Meaning and Society

 The term society has been derived from the Latin word ‘Socius’ which means a companion, association or fellowship. It is because man always lives in the company of his fellow beings. This led George Simmel to remark that sociability is the essence of society. The term society is understood in a different sense. In our day today discussion society is used to refer to the members of a specific in the group for example-Advice Society, Harijan Society etc. some other time it refers to some institutions like Arya Samaj, Brahmo Samaj. At some other time, society refers to an association like consumer’s society, cooperative society or cultural society. Society is also used in the sense of a group such as rural society or urban society.

But in Sociology, Society refers not to a group of people but to the complex pattern of the norms or interactions or relationships that arise among them. People exist only as an agent of social relationships. A mere congregation of individuals does not constitute society. Rather society refers to the complicated network of social relationships by which every individual is interrelated with his fellowmen. Hence Society is abstract, not concrete, in nature. We can’t touch it but fill it. Because society resides in the minds of individuals.

Society is a process of living not a thing, a motion rather than structure. A system of social relationships is the most important aspect of society. Not all relationships are social. A social relationship implies reciprocal awareness among individuals. This reciprocal awareness direct and indirect are the characteristics of every social relationship. This idea of reciprocal awareness is implied in F.H. Giddings definition of society i.e. “a number of like-minded individuals, who know and enjoy their like-mindedness and are, therefore, able to work together for common ends.” Thus elements of society exist in the ‘Consciousness of Kind’ of Giddings, ‘we feeling’ of Cooley or ‘a common propensity of W.I. Thomas.


In a documentary on the life and work of the leading sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002), Bourdieu explains that “sociology is a martial art”. Bourdieu is not suggesting that learning sociology will automatically qualify the student for a black belt in Karate. Instead, he sees the value of sociology as helping to “unmask domination”: forms of social inequality based on class, race, gender and much more besides. Despite the existence of domination in our everyday lives, it is often disguised so that we fail to recognize it. For Bourdieu, the role of sociology is to expose the workings of domination throughout our societies.

In a 1987 interview, the then UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013) famously stated: “THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS SOCIETY.” A sociologist would both agree and disagree with Thatcher’s sentiments about society. However many humans appear to exhibit “individual” behaviour and live in a world of incredible choice, our access to choice is limited by the social groups we are members of. They may agree with Thatcher, however, that society does not exist as an unchanging and fixed set of institutions. Thinking sociologically is what the American sociologist C. Wright Mills (1916-62) termed the “sociological imagination”. Mills said that when we develop a sociological imagination we begin to see how wider social forces connect with our personal biographies. For Mills, the sociological imagination is particularly powerful when we identify the society we live in, rather any personal or individual failings, as responsible for many of our problems.

Nurturing a sociological imagination is the first step towards public sociology. Public sociology, as the phrase suggests, is concerned with making the public into more engaged citizens. This is a sociology that is not limited to academia – it aims to lead public policy. Sociology has an ingrained public purpose. By explaining to us about how society functions, many sociologists, such as Zygmunt Bauman (b.1925), hope that we will seek to change it in some way that makes for a fairer world. By thinking sociologically, we may well see the social context of our lives that has previously been obscured, and learn that we are not simply prisoners of the social structure.

Peter Berger (b.1929) compares the social world to a puppet theatre. We may appear to be puppets with roles that are seemingly determined by the invisible strings of society and the puppet master hidden from view. But, as we pick up the rules of the theatre and our prescribed parts as actors, we see the mechanisms that allow the theatre to operate. Erving Goffman (1922-82) also recognized the potential of sociology to make individuals into “dangerous giants” with the strength to tear down the structures they are imprisoned within.

The German philosopher G.W. Hegel (1770-1831) sketched an “idealist” theory of society and history in which society is imagined as having a spirit. He envisaged the spirit not as a social force but as a manifestation of the divine, which is why, although Hegel’s thinking is revolutionary, it is not quite sociology. Hegel mapped out history as a slow and painful transformation from local to global institutions. It is the formation of the nation-state that he saw as the important social institution since it is here where the spirit of society and the people are contained. Hegel’s contribution to the development of sociology is that he begins to analyse the role of social institutions – religion and government – in bringing about social change and reform.

Sociology was borne out of bewildering social and political transformation shaped by the two major revolutions of the era – the French and Industrial revolutions. These twins all but dissolved existing forms of social organization in Europe. The French Revolution (1789-99), which witnessed the overthrow of a monarchical dynasty, generated new and radical ideas about the state, the role of religion in social life, and political and social reform. Driven by scientific discoveries and technological advances, the Industrial Revolution created a factory-based, capitalist economy during the 19th century. New forms of social stratification emerged as a consequence, and the growth of the industrial city provided a new historical stage for complex forms of social organization, especially the development of socioeconomic classes.

“ALL MEN ARE EQUAL AND SHOULD HAVE EQUAL RIGHTS! “ Set against the turmoil of unprecedented political and social change, early sociological thinkers aimed to explain the forces that had created industrial society, and asked important questions that gave the discipline its identity. To address these questions entailed asking a range of further questions. While early sociological theorists all posed variations of the same questions, they often disagreed on the answers. The figure commonly credited with laying down the intellectual foundations of the discipline is Auguste Comte (1798-1857). In 1839 Comte created the word “sociology” to describe his ideas. Deeply influenced and inspired by science, Comte wished to provide a scientific explanation of society and he applied “positivism” as his main approach. Positivism is the study of observable phenomena as a means to analyse society. Comte believed that rational thought married to the use of hard evidence could advance human understanding on how societies successfully function and why they go through historical change.

Comte and Spencer both believed that social systems create harmony and stability in an age of industrial society. Many sociological thinkers of the 19th and early 20th centuries did not share this view. On the contrary, they saw conflict and division as typical features of society. The radical German thinker Karl Marx (1818-83) is one of these; although he never described his work as sociology, he thought sociologically and inspired generations of sociological research. In some ways, Marx shared Comte and Spencer’s belief in historical change and progress. But his work sought to show that history – and not just industrial society – was propelled forward by the conflict between different social classes over values and resources. Marx described this as “historical materialism”. It is the mode of production that decides the overall economic, social and political institutions of any given society. Each society is defined by a mode of production that the competing social classes fight to control in order to advance their own interests. Marx believed that the industrial working class would win this struggle between classes and this would lead to a communist society.
Marx noted that while all societies have social institutions, it is the economic structure that shapes these institutions. A society’s economic system provides the base or social infrastructure, which shapes not only political, legal and customary social institutions but also consciousness and knowledge. Ideas and ideologies are formed by material conditions.

Two central themes to Marx’s work are critical to the development of sociology. First, his analysis of social conflict as the engine of historical change brings the concept of social class into the discipline. In the industrial age, Marx described the conflict between two social classes: the dominant and oppressed, or the bourgeoisie (rulers and factory owners) and the proletariat (factory workers). In this monumental clash, Marx predicted the ultimate victory of the workers who would overcome oppression through revolutionary class action. The fruit of victory would be the arrival of communism. Although Marx never specified the details of communist society, it was egalitarian, with the workers controlling the means of production. Secondly, Marx introduced the idea of “alienation”, the experience of isolation resulting from powerlessness. In the mechanized industrial system, Marx argued that capitalism alienated ordinary factory workers from the act of work, from the products they made, from their fellow workers, and even from human potential itself. Alienation resulted from individuals belonging to social classes, particularly the working class, and was thus a product of the capitalist system. As such, the capitalist class – the owners of factories – benefitted from the power that alienation had over the workers. Although it took many forms, a key form of alienation occurred when workers competed with each other for jobs and salaries. Through his radical writings, Marx laid the ground for public sociology in which sociologists are instrumental actors in achieving revolutionary transformation.

A debate within sociology is the extent to which it is possible to distinguish “old” from “new” social movements. The Italian sociologist Alberto Melucci (1943-2001) argued that there are not only clear differences between old and new social movements but that these distinctions are a product of social change. Preceding generations of collective action largely focused on industrial workers demanding increased rights and wages. Another, related type of old social movement sought to gain citizenship rights and equality within the state. For instance, the suffragette movement demanded voting rights for women and the civil rights movement called for equal citizenship for African Americans. Melucci claimed that Western societies have experienced tremendous social change since the 1960s. We now live in a post-industrial society, and this affects our values and priorities. Melucci drew upon the work of another sociologist, Ronald Inglehart (b.1934), who claimed that individuals rank goals in hierarchical order. When we experience economic scarcities and insecurity, we emphasize and prioritize material needs, like financial issues, a strong national defence, and law and order. If our material needs are satisfied, we place a priority on values such as self-expression, quality of life and belonging. These are post-material values. The more prosperous a democratic society is, the more likely it is to emphasize post-materialism. Post-material values include a desire for personal empowerment, liberty and even a clean environment. Melucci argued that old social movements reflect a society characterized by material values. However, since the end of WWII, social movements are driven by post-material priorities.

The membership of new social movements is mainly from the middle class, although their politics goes beyond left or right. While sexuality was once seen as a private issue, some lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) movements have made it public by demanding, among other things, an end to discrimination by businesses and employers, and marriage equality. Animal rights protestors make clothes and fashion into political issues, questioning not only the personal ethics of wearing animal products but also the broader social ethics involved with rearing and producing fur, leather and wool products. Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) provides an important contribution to the analysis of old and new social movements. Habermas distinguishes between old and new social movements based on both the conflicts they organize around and whether they seek or resist integration into what he calls the “system”. First, in an industrial, capitalist society, the “capital-labour” struggles of the labour movement provided the main battle line. Habermas claims that the labour movement has become institutionalized into trade unions and political parties: conflicts between capital and labour are advanced and fought through legal and political channels. New social movements remain outside of the political system. Their main conflict is to reject what Habermas calls the “colonization of the lifeworld”: the intervention of the bureaucratic state and economy into areas of social life once restricted to the private sphere. The lifeworld for individuals is acquired through social institutions, such as the family, church, school and community. Habermas claims that our lifeworld has been negatively disrupted in contemporary society. The extension of a complex economic and bureaucratic system into all areas of everyday social life has created a crisis of legitimacy.

The stimulus-response relationship is at the core of organised living. In order to carry out on their life-activities, men must make successful responses not only to the nature but to fellowmen and to the culture of their group. Social interaction is that dynamic force that modifies the attitudes and behaviour of the participants.
It takes place through communication. In communication, one person infers from the behaviour of another the idea or feeling of the other person. He then reacts not to the behaviour as such but to the inferred meaning of it, and the other person likewise reacts to his response.

This gives rise to a common understanding and definition of the situation, in short, consensus. Society consists of mutual interaction and inters relation of individuals and of the structure formed by their relations. Therefore, society refers not to a group of people but to the complex pattern of norms of interaction that arise among them. Society is a process rather than a thing, motion rather than structure. The important aspect of society is the system of relationships by which the members of society maintain themselves.

According to Ginsberg, “A society is a collection of individuals united by certain relations or modes of behaviour which mark them off from others, who don not enter into those relations or who differ from them in behaviour”


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