The keyword “society” is generally used in academia and everyday life to refer to forms of human collectivity and association, but the scale and values of the formations referenced by the word—and its adjectival form “social”—vary widely. When we refer to Twitter and Facebook as “social media,” the term is roughly synonymous with “interactive,” a word that at its narrowest refers to exchanges between discrete individuals. But when mainstream media outlets and politicians assert that the spread of social media is somehow responsible for phenomena ranging from the Arab Spring to the August 2011 London riots, from Occupy Wall Street to so-called flash-mob attacks in U.S. cities, they are claiming (plausibly or not) that interactive technologies enable political participation and are linking the word to broader and more explicitly political usages such as “social justice” and “social movement.”
The term’s wide range of connotations was already evident in the classical Latin societās, which according to the Oxford English Dictionary could refer to the “fact or condition of being associated for a common purpose, partnership, body of people associated for a common purpose, trading company, partnership in war, alliance, state of being associated with others, fellowship, communion, joint pursuit, joint enjoyment, close relationship, connection, affinity.” The term later developed a connection with religious community, as in Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and Society of Friends (Quakers). Current usage has continuities with each of these connotations, as the term can reference organizations with specific agendas (the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) and communities delimited by an ascribed characteristic such as national affiliation or social class (American society; high society). We “socialize” freely with others, but we are also “socialized” into normative patterns of behavior shaped by larger legal and political institutions. High school students discuss society in social studies classes; colleges offer majors in sociology; and many universities organize their faculties around divisions between the social sciences, the natural sciences, and the arts and humanities. In political discourse, “civil society” is distinct from the state, yet “social welfare” programs are often portrayed as an expansion of state power, if not an avatar of “socialism.”
As Raymond Williams (1976/1983, 291) notes, “society” thus names both a generalization (“the body of institutions and relationships within which a relatively large group of people live”) and an abstraction (“the condition in which such institutions and relationships are formed”). Motivating both the generalization and the abstraction is the sense that there are limits to the presumption that the individual is the sole agent and object of human action. As such, the term may imply both freedom and constraint. The latter, repressive connotation is exemplified in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s (1841/1990, 151) claim that “society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” This formulation evinces a reductive understanding of society as an impersonal force that produces “conformity” by enforcing conventional “names and customs” on the otherwise free (white and male) individual; it also greatly simplifies the processes though which individualities and subjectivities are formed. This stark dichotomy between “individual” and “society” has structured and stunted much U.S. popular thought and intellectual life. In contrast, society is generally conceived of in American studies and cultural studies in a more nuanced way as a structure, a principle or set of principles that work to organize human diversity into identifiable collectivities. Such thinking starts from the premise that individual agency is socially constructed even as the world is made and transformed through individual and collective social action.
The idea that society can be a discrete object of analysis or study has a shorter history than one might expect. Of course, writers have long commented on human association, casting collectivity in terms of the polis, the body politic, or the commonwealth, to name only three of the more familiar terms. But it was only in the eighteenth century that thinkers began to isolate society as an object of analysis and to study it systematically. This new focus on the social can be traced to the French, Scottish, and North American Enlightenments, particularly the works of philosophes such as Voltaire and the Baron de Montesquieu; “Common Sense” philosophers David Hume, Adam Ferguson, and Adam Smith; and Anglo-American political radicals such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and William Godwin. In the early nineteenth century, these theorizations of society were increasingly mapped onto concrete populations, institutions, and activities by classical sociologists such as Henri de Saint-Simon (1813/1965) and August Comte (1858). Saint-Simon proposed that “man” could be understood using a methodology modeled on the natural sciences and called “social physiology,” while it remained for Comte to name the “science” of “sociology” in 1838 and then to systematize the predetermined stages through which all societies developed and to draw an analogy between societies’ development and that of organic, usually human, bodies. Comte argued that the sociologist, like the physical or natural scientist, could produce knowledge about society that would allow technocratic elites to maintain social order while simultaneously advancing human progress (Hall and Gieben 1992a; Gulbenkian Commission 1996; Wallerstein 2001).
The question remained to what purpose such social knowledge would be put. Comte’s technocratic leanings prefigured the increasing prevalence of positivistic research methods across the social sciences. Positivism treated social actions and relations as taking place within a relatively stable system or field organized through predictable laws. Aided by the rise of statistical analysis, the pursuit of these laws often resulted in normalizing forms of knowledge since exceptions to social patterns could be treated as deviations from the norm, in both the moral and the statistical sense (Poovey 1998). Although the term “statistic” shares an etymology with “state,” both governmental and nongovernmental organizations quickly learned to deploy statistically generated social facts to support their arguments and to legitimate their existence (P. Cohen 1982). For instance, New York’s city government hired William Sanger in 1855 to produce a statistical study of prostitution (Stansell 1986). Temperance and antislavery activists similarly relied on statistics and social analysis to bolster their claims, thus emerging as an early “social movement” that saw society as a system that required transformation. In each of these cases, the production of social facts served to constitute widespread practices—vagrancy, prostitution, drinking—not as individual moral failings but as social problems. As deviations from social norms, such activities became sites both of governmental and (quasi-governmental) intervention and of political struggle among diverse social agents and movements (Foucault 1991).
Even as these positivist forms of social knowledge were being instrumentalized by various state and nonstate organizations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, sociology was gaining institutional status as an academic discipline. Herbert Spencer, the leading purveyor of “social Darwinism,” published the first volume of his Principles of Sociology in 1874–75. Among the earliest practitioners of sociology in the United States were Lester Frank Ward and William Graham Sumner, both of whom were inﬂuenced by Spencer. The first course with “sociology” in the title was taught at the University of Kansas in 1890, and the first Sociology Department was initiated at the University of Chicago in 1892. Émile Durkheim and Max Weber were leading figures in a similar institutionalization at European universities. Sociology developed an extra-academic presence as well. Opened in 1913, the Ford Motor Company’s “sociological department” provided aid to the company’s poorest workers, though only after requiring regular “home visits” to ensure that a worker’s domestic life was “worthy” of support and that the mostly immigrant workforce was being properly “Americanized.” Here again sociology normalizes social behavior, this time by linking normativity to productivity.
The analysis of society was not limited to one particular discipline or methodology. Nor did many of the major social theorists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries consider themselves sociologists. Variants on the word “society” appear today in the names of several disciplines and subdisciplines that cut across the boundaries of sociology as a field, including social history, social psychology, social work, and social theory. At the same time, the overarching rubric of the social sciences suggests that “society” remains a metacategory capable of organizing the study of markets (economics), governments (political science), and individuals (psychology) into a conceptual and institutional singularity. Of course, these objects of study are not really discrete things: an economic theory that ignored the importance of the state in constructing and maintaining markets would be impoverished at best, as would a theory of the individual that neglected the roles of markets and governments in shaping human agency. For this reason, much energy in the past few decades of social theory has gone toward critiquing conceptions of society as a totalized system, especially when that system is seen as wholly structured and determined by a subsystem—the economy, for instance—that is treated as if it were external to the social. One inﬂuential thread of this critique has taken place in the languages of structuralism, poststructuralism, and deconstruction, including Ernesto Laclau’s argument about “the impossibility of society” (1990, 89–92) and Cornelius Castoriadis’s claim that society is “not a thing, not a subject, and not an idea” but an “imaginary institution” (1987, 207).
Many similar critiques of society as a concept derive from debates on the left, which range from intellectual tendencies described as neo- and post-Marxist to welfare-state policy analysts and grassroots community organizers. But they also resonate with attacks from the opposite end of the political spectrum, such as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s (Keay 1987, 9) famous and often-repeated claim that “there is no such thing as society.” The similarities between this type of statement—predominant in the United States at least since Ronald Reagan’s presidency—and neo-Marxist arguments for “the impossibility of society” are largely superficial. Theorists such as Laclau and Castoriadis take aim at reductive understandings of social causation in which an economic “base” (conceived of in Marxism not as a “market” but as a “mode of production”) provides the foundation for any explanation for “superstructural” social and cultural phenomena. In contrast, the neoconservative position mobilizes a reductive understanding of the market as an isolable, self-regulating subsystem to argue against the extension of state power into social realms where “politics” does not belong. As such, neoconservatism is a theory of society in the classic sense: it argues for a particular way of differentiating various social realms and justifies its differentiation by claiming that each realm operates by identifiable laws. To quote Thatcher again, while society does not exist, “there are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first” (Keay 1987, 9). In this formulation, the social is reduced to individual and familial interactions that are—not unlike some forms of interactivity taking place in social media—implicitly governed by the market (Barrett and McIntosh 1982).
Like “public,” “community,” and other keywords that point to collective human experience, “society” is often described as being in decline. The dominant version of this declension narrative within American studies and cultural studies uses the keyword “neoliberal” to describe the people and political tendencies that work against the potentiality for solidarity and collectivity inscribed within these concepts. American studies and cultural studies thus take a critical stance toward forms of social science that premise their investigations on rational choice theory, the assumption that society is best understood as an aggregate of individuals intent on maximizing their interests. A strong argument can be made that the ascendancy of neoconservative politics and neoliberal economic policy in the United States and elsewhere is a response to a decrease in the persuasiveness and affective force of major categories of collectivity, such as nation and class, and a concomitant reduction of the sense of solidarity that such “social imaginaries” could at least potentially produce (C. Taylor 2004). In such a context, the Thatcherite claim that individuals and families are the only bases for human association can come to seem depressingly plausible, even inevitable. This is also the context in which some progressive social movements have narrowed their political ambitions by portraying normative forms of collectivity and association such as marriage and the nuclear family as the best and only means of effecting social change (M. Warner 1999; Duggan 2003).
In American studies and cultural studies, “society” is currently a much less lively and debated keyword than “culture.” This represents a shift from the early history of these fields, both of which emerged as attempts to cross the boundary dividing the social sciences from the humanities and to resist deterministic and totalizing understandings of the social. One of the questions American studies was designed to answer concerned the vexed opposition between the individual and society, and one early sign of the field’s legitimacy was the extent to which this opposition subtended high-level scholarly projects, more middlebrow arguments, and even high school and college curricula. Foundational and field-defining texts determinedly placed “society” on a par with “culture” as key terms. Williams’s Keywords (1976/1983) bore as its subtitle A Vocabulary of Culture and Society and had its inception as an appendix to his Culture and Society, 1790–1950 (1958). Even texts instrumental in the American studies turn toward issues of subjectivity still identified the social as a causal force, as is evident in the title of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s Social Construction of Reality (1966). Though these texts privileged culture as worthy of analysis—as a corrective to reductive and mechanistic versions of literary formalism and Marxism and as definitional of their object and method of study—their emphasis on culture was nearly always represented as a means of accessing the more difficult but fundamental subject of society.
The most promising recent tendencies in American studies and cultural studies approach the question of the social in terms that work to avoid the risks of determinism and totalization embedded in the concept. Instead of studying society as an object, they tend to view the social as a process. Stuart Hall has argued that “modern societies [have] a distinctive shape and form, making them not simply ‘societies’ (a loose ensemble of social activities) but social formations (societies with a definite structure and a well-defined set of social relations)” (Hall and Gieben 1992b, 7). One aspect of that structure is the differentiation into distinct realms—the economy, politics, and culture—that the modernist social sciences have both documented and reified. Yet rather than naturalizing these realms as objects of analysis, the notion of social formation is meant to keep in mind “both the activities of emergence, and their outcomes or results: both process and structure” (ibid.). This analytic development has its counterpart in American studies and cultural studies scholarship that treats crucial social categories as historical formations: sexual formations, class formations, and, most inﬂuentially, racial formations. Avoiding the tendency to view race “as an essence, as something fixed, concrete, and objective,” as well as the “opposite temptation to imagine race as a mere illusion” or ideology, Michael Omi and Howard Winant (1994, 54–55) define racial formation as “the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed.” Only a mode of analysis that can keep these elements in play as a dynamic process can address the questions of structure and agency raised by the concept of society.
Beyond the academy, some of the most successful political movements since the end of the Cold War are reviving the concept of society as the basis of a critique of capitalist globalization and neoliberalism. There is a reason that anticapitalist struggles often coalesce around the term “socialism” and that one transnational organization founded to counter the World Trade Organization (WTO) and other forces of neoliberalism calls itself the World Social Forum. While the latter’s agenda is often misleadingly shorthanded as “antiglobalization,” its very name declares its intent to globalize not capital or trade but society itself. This claim raises important questions about the concept of society: Are there models of a global civil society that avoid subsuming all forms of association and collectivity under the rubrics either of the state (as in Soviet-style communism) or of the market (as in WTO-supported attempts to impose a particular model of “civil society” onto diverse social formations) (Cohen and Arato 1992; Walzer 1995; Keane 2003)? Are there alternative social formations and imaginaries implicit in transnational movements working against sweatshop labor or the militarization of international borders? These are simultaneously political questions about what these alternative notions of society will look like in practice and research questions in which the definition of society is both the site and substance of debate.