“Society” is a word too often used in a sloppy or vague way. When teachers share their pet peeves about student writing, they frequently name “society” as the word they would most like to ban. There are typically two reasons given for this antipathy. First, the term falsely implies universality (when you say “society,” do you really mean to refer to every single person in the world?). Second, it attributes agency to an abstraction (how can “society” actually do anything like oppress someone or believe something?). Baked into such usages is often a simplistic if widely recognizable story about how an amorphous “social” pressure is applied to equally amorphous “individuals” who either succumb to that pressure or resist it by “being themselves.” You can find versions of this story in a blog post about how well the free market organizes “society,” a sociology paper about gangs’ “antisocial” activity, or a political speech blaming “society” for certain behavior. But wherever this story is told, if it lacks any specifics about what is meant by “society,” readers are likely to see it as a cliché, an overgeneralizing formula.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with looking for and naming structures that shape action and limit resistance. Many keywords of cultural studies and American studies—capitalism, civilization, community, culture, gender, ideology, race—could be described as efforts to name such structures. But the ambiguities of the term “society” often point to an especially deep confusion about structure and agency. We see a similar confusion in influential, even canonical statements about society, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ( 1990, 151) claim in “Self-Reliance” 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 structure whose only function is to constrain individual agency. In Emerson’s words, society produces “conformity” by enforcing conventional “names and customs” on the otherwise free (explicitly male and implicitly white) individual.
Readers of Emerson’s words often forget that he is writing about the emergence of what would later be called “democratic” or “mass society,” not about a simple abstraction or generalization. Yet this type of stark dichotomy between “individual” and “society” results in especially contradictory usages of the keyword and its variants. We “socialize” freely with others, but we are also “socialized” into normative patterns of behavior shaped by larger legal and political institutions. We interact on “social” media, but we know that these interactions are structured, monitored, and monetized by faceless corporations. High school students discuss society in “social studies” classes, colleges offer majors in “sociology,” and many universities organize their liberal arts faculties around divisions between the “social sciences,” the natural sciences, and the arts and humanities, with separate schools of “social work” or “social services.” In political discourse, “civil society” is distinct from the state, yet “social welfare” programs are often portrayed as expansions of state power, if not avatars of “socialism.” The term is sometimes modified with an adjective before the noun, as in “modern society,” or to use the adjectival form before another noun to indicate the breadth of the noun, as in “social issues” or “social problems.” All these usages point to larger structures, but only rarely do they lead to concrete analyses of what those structures are and how they work.
In its earliest forms, the word was more specific because it was more narrowly defined. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the classical Latin societās 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). Such usages persist when the term references small organizations with specific agendas (the Humane Society). Raymond Williams, in his keyword essay, divided usages of the term into two categories: 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”;  1983, 291). “Society” here refers to large forms of human collectivity and association, but at the same time, it names the forces that bind that collectivity. 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.
Building on an understanding of this tension, scholars and students of American studies and cultural studies tend to view society 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. This premise underpins the multiple disciplines and interdisciplinary fields in which society is named as an object of analysis: not just sociology but also social psychology, social history, social work, and social theory. The overarching rubric of the “social sciences” similarly suggests that “society” is not the property of any of these disciplines but is instead a metacategory capable of organizing the study of markets (economics), governments (political science), and individuals (psychology) into a conceptual and institutional singularity.
This usage of the adjective “social” as a modifier for “science” has a history. Though writers have long commented on forms of human association, casting it in terms such as the polis, the body politic, or the commonwealth, it was not until the eighteenth century that French, Scottish, and North American Enlightenment thinkers began to isolate certain human structures and practices as something that could be studied systematically and holistically. By the early nineteenth century, writers such as Henri de Saint-Simon ( 1965) and Auguste Comte (1858) increasingly mapped these theorizations onto concrete populations, institutions, and activities. 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 supposedly developed. Comte argued that the sociologist, like the physical or natural scientist, could produce knowledge about society that would allow elites to maintain social order while simultaneously advancing human progress (Hall and Gieben 1992; Gulbenkian Commission 1996; Wallerstein 2001).
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). As deviations from social norms, such activities became sites of both governmental and quasi-governmental intervention—what Foucault (1991) called governmentality—and of political struggle among diverse social agents and movements such as the nineteenth-century temperance movement. These tendencies were explicitly racialized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through the writings of Herbert Spencer, the leading purveyor of “social Darwinism” (1874–75). Lester Frank Ward and William Graham Sumner, among the earliest practitioners of sociology in the United States, were influenced by Spencer.
In the mid-twentieth century, the disciplines organized around “society” were increasingly distinguished from those organized around “culture.” The latter claimed that “culture” was resistant to quantification and operationalization and could be differentiated from quantitative social sciences, especially in those disciplines that defined themselves “scientifically,” such as economics and political science. At the same time, some disciplines such as anthropology took “cultural turns,” and sociology retained subfields that insisted on the value of qualitative approaches, such as “the sociology of culture.”
American studies and cultural studies emerged in the mid-twentieth century as more systematic attempts to cross the boundary dividing the social sciences from the humanities and to resist deterministic and totalizing understandings of the social. Foundational and field-defining texts in these interdisciplines placed “society” on a par with “culture” as key terms (Raymond Williams 1958;  1983; Berger and Luckmann 1966). These texts privileged culture as worthy of analysis and as a corrective to reductive and mechanistic versions of literary formalism and Marxism and as definitional of their object and method of study. They also often presented their emphasis on culture as a means of accessing the more difficult but fundamental subject of society.
One reason both American studies and cultural studies worked so hard to think “culture” and “society” together had to do with the politics of the fields’ emergence in response to neoconservative attacks on the concept of society, implicit in the United States at least since Reaganism and articulated explicitly in British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s (Keay 1987, 9) famous and often-repeated claim that “there is no such thing as society.” This 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. After all, Thatcher paired her claim that society does not exist with the assertion that “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 seem to be independent and autonomous but are actually structured by the market and the state (Barrett and McIntosh 1982).
Cultural studies in the United Kingdom came into its own in explicit opposition to these Thatcherite attacks on “society,” and it can be argued that shifts in the field of American studies since the 1980s have followed a similar track. American studies and cultural studies have taken a critical stance toward forms of social science that premise their investigations on the individualistic claims of “rational choice theory,” which assumes that society is best understood as an aggregate of individuals intent on maximizing their interests. They often use the keyword “neoliberal” to describe the people and political tendencies that work against the potentiality for solidarity and collectivity. A strong argument can be made that the ascendancy of neoconservative politics and neoliberal economic policy in the United States and elsewhere are responses 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). This declension narrative jibes with narratives of decline told about “public,” “community,” and other keywords that point to collective human experience (Putnam 2000). It is also the context in which some progressive social movements have narrowed their political ambitions by portraying normative forms of association such as marriage and the nuclear family as the best and only means of effecting social change (M. Warner 1999; Duggan 2003).
One place where neoliberal understanding of society has asserted itself in both scholarship and everyday speech is when we refer to digital platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram as “social media.” At one level, the term “social” is here roughly synonymous with “interactive,” a word that at its narrowest refers to exchanges between discrete individuals. That usage of the keyword is entirely compatible with neoliberal ideology and with mainstream media accounts of social media and technology as atomizing and isolating. Cutting against these ideologies are phenomena ranging from the Arab Spring to the August 2011 London riots, from #BlackLivesMatter to #MeToo, each of which is larger and broader than a delimited “society” understood as an organization with a particular goal or purpose but none of which claims to represent “society” as a totality. The same media outlets and politicians may depict social media at one moment as isolating and at another as somehow responsible for these movements. In doing so, they are claiming (plausibly or not) that these interactive technologies enable political participation and the formation of new collective identities and are linking the word to broader and more explicitly political usages of the keyword such as “social justice” and “social movement.” Yet another understanding of the keyword emerges in stories of “bots” and “trolls” using social media to influence public opinion during an election.
In reaction to both neoliberal capitalism’s sustained attack on the very idea of the social and the abandonment by liberal organizations of larger social goals, many activists have revived the word “socialism”—another variant on “society.” Early in 2018, media outlets reported with bewilderment a Gallup poll showing that “for young people, socialism is more popular than capitalism” (Anzillotti 2018), and the Democratic Socialists of America has since 2016 both attracted winning candidates for office and more than tripled its membership. One project for cultural studies of US society will be to track the trajectory of this emergent keyword. Does the current prominence of “socialism” call attention to broader “social” structures and the need to transform them? Does the revival of the keyword risk the problems of abstraction and overgeneralization that have been endemic to invocations of “society” in the past? Are tensions between “the socialist left” and other movements often called forms of “identity politics” grounded in different understandings of “society”? Attention to the tensions within the keywords used in these social and political movements may help deepen an understanding of related shifts, such as the rise of an often explicitly socialist left within African American electoral politics (Price 2018). These usages of the keyword vary; even “socialists” disagree on what “socialism” means. But they share an understanding that individual agency is socially constructed, even as the world is made and transformed through individual and collective social action.
The use of the term “social formation” across the fields of American studies and cultural studies can help capture this interplay between structure and agency (Hall and Gieben 1992). The term provokes us to study society—and social categories such as sex, race, and class—not as objects but as processes. Critical race theorists Michael Omi and Howard Winant draw on this use of the term when they introduce the concept of “racial formation” as a means of avoiding the tendency to view race either “as an essence, as something fixed, concrete, and objective” or as “a mere illusion” or ideology. Racial formation, in this usage, describes “the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed” (Omi and Winant  1994, 54–55). Only a mode of analysis that can keep these elements in play as a dynamic process—only usages of the keyword that balance its structural abstraction and amorphousness with a degree of dynamism and specificity—can address the problems of structure and agency that make the keyword “society” so complex and contradictory.