What is society, and should sociologists study it?

Working Definition:

‘Society is a concept used to describe the structured relations and institutions among a large community of people which cannot be reduced to a simple collection or aggregation of individuals.’ (1)

Society definition

Origins of the Concept:

The concept of society can be traced to the fourteenth century, when the primary meaning was companionship or association, a meaning which still exists today. However, the specific sociological meaning of society was not developed until the nineteenth century.

A strong argument can be made for the view that it was Emile Durkheim who first developed the sociological meaning of ‘society’ which he used when he established sociology as a new discipline which dealt with the collective reality of human life as opposed to studying individuals.

Durkheim argued that society has an independent reality from individuals, and exists in its own right, exerting an influence over individuals within a ‘bounded territory’, which for Durkheim essentially meant the ‘nation state’.

However, the relevance of bounded-societies has been questioned since the 1970s due to globalisation, and the increasing amount of people, money, and communications moving across national borders.

Because of this, some sociologists argue that sociology should shift its analysis from ‘societies’ to (global) mobilities.

Sociology as the ‘study of society’

The concept of sociology has been fundamental to sociology’s ‘self-identity’, with most text books using the concept to define the discipline, with the ‘study of societies’ often being part of the definition of sociology in most text books and society in turn being defined as large communities, existing within nation states.

Talcott Parsons added another important defining characteristic of society – that it should be self-perpetuating, or able to reproduce itself without external assistance.

For most of sociology’s history, sociologists have studied and compared societies, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the historic division between ‘first’, ‘second’ and ‘third’ world societies, and in theories of development such as modernisation theory, which outline why certain societies (or ‘nation states’) are less developed in comparison to other ‘more developed’ societies (or ‘nation states’).

There have been many attempts to understand social change by focusing one specific driving force, for example sociological theorising has developed the following conceptualisations of society:

  • Industrial society
  • Capitalist society
  • Post-industrial society
  • Postmodern society
  • The knowledge society
  • Risk society
  • The network society.

However, the problem with a ‘bounded sociology’ which limits itself to cross national comparisons is that it tells us little about inequalities within societies.

Criticisms of the ‘bounded society’ concept

A dualistic conception of society as a thing apart from the individual may be more of a reflection of the dualistic legacy of western philosophy rather than being based on actual empirical reality.

To this end, many sociologists have proposed focusing more on interactions rather than ‘society’ and the ‘individual’. Norbert Elias was one of the first to develop a sociology which focused more on social processes, concentrating more on shifting relationships at a variety of levels, from individual interactions to inter-state conflicts.

Globalisation has also put into question the usefulness of focussing on individual nation states: large TNCs are now more powerful than most nation states, and criminal organisation and social movements cut across national boarders, making them seem less useful as a focus for social analysis.

John Urry’s (2007) social mobilities project, which focuses on the study of processes of movements across national borders is one way in which sociology has moved its analysis away from the nation state in response to globalisation.

Two competing paradigms in sociology?

John Urry has suggested that sociology might usefully move its analytical focus ‘beyond societies’ – as global networks and flows become more effective and powerful, they tend to cross national boundaries, which are now seen as more permeable than ever. The concept of society thus seems less relevant than ever, and the job of sociology is to devise ways of understanding the varied range of mobilities and what kind of social life they are producing.

One sociologists who argues that the concept of society is still relevant is Richard Outhwaite, who argues that ‘society’ is a collective representation which still resonates with people’s perception of social reality as it actually exists.

For example, ‘national identity’ (however confused) still has meaning to many people and politicians can still draw on the concept of the nation to pull people together, as the case of Brexit in 2016 suggests.

Also, nation states are the only collective entities capable of generating the kind of income necessary (through taxation) to maintain nuclear arsenals and standing armies, along with mobilising popular support to use these in support of their aims.

Sources

(1) Giddens and Sutton (2017) Essential Concepts in Sociology

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