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The roots of the term society can be traced to the Latin word socius which means companionship or friendship.

Everyone often defines society as an aggregation or collection of individuals. But in anthropology, the term “society” refers not just to a group of people but to a complex pattern of norms of interaction that exist among them. In terms of common sense, society is understood as a tangible object, where as in anthropology it refers to an intangible entity. It is a mental construct, which we realise in every day life but cannot see it. The important aspect of society is the system of relationships, the pattern of the norms of interaction by which the members of the society maintain themselves. Some anthropologists say that society exists only when the members know each other and possess common interests or objects.

Society is defined as structure that is a recognizable network of inter-relating institutions. Because human beings exist in a linguistic and symbolic universe that they themselves have constructed the temptation is to construe society as a highly complex symbolic and communication system. Society is not a static or peace-fully evolving structure but is conceived of as the tentative solution to the conflicts arising out of antagonistic social relations of production. Frequently social scientists emphasize the cultural aspect of social relationships. In doing so they see society as being made possible by the shared understanding of its members. This stress on culture is associated with the notion that society is underpinned by ideas and values. Society is not imposed upon people in the processual definition rather it has to be accepted and confirmed by participants. Each interaction episode contains within it the possibility of innovation and change. So against the view of society that sees it as structure the process view asserts that people make structure.

Society is a group of interacting individuals sharing the same territory and participating in common culture.

Definition of Society

George Simmel has stated that it is the element of sociability or companionship which defines the true essence of society.

Aristotle stated centuries ago man is a social animal, it brings into focus that man always lives in the company of other people. Society has become an essential condition for human life to continue.

August Comte viewed society as a social organism possessing a harmony of structure and function.

Emile Durkheim regarded society as a reality in its own right.

For Talcott Parson Society is a total complex of human relationships in so far as they grow out of the action in terms of means-end relationship intrinsic or symbolic.

G.H Mead conceived society as an exchange of gestures which involves the use of symbols.

Morris Ginsberg defines society as a collection of individuals united by certain relations or mode of behaviour which mark them off from others who do not enter into these relations or who differ from them in behaviour.

Cole saw Society as the complex of organised associations and institutions with a community.

MacIver and Page found it was a system of usages and procedures of authority and mutual aid of many groupings and divisions, of controls of human behaviour and liberties; a web of social relationship.

A society is generally conceived of as a human group which is relatively large, relatively independent or self perpetuating in demographic terms, and which is relatively autonomous in its organisation of social relations. But it is the relativity of each society’s autonomy, independence and self-perpetuating nature which is the crucial factor, and the distinction of one society from another is often arbitrary. It is important in anthropology not to allow these arbitrary divisions to distort our vision of systems of local, regional, national and international social relations.

  1. “Society is a system of usages and procedures, authority and mutual aid, of many groupings and divisions, of controls of human behavior and of liberties”. – Mclver and Page.
  2. “Society is the union itself, the organization, the sum of formal relations in which associating individuals are bound together.” – Giddings.
  3. “A society is a collection of individuals united by certain relations or modes of behavior which mark them off from others who do not enter into these relations or who differ from them in behavior.” – Ginsberg
  4. “A society may be defined as a group of people who. have lived together long enough to become organized and to consider themselves and be considered as a unit more or less distinct from other human units.” – John F. Cuber.
  5. “The term society refers not to group of people, but to the complex pattern of the norms or interaction, that arise among and between them”. – Lapiere.
  1. “Society may be,defined as the total complex of human relationship in so far as they grow out of action in terms of mean-end relationship, intrinsic or symbolic.” – Parsons.
  2. “Society is a complex of forms or processes each of which is living and growing by interaction with the others, the whole being so unified that what takes place in one part affects all the rest.” – Cooley.
  3. “Society is the complex of organized associations and instructions within the community.” – G. D. H.
  4. “Society includes not only the political relations by which men are bound together but the whole range of human relations and collective activities”. – Leacock.

The definitions of society is of  two types – the functional definition and the structural definition.

From the functional point of view, society is defined as a complex of groups in reciprocal relationships, interacting upon one another, enabling human organisms to carry on their life-activities and helping each person to fulfill his wishes and accomplish his interests in association with his fellows.

From the structural point of view, society is the total social heritage of folkways, mores and institutions; of habits, sentiments and ideals.

Ginsberg, Giddings, Cole and Cuber take a structural view of society while McIver, Parsons, Lapiere, Cooley and Leacock have given functional definition of society.

The definition of society has undergone little variation from the standpoint of classical and modern scholars. Society is a group of people who share a common culture, occupy a particular territorial area and feel themselves to constitute a unified and distinct entity. It is the mutual interactions and interrelations of individuals and groups. Society is a group of people related to each other through persistent relations in terms of social status, roles and social networks. By extension, society denotes the people of a region or country, sometimes even the world, taken as a whole. Used in the sense of an association, a society is a body of individuals outlined by the bounds of functional interdependence, possibly comprising characteristics such as national or cultural identity, social solidarity, language or hierarchical organisation.

Characteristics of Society

1. According to McIver society is a web of social relationships”, which may be of several types. The family alone is said to have as many relationships based on age, sex, gender, and generation. Outside the family there is no limit to the number of possible relationships.

2. McIver says society means likeness”. Therefore, likeness is an essential prerequisite of society. The sense of likeness was focused in early society on kinship, that is, real or supposed blood relationships. In modern societies the conditions of social likeness have broadened out in the principle of nationality of one world. “Comradeship, intimacy, association of any kind or degree would be impossible without some understanding of each by the other, and that understanding depends on the likeness which each apprehends in the other.

3. Society also implies difference but this sense of likeness does not exclude diversity or variation. Society also implies difference and it depends on the latter as much as on likeness. A society based exclusively on likeness and uniformity is bound to be loose in socialites. All our social systems involve relationships in which differences complement one another, for e.g., family rests upon the biological difference between sexes. Besides the difference in sex there are other natural differences of aptitude, of interest of capacity. While difference is necessary to society, difference by itself does not create society, difference subordinate to likeness. It has been argued that likeness is necessarily prior to the differentiation of social organisation.

As McIver observed, – primary likeness and secondary difference create the greatest of all social institutions-the division of labour.

4. Interdependence is another essential element to constitute society. Family, one of the important units of society with which we all are closely associated, is based on the biological inter-dependence of the sexes. None of the two sexes is complete by itself and therefore each seeks fulfillment by the aid of the other. The Social organisation diversifies the work of each, making each more dependent on others, in order that by the surrender of self sufficiency he may receive back thousand fold in fullness of life. This interdependence is both extensive as well as intensive.

5. Lastly, cooperation is also essential to constitute society. Without cooperation no society can exist. Unless people cooperate with each other, they cannot live a happy life. All social institutions rest on cooperation. The members in social institutions cooperate with one another to live happily and joyfully. Cooperation avoids mutual destructiveness and results in economy. For want of cooperation the entire fabric of society may collapse.

Thus likeness, interdependence and cooperation are the essential elements to constitute society. Besides these elements, McIver has also mentioned some other elements of society; it is a system of usages and procedures, authority and mutual aid, of many groupings and divisions; it controls human behaviour and liberties.

This view brings in several other elements of society firstly, in every society there are some usages concerned with marriage, education, religion, food, and speech etc., which differ from society to society. Secondly, there are procedures i.e., the modes of action in every society which maintain its unity and organisation. Thirdly, the presence of an authority is necessary to maintain order in society. Fourthly, no society can be stable unless there is a feeling of mutual aid among its members.

Fifthly, in a society there are several groupings and divisions such as family, city and village etc. sixthly, liberty and control go together in a society. Without liberty man cannot develop his personality. Control upon an individual’s behaviour is not meant to destroy his liberty but to promote and protect it.

It is this social fact and not the biological fact which constitute society. The true nature of society consists not in the external factors of interdependence of likeness or authority but in the state of mind of the beings which compose society. It is the pattern, not the people, which is termed society. It is not a group but a process of relationships. It is said society is the extension of individuality, the transcendence of self-closedness, the vehicle of personal identity, the means of the continuation of personality through the generations, the nurse of youth, the arena of manhood and womanhood.

Sociologist Gerhard Lenski based on the level of technology, communication and economy had differentiated societies into: a) hunters and gatherers, b) simple agricultural, c) advanced agricultural d) industrial, and e) special (e.g. fishing societies or maritime societies). This classification is more or less similar to the system earlier developed by anthropologists like Fried and Service. They classified societies as foraging or hunter gatherer, horticultural, agricultural, industrial, and then information-age (post-industrial) societies. In order of increasing size and complexity, there are bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and state societies. Societies may also be organised according to their political structure. These structures may have varying degrees of political power, depending on the cultural geographical, and historical environments. The term society is currently used to cover a number of political and scientific connotations as well as a variety of associations.

Description of particular society to be done in following sequence-

  1. Introduction- definition
  2. Geographical location
  3. Marriage and family
  4. Kinship
  5. Economy
  6. Political organization
  7. Religion
  8. Conclusion

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