||\'There is\', a former British prime minister once famously claimed, \'no such thing as society.\' This remarkable assertion had at least two ideological goals. One was the refusal to accept anything other than the nature and behaviour of individuals as explanations for human action; another was the displacement of socially constructed forms of social reproduction through distinctive and formative sets of social relations as a significant influence upon the trajectory of human society. The intersection of individuals, tainted only by their internal nature, through markets was seen as the dynamic of a liberal and free society: the world is all agents and one structure â€” the market formed in the liberal view simply through the free interaction of those agents.
And yet human being is impossible outside some form of society (e.g. Lee, 1989) â€” even non-human society. Society is both an identifiable cluster of socially constructed individuals, institutions, relationships, forms of conduct, material and social practices and discourses that are reproduced and reconstituted across time and space, and the condition under which such phenomena are formed. The stress here upon relationships, institutions and conduct underlines the point that societies are far more than the individuals which comprise them but it does not imply that they are unitary or determinant totalities. For one thing, the social relations which give direction and evaluative norms to practices of social reproduction are difficult, if not impossible, to resist â€” at least in the short term and over all but the most restricted geographical spaces â€” and, for another, Foucauldian notions of regimes of truth (McDowell, 1995) refer to the temporary and partial geographies of stabilization of discursive formations, the nature of which are definable only in terms of their own power/ knowledge.
At least four levels of meaning may be ascribed to society: (a) human (or nonhuman) society in general; (b) historically distinct types of society, e.g. feudal society (see feudalism), capitalist society (see capitalism), defined in terms of a particular set of social relations; (c) particular instances of society, e.g. national societies â€” sometimes thought of as national social formations â€” Arabian society, Christian society; and (d) particular interest groups (e.g. geographical societies) which represent and proselytize the significance of discourses related closely to the narrow confines of their specific interest. The formative relationships between (a) and (c) are problematic and highly complex and involve intersections between these different instances.
Human life is necessarily social in organization, if only for the most basic reason that it could not be reproduced outside society (Lee, 1989). Equally, human life is necessarily part of nature, and nature and society are conjoined in the labour process (Gregory, 1978). But material production is rarely merely instinctive. It cannot somehow predate systems of meaning or significance. Systems of meaning direct and endow significance upon material practice. Even in the most desperate circumstances of material deprivation, human beings respond emotionally as well as physiologically to their plight and try to make sense of or protest at the nonsense of their predicament. Social being certainly determines consciousness but whether material production determines social being is another matter altogether (see economic geography). Similarly, the question of \'social being\' itself is problematic in that it may presuppose nothing more than adherence to a particular discourse or regime of truth.
Society is always in a process of becoming as a result of the conscious actions of human beings â€” including their representations of their own circumstances. Indeed, the term social formation carries with it the notion that society is an ever-changing process. Human actions are informed by society itself, by the understandings held of society â€” which may be no more than acceptance of particular discourses â€” although these are social practices which presuppose, therefore, some prior social, if only competing, discourses, and by the relationships between society and its knowledgeable participants. This means that the study of society cannot be reduced to the simplicities of natural or physical science. We cannot divorce subject and object and alternative societies are always possible if we choose to construct them.
Human beings create societies at the same time as they are created by them, and they are knowledgeable participants in this double process of creation (see structuration theory). Indeed, Godelier (1986, p. 1) argues (italics in original) that
human beings, in contrast to other social animals, do not just live in society, they produce society in order to live. In the course of their existence, they invent new ways of thinking and acting â€” both upon themselves and upon the nature which surrounds them. They therefore produce culture and create history â€¦and he should have added that the production of culture and history is predicated upon the making of geographies as an essential condition of human existence.
An alternative view (Mann, 1986, p. 14) of the relationship between people and society is that whilst human beings \'need to enter into social power relations, â€¦ they do not need social totalities\'. Here the very notion of society as \'a bounded and patterned social totality\' is questioned whilst, at the same time, the inherent sociability of human beings is acknowledged in the recognition of the inherency of social relations (Lee, 1989). Michael Mann (1986, p. 5) describes the relationship between people and society thus:
Human goals require both intervention in nature â€” a material life in the widest sense â€” and social cooperation. It is difficult to imagine any of our pursuits or satisfactions occurring without these. Thus the characteristics of nature and the characteristics of social relations become relevant to, and may indeed structure, motivations. They have emergent properties of their own.Resnick and Wolff (1987) also shy away from the idea of a patterned social totality in their rejection of determinist and essentialist forms of analysis (cf. essentialism). They stress instead the multiple determinations involved in the complex of interactions between natural, economic, political and cultural processes, each of which may be subdivided into what they call class (production, appropriation and distribution of surplus production) and the wide (almost limitless) range of non-class processes (e.g. commodity exchange, friendship, social intercourse).
However, it would be a profound mistake to conclude from such arguments that human beings are not influenced in a quite fundamental fashion by the societies into which they are born and in which they live. Norms and values, direction and purpose are social constructs and the social relations which articulate such constructs and enable individuals to engage with them are inescapable for human involvement in society even if they become nothing other than the object of opposition. But again such norms and values and so on, are socially constructed not merely through social and material practice but through discursive practice which endows the social and the material with meaning and purpose.
The systems of meanings to which people refer help to define the society to which they, in practice, belong. In one sense, societies are the means and the consequence of communication between human subjects. The breakdown of communication signals the breakdown of society in time and space and so offers one means of defining particular societies. However, it follows that no pure form of society can exist and that no clear social boundaries based upon a particular set of criteria may, realistically, be drawn (see time-space distanciation).
Even societies defined in terms of production relations never exist in a pure state. They are always mixed with other forms of social relations (see social formation). And even within, say, capitalist societies there is great scope for cultural, political, moral and ideological differentiation. The struggle for hegemony â€” for sustainable regimes of truth which in turn reside in practice and in the social relations through which people attempt to make sense of their lives (Lee, 1989) â€” is, therefore, a fundamental driving force in human society. An alternative interpretation which assumes social determination and closure and treats society as a system with clearly defined boundaries is associated with the writings of Talcott Parsons (see functionalism).
Distinctions may be drawn between economy, state and society. The intention of so doing is to try to separate the idea of an association of free individuals from the coercion of economic imperatives or state power. John Urry (1981), for example, refers to \'civil society\' and defines it as \'that set of social practices outside the relations and forces of production in which agents are both constituted as subjects and which presuppose the actions of such subjects\' in struggling to sustain their conditions of existence. This is a helpful concept because it recognizes the interdependence but extreme variability of social practices which both make up and transform society (Bauman, 1991).
Society remains a contested concept. Some fear the implication that to admit to society means to accept a form of social determinism, the denial of individual responsibility in the making of geography and history or, in opposition to such a view, the failure to recognize that \'an individual subject is constructed through a grid of discourse and practice\' (McDowell, 1995, p. 288) which, nevertheless and by definition, accepts the existence of the social even if it is only ever constructed instantly and fleetingly. Others object to the possibility that society implies a form of totalizing discourse taking place, somehow, behind the backs of knowing subjects. As an example, Peter Jackson (1989, p. 18) notes that Carl Sauer adopted a super-organic approach to culture which asserts that \'culture is an entity at a higher level than the individual, that it is governed by a logic of its own and that it actively constrains human behaviour\' (see Berkeley School). Such an approach \'severely limits the questions that may be asked\' as the answer is offered before the question is posed. Questions of the formation of identity and social practice through discourse become irrelevant. But notions of super-organicism do force the issue of memory and the path dependency of historical geographies â€” socially constructed as they always are.
Paradoxically, neo-classical economics, that most asocial of social theory, makes massive assumptions about the sociability of people. Communication is assumed to be perfect, instantaneous and unproblematic in the market economy. If ever there was a totalizing discourse which limits questioning, it is this doctrine so beloved of liberal champions of individual freedom.Â (RL)
References Bauman, Z. 1991: Intimations of post modernity. London and New York: Routledge.Â Godelier, M. 1986: The mental and the material. London and New York: Verso.Â Gregory, D. 1978: Ideology, science and human geography. London: Hutchinson.Â Jackson, P. 1989: Maps of meaning. London and Winchester, MA: Unwin Hyman.Â Lee, R. 1989: Social relations and the geography of material life. In D. Gregory and R. Walford, Horizons in human geography. London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin\'s Press, 152-69.Â Mann, M. 1986: The sources of social power, volume I: A history of power from the beginning to Â A.D. 1760. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.Â McDowell, L. 1995: Understanding diversity: the problem of/for \'theory\'. In R.J. Johnston, P.J. Taylor and M.J. Watts, eds, Geographies of global change: remapping the world in the late twentieth century, ch. 17. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.Â Resnick, S.A. and Wolff, R.D. 1987: Knowledge and class: a Marxian critique of political economy. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.Â Urry, J. 1981: The anatomy of capitalist societies. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan; Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.
Suggested Reading Giddens, A. 1982: Sociology: a brief but critical introduction. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan; New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, ch. 1.Â Giddens, A. 1996: Sociology. 2nd edn, Oxford: Polity Press, ch. 2.Â Lee (1989).Â McDowell (1995).