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History of the concept

Some contemporary approaches


The concept of society has been formulated in various ways in sociological thought. At a general level there is some agreement as to the referent of the concept, but to abstract this common meaning from the welter of different and competing meanings of the term, we must first eliminate from consideration those usages which merely adopt the term as a shorthand label for the fabric of social phenomena in general. As the historical section of this article will show, the word is often used in this all-embracing sense. Indeed, “society” is frequently used merely to refer to an encompassing network of social relationships that enclose some more specific phenomenon which is the primary object of analysis. Thus, a student of race relations may insist that interracial behavior can be understood only as a part of the organization of the larger society in which it occurs and yet may fail to provide any analytical conception of the nature of this larger whole. It is only when analysts begin to isolate the attributes of the larger whole which we term “a society” that analytical treatments of the concept begin to emerge.

Definitions of society. Analytical definitions usually treat a society as a relatively independent or self-sufficient population characterized by internal organization, territoriality, cultural distinc-tiveness, and sexual recruitment. Specific definitions vary considerably in regard to which of these elements is emphasized. For example, some stress internal organization so strongly that they define the society as consisting in the organization and not in the population. Definitions also vary in the specific meaning given to such concepts as “self-sufficiency,” “organization,” and “culture.” Careful formulations must develop precise apparatus for specifying the units and boundaries of societies, for describing the nature of the links between units, and for establishing the mechanisms by which these links influence social processes within society. Nevertheless, the basic concept of the inclusive, self-sufficient group remains a constant element in most concepts of society.

When the concept of society is formulated in definitive detail, it is capable of entering into sociological thought in significant ways. Various conceptions of society define the essential problems of sociological analysis and thus shape conceptions of the subject matter of sociology.

The well-known functional conception of society put forth by Aberle and his colleagues will serve to illustrate a detailed concept of society and the way it enters into a system of sociological thought. According to these analysts, “A society is a group of human beings sharing a self-sufficient system of action which is capable of existing longer than the life-span of an individual, the group being recruited at least in part by the sexual reproduction of the members” (Aberle et al. 1950, p. 101). The authors proceed to specify four conditions that would terminate the existence of a society: biological extinction or dispersion of the members, apathy of the members, the war of all against all, and the absorption of the society into another society. These conditions enable the authors to specify the functional requisites of a society by enumerating the mechanisms that permit a society to exist, thus specifying the meaning of the core concept of a “self-sufficient system of action.” If the conditions terminating the existence of a society are to be avoided, mechanisms must develop to insure provision for sexual recruitment, provision for adequate relationship to the environment, role differentiation and the assignment of members to roles, communication, shared definitions of the world and of the goals of the society, normative regulation of means and of emotional expression, socialization, and the control of disruptive behavior. Thus, the authors have proceeded directly and logically from a definition of society to a conception of the essential concerns of societal analysis, even developing along the way some relatively specific hypotheses. For example, it is proposed that extremely rapid social change, such as revolution, tends to be accompanied by increases in the conditions terminating the existence of a society—mortality, morbidity, apathy, force, and fraud.

It is not surprising that definitions of society are so closely articulated with conceptions of the nature and functions of sociological thought, for from the very beginning of the analytical development of the concept, social theorists have found in “society” a convenient foundation for relating their specific problems to a larger context. Thus the student interested in elucidating the nature of bureaucracy may insist that it is embedded in a larger network of organization which determines, or at least influences, the emergence of bureaucracy and the forms which it assumes and which constrains purposive attempts to shape bureaucratic development.

If society is conceived as a set of external and constraining social forces, it is natural that the concept should be put to ideological use. He who would assert that some social institution ought to change or ought to be protected from change may point to the external and constraining forces of the larger society that encompass the institution, finding in those forces both an evaluative standard and an empirical justification for that standard. The emergence of analytical concepts of society has been inextricably bound up with the development of political ideology of this type.

History of the concept

In the Western world the concept of society as an entity distinct from the state emerged rather late. The age of reason, when philosophers began to search for secular foundations for critical analysis of existing political institutions, was one of the earliest periods when Western thinkers came to view society as something clearly prior to and outside of the state. The vehicle used to establish this differentiation was the social contract doctrine.

The utilitarian conception of society

In some of its forms the contract concept failed to distinguish between state and society. Thus Hobbes, wishing to insist that there is no middle ground between an organized state and the war of all against all, treated the social contract, the law of nature, and civil society as virtually identical. But the liberal thinkers of the Enlightenment wished to justify secular rational criticism of the state. In developing a critical doctrine, such thinkers as Locke began to distinguish the law of nature from the social contract that had formed the state. For Locke there is a layer of natural order guaranteed by man’s interdependence and his sense of the natural rights of all. It exists prior to and outside of positive political institutions; the state is a utilitarian device for insuring a more efficient, less cumbersome social order by developing specialized machinery for enforcing natural law. Such a theory squarely establishes the state as a dependent sector of a larger social order.

By a similar logic the critical philosophers sought to establish analytical distinctions between society and church and to separate church and state. The church was defined by reference to its utilitarian functions for the larger society, and these functions were distinguished from the functions of the state. Thus, through the use of the concepts “civil society” and “religious society,” church and state were defined as analytical functional aspects of a larger society.

Despite the incipient emergence of the conception of society as a set of interdependent organized functions, the idea of society developed during the Enlightenment was not entirely satisfactory, for the ultimate premises of argument continued to be the same premises from which Hobbes had derived the war of all against all. Enlightenment thought was founded on the concept of reason. The method of reason is analytical reduction; complex wholes must be reduced to their fundamental particles and the whole reassembled by a process of deduction from the laws governing particles. For society, the particle is the individual, and the law governing particles derives from the most essential quality of individuals, their natural reason. Each man uses his reason to rationally pursue his chosen ends. Parsons (1937) has termed this conception of society “utilitarian” and has shown that the attempt to derive social coherence and order from the faculty of reason in the individual was unsuccessful. The utilitarians could protect their Achilles heel, that is, the problem of conflicting ends, only by arbitrarily postulating such metaphysical concepts as the “natural identity of interests,” “natural rights,” and “the spirit of sociability.” [SeeUtilitarianism, article onsociological thought.]

The more perceptive figures of the Enlightenment—Hume, for example—recognized the inner weakness of the utilitarian conception. However, only a sweeping new movement of thought placed the concept of society on a less atomistic foundation.

Romanticism and organismic conceptions

In the latter part of the eighteenth century, and especially in the period after the French Revolution, many social theorists became disillusioned with individual reason and the reductive methods of the analytical philosophers. As the philosophy of romanticism became more influential, a conservative theory of society developed which stressed the unity of the integrated whole. Society came to be viewed as an organic growth, embodying the practical and profound wisdom of convention and tradition. Being a cumulative organic product, society has an organic unity. Abstract analytical segments cannot be separated from the whole and arbitrarily changed; to do so is to destroy the complex interdependence of the web of social life.

Again we have a concept of society as a larger whole, containing within it the standards by which particular phenomena are to be evaluated, but in this formulation the concept was put to conservative use. By assuming that the totality has an integrated character, one can effectively refute demands for arbitrary and rapid change in the parts.

The organismic conception sharpened the concept of society as a set of interdependent functions (which was already implicit in the philosophy of the Enlightenment) and drew attention to a new element, cultural tradition, as a functionally necessary part of a society. The idea of a cultural order as a constituent element of a society was developed further by August Comte in the early nineteenth century. Comte sought to synthesize Enlightened and Romantic modes of thought. Accordingly, he incorporated into his sociological system elements of classic liberal thought, such as the idea of a level of order arising from man’s natural economic interdependence, and the concept of a larger society from which government derives its legitimacy. At the same time he refused to derive the larger society from individual reason and the concurrence of interests. Drawing on organismic conservatism, he found in cultural tradition the specifically collective factor in society. For Comte, the formation of any society presupposed a system of common opinions about nature and man. The Enlightenment philosophers, by destroying the normative order of the religiously based society, had loosed anarchy upon the world. Comte argued that the reformation of society required the creation of a new, scientifically based moral order. Again we see an example of the ideological use of the concept of society. Society remains a set of external and constraining forces by which we are to judge the acceptability of political ideology. The concept enters into sociological thought as a set of fundamental premises from which we are to derive the social constraints on political action.

Comte’s plans for the reconstitution of society revolved about ideas for the reconstruction of religious, familial, educational, and political institutions. Embedded in his program is a contribution to the conceptual elaboraton of the idea of society. Comte did not believe that a bare consensus is a sufficient condition for organized collective life. The consensus must be organized in an institutional order that symbolizes, teaches, enforces, and implements moral ideas and rules.

The belief that society is an institutional order which embodies a fundamental set of cultural ideas was prominent in another branch of romantic thought which might be termed “idealism.” Idealism, which was especially prominent in nineteenth-century German thought, stresses the cultural distinctiveness of each society. A society reflects a peculiar Geist or spirit that is embodied in its distinctive traditions and institutions. The spirit of a society progressively unfolds in history. Once again the ideological implications are clear: proposals for change are to be evaluated according to whether they are consonant with the cultural distinctiveness of the larger society. [See the biographies ofBosanquetandHegel.]

The economic conception of society

Marx was an heir to the idealistic tradition, and the concept of society entered into his thought in a similar way. For Marx, as for the idealists, the elements of a society are closely intertwined into a complex and distinctive whole. For Marx, as for his idealistic predecessor Hegel, society is undergoing continuous transformation according to a logic of immanent development. The ideological implication is that social action is to be judged in relation to its correspondence to the immanent forces of change within society. At this point the similarity to idealism ceases, since for Marx the notion of a spirit or Geist is as metaphysical an explanation for the collective as the utilitarian postulate of natural order.

According to Marx, society exists in the concrete relations between social groups and not in the concepts used by philosophers to summarize these relations. The Geist is a mere analytical construct of the observer. The real foundations of society and the real springs of social development lie in the economic relations between men. The idea that the society outside of state and church is largely economic in character did not originate with Marx. The original utilitarian conception of society had stressed man’s natural economic interdependence as the source of order which is logically prior to the state. However, Marx developed the idea of society as an economy in rich detail.

The economic conception of society starts with the assumption that man’s most fundamental problem is to provide for his material needs. To do so, man must cooperate with other men by entering into relations of production. Stable relations of production constitute economic structures. Economic structures are variable, but they generally involve two crucial phenomena: the division of men into classes and the exploitation of one class by another. Stratification and exploitation make the continuing stability of economic structures precarious, and for this reason whole complexes of compulsive apparatus develop to support the economic order. The state, law, religion, and ideology function to bring temporary stability into inherently unstable situations. Since economic structure is more basic, it can be termed the “substructure” of society; and the supporting institutions may be termed the “superstructure,” since they are derivative in the sense that they are responses to the problems of economic relations. In the theory of substructure and superstructure, we see one of the first and most comprehensive theories of society as an institutional order. [SeeEconomy and society.]

Conflict theory

The Marxian conception of society is one of a larger set of conceptions that can be combined under the heading of “conflict theory” (Martindale 1960). The premise of conflict theory is that men are organisms, and as such they must compete for access to the resources of life. The struggle for existence does not occur between isolated individuals but between groups. In various versions of conflict theory the competing units may be families, bands, classes, nations, or races, depending on the special interests of the analyst or the stage of social development under analysis. As the conflict between groups becomes stabilized or organized or regulated, we may speak of the emergence of a structured society. Society is viewed as an organizational device for relating populations of organisms to an environment, and in this sense conflict theory may be said to adopt an ecological perspective. In conflict theory the concept of society enters into sociological thought as a means of relating social life to natural forces. In this way social scientists were able to develop a less metaphysical, more naturalistic account of society than had been produced by either Enlightened or Romantic philosophers. [SeeConflict.]

To see society as a device for regulating the struggle for existence and for relating man to his environment is not necessarily to renounce interest in cultural and normative phenomena. Sumner’s classic account (1906) views society as a product of antagonistic cooperation between competing organisms and groups; but the phenomenon that emerges to stabilize, organize, and regulate cooperation is a complex of customs, mores, conventions, laws, and institutions. The theory remains naturalistic in insisting that normative complexes develop gradually and naturally as a response to environmental problems. They do not emanate from cultural spirits, nor are they created de novo from a social contract.

Conflict theory is too general a rubric to imply any particular ideological purpose. It is apparent that some forms of conflict theory are susceptible to use in support of racial or nationalistic ideologies. It is less often remarked that conflict theory was often used in the development of liberal doctrines.

The perspective of conflict theory dominated sociological thought in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Its acceptance is closely associated with the impact of the Darwinian revolution in biology and the popularity of evolutionary modes of thought. It was in connection with the use of conflict theory as an evolutionary doctrine that sociological thinkers were able to place classic liberal ideas on a naturalistic foundation.

Emergence of the “utilitarian society.”

Nineteenth-century evolutionary theory was manifold, and its devotees worked out developmental sequences for every institutional sphere of society. Insofar as the evolutionary school had any common theory of the development of total societies, it was the idea of movement toward the development of larger and more inclusive wholes. By processes of consolidation, conquest, incorporation, and differentiation, societies come to increase in scale and complexity. As this occurs, unregulated conflict between small fractionated groups becomes less important, and the regulation of internal process becomes more important. Further, as the relations with the environment and other societies become more stabilized and the larger society becomes more consolidated, new forms of social organization become possible. Social organization can be built upon processes of free discussion, free exchange, and the pursuit of individual interests. The inflexibility of the “cake of custom” and rigid military organization becomes nonadaptive; only a looser framework of organization can improve the adaptation of society to the environment by unleashing the forces of creativity and innovation.

In this brand of evolutionary theory we see the re-emergence of the concept of the “utilitarian society.” However, in nineteenth-century thought the concept was no longer used as an analytical definition of the nature of any society, but as an increasingly accurate description of a historically emergent form of society.

Not all of the social analysts writing at the end of the nineteenth century viewed the emergence of the utilitarian society with equanimity. According to some analysts, the breakdown of old forms of organization meant the loss of what had once provided society with integration, coherence, and meaning. The utilitarian society, founded upon the industrial revolution, the capitalist system, and the market mentality, fails to provide for an ethical standard outside of the individual or a viable source of social cohesion.

In 1887 Tönnies incorporated this type of perspective into his famous dichotomy between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. In the Gemeinschaft (usually translated as “community”) men are held together by communal feeling and organic ties. In the Gesellschaft (usually translated as “society”) organic ties are replaced by artificial ties of calculating self-interest. [SeeCommunity-society continua.]

Thus, from varied ethical perspectives and varied ultimate premises, social theorists came to conceptualize modern society as a mere collection of individuals united only through ties of self-interest. Spencer, working in the naturalistic tradition of conflict theory, and Tonnies, drawing on a more philosophical tradition, saw modern society as a collection of wills.

The independent reality of society

In 1893 Durkheim severely attacked both Spencer and Tonnies and reaffirmed the reality of society as an entity. Durkheim retained an evolutionary perspective; he accepted the notion of a developmental drift from a society based on very direct ties and commonalities to a society based upon more indirect interdependencies. However, he insisted that a modern society, founded on the extensive division of labor, cannot be conceptualized as a mere collection of the wills of isolated individuals. It is not a collection of contracts based upon self-interest; it is no less organic than earlier forms of society. It remains an entity sui generis (Durkheim 1893).

Durkheim wrote at a time when the young discipline of sociology was struggling for establishment in an academic setting. The problem for the sociologist was to establish the independence of his field from economics, political science, and psychology. Thus, it was essential to establish society as a set of external and constraining forces, more inclusive than the economic order, outside of the state, and independent of the sum of its individual members. Durkheim adopted the strategy of stressing the independent reality of such social facts as vital rates, currents of opinion, and established conventions. Social facts require explanation at their own level. It follows that society is an entity which cannot be reduced to a set of members or a set of economic contracts between members. It exists in the complex relations and interdependencies which unite its members into an organic whole and which in turn are reflected in a collective consciousness and a collective moral order. Persons who are drawn together in a web of interdependency interact as moral beings and create a body of collective representations of reality and regulative rules. The resulting complex regulates the utilitarian economic order and the actions of persons and is external to them.

Other analysts of the era developed similar techniques for identifying the reality of the social. Simmel found a social level in the mutual influence that interacting persons have upon each other. Mutual influence comes to have coherent forms, and thus, as people interact, they create society ([1902-1917] 1950, part 1).

Weber, although he insisted on relatively nominalistic definitions of collective entities, developed a perspective of the social order that gave a somewhat independent reality to social processes. As persons orient themselves toward each other, social relationships form; complexes of social relationships constitute a social order. Drawing upon Tonnies, Weber suggested that when actors take a rational orientation to each other, they create a Gesellschaft, whereas when they adopt communal solidary attitudes, they form a Gemeinschaft. But in either case the resulting social order is not a mere collection of wills or economic interests, since it is given stability by administrative organization, shared orientations to systems of status, and shared beliefs in the legitimacy of the order (Weber [1922] 1957, part 1).

The social-psychological approach

In the United States a social-psychological school emerged which found in the concept of symbolic interaction the key to the integrated treatment of society and the social person. Cooley, Mead, and others explored the development of personality and society as they emerge through interaction. Their analysis permitted a novel conceptualization of human society as a symbolically regulated process. Mead, for example, traced the process of becoming a social person. The human being comes to acquire a social personality as he learns to communicate symbolically. As he learns to adopt the perspectives of others toward himself, he is also learning to regulate his own activity symbolically by defining his self and his acts in appropriate ways. It is through participation in that complex of differentiated and interrelated roles called “society” that we develop our distinctly human capacities and identities. It is through adopting, playing, and imaginatively construing social roles that we develop social personality. Thus, self and society are intimately connected through the concept of role. Further, the analyst may make the transition in either direction; he may stress either socialization, that is, the process by which the individual organism is socially formed, or he may stress the process by which interacting persons create and transform society. The human capacity for symbolic control over action and sympathetic understanding of the action of others makes it possible for men to innovate, to appreciate innovation, and to incorporate innovations into complex networks of symbolically regulated activity (Mead 1934).

Society as process

The developments of the decades when sociology emerged as a discipline can be summarized by reaffirming that the most sophisticated analysts converged on the idea that society is ultimately an organized process. If society is more than the sum of its individual participants, its reality must lie in the organized relations that emerge as men interact. The units of these relations are not people but activities. Even Durkheim, with his insistence on the independent reality of the social, recognized that the coherence of society rests on the interdependence of activities and the moral regulation created by interaction.

The new emphasis on process did not eliminate the ideological component of the concept of society. To a greater or lesser extent, all of the thinkers of the formative period saw in society a standard for evaluating the acts and programs of individuals and other social units. In some instances the ideological functions of sociological method are quite plain, as in the case of the sociological jurisprudence of Ehrlich (1913). Ehrlich saw external and constraining social reality as existing in the “living law.” A spontaneous moral order develops in the associations and groups of society as men live and work cooperatively. It is this inner order of society that is the yardstick for measuring the value of the positive law of the state. Sociological jurisprudence is conceived as a corrective to conceptual jurisprudence. The latter, in its reliance on concepts and logic, is likely to become out of step with the real moral order of society and thus fail to respond to pressing social interests and problems. [SeeLaw, article onthe legal system.]

In other cases the ideological affinities of the concept of society as process are more subtle. For example, the popularity of the social-psychological approach in the United States cannot be separated from its capacity to provide a sociological foundation for modern liberalism. Classic laissez-faire liberalism had been founded on the utilitarian conception of society as a collection of wills. Sociologistic conceptions are more suited to the defense of either conservatism or radicalism, depending on whether social reality is conceived as an irreducible obstacle or an inexorable transformative force. The problem for modern liberalism was to justify individual freedom in the context of social regulation. The concept of society as an emergent regulative process, founded on the responsible actions of social persons, is consistent with the program of modern liberalism.

Some contemporary approaches

Despite the developments of the formative period of sociology, relatively little progress was made in defining the concept of a society. “Society” remained a term for designating an emergent and constraining level of reality. Until recent decades, the main purpose of analysis was to examine the nature of social reality and its modes of constraint, not to define the units and boundaries of concrete societies as entities.

Society as a social system

The major technical device used in recent years to attack the problem of defining a society has been the concept of a social system. A social system is an organized set of interdependent social persons, activities, or forces. It is called a system because its organization includes mechanisms for maintaining an equilibrium or some other constancy in the relations between the units. From another perspective such mechanisms can be seen as boundary-maintaining mechanisms, for systems can be isolated as separate entities only if they maintain some constancies in the face of environmental change, that is, if they maintain some boundaries vis-à-vis the environment. If every event within a system were a direct consequence of some event outside the system, it would be impossible to draw a boundary for the system; it would be, in effect, a mere unit in a larger complex. The concept of a social system seems ideally suited for use in defining a society analytically, for it contains within it the crucial concepts of “unit” and “boundary”; to define society as a special sort of social system automatically prepares the way for identification of its units and boundaries.

The idea of a social system was used by earlier thinkers, notably Spencer and Pareto, but it has been formulated in greater detail and applied to the present problem by the modern school of structural-functionalism. The paper by Aberle and his colleagues cited earlier in this article is an example of the functional mode of attack on the problem. The approach of that paper has been more fully elaborated by Levy (1952; 1966) and is similar to a definition proposed by Parsons: “A social system … which meets all the essential functional prerequisites of long term persistence from within its own resources will be called a society” (1951, p. 19).

The key concept in these definitions is “self-sufficiency.” All systems are self-sufficient to some degree; the definition of the term requires some mechanisms of self-maintenance. The isolation of total societies involves the search for global complexes with the highest degree of self-maintenance and the least reliance on other social systems for their requisite resources. Local communities, administrative units, institutional spheres, and bureaucratic organizations are all relatively dependent segments of a larger whole. Total societies are dependent only on other types of systems: personalities, cultural traditions, and a physical environment. [SeeSystems analysis.]

Overlapping process systems

The search for the self-sufficient society may be futile. In fact, the concept of a society with exclusive boundaries may be obsolete. This is not to say that it is not valid to do comparative study over very large aggregates. Indeed, one of the achievements of twentieth-century empirical social science is the thorough demonstration that society is real in the sense that social variables relate to each other differently in “societies” with different characteristics. In this sense the concept of society no longer rests on conjecture. However, at the theoretical level the search for a universally valid definition of the nature and boundaries of a society as a self-contained unit may obscure the complexity of social life.

Many of the historic and contemporary problems in the conceptual analysis of society may be clarified by viewing society as a complex of overlapping process systems. We may abstract from the concrete interaction of concrete social persons a number of types of interaction systems. Economic, religious, political, educational, and other types of activity come to cohere into partially independent systems with units, boundaries, and mechanisms of their own. These systems overlap; and when a relatively broad range of such systems cohere around a common population, we may speak of a society. There is no reason to suppose, however, that this society will be self-contained, that it will not overlap with other societies, or that its boundaries will be uniform across its constituent systems.

It would be a mistake to regard the notion of a self-sufficient society as intrinsically absurd. One might be tempted to argue that any society engages in at least some trade and cultural exchange with at least one other society, and that therefore there are no self-sufficient societies. This argument, however, misconstrues the concept of self-sufficiency. To call a society self-sufficient implies not that it is isolated but that its social system contains within itself cultural materials and role opportunities sufficient for carrying on controlled relations with an environment (Parsons 1966).

The truth or falsehood of alternative conceptions of society is not at issue here. Rather, we are contrasting alternative ways of approaching the problems of societal analysis. Thus, an approach based on the concept of social system can be criticized for failing to make several important phenomena immediately problematic. But this is very far from saying that it causes logical difficulties so severe as to prevent analysis of these phenomena altogether.

The alternative to the social system approach is to start with the concept of population. This involves making problematic not only the degree to which the activities of a population are organized into systems, but also the units and boundaries of these systems and their forms of interdependence. Thus the emergence of a bounded, unified social system is no longer assumed but becomes an object of inquiry.

The boundaries of a society are usually drawn at the outer limits of the interdependencies and commonalities that give it coherence. Special criteria are often used to define particular types of society. Thus, in the case of the nation-state the limits of political jurisdiction are taken to define the limits of the political system and, thus, of the society. In fact, if societies are viewed as complexes of overlapping process systems, it becomes natural to accept the fact that societal boundaries are irregular. From this, one is led to consider the sources and consequences of variation in the scope of systemic boundaries (for instance, by examining the consequences of the involvement of national states in international colonial development).

Another single-criterion approach to defining the boundaries of the societal population is to adopt the social system’s own normatively defined concept of membership (Parsons 1966). To this it may be objected that the members of a societal population may be involved in well-organized social systems that crosscut membership boundaries. The common solution to this problem is to treat the basic unit of society as the “person-in-role,” and then to allege that behavior in boundary-crossing roles is external to the society. One then attempts to identify the mechanisms for segregating roles and regulating members who cross societal boundaries. Again, the focus is on how such regulation is accomplished, not on the conditions under which it will emerge or the consequences of its absence.

To define society as a set of overlapping process systems also permits flexibility in the analysis of the units of society. The utilitarian conception of society was based on the notion of the isolated individual. As early as Comte, the wisdom of this approach was called into question. Comte saw the utility of beginning with more socially relevant units; for him, the unit of society was the family. Other analysts continued this tradition in their treatment of the communal aspects of society. Later, with the development of processual concepts, segments of the actions of social persons came to be used as units of analysis. Thus, Parsons has spoken of the units of social systems as actors in roles (1951, pp. 24-26).

If society is viewed as a complex of overlapping process systems, it would appear that the ultimate social unit is the act. However, it does not follow that the intermediate units of different process systems will be the same. Society does not have a single type of unit, but many: its constituent systems have units of different types, and these differences can be of considerable analytical importance. For example, many of the strains in modern societies derive from the fact that, although families are the molecular units of modern status systems, rational market and bureaucratic systems are predicated on the evaluation of specific performances in roles. In consequence, competing bases of evaluation are present in society.

The links between units may also vary from system to system. Theories of society have postulated six major types of links between units: emotional attraction, orientations of actors to each other, shared cognitive and evaluative perspectives, mutual influence or coercion, economic or functional interdependence, and common participation in an environment. There is no reason to assume that any of these types of links constitutes the one true mechanism of social coherence. On the other hand, one or another of them may be dominant in particular process systems. This possibility is itself a source of important sociological problems: we are led to ask such questions as “What is the consequence of the expansion of systems of economic interdependence beyond the boundaries of systems based upon emotional attachments?”

The notion of a set of overlapping process systems is not by itself a satisfactory model of society. It leaves open the question of the relation between a society and other social groupings. How, for instance, is a society to be distinguished from a community? The term community has been used in a variety of ways. For some, communities are locally based units of a larger society; for others, “community” refers to some aspect of society, such as its solidarity (that is, communal) or spatial components. Others, particularly in the German sociological tradition, distinguish communities as relatively solidary types of societies [seeCommunity-society continua].

It is legitimate to use the term “community” to refer to both locally based units and some aspect of the larger society. The former usage is well established in English speech. The latter usage is sometimes said to be justified by the need to establish a distinction between societies and other social entities. Institutions and special-purpose associations are said not to be societies because they have no communal components. The concept of population can be used in a similar way to distinguish societies from other sets of systems of social processes, since the latter may have sets of members without having populations in the biotic sense. A society is sustained by a population. To establish the boundaries of a societal population we may adopt a definition of population quite similar to the one employed by bioecologists. A population consists of the self-perpetuating inhabitants of a territorial area. In this context the term “self-perpetuation” implies mating, and the term “inhabitant” implies relatively permanent residence. Thus, the boundaries of a population that sustains a society are established by the limits of the largest territorial area within which mating is common and residence is relatively permanent.

These criteria establish a model that, while it does not completely correspond to any empirical population, does provide a means of clearly excluding types of groups that are not societies. Many groups do not qualify as societies because membership in them is not conferred by birth. Further, members of local communities quite often cross community boundaries for the purpose of mating and establishing new residences, while members of societies do not often cross societal boundaries for these purposes—indeed, that is why they form what I have called a population.

To start with the concept of a population is not to define a society as consisting in its population. The society is not the population but the complex systems of action in which the units of the population participate.

The next problem for the analyst is to establish the boundaries of these systems of action. In a highly organized society, which closely controls the relations between the units of its population and members of other populations, it may be useful to treat only relations within the societal population as internal to the society. On the other hand, when societal systems become very permeable to social influences that transcend population boundaries, it is more realistic to consider the society to have irregular boundaries and to overlap other societies.

Historically, conceptions of society have had ideological implications and overtones. Perhaps this conception of society as a set of overlapping process systems is not an exception, for it seeks to call attention to the problems of the emergence of larger and more inclusive networks of social organization. As man has expanded his ecological niche there has been a continuous growth of national organization that transcends the less inclusive traditional solidarities. At the same time, cosmopolitan and international organization has outrun national boundaries. The modern world is regularly upset by shock waves reverberating from local traditional cleavages through national political systems; sometimes these shock waves reach the international arena. If sociological analysis is adequately to represent the constraints imposed by this emergent global level of social reality, its analytical conceptions must not be inflexibly tied to the concept of the national boundary.

Leon H. Mayhew

[See alsoCooperation; Culture; Evolution; Integration; International integration; Natural law; Political sociology; Social contract; Social Darwinism; Sociology, article onthe development of sociological thought; and the biographies OfComte; Cooley; Durkheim; Hobbes; Locke; Marx; Mead; Mill; Simmel; Spencer; Sumner; Tönnies; Weber, Max.]


Aberle, David F. et al. 1950 The Functional Prerequisites of a Society. Ethics 60:100-111.

Durkheim, Émile (1893) 1960 The Division of Labor in Society. Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → First published as De la division du travail social.

Ehrlich, Eugen (1913) 1936 Fundamental Principles of the Sociology of Law. Translated by Walter L. Moll with an introduction by Roscoe Pound. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → First published as Grundlegung der Soziologie des Rechts.

Levy, Marion J. JR. 1952 The Structure of Society. Princeton Univ. Press.

Levy, Marion J. JR. 1966 Modernization and the Structure of Society: A Setting for International Affairs. 2 vols. Princeton Univ. Press.

Martindale, Don 1960 The Nature and Types of Sociological Theory. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Mead, George H. (1934) 1963 Mind, Self and Society From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. Edited by Charles W. Morris. Univ. of Chicago Press. → Published posthumously.

Parsons, Talcott (1937) 1949 The Structure of Social Action: A Study in Social Theory With Special Reference to a Group of Recent European Writers. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Parsons, Talcott 1951 The Social System. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Parsons, Talcott 1966 Societies: Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Simmel, Georg (1902-1917) 1950 The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Edited and translated by Kurt H. Wolff. Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → First published in German.

Sumner, William Graham (1906) 1959 Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals. New York: Dover. → A paperback edition was published in 1960 by New American Library.

TÖnnies, Ferdinand (1887) 1957 Community and Society (Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft). Translated and edited by Charles P. Loomis. East Lansing: Michigan State Univ. Press. → First published in German. A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Harper.

Weber, Max (1922) 1957 The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Edited by Talcott Parsons. Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → First published as Part 1 of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft.

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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 societys 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 societys 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. Canadas 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 societys 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 countrys 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 sekw_1, 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.


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 Tönnies (18551936), 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. Tönnies 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.


In contemporary usage, a societys 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 societys 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 societyand, especially, whether the states policies are serving those ends. For some theorists, especially Jürgen Habermas, a healthy public sphere is a vital component of democratic self-governance.


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 (13321406); however, the concept of society as it was understood in classical sociology is generally traced to the mid-nineteenth-century work of Auguste Comte (17981857), who is also regarded as the founder of sociology, the English social philosopher Herbert Spencer (18201903), and especially Émile Durkheim (18581917).

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 (18181883) 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.

Durkheims 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 (19271998), 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 (19221982), 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 (19261995), 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 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 societys 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, sociologys 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 societys 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 actors 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. Todays 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.

SEE ALSO Comte, Auguste; Cooperation; Critical Theory; Durkheim, Émile; Ethnicity; Ethnomusicology; Functionalism; Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft; Gender; Goffman, Erving; Habermas, Jürgen; Interactionism, Symbolic; Marxism; Mexican Americans; Mills, C. Wright; Parsons, Talcott; Postmodernism; Public Sphere; Race; Semiotics; Separatism; Social Statics; Social Structure; Social System; Social Theory; Sociology; Sociology, Latin American; Sociology, Parsonian; Sociology, Post-Parsonian American; Sociology, Urban; Spencer, Herbert; State, The; Structuralism


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.

Bryan Pfaffenberger

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The concept of society is in transition due to globalization and the knowledge associated with it. Today's views of society are not altogether new, however. Rather, they are engaged with the rediscovery of the worlds of antiquity. Since the 1970s, scholars have reached to the past to explain mainstay concepts such as society. In this manner, ancient Eastern ideas flood into the current Western perspectives on society. The turn to the archaic East also heightens awareness of the West's own archaic past. Thus the concept of society metamorphoses while it embraces a living past.

Ancient Views of Society: East and West

Until the modern era, China did not have a word for society. The current term shehui means an organized assembly. In the ancient world, China utilized the idea of wenming (civilization), which literally meant the brightness of culture or the clarity of writing. It also had the idea of zhongguo (Middle Kingdom), denoting the middle of the world on a geographical plane and the middle of the universe (between heaven and earth) on a cosmological plane. During the pre-Qin era (third century b.c.e.), Chinese society was a living matrix of ideas and events, of spirituality and materiality. James Sellmann describes this world as "hylozoistica living world empowered with qi [life force]" (p. 5). As a "foci-field model" or "field cosmology," the pre-Qin society was conceived as an organic complex that changed as the seasons changed.

The Chinese philosophical coupling of yin-yang was an organizing principle that connected the heavens to earth and established all worldly changes. Political decision making relied on proper timing: the right season, the right pitch of the pipes, the right state of mind. The balance of space and time was the key to harmony in the Chinese dynasties to come.

In highly stratified and patriarchal societies such as the West and Middle East, women might constitute a society within a society. While similar situations existed in the Far East, the harmonizing balance of Chinese philosophy accommodated women throughout history to occupy prominent roles ranging from calligrapher to empress.

In the Roman world, socius was a word that meant friendhence the English word society as a modern word related to a community of friends. In the ancient world, one could not get by without friends who shared common values, common work, and common lands. Thus the Roman word communitas as applied to society symbolized the collectivity of physical and spiritual relations that bound together a people, as in the slogan senatus populusque Romanus the Senate and the People of Rome. Roman community was bound together by a sense of civitas or citizenship as defined by the civil virtues of Rome. The English word civilization derives from the Latin and carries the sense of a social, political, cultural, religious, and philosophical whole. The Middle Ages in Europe saw the splintering of Roman civilization into church and state, or into religious and political spheres of influence. As towns began to develop and the world split more visibly into city and country, social philosophers' views on society also bifurcated.

Early Modern Views of Society

When the Jesuits brought knowledge of their explorations into China back to Europe, an organic view of society as a compendium of functioning interdependent parts started to take shape. Although this was a bare shadow of China's sophisticated civilization, it led to a Western idea of a body politic, with the state as the head, the church as the heart, and economy and other social systems as the limbs and organs of society. This organic view had far-reaching implications well into the twentieth century, especially in structural functionalist views of society. Karl Marx (18181883), however, regarded these developments as a definitive conflict between the generation of civil society and political community. Civil society developed conflicting classes within it that were regulated by the political community. The contradictions of everyday life were monitored by a state that favored the ruling class, and the state wore a political lion skin for the dominant class. Hence, political relations were often mediated by class relations. Hence, society began to manifest simultaneously both conflictual and consensual components. Society was forever in a state of flux.

With the division of labor, industrialization, and the quest for the development of the nation-state, a new philosophical challenge emerged in the form of one question: What comes first, society or the individual? In the ancient Western world of Greece and Rome, the individual was not so much a factor. Rather, a person made commitments to the virtues of various institutions and traditions such as the family. But with the struggle for the creation of the European nation, especially in France, the concept of the individual greatly challenged definitions of society. On the one hand, the more conservative view of kings retained the idea of society as a given, as a complete whole functioning in accord with the will of God; individuals would simply obey the laws of society and work to maintain this equilibrium. On the other hand, the more radical views of French revolutionaries saw the individual as the center of the universe with a variety of inalienable rights; society would serve the individual while maintaining the supremacy of that individual through liberté, egalité, fraternité liberty, equality, fraternitya battle cry of the French Revolution.

Society: Consensus and Conflict

Views of modern Western society tend to fall into two camps: consensus and conflict. Consensus views beginning with the economist Max Weber (18641920) and continuing into the structural functionalism of the American sociologist Talcott Parsons (19021979) describe society as a complex combination of static and dynamic systems. Weber identified society as a system of potential harmonization, with rational actors choosing the best means to the end of ensuring the smooth operation of society; Parsons discussed the functional and dys-functional aspects of society as it strives for a dynamic equilibrium through complementary institutional structures.

Marx is still the main proponent of the conflict theory of society, among a plethora of thinkers up to Louis Althusser (19181990) and beyond. Marx conceived of society as a kind of shape shifter, culminating in and overcoming moments of conflict through a sequence of class struggles: slavery giving way to feudalism, feudalism giving way to capitalism, capitalism giving way to socialism, socialism giving way to communism. Althusser divided society into repressive and ideological apparatuses. He had a rather pessimistic view of society's transformations because of its ingrained structures of dominance, especially in the overwhelming powers of the modern state.

The philosopher Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) combined both consensus and conflict theories while exploring a legitimation crisis of modern society struggling for a communicative competence among both institutions and individual actors. These five thinkersWeber, Parsons, Marx, Althusser, Habermasstill stand as the most prominent models of social scientific thinking regarding society today. What is attractive about their approaches seems to be an ability to connect abstract macro-level ideas about society with more concrete micro-level ideas about individual social actors within the framework of these umbrella systems.

The New Ancient World: Leibniz, Vico, and China

Given the present trend toward global communications, more attention has focused on the origins of concepts of society, especially in the works of pioneering scholars in the relations between East and West. The philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (16461716) did not simply rehearse Christian views of Chinese society. Like Giambattista Vico (16681744), Leibniz was impressed with the Confucian view of benevolence and the harmonious society that it spawned. Like Vico, he distrusted René Descartes's and Isaac Newton's image of a mechanical universe. Leibniz was indebted to the Jesuit Matteo Ricci (15521610), who was similarly open-minded about Chinese philosophical and religious life. Leibniz embraced a Chinese notion of society as a living organism and popularized this image in Europe. His description of matter applies to society as well: "Thus every portion of matter can be conceived as a garden full of plants or a pond full of fish. But every branch of the plant, every limb of the animal, every drop of its humors, is again such a garden or such a pond" (1965, p. 159). For Leibniz, society was a thoroughly interdependent living entity whose every fiber was connected. Every societal institution was dependent on each other and necessary for a harmonious balance. Since every entity was composed of matter, then matter itself was infinitely interconnected. His idea of monadology was clearly linked to the Confucian idea of li (principle, form, pattern) as a primary substance that generated qi (primordial vapor or life-energy force), both of which acted upon every aspect of the life-world. He correctly perceived Chinese society as holding to a cosmology that ensured harmonious relations: "Indeed, it is difficult to describe how beautifully all the laws of the Chinese, in contrast to those of other peoples, are directed to the achievement of public tranquility and the establishment of social order" (1994, p. 47). Leibniz so much admired China's "public morality" and "natural theology" that he referred to it as an "Oriental Europe."

Whereas Leibniz was influenced by Matteo Ricci, Vico was influenced by another religious friend, Father Matteo Ripa (16921746). Ripa had lived for many years at the court of Kangxi, the emperor of China's Qing dynasty. When Ripa returned to Italy, he brought with him copper engravings of world maps and garden vistas complete with Chinese poetry. Ripa introduced many Chinese scholars along with an abundance of knowledge to Naples, where he established the Collegio dei Cinesi (The Chinese institute). This cross-cultural milieu greatly influenced Vico's formulation of Scienza Nuova (The new science) and his image of society that aimed to give birth to the ancient past in the present.

Vico was interested in myth and language, especially in tracing etymologies of words to their ancient roots and then awakening them in modern contexts. In other words, language was a conduit for the past to become the present. It is language that gives life its poetic character. Hence Vico characterized society in terms of a "poetic cosmography," a mapping of the world of gods, heroes, and humans. As a humanist, Vico did not believe in the dominance of rationalism through physical and mathematical sciences to the exclusion of the arts of philosophy and history. Through each of these vehicles, humans could attempt to recover the essence of society. This fundamental societal essence is what Vico called "conatus," a primordial beginning or striving "proper to the human will" (p. 101). Vico endeavored to discover this beginning through various stages of history: the age of gods, the age of heroes, and the age of men. Each held its own nature or birth: divine imagination, heroic nobility, and modest conscience. Likewise, each represented a kind of government: theocratic, aristocratic, and human. Finally, each offered a language: divine poetic, heroic blazoning, and articulate speech. In his linguistic configurations, Vico is clearly indebted to both ancient Chinese and Greco-Roman thought. Divine written characters (hieroglyphs) were used "by all nations in their beginnings" (p. 341). These "poetic universals" were followed by heroic "imaginative universals" that spoke of noble events and then by human words.

The Chinese, for example, retained the number of pictographs in circulation for daily use from the large lexicon of classical and literary characters. Like the Egyptians, the Chinese maintained "the vanity of their imagined remote antiquity" (p. 21). This included the elevated speech of heroic singing reflected in the tones of the Chinese language and the recording of their first histories in verse. In many ways, Vico tried to emulate this style in his own works. He describes the Greek use of the dragon Draco, probably one of Gorgon's serpents attached to Perseus's shield (later Athena's shield) and eventually the writer of Athenian law in blood, as that which "signifies the rule of the laws" (p. 228) in the time of heroic aristocracies. He then compares this with the Chinese dragon used as a royal emblem and a symbol of civil rule, while marveling at the poetic convergence of East and West.

Phenomenology and Society

John O'Neill, who has made a significant impact on social sciences and humanities since the 1970s, develops Vico's ideas into a new phenomenological view of society. O'Neill recognizes Vico's call to enter language and thereby "renew" society through every word: "Thus etymology is the music of Vico's wild sociology inviting us to hear our beginnings in the birth of language" (1974, p. 37). Vico's Chinese-inspired metaphor of the body politic replaces a mechanical scientistic one. In attempting to recreate the "public functions of rhetoric," O'Neill revises Vico's project by identifying three levels of body politic in modern society: bio-body, productive body, libidinal body. The first refers to the institution of the family through the discourse of well-being; the second refers to work through the discourse of expression; the third refers to personality through the discourse of happiness. In addition, O'Neill maintains that "on the one hand, we have the bodies we have because they have been inscribed by our mythologies, religions, philosophies, sciences, and ideologies. But, on the other hand, we can also say that we have our philosophies, mythologies, arts, and sciences because we have the body we havenamely, a communicative body" (1989, p. 3). Influenced by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, O'Neill's idea of society takes shape by way of a communicative body as a reciprocal crossing of experience somewhere between idea and flesh. It is the visceral grounding that is the heart of a society in constant flux. O'Neill is not afraid to cross spatial and temporal borders in his embrace of global thought, both East and West. His influence is wide, reaching into political theory and philosophy.

Building upon a similar understanding, Fred Dallmayr invites scholars to move "beyond orientalism" in discarding the Eurocentric views of society. Dallmayr is concerned with the recognition of non-Western cultures in the current shaping of a "global village." Phenomenology helps shape "cross-cultural 'co-being' in a shared worldwhere the issue is neither to distance the other into the indifference of externality nor to absorb or appropriate otherness in an imperialist gesture" (p. 52). A strategy for understanding a global society necessitates a comparative political theory. Hwa Yol Jung's Comparative Political Culture in the Age of Globalization (2002) follows Dallmayr and O'Neill in evoking phenomenology to explain a cultural hybridization of East-West views of society. Inspired by Merleau-Ponty and Martin Heidegger, Jung promotes an idea of "planetary thinking" whereby a "global citizen" (homo globatus ) engages in a world beyond the nation-state. Jung writes, "For the transversalist, globalization means to decenter Western hegemony and disclaim Western superiority thereby empowering the non-West to participate fully in the new worldmaking as an act of hybridization or imbrication" (Jung, p. 14). The writings of O'Neill, Dallmayr, and Jung go a long way to providing a new global understanding of the concept of society.

See also Chinese Thought ; Civil Society ; Communism ; Globalization ; Marxism .


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Parsons, Talcott. The Social System. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1951.

Sellmann, James D. Timing and Rulership in Master Lü's Spring and Autumn Annals. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.

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Vico, Giambattista. The New Science. Translated by Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch. 3rd ed. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984.

Jay Goulding

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376. Society

See also 93. COMMUNALISM ; 185. GOVERNMENT ; 322. POLITICS .

the attitude of taking an active part in events, especially in a social context. activist, n.
an abnormal fear of people, especially in groups.
1. government by the best people.
2. an upper class based on quality, nobility, etc.
a dedication to aristocratie behavior.
the attitudes and actions of aristocrats.
a society or nation ruled by a person with absolute authority. autocrat, n. autocratie, adj.
In England. the aristocracy that gained its wealth and social posi-tion from the ownership of breweries.
a Utopian society in which all foods and other material needs will be prepared by chemical processes. chemocrat, n.
an upper class based on wealth. Also chrysoaristocracy .
the area of political science concerned with citizenship.
a brotherhood, especially a group of men bound by a common goal or interest.
that portion of the upper class whose wealth comes from the cotton trade. cottonocrat, n.
a doctrine of or belief in social equality or the right of all people to participate equally in politics.
attitudes or actions of well-intentioned but sometimes ineffectual people, especially in the area of social reform.
ecology, oecology
the branch of sociology that studies the environmental spacing and interdependence of people and their institutions. ecologist, oecologist , n. ecologie, oecologic, ecological, oecological , adj.
the process by which a person adapts to and assimilates the culture in which he lives.
the doctrine or practice of excluding certain groups or individuals from enjoyment of certain rights or privileges. exclusionist, n.
theories and beliefs of J. G. Fichte (1762-1814), German philosopher and social thinker, a precursor of socialism. Fichtean, n., adj.
government or domination of society by fools.
the state of being nonhomogeneous or inharmonious. fractionalization, n.
a fellowship or association of men, as for a benevolent or charitable purpose or at a college.
a state in which the worst possible conditions exist in government, society, law. etc. See also 406. UTOPIA .
a ruling class that owes its power to its possession of land. landocrat, n.
1. the system of manorial social and political organization, as in the Middle Ages.
2. its principles and practices.
3. Sometimes Pejorative. any small, strong unit of local political and social organization.
1. a matriarchal form of government.
2. a family, tribe, or other social group ruled by a matriarch or matriarchs. matriarchic, adj.
government or dominance of society by the médiocre.
a powerful class composed of people who have achieved position on the basis of their merit rather than by birth or privilege. meritocrat, n.
government or domination of society by the rich.
Facetious. a wealthy and dominant force in society whose wealth and power is based on control of oil.
the sociological theory that all cultures or societies follow the same fixed course of determinate evolution. See also 147. EVOLUTION . orthogenetic, adj.
the condition of being outcast from society. pariahdom, n.
the domination of a social group, especially a small rural com-munity, by the parson.
1. behavior or attitudes typical of one who has recently acquired wealth or social position.
2. the state or quality of being a parvenu or upstart. parvenu, n., adj.
1. a subdivision of an ancient Greek tribe or phyle.
2. a clan or other unit of a primitive tribe.
the state of living apart from society, like a hermit. recluse, n. reclusive, adj.
the rank, position or jurisdiction of a steward of a medieval prince or nobleman.
Facetious. snobs as a class in society.
the process of adapting to a social group; social intercourse or activity.
collective government or government by society as a whole.
a theory asserted sociologistically. sociologistic, adj.
1. the science or study of the origin, development, organization, and functioning of human society.
2. the science of the fundamental laws of social relations, institutions, etc. sociologist, n. sociologie, sociological, adj.
the measurement of social attitudes within a group by sampling expressions of social acceptance or rejection. sociometrist, n. sociometrie, adj.
Rare. the study of the laws that govern the development of society.
a fellowship, brotherhood, or other association of a benevolent nature, especially in the Roman Catholic Church. sodalist, n., adj.
Sociology. a theory that the possibility of founding a social organization upon a solidarity of interests is to be found in the natural interde-pendence of members of a society. solidarist, n. solidaristic, adj.
the feeling or expression of union in a group formed by a common interest.
a fellowship or association of women, as for a benevolent or charitable purpose or at a college.
a womans club or society, named after a club of that name, founded in 1869.
In Britain. the squires or landed gentry as a class.
the practice or custom, as among the ancient Spartans and Cretans, of eating the main meal of the day together in public to strengthen social and political bonds.
telesia, telesis
the harnessing of natural and social forces for a beneficial goal.
1. the practice of having a natural object or animate being, as a bird or animal, as the emblem of a family, clan, or group.
2. the practice of regarding such a totem as mystically related to the family, clan, or group and therefore not to be hunted.
3. a system of tribal organization according to totems. totemic, adj.
the beliefs and policies associated with the welfare system.

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society Generally, a group of people who share a common culture, occupy a particular territorial area, and feel themselves to constitute a unified and distinct entity–but there are many different sociological conceptions (see D. Frisby and and D. Sayer , Society, 1986

In everyday life the term society is used as if it referred in an unproblematic way to something that exists ‘out there’ and beyond the individual subject: we speak of ‘French society’, ‘capitalist society’, and of ‘society’ being responsible for some observed social phenomenon. On reflection, however, such a usage clearly has its problems: for example, is British society a clear unity, or can we also talk of Welsh, Scottish, and Northern Irish societies? And, even within England, are there not wide cultural differences between (say) north and south? Is there one capitalist society–or many? Nor is a society the same thing as a nation-state. The former Yugoslavia clearly contained several societies: Croat, Slovenian, Serbian, and so on.

While many sociologists use the term in a commonsense way others question this use. Some symbolic interactionists, for example, argue that there is no such thing as society: it is simply a useful covering term for things we don't know about or understand properly (see P. Rock , The Making of Symbolic Interactionism, 1979
). Others, such as Émile Durkheim, treat society as a reality in its own right (see The Rules of Sociological Method, 1895

Some sociologists have tried to develop more specific concepts to replace that of society. The Marxist theoretician Louis Althusser, for example, suggested the term social formation: a combination of three levels of relationships (economic, ideological, and political) which can have varying connections with each other (see For Marx, 1969
). Anthony Giddens, arguing against the identification of society with the nation-state, prefers to talk about social systems and institutions which may or may not be limited by national boundaries (see his A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism, 1981

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so·ci·e·ty / səˈsīətē/ • n. (pl. -ties) 1. the aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community: drugs, crime, and other dangers to society. ∎  the community of people living in a particular country or region and having shared customs, laws, and organizations: the high incidence of violence in American society | modern industrial societies. ∎  a specified section of such a community: no one in polite society uttered the word. ∎  (also high society) the aggregate of people who are fashionable, wealthy, and influential, regarded as forming a distinct group in a community: [as adj.] a society wedding. ∎  a plant or animal community. 2. an organization or club formed for a particular purpose or activity: [in names] the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. 3. the situation of being in the company of other people: she shunned the society of others.

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"society." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

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the people in the fashionable world, 1813; certain communities of animals or insects.

Examples : society of beavers, 1794; of wasps, 1826.

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society A group of individuals, all of the same species, in which there is some degree of co-operation, communication, and division of labour.

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"society." A Dictionary of Ecology. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

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society A group of individuals, all of the same species, in which there is some degree of co-operation, communication, and division of labour.

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"society." A Dictionary of Zoology. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

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societyfooty, putti, sooty, tutti •shufti • casualty • deputy •butty, cutty, gutty, nutty, puttee, putty, rutty, smutty •mufti, tufty •bhakti • subtlety • humpty-dumpty •Bunty, runty •bustee, busty, crusty, dusty, fusty, gusty, lusty, musty, rusty, trusty •fealty • realty •propriety, society •loyalty, royalty •cruelty •Krishnamurti, Trimurti •liberty • puberty •faggoty, maggoty •Hecate • chocolatey • Cromarty •commonalty • personalty • property •carroty • guaranty • mayoralty •warranty • admiralty • severalty •poverty •Alberti, Bertie, dirty, flirty, shirty, thirty •uncertainty •Kirstie, thirsty •bloodthirsty

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"society." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

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