Friday, April 11, 2008

The reality of society

We sometimes speak of "global society", we refer to "French society"; and we also think of face-to-face organizations and neighborhoods as small societies or social groups. There is an important conceptual point in the background in these common ways of speaking: what are the features of interaction or relationship that must obtain in order for a group of people to constitute a "society" or a "social group"?

There are a couple of points that are fairly obvious. These ensembles of individuals are not social groups:
  • all the people in the state whose last name begins with "J"
  • all the people in the world who enjoy spicy food
  • all the people in the world
  • the set of people who live within 100 miles of their state or provincial capital city

We would probably say that these aren't social groups or societies for several reasons:

  • these ensembles bring together very heterogeneous and disassociated individuals
  • these individuals don't interact significantly and persistently with each other
  • the individuals in each case lack a common identity
  • the individuals in these groups do not share a single set of values or mores
  • the populations described here do not possess a dense set of social networks that link almost all members of the group together
  • there is not a set of social structures that serve to coordinate and orient the behavior of all or most of the members of these ensembles

The fundamental point is that it would seem that the members of a society, as opposed to a random assembly of individuals, must have some strands of connection with each other.

So we might try this out: a society is a set of individuals --

  • who share a broad identity with each other, in at least the minimal sense that they regard themselves as members of the same society.
  • who share some set of values and ideas -- perhaps non-uniform but overlapping
  • who are related to each other through economic, political, or social interactions and networks of connections
  • who are subject to a common set of social institutions.

But these criteria are debatable. Does the first criterion above threaten to rule out Canada and Spain, because there are Quebecois and Basque separatist groups within these countries? Are the people who choose to live in the isolated compound of the Yearning for Zion ranch a part of United States society, given their extreme efforts to avoid any relationships with the larger society? Is a Facebook group of "friends" a society, given that the members are generally geographically and socially dispersed?

Most fundamentally, the criteria for defining an assembly of people as a "society" can't be too restrictive because a "society" is a looser assembly than some other kinds of social groupings -- religious organizations, social movements, or labor unions, for example. In each of these latter instances there is a high degree of coherence, solidarity, and shared identity and values across members of the group. Societies, on the other hand, embody diversity and difference across persons: multiple values, multiple social networks, multiple group identities. So somehow our definition of society needs to fall intermediate between the random assemblages of persons listed first, and the intentional communities mentioned above.

We might say, then, that a society is knit together by only an overlapping but non-comprehensive set of relationships, values, and identities. Individuals share values and identities with some other individuals; this defines one aspect of the "social-connectedness" graph of a society. And individuals interact with other individuals through economic, political, or cultural transactions; this defines another aspect of a social-connectedness graph. Everyone in a society is related through a set of network relationships to many other people in society; but there is no set of network relationships that encompasses everyone. And I suppose that it is possible that, when we have drawn out a massively complex graph of networks and relationships within the population, that there may be some groups that exist in "islands" within the larger social map, with relationships with each other but not with outsiders.


Anonymous said...

2ish points.

1st, I think there are two useful definitions of "society" in the mold you are talking about - one ethnographic, one analytical.
The ethnographic analysis would look at how people use the term society - who are they including and excluding and with what consequences.

The analytical would fit more in your "subject to a common set of social institutions" and be a term for analysis by social scientists, who would not necessarily care whether or not this subset was more than just a sack of potatoes.

Lastly, I worry about defining society solely in terms of collections of individuals, various subsets of the whole of humanity. When Durkheim, or others like him, use the term social, they mean a thing, that actually exists. My way of phrasing this would be that the individual and the social are on the same ontological level - the individual does not precede society, and society is no mere aggregate. I believe that to be a useful way to proceed.

Unknown said...

I think I did not understand your method in trying to define the concept. As I tend to see it, there are two choices.
If we are trying to make a metaphysical definition, then we have to place our definition in a broader theory. We have to decide if society consists of individuals, holistic groups and so on. We do not care what people mean when they use the concept, but what the reality of society is.
But if we are trying to make a methodological definition, then we have to ask "what is the purpose of the definition" (the definition is just an instrument) and then continue to think what kind of definition will serve us best.