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The idea of society as a generalized term for social relations appeared, like sociology, during the transition to modernity. Implicit concepts of the social can be identified much earlier, for example in Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, but premodern philosophies did not generally differentiate society” from the political organization of the state. The use of the adjective social” as pertaining to society as a natural condition of human life” derives from Locke (1695). With the decline of feudalism the idea of the state as the property of the sovereign gave way to the principle of impersonal governance bound by juridical rules, while the state differentiated into administrative, judicial, and representative functions. By the eighteenth century theorists such as Adam Ferguson depicted a civil society” associated with the new commercial social order, the rise of public opinion, representative government, civic freedoms, plurality, and ”civility.” In these terms, society came to depict a realm of contractual and voluntary relationships independent of the state, which in turn became merely one area of social activity among others. Society was increasingly conceptualized as a realm of diffuse voluntary associations, in which individual self-interested actions result in an equilibrium of unintended consequences.
However, this liberal Enlightenment emphasis on free association and individualism conflicted with Catholic conservative reactions to the 1789 French Revolution and its aftermath. For conservatives such as de Bonald and de Maistre, enlightened individualism and the Revolution had destroyed the organic bases of society that lay in sacred moral authority and the institutions of church, monarchy, and patriarchal family. Although not sociologists, their emphasis on questions of the foundations of organic social solidarity set the scene for the organic functionalist theories of society of Comte and Durkheim, and in the twentieth century, Parsons and Luhmann. For Durkheim, society is an internally differentiated yet functionally integrated system whose operations could be understood only from the point of view of the whole. This complex system is an entity sui generis, that is, a discrete reality that cannot be reduced to or explained with reference to another ontological level such as biology or psychology. For systems theory, core problems of society are those of achieving sufficient internal integration to persist over time and boundary maintenance, that is, preserving borders between internal and external systems. This concept underpins systemic functionalist analysis, although mechanisms of integration are viewed differently in different theorists – moral integration in Durkheim; a more complex process of adaptation, goal attainment, integration, and latency in Parsons; and complexity reduction in Luhmann.
This approach has been criticized from at least two perspectives. First, Marxist and other critical theories have emphasized the centrality of power, exploitation, and conflict as central organizing principles in society such that society” is a field of contestation around class, gendered, and racialized structures. In these terms, society” has only an illusory unity which critical analysis deconstructs to reveal patterns of hegemonic domination and resistances.
Secondly, individualistic theories drawing on liberal pragmatism appear in writers such as Simmel, Mead, Becker, and Goffman. They approach society” as at best a metaphor for an aggregation of human interactions rather than an entity sui generis. Indeed, Simmel held the view that we should not speak of society” in abstraction from the forms of association that connect individuals in interaction.
This central issue has been core to many debates in sociological theory – that is, how to comprehend society both as social action and as a system of interrelated practices with unintended consequences. One can say that society” refers to all forms of mutual and intersubjective communication in which the perceptions and behavior of actors are oriented to those of others. These may be specific others – such as family members, colleagues, friends, rivals, enemies, and authority figures – or they may be generalized others in the form of internalized expectations derived from cultural, moral, practical, and communicative practices. These intersubjective networks can exist across a continuum between informal and voluntarily entered relationships (such as friendship), through formal institutional interactions (e.g., in workplaces and with officials), to highly coercive ones such as prisons. Social relationships at each of these levels can be constituted by expressive (affective) orientations or by instrumental ones. Relationships can be highly personal and influenced by the particular characteristics of others or highly impersonal and formalized encounters, such as a money exchange or phoning a call center. Society” thus refers to the complex patterns of social relationships that will be sustained through time and space, although encounters may be anything from fleeting to lifelong and proximate to distant. Any social interaction though will summon up or, as Giddens (1979) puts it, instantiate” vast amounts of tacitly held, taken-for-granted background cultural knowledge about how to perform and attribute meaning to social interaction. This means that as well as situated interactions and communications, society” also refers to the latent structures of linguistic, affective, cultural, and normative rules that are deployed piecemeal in any actual interaction. Systems of power and domination also inhere within these structures, although they can be accessed and subject to critical reflection and practice through intersubjective communication.
Although core to sociological analysis, the concept has recently been questioned for example by Urry (2000) and Beck (2000) for whom globalization renders obsolete the idea of discrete societies bound by national borders. However, understood in the way outlined here there are not grounds to jettison the concept of society” because some communicative networks are now organized globally. Indeed we need to understand how global processes are sustained through socially situated interactions of ”the social” (Ray 2007: 60-6).
- Beck, U. (2000) What Is Globalization? Polity Press, Cambridge.
- Giddens, A. (1979) Central Problems in Social Theory. Macmillan, London.
- Locke, J. (1695) Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 2nd edn.
- Ray, L. J (2007) Globalization and Everyday Life. Routledge, London.
- Urry, J. (2000) Mobile Sociology. British Journal of Sociology 51 (1): 85-203.
- Ray, L. J. (1999) Theorizing Classical Sociology. Open University Press, Buckingham.