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Diversity of youth in Oslo Norway

Human relationships within an ethnically diverse society.

. A society is a self-reproducing grouping of individuals occupying a particular territory, which may have its own distinctive culture and institutions. As culture is considered unique to humans, the terms "society" and "human society" have the same meaning. "Society," may refer to a particular people, such as the Nuer, to a nation state, such as Austria, or to a broader cultural group, such as western society.

Origin and usage[]

The English word society emerged in the 15th century and is derived from the French société. The French word, in turn, had its origin in the Latin societas, a "friendly association with others," from socius meaning "companion, associate, comrade or business partner." Thus the meaning of society is closely related to what is considered to be social. Implicit in the meaning of society is that its members share some mutual concern or interest, a common objective or common characteristics. As such, society is often used to mean the collective citizenry of a country as directed through national institutions concerned with civic welfare.

In political science, the term is often used to mean the totality of human relationships, generally in contrast to the State, i.e., the apparatus of rule or government within a territory:

"I mean by it [the State] that summation of privileges and dominating positions which are brought into being by extra-economic power... I mean by Society, the totality of concepts of all purely natural relations and institutions between man and man..." [1]

The social sciences generally use the term society to mean a group of people that form a semi-closed social system, in which most interactions are with other individuals belonging to the group. More abstractly, a society is defined as a network of relationships between social entities. A society is also sometimes defined as an interdependent community, but the sociologist Tonnies sought to draw a contrast between society and community. An important feature of society is social structure, aspects of which include roles and social ranking.


Why use the term "society"?[]

Society is an abstract term, i.e., you cannot see or touch it. Thus society does not exist in the same way that people do. Why be concerned about something that is not an observable reality? The answer, according to sociologist Richard Jenkins, is that “society” addresses a number of important existential issues facing people:

  1. How humans think and exchange information – the sensory world makes up only a fraction of human experience. In order to understand the world, we have to conceive of human interaction in the abstract form (i.e., society).
  2. Many phenomena cannot be reduced to individual behavior – to explain certain conditions, a view of something ‘’greater than the sum of its parts’’ is needed.
  3. Collectives often endure beyond the lifespan of individual members.
  4. The human condition has always meant going beyond the evidence of our senses; every aspect of our lives is tied to the collective. [2]

Characteristics of society[]

The following three components are common to all definitions of society:

  • Social networks
  • Criteria for membership, and
  • Characteristic patterns of organization

Each of these will be explored further in the following sections.

Social Networks[]

Main article: Social network

Social networks are maps of the relationships between people. Structural features such as proximity, frequency of contact and type of relationship (e.g., relative, friend, colleague) define various social networks.

Organization of society[]

Main article: Social organization

Human societies are often organized according to their primary means of subsistence. Social scientists identify hunter-gatherer societies, nomadic pastoral societies, horticulturalist or simple farming societies, and intensive agricultural societies, also called civilizations. Some consider industrial and post-industrial societies to be qualitatively different from traditional agricultural societies.

One common theme for societies in general is that they serve to aid individuals in a time of crisis. Traditionally, when an individual requires aid, for example at birth, death, sickness, or disaster, members of that society will rally others to render aid, in some form—symbolic, linguistic, physical, mental, emotional, financial, medical, religious, etc. Many societies will distribute largess, at the behest of some individual or some larger group of people. This type of generosity can be seen in all known cultures; typically, prestige accrues to the generous individual or group. Conversely, members of a society may also shun or scapegoat members of the society who violate its norms. Mechanisms such as gift-giving and scapegoating, which may be seen in various types of human groupings, tend to be institutionalized within a society.

Some societies will bestow status on an individual or group of people, when that individual or group performs an admired or desired action. This type of recognition is bestowed by members of that society on the individual or group in the form of a name, title, manner of dress, or monetary reward. Males, in many societies, are particularly susceptible to this type of action and subsequent reward, even at the risk of their lives. Action by an individual or larger group in behalf of some cultural ideal is seen in all societies. The phenomena of community action, shunning, scapegoating, generosity, and shared risk/reward occur in subsistence-based societies and in more technology-based civilizations.

Societies may also be organized according to their political structure. In order of increasing size and complexity, there are bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and state societies. These structures may have varying degrees of political power, depending on the cultural geographical, and historical environments that these societies have to contend with. Thus, a more isolated society with the same level of technology and culture as other societies is more likely to survive than one in closer proximity to others that may encroach on their resources (see history for examples}. A society that is not able to offer an effective response to other societies it competes with will usually be subsumed into the culture of the competing society (see technology for examples).

Shared belief or common goal[]

Moretons i gegants

Religious procession.

Peoples of many nations united by common political and cultural traditions, beliefs, or values, are sometimes also said to be a society (for example: Judeo-Christian, Eastern, Western, etc). When used in this context, the term is employed as a means of contrasting two or more "societies" whose members represent alternative conflicting and competing worldviews (see Secret Societies).

Some academic, learned and scholarly associations describe themselves as societies (for example, the American Society of Mathematics. More commonly, professional organizations often refer to themselves as societies (e.g., the American Society of Civil Engineers, American Chemical Society). In the United Kingdom learned societies are normally non-profit and have charitable status. In science they range in size to include national scientific societies (i.e., the Royal Society) to regional natural history societies. Academic societies may have interest in a wide range of subjects, including the arts, humanities and science.

In the United States and France, the term "society" is used in commerce to denote a partnership between investors or to start a business. In the United Kingdom, partnerships are not called societies but cooperatives or mutuals are often known as societies (such as friendly societies and building societies). In Mexico the term society may also be utilized in commerce denoting a partnership between investors, or annonymous investors; for example: "Proveedor Industrial Anahuac S.A." where S.A. stands for Annonymous Society (Sociedad Anonima); or in other type of partnership it would be declared as S.A. de C.V.


As a related note, there is still an ongoing debate in sociological and anthropological circles as to whether there exists an entity we could call society. Some Marxist theorists, like Louis Althusser, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek, have argued that society is nothing more than an effect of the ruling ideology of a certain class system, and shouldn't be used as a sociological notion. Marx's concept of society as the sum total of social relations among members of a community contrasts with interpretations from the perspective of methodological individualism where society is simply the sum total of individuals in a territory.

See also[]


  1. [1] Franz Oppenheimer, The State.
  2. Jenkins, R. 2002. Foundations of Sociology. London: Palgrave MacMillan. ISBN 0-333-96050-5.


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