists are developing new approaches for understanding the dynamics of multicultural societies.
At the core of the concept of society is an assumption that amounts to a quid pro quo: By giving up the opportunity to pursue private interest without constraint, people take part in social relations that are, in the end, mutually beneficial. Still, it is obvious that many social relations are founded on asymmetries of power, and result in concomitantly unequal distributions of benefits. Critical sociologists argue that the quid pro quo concept masks asymmetries of power, which are, in their view, a key component of all or nearly all of society’s structures and institutions.
Sociologists readily assume that society has an objective existence that can be scientifically studied, even though there is no physical object in the world that one can point to and say, “That is a society.” Within sociology, a field called symbolic interactionism begins by rejecting the concept that a society has an objective existence that determines the way individuals behave. In contrast, people are seen to act according to the meanings they ascribe to situations. These meanings are learned by engaging in social relations. Action arises as individuals interpret situations in light of the meanings they have learned. Although symbolic interactionism has been influential, most sociologists believe that societies are quite capable of placing people into situations in which an actor’s interpretation of the situation is not the sole determinant of social outcomes. People who live in African American slum communities, for example, interpret their situation in differing ways, but this fact has little effect on the overriding social toxicity of these racially isolated neighborhoods. Still, symbolic interactionism served to alert sociology to the need to take meaning and affect seriously and, in so doing, has contributed to the rise of cultural sociology, which is arguably the most important development within sociology to have taken place in a century. In classical sociology, meaning and affect were seen as the outcome of social relationships rather than their cause. Today’s cultural sociology (e.g., Alexander 2003) shares with symbolic interactionism a commitment to taking meaning and affect seriously; however, it also recognizes that some social structures are indeed independent of individual will and are unaffected by the meanings people ascribe to them. Cultural sociology views social relations as the outcome of processes in which meaning, affect, and social forces interplay in ways that must be determined empirically rather than by theoretical fiat.
- Alexander, Jeffrey C. 2003. The Meanings of Social Life: A Cultural Sociology. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
- Blumer, Herbert. 1986. Symbolic Interactionism. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Durkheim, Émile. 1933. The Division of Labor in Society. New York: Free Press.
- Tönnies, Ferdinand. 1957. Community & Society. Trans. and ed. Charles P. Loomis. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.
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