THE CONCEPT OF SOCIETY
In common parlance, the word society is usually used to designate the members of specific in-group, persons rather than the social relationships of those persons. Sometimes the word society is used to designate institutions like Arya Samaj (society) or Brahmo Samaj. Society is a word used in routine life with a particular meaning. Everyone often defines society as an aggregation or collection of individuals. But in sociology and anthropology, the term is used in a different sense. The term “society” refers not just to a group of people but to a complex pattern of norms of interaction that exist among them. In terms of common sense, society is understood as a tangible object, whereas in sociology and anthropology, it refers to an intangible entity. It is a mental construct, which we realize in everyday life but cannot see it. The important aspect of society is the system of relationships, the pattern of the norms of interaction by which the members of the society maintain themselves. Some anthropologists say that society exists only when the members know each other and possess common interests or objects.
Meaning and Definition of Society
The roots of the term society can be traced to the Latin word socius which means companionship or friendship. George Simmel an eminent sociologist has stated that it is the element of sociability or companionship that defines the true essence of society. As Aristotle stated centuries ago man is a social animal, it brings into focus that man always lives in the company of other people. Society has become an essential condition for human life to continue. Herein, we will discuss some of the views of the social thinkers who had on society and how they have perceived the same.
August Comte viewed society as a social organism possessing a harmony of structure and function. Emile Durkheim regarded society as a reality in its own right. For Talcott, Parson Society is a total complex of human relationships in so far as they grow out of the action in terms of means-end relationship intrinsic or symbolic. G.H. Mead conceived society as an exchange of gestures that involve the use of symbols. Morris Ginsberg defines society as a collection of individuals united by certain relations or modes of behavior which mark them off from others who do not enter into these relations or who differ from them in behavior. Cole saw Society as a complex of organized associations and institutions with a community. MacIver and Page found it was a system of usages and procedures of authority and mutual aid of many groupings and divisions, of controls of human behavior and liberties; a web of social relationships. A society is generally conceived of as a human group that is relatively large, relatively independent or self-perpetuating demographic terms, and relatively autonomous in its organization of social relations. But it is the relativity of each society’s autonomy, independence, and self-perpetuating nature which is the crucial factor, and the distinction of one society from another is often arbitrary. It is important in anthropology not to allow these arbitrary divisions to distort our vision of systems of local, regional, national, and international social relations.
We can sum up the definitions of society into two types – the functional definition and the structural definition. From the functional point of view, society is defined as a complex of groups in reciprocal relationships, interacting with one another, enabling human organisms to carry on their life activities and helping each person to fulfill his wishes and accomplish his interests in association with his fellows. From the structural point of view, society is the total social heritage of folkways, mores, institutions; habits, sentiments, and ideals. Ginsberg, Giddings, Cole, and Cuber take a structural view of society while McIver, Parsons, Lapiere, Cooley, and Leacock have given a functional definition of society.
The definition of society has undergone little variation from the standpoint of classical and modern scholars. For our understanding, we can simply define society as a group of people who share a common culture, occupy a particular territorial area and feel themselves to constitute a unified and distinct entity. It is the mutual interactions and interrelations of individuals and groups. Society is a group of people related to each other through persistent relations in terms of social status, roles, and social networks. By extension, society denotes the people of a region or country, sometimes even the world, taken as a whole. Used in the sense of an association, a society is a body of individuals outlined by the bounds of functional interdependence, possibly comprising characteristics such as national or cultural identity, social solidarity, language, or hierarchical organization.
Characteristics of Society
According to McIver “society is a web of social relationships”, (McIver, 1931: 6) which may be of several types. Formulating a catalog of social relationships would be an uphill task. The family alone is said to have as many relationships based on age, sex, gender, and generation. Outside the family, there is no limit to the number of possible relationships.
McIver says “society means likeness”. Therefore, the likeness is an essential prerequisite of society. The sense of likeness was focused in early society on kinship, that is, real or supposed blood relationships. In modern societies, the conditions of social likeness have broadened out in the principle of the nationality of one world. “Comradeship, intimacy, an association of any kind or degree would be impossible without some understanding of each by the other, and that understanding depends on the likeness which each apprehends in the other.
The society also implies difference but this sense of likeness does not exclude diversity or variation. The society also implies difference and it depends on the latter as much as on likeness. A society based exclusively on likeness and uniformity is bound to be loose in socialites. All our social systems involve relationships in which differences complement one another, for e.g., family rests upon the biological difference between sexes. Besides the difference in sex, there are other natural differences in aptitude and interest in capacity. While the difference is necessary to society, difference by itself does not create a society, difference is subordinate to likeness. It has been argued that likeness is necessarily prior to the differentiation of social organization. As McIver observed, – primary likeness and secondary difference create the greatest of all social institutions-the division of labor.
In addition to likeness, interdependence is another essential element to constitute society. Family, one of the important units of society with which we all are closely associated, is based on the biological interdependence of the sexes. None of the two sexes is complete by itself and therefore each seeks fulfillment with the aid of the other. The Social organization diversifies the work of each, making each more dependent on others, in order that by the surrender of self-sufficiency he may receive back thousand fold in the fullness of life. This interdependence is both extensive as well as intensive.
Lastly, cooperation is also essential to constitute society. Without cooperation, no society can exist. Unless people cooperate with each other, they cannot live happy life. All social institutions rest on cooperation. The members of social institutions cooperate with one another to live happily and joyfully. Cooperation avoids mutual destructiveness and results in an economy. For want of cooperation, the entire fabric of society may collapse.
Thus likeness, interdependence, and cooperation are the essential elements to constitute society. Besides these elements, McIver has also mentioned some other elements of society; it is a system of usages and procedures, authority and mutual aid, of many groupings and divisions; it controls human behavior and liberties. This view brings in several other elements of society firstly, in every society there are some usages concerned with marriage, education, religion, food, speech, etc., which differ from society to society. Secondly, there are procedures i.e., the modes of action in every society which maintain its unity and organization. Thirdly, the presence of authority is necessary to maintain order in society. Fourthly, no society can be stable unless there is a feeling of mutual aid among its members. Fifthly, in a society there are several groupings and divisions such as family, city, village, etc. sixthly, liberty and control go together in a society. Without liberty, man cannot develop his personality. Control of an individual’s behavior is not meant to destroy his liberty but to promote and protect it.
Society is not just a mere agency for the comfort of the beings but it is the whole system of social relationships. The social relationship between mother and child, for example, is revealed in their attitude toward each other. It is this social fact and not the biological fact that constitutes society. The true nature of society consists not in the external factors of the interdependence of likeness or authority but in the state of mind of the beings which compose society. It is the pattern, not the people, which is termed society. It is not a group but a process of relationships. It is said society is the extension of individuality, the transcendence of self-closedness, the vehicle of personal identity, the means of the continuation of personality through the generations, the nurse of youth, the arena of manhood and womanhood.
All societies, as is clear from the above discussion, involve a certain level of association, a level closer and lesser complex than an organism. Like an organism, society also is a system of relations, but in society, this relation exists between organisms rather than between “cells”. The constituent parts of society give to its continuity and structure of its own so that the study of society cannot be reduced merely to a study of its individual members. Some social thinkers like Spencer, Radcliffe-Brown, and Durkheim have sought to compare society to an organism. The analogy between organism and society is at best an analogy and not an identity.
Sociologist Gerhard Lenski based on the level of technology, communication, and economy had differentiated societies into a) hunters and gatherers, b) simple agricultural, c) advanced agricultural d) industrial, and e) special (e.g. fishing societies or maritime societies). This classification is more or less similar to the system earlier developed by anthropologists like Fried and Service. They classified societies as foraging or hunter-gatherer, horticultural, agricultural, industrial, and then information-age (post-industrial) societies. In order of increasing size and complexity, there are bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and state societies. Societies may also be organized according to their political structure. These structures may have varying degrees of political power, depending on the cultural geographical, and historical environments. The term society is currently used to cover a number of political and scientific connotations as well as a variety of associations.