Society - a basic anthropological concept



In classical sense society refers to a group of people who share a common ‘culture’, occupy a particular territorial area and feel themselves to constitute a unified and distinct entity (Frisby and Sayer 1986).
For Zinsberg “a society is a collection of individuals united by certain relation or modes of behaviour which marks them from others who do not enter into these relations or who differs from them in behaviour.”
W Green has defined the society as “a largest group to which any individual belongs. A society is made up of a population, organisation, time, place and interest.”
McIver defines society as “a system of usage and proedurs, of authority and mutual aid of many groupings and divisions, of control over human behaviour and of liberties. This ever changing and complex system is society. It is a web of social relationships.
In its classical sense, Society entails a number of characteristics:
1.      Society is a network of social relations
2.      A society exists on social interactions and interface
3.      A sense of mutual awareness exists among the members of a society.
4.      There is a direct or indirect forms and varieties of interdependece among the members of a society.
5.      While one cannot image to have a society without collection of individuals similarly, one cannot have human beings without forming a mutual social relations.

Approaches:

Society has been the central theoretical object of much European anthropology, especially *British social anthropology, so that any history of the theoretical use of the term swiftly becomes a history of anthropological theory. In that history, various tensions and oppositions appear and reappear: society and the state, society and the individual, society and culture, society and nature, primitive society and modern society. In recent years, as the particular use of the term to denote a specific group of people and their way of life has grown ever more problematic, while some of these tensions have approached breaking-point, anthropologists have started to suggest abandoning the very idea of society as a theoretical construct.
There are different positions occupied by social scientists in explaining society. These are

Society in essentialist approach:

Society can be seen as a basic, but not exclusive, attribute of human nature: we are genetically predisposed to social life. Becoming fully human depends on interaction with our fellow creatures; the phylogenesis of our species runs parallel to the development of language and labour, social abilities without which the organism’s needs cannot be met.

Society in Constructivist approach:

Society can also be seen as constituting one particular, exclusive dimension of human nature (Ingold 1994), our dependence on the rules of our particular society. The very idea of social agency is revealed in behaviour which is not founded in instincts, selected by evolution, but instead in rules which have their origins in history rather than in the requirements of the human organism. The notion of ‘rule’ may be taken in different senses: in structural-functionalism it is moral and prescriptive; in structuralism or in symbolic anthropologyit is cognitive and descriptive. Despite this important difference, in both cases an emphasis on rules expresses the institutional nature of the principles of social action and organization. The rules of different human societies vary in time and space, but there are rules of some sort everywhere (Lévi-Strauss 1969 [1949], Fortes 1983).

Singular and Plural senses:

The idea of a‘society’ is applicable to a human group having some of the following properties: territoriality; recruitment primarily by sexual reproduction of its members; an institutional organization that is relatively self-sufficient and capable of enduring beyond the life-span of an individual; and cultural distinctiveness. In this sense, society may denote the group’s population, its institutions and relations, or its culture and ideology. Therefore, in its singular sense it represents a group of people or a particular type of humanity.
While in its plural sense of the term society is equivalent to ‘social system’ or ‘social organization’, the socio-political framework of the group is important: its morphology (composition, distribution and relations between the subgroups of society), its body of jural norms (ideas of authority and citizenship, conflict regulation, status and role systems), and its characteristic patterns of social relations (relations of power and exploitation, forms of co-operation, modes of exchange).
One of the ways to handle the relation between the two senses of ‘society’ has been to divide anthropology into ‘ethnographic’ description and interpretation, focusing on the analysis of the particular and emphasizing the differences between societies; and ‘theoretical’ comparison and explanation, which attempts to formulate synthetic propositions valid for all human societies. In spite of efforts to define the two activities as methodologically complementary ‘stages’, anthropology has tended to polarize between ‘ethnography’, which deals with specific societies, and ‘theory’, which deal with society in its abstract and general sense. The universalist perspective predominated in the early years of anthropology, with an emphasis on the ‘comparative method’ and on the definition of major types of society. The golden age of the ethnographic method was the period of culturalism and functionalism, in which ethnography was used polemically to demolish speculative typologies (by *Boas) or as the royal road to the universal (for Malinowski). The structuralisms of Radcliffe-Brown and Lévi-Strauss, and American neo-evolutionism (†White, †Steward), in turn shifted back to comparison and generalization.
Since the 1960s this polarization has intensified. On the one hand, the interest in meaning and interpretation has restored ethnography to a pre-eminent position, privileging the actor’s perspective and seeking a critique of the anthropologist’s concepts in the different emic views of society. Society in the general sense came to be subordinated to society in the specific, plural sense. On the other hand, developments in sociobiology, the psychological study of cognition, and cultural ecology have led to ambitious hypotheses concerning ‘sociality’ as a genetic property of the human species, along with behavioural and cognitive universals (eventually attributing the ‘phenotypic’ diversity of the human ethogram to such extrinsic variables as the *environment). This polarization between ever more specific culturalist interpretation and ever more grandiose naturalist explanation has ultimately emptied the concept of society of any significance, reducing it either to particular representations or to universal behaviour.

A brief introduction to the concept of Society (bilingual, meant for my students)


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