The Concept of Society

The development of the concept of society

From Leon H. Mayhew's article, "Society," in vol 14 of the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (Macmillan & Free Press, 1968), pp. 577-86:

". . . '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. . . . It is only when analysis begins to isolate the attributes of the larger whole which we term 'a society' that analytical treatments of the concept begin to emerge.  .  .  .

"Analytical definitions usually treat a society as a relatively independent or self-sufficient population characterized by internal organization, territoriality, cultural distinctiveness, and sexual recruitment.  .  .  . [578]

"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 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.  .  .  .

"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. . . . [T]he 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.  .  .  . [579]

"By a similar logic the critical philosophers sought to establish anayltical distinctions between society and church and to separate church and state.  .  .  .

". . . [T]he 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 the 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. . . . 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.'

"The more perceptive figures of the Enlightenment -- Hume, for example -- recognized the inner weakness of the utilitarian conception . . .

"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 philsophers. As the philosophy of romanticism became more influential  . . [s]ociety came to be viewed as an organic whole, 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 . . . .

"The organismic conception . . . drew attention to a new element, cultural tradition, as a functionally necessary part of society. The idea of a cultural order as a constituent part of a society was developed further by August Comte in the early nineteenth century. . . . 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. . . . [580]

"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 economic conception of society. . . .

"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. . . . .

"[This] 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. . . . 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 'superstructures' . . . In the theory of substructure and superstructure, we see one of the first and most comprehensive theories of society as an institutional order.

"Conflict theory. The Marxian conception of society is one of a larger set of conceptions that can combine under the heading of 'conflict theory.' 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 certain 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. . . . 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. . . . [581]

"Emergence of the 'utilitarian society.' Nineteenth-century evolutionary theory . . . worked out developmental sequences for every institutional sphere of society. . . . As [societies come to increase in scale and complexity,] . . . 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. . . .

"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. . . .

"The independent reality of society. In 1893 Durkheim  . . reaffirmed the reality of society as an entity. . . . [H]e 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 . . . no less organic than earlier forms of society. . . .

"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. . . .

'The social-psycholgical 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. . . . 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. . . .

"Society as process. . . . [T]he most sophisticated analysts converged on the idea that society is ultimately an organized process. . . . The units of [social] relations are not people but activities. . . .

"The new emphasis on process did not eliminate the ideological component of the concept of society. . . . 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] the defense [583] of either conservatism or radicalism, depending on whether social reality is conceived as an irreducible obstacle or an inexorable transformative force. . . .

"The truth or falsehood of alternative conceptions of society is not at issue here. . . .

"How . . . 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' [584] 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.

"It is legitimate to use the term 'community' to refer to both locally based units and some aspect of the larger society. . . . 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 permament residence. Thus, the boundaries of a society are established by the limits of the largest territorial area within which mating is common and residence is relatively permament. . . .

"The society is not the population, but the complex systems of action in which the units of the population participate.

"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.

"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."