Society - people or system?

What is Society?

Robin McAlpine – 16th December 2021

For a word which we use so much, the meaning of the word ‘society’ is not one that we contemplate much. But there are reasons why, at this stage in the pandemic, it may help to take a step back and ask what a society really is, what makes a society work?

The dictionary may not help much. A society is “the aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community”, but this is misleading in the sense that we seldom talk about societies as a group of people.

Rather we generally think of them as ‘systems’ and ‘cultures’. When we measure societies, it is more likely than not that we are measuring the structure of the society. When we describe a society we usually talk about its norms and behaviours, the cultural associations we have with the society.

This is great for identifying and understanding what a society looks like from a certain vantage point but it doesn’t tell us very much about what makes societies work.

Of course there is an entire academic discipline which examines society (sociology) and there is no shortage of theories. The three ‘founding fathers’ of sociology actually had very similar analyses but different emphases.

For Marx, society was defined by ownership and ideology – who had what and why others accepted that as legitimate. Weber was more interested in power relationships and the different subgroups that make up a society, seeing it as a kind of negotiation between different interests.

But the less-known Durkheim has a view of society which is particularly helpful here. He categorised them as ‘mechanical’ or ‘organic’. This is not quite what it sounds. A mechanical society is one in which the different parts come into direct contact. That society is a series of clear human relationships.

Of course it has to be a very small society for that to be possible and as soon as we left villages and started creating towns and cities, society couldn’t be seen only as direct relationships. In an organic society there are lots of separate and independent and often short-lived groups of relationships.

You will work with one group of people, live with another group, socialise with another group again. Change job and an entire section of your social relationships simply disappear to be replaced with a new set, like cell-based lifeforms being born and dying over and over.

It is easy to see what holds a mechanical society together, but what holds an organic society together? Why are these constantly appearing and disappearing relationships not unstable?

There are two things which can hold that kind of organic community together; authority and consent. Empires and kingdoms hold themselves together partly through ideology but largely by force. Most people have no option but to comply with their society.

In the modern democratic world it is consent that holds us together. The much-misunderstood description by Benedict Anderson of nation states being ‘imagined communities’ does not mean they are fake communities but that the community exists primarily because everyone in the community believes it does.

We imagine ourselves to be a collective, interconnected group of people even though we will never have any real or meaningful connection to the vast majority of the group. These are not relationship-based communities but ones that don’t really endure unless we imagine them in a way that enables them to endure.

Sadly, societies can dispense of a lot of consent and resort to force rather too easily. But a democratic society can move away from consent only so far before something gives. If you evidence of that just have a look round the world for the last 20 years.

First there were major social failures in countries which felt that their role in the world wasn’t one they consented to and then there were countries in which many individuals started to feel that they were living in a system which did not have their consent.

Both have resulted in worrying outcomes. Many of those who felt a lack of consent between their society and the world turned to violence, particularly the rise of Islamism. And many of those who felt low levels of consent in their own societies turned to victim-blaming.

This has led to global instability and the worrying rise of a kind of proto-fascism. It has become so apparent that no-one really consented to the massive economic inequality and sheer kleptocracy of Western society that anger was inevitable. But too much of that anger went into anti-immigration sentiment and not nearly enough in Occupy Wall Street directions.

All of this is crucially important to Scotland just now. We imagine our community as not susceptible to these pressures, or at least that it has more productive outlets. We believe that ‘of course’ Scotland will focus its anger into positive support for independence or for the European Union. We’re not ‘like’ the French (who are becoming worryingly right wing) or the Poles (who have been for a while).

But there are real risks in this lazy assumption. There are many pressures on ‘social consent’ in Scotland. We have half a population which thinks it is in a political union without consent and half which thinks it is being dragged out of one without consent. And there are very sharp economic inequalities and people asking when exactly they agreed to live in poverty.

We remain a resilient society however because we have strong social and cultural identifiers which help to pull us together. We have customs and traditions which are both local and national which enable us to participate together (First Footing is a particularly Scottish concept for example).

The problem is that in a neoliberal era these cultural artefacts are often dismissed as unimportant, ephemera, a distraction from the really important economic artefacts of our society. That is why it is the neoliberal age which has created this form of global unrest – it doesn’t understand the role of consent in society or of culture in consent.

This is a very big warning for our times. We are currently being told to avoid any ‘unnecessary social contact’ because of Covid. This is a seriously wrong-headed concept. No ‘social’ contact is essential and yet all social contact is essential. If we reduce our lives to purely transactional relationships, what is the glue that makes us feel we share in a community?

Funerals are nothing to do with the dead, the Festive season is not about religion, birthday parties are not to celebrate getting older, weddings are not legal constructs. In every one of these cases precisely the same thing (or a similar equivalent) can be found everywhere and throughout all time.

It is these social occasions which are the glue that hold society together. It is the sense that we share, that we are together, that we are linked, that we are not alone. It is the conversations we have at these events, not necessary and contractual but totally unnecessary and often generally pointless. But they make us feel part of something bigger.

And being a part of something is what helps us to imagine that it exists, to believe that we consent to it. Durkheim’s big breakthrough was in the subject of suicide. He discovered that suicide is most common at very social times of the year. It isn’t being alone that drives people to take their own lives but feeling excluded and left out.

We all recognise the need to sacrifice at times, but we all need a route back. If we can’t find our way back to sharing and collectivity, bad things happen. The pandemic is a medical emergency but it can easily become a social emergency. We can’t afford for that to happen.

We can give up many things to this virus, but those who think that one of the things we can easily give us is togetherness risks finding out the hard way that society relies on consent and consent relies on human relationships and being together.

You can only take that away for so long before the consequences become very real indeed.

1 thought on “What is Society?”

  1. florian albert

    ‘Funerals are nothing to do with the dead.’

    This sort of comment goes a long way to explain why the left in Scotland has been so utterly marginalized. It gives the appearance of being clever but is merely silly.

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