Term of Art: Society

“Society: Generally, a group of people who share a common culture, occupy a particular territorial area, and feel themselves to constitute a unified and distinct entity—but there are many different sociological conceptions (see D. Frisby and D. Sayer, Society, 1986).

In everyday life the term society is used as if it referred in an unproblematic way to something that exists ‘out there’ and beyond the individual subject: we speak of ‘French society,’ and ‘capitalist society,’ and of ‘society’ being responsible for some observed social phenomenon. On reflection, however, such a usage clearly has its problems: for example, is British society a clear unity, or can we talk also of Welsh, Scottish, and Northern Irish societies? And, even within England, are there not wide cultural differences between (say) north and south? Is there one capitalist society—or many? Nor is a society the same thing as a nation-state. The former Yugoslavia clearly contained several societies: Croat, Slovenian, Serbian, and so on.

While many sociologists use the term in a commonsense way others question this use. Some symbolic interactionists, for example, argue that there is no such thing as society: it is simply a useful covering term for things we don’t know about or understand properly (see P. Rock, The Making of Symbolic Interactionism, 1979). Others, such as Emile Durkheim, treat society as a reality in its own right (see The Rules of Sociological Method, 1895).”

Excerpted from: Marshall, Gordon, ed. Oxford Dictionary of Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

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