society (from the Latin societas, deriving from the noun socius, that is “companion, friend, ally”) is a group of individuals endowed with different levels of autonomy, relationship and organization that, variously aggregating, interact in order to pursue one or more common objectives.

The concept of society requires a more rigorous analytical and theoretical reconstruction than is the case in everyday use and in the so-called “common sense”. Very often, in fact, it has been considered a synonym of state, nation (Italian or French society, etc.). This is, however, an approximation, because there are realities culturally and socially organized, but without their own formal national identity (as for example in the case of Palestinian or Catalan society).

The political-state configuration, in fact, is not intrinsic to the concept of society. Even highly differentiated societies can develop within a single national reality. Even the adoption of the expression social formation, proposed by scholars of Marxist extraction, does not seem capable of making the scientific notion more precise and improving its application to the study of large human groups.

It is, therefore, more convincing to assign to sociology the task of investigating those relations between men and groups – from the interactions of two to extended aggregations and more complex organizations – accepting an idea of society derived from concrete empirical observation. From this point of view, a society is configured as a group of large dimensions, durable and capable of satisfying the material needs of its members and of ensuring the reproduction of the values and rules of conduct elaborated by the community.

A society is therefore such above all insofar as it expresses a culture, or rather, consistent with such an approach, several cultures. Moreover, we should not speak of a general (and generic) society, but rather of the societies in which the forms of coexistence and the strategies of communication between individuals who accept some bond of solidarity (formal or informal, as in primitive or pre-contractual societies) are organized in time and space. In this sense, the very idea of society refers to some form of human intention. It manifests, in short, its own historicity and is not trivially referable to the analogy – proper to nineteenth-century theories – with a biological organism.

There are no natural dynamics of development, transformation, decay and exhaustion of a society. Rather, it should be thought of as a network of roles, of interactions between individuals, of cultural models that can be transmitted from one generation to another and from one group to another. Roles, interactions and cultural models are, however, permanently modifiable and do not allow for linear or trivially evolutionary representations. Hence the impracticality of biologistic readings – as in the positivistic sociologies of the nineteenth century – and the usefulness, instead, of a constant historical-comparative analysis of the social forms in which human communities are organized. In this way we discover that every society has its own systems of organization, reproduction of consensus, assignment and management of power, distribution of material resources and symbolic incentives.

Common to all human societies is, if anything, the presence of some form of economic organization that guarantees all members the minimum subsistence for physical survival and, at the same time, shared criteria for the distribution of available resources. In the most complex social systems, this demand evolves into the definition of codified norms (law) and institutional structures (up to the constitution of a State). However, they are not strictly necessary for the existence of a society, so much so that primitive societies have developed alternative models to them.

Modern societies – i.e., conventionally, those that operate in an institutional context (such as the state), though without identifying with it, and within market economic relations – are characterized by considerable complexity. It is the product of a progressive specialization and differentiation of tasks and activities. Roles – linked to the division of labor and producers of expectations regarding their fulfillment (hence the conferral of remuneration, prestige, status) – and social groups represent the first pivotal elements of any society.

But in complex societies it is possible to find the presence of a social stratification that – on the basis of the hierarchy of roles and statuses and of the current system of inequalities – configures a model of structuring society. It is of great significance and interest to the analyst, allowing the identification of castes (when men are distinguished by family membership of a group hierarchically placed on the social scale and from which it is legally impossible to escape, as in traditional India or feudal Europe), classes (where the difference in condition is given by the prestige and recognition of the community) or classes (industrial criterion of differentiation based on the possession of economic resources, means of production or pure and simple wealth).

The division into classes – or at least social stratification – then refers to a hierarchy of powers and its justification in terms of principles and values. Following this paradigm, a complex society is therefore articulated in the five fundamental constructs that we will briefly call role, group, class, power and ideology. It is possible, in this way, to theoretically place all the components of a society within a network of relations that includes more or less sophisticated systems of community membership, loyalty and affinity (as in the case of political or religious aggregations), which can be analyzed as real restricted societies.

European culture, more than other equally developed civilizations, has since classical antiquity questioned with great passion and commitment the notion of society, its implications and its extensibility. Philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle associate the idea of society with that of politics or government, reproducing the dominant model of the Hellenic city-state and its accentuated politicity. Pre-Christian thought excludes the class of non-humans, the slaves, from juridical membership in society and its benefits.

The first Christian author to propose his own theory of society, albeit closely linked to theological and eschatological reasons, is Augustine. He contrasts the earthly city/society with the divine one; the first is the place of corruption and sin, but also the obligatory passage to conquer the divine, transcendent life. Hence a devaluation of human society and a lack of interest in its political destiny, which will feed a certain contemplative strand of medieval Christianity.

Instead, it will be Thomas Aquinas who will recover the political nature of Aristotelian society, which is understood as the “house of men” (and therefore removed from a priori ethical condemnation), but also as an organic whole to be achieved through the observance of religious principles and the pursuit of the common good. For modern sociologists, the classical equation society-political regime is overcome in favor of other identifying elements: the structure of solidarity, the productive system, the social stratification among human groups.

C.-H. Saint-Simon distinguishes between harmonious societies and critical societies, in which the processes of transformation towards new arrangements are accelerated. A. Comte, even, draws a development of societies in three evolutionary stages (theological, metaphysical and positive), corresponding to different models of collective organization and different “feelings of belonging” to the community. H. Spencer inaugurates the functionalist approach, distinguishing societies on the basis of roles and tasks performed, so that an undifferentiated military society would be succeeded by the industrial society, characterized by the increasing division of labor.

A classic definition of society as based on the division of productive labor and general systems of inequality is in K. Marx, who from the preliminary distinction in types (slave society, feudal, capitalist) ventures into the prophecy of socialist and communist societies, which also represent a community ideal to be pursued through political action. E. Durkheim leverages the concept of solidarity to distinguish the mechanical society (the individual is “absorbed” by the group) from the organic one (which recognizes great autonomy to the subjects). These general models are not without their dangers and flaws, which for Durkheim can be overcome in a regime of humanistic socialism.

The German sociologist F. Tönnies prefers to oppose society, the expression of modernity and the breaking of traditional bonds, to the original community (Gemeinschaft). The debate on the constitutive characters and on the extensibility of the concept of society remains very open, but the prevailing tendency among scholars is that of medium-range analyses, which investigate broad but specific situations and structures active in a society, rather than pursuing abstract and all-encompassing models.

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