A key concept scholars use to understand human life is that of society. It is a very broad, fuzzy concept in some ways. Many times people use it descriptively rather than with one rigourously defined meaning. Still, when scholars seek to answer a question about patterns of behavior in social terms, they do have a specific sense of society. It is good to ask yourself, “OK, what does this scholar think a society is? What is their theory of society, and how does this inform how they see what people do?”
Although scholars differ on how they conceptualize society, there is a key way in which social scientists' use of the concept differs from other uses.
- A society is like a machine. it has many specialized parts. Each part of the machine fits together with other parts, like gears in a clock, to make the whole machine work. Put another way, a social system is also like a living organism. It can also be explained as a system of organs that all depend on each other. But an organism is also more than the sum of its parts.
- A society is not like a building. This is a mistaken way to think about society. A building has a structure of walls and floors that divide up space. People in the building can only move around in certain ways. To go from one room to another, they have to go through a door. To go from one floor to another, they have to climb stairs. So, a building constrains the movement of people inside it. A society does often feel like this to people inside it, so I think that's why it is common to conceptualize society as being simply a rigid, fixed structure that limits what individuals do.
- But here's the tricky part… One of the specialized elements of a social system is its “structure.” Social machines do need a solid frame to hold things together, and all the functioning parts of society depend on this being there. Using the metaphor of an organism, the “structure” would be the bones and skin. An organism is not just its bones and skin, though. It also has to have systems of circulation, digestion, respiration, etc.
I think many people assume that society is more like a building, and I do see an appealing aspect to that. At least with that metaphor, you can imagine how an individual relates to the social whole. In the building metaphor, individuals live inside the building. It might limit how they act, but the building-society gives them shelter. Again, it is easy to think this way, because this is really what it feels like to be a member of society. It's looking at the social system from the perspective of the individuals in it. But that's not the whole story. We also have to look at society from the top-down, from a bird's eye view of the whole.
Human beings are mortal, but societies are immortal. A society continues to function even as old people die and new people are born to take their place. Even as a society grows and changes over time, there's still some part of that system that is always the same. This is why the machine metaphor is better. When we step back from the experience of being in society and see the whole machine as a functional whole, then we can see what individuals really do for society. They are its fuel. (Or, in the organism metaphor, its food.) Society uses individuals as raw material. The actions of individuals animate society and make it work. Ultimately, this raw material serves to perpetuate the whole social machine.
In other words, societies are systems. They are made up of parts, and all the parts are connected to form one whole. The parts depend on each other. Social analysis means looking at one thing, one type of behavior or idea in a society, and placing it in a larger social contexts. That means seeing it as a part of a larger whole.
Is social theory necessarily pessimistic?
If you think about it, the main message of the machine metaphor of society is that one individual cannot make a difference. Individuals, their choices and their personal values, are not very powerful. This may sound like a very pessimistic view of human life. All individuals do is serve as raw material for the functioning of society. This is especially hard to accept when you realize that most societies, possibly all societies, are unequal in some way, if not oppressive.
This is where the general lack of rigor in social sciences becomes an asset. We are not bound to accept one single perspective on social life. We can adopt this view as a way to be skeptical about other theories and gain critical distance on what other people take for granted. We don't have to accept it as dogma. We can struggle with the pessimism about individual agency. Indeed one of the central debates in the social sciences has been over how much weight to give to the machine metaphor and how much weight to give to a perspective that includes individuals' own choices and actions.
I however choose to embrace a positive side I see in the machine metaphor. I as an individual may not have a big effect on society as a whole, but social systems have powers of their own. Social movements are social systems too. People can change the world not just by cooperating, but by creating a system that channels all their resources into a new social machine. We don't have to wait for a single individual to invent a new society for us.
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