There is a thing called society; Podium

From a speech by the president of the Sociology Section to the British Association for Science conference, Cardiff

SOCIETY IS, once again, a key public issue. Sociologists in the Eighties felt that the idea of society was under threat. We inferred that our discipline was also under siege, and, since we are no more altruistic than anyone else, feared for our careers.

Things have changed since the last general election. The Labour Party has come to power with society emblazoned on its shield. The new leader of the Conservative Party, William Hague, has repented on its behalf and restored society to its vocabulary.

Sad to say, you will not find sociologists rejoicing in the streets. It is not just that we are difficult to please. There always was a certain degree of posturing in our reaction to Margaret Thatcher's declaration that society does not exist. For sociologists would indeed be a happy bunch if we were all as convinced about society as the new generation of politicians.

In the privacy of our lectures and obscurity of our learned papers we acknowledge that it is not intellectually unrespectable to question the existence of society. One of the pioneers of modern sociology, Max Weber, was not even prepared to admit "society" as a scientific term. He argued that the social acts of individuals were the basic units for all sociological analysis.

Some of us actually welcomed Margaret Thatcher's remark for the extra frisson it gave to examining. Who could resist setting questions like: "Would Max Weber and Margaret Thatcher have agreed with one another, or would they each have been too anti-social to do so?"

Nor does questioning the existence of society simply betray the intrusion of ideology into science or, if it does, the contamination comes from the other end of the political spectrum too.

Alain Touraine, our radical French colleague, promotes the idea of sociology without society. He reminded us that this has been his own project since he gave a paper entitled "How to get rid of the idea of society". The view I advance is the opposite. Without the idea of society there is no sociology.

Political interest in society comes in waves. It happened in the 1880s and in the 1960s. "Society" is invoked in public debate. Government and other powerful agencies search for the appropriate specialist expertise. The quest for knowledge about society seeks not just factual data which exists in abundant, if not always useful, supply, but good theory. For the moment the spotlight is off economics, not because it has failed, but because it has sensed its own limits. Poverty and unemployment have been redefined as issues of social exclusion. While it may be the case that sociologists have a unique opportunity at present, it may also be true that they are unprepared to take it. If we ask what sociology offers for policy purposes today as a major theoretical resource, the answer broadly could be summed up as "communitarianism".

Communitarianism has become popular for supplying propositions about how society works and what its current state is. In brief, the "communitarian position" is that responsible social behaviour arises out of a framework of norms and values and these, in turn, stem from the experience of identifiable communities, which are based in families and look to other communities across shared institutions. In Amitai Etzioni's words, societies are "nothing but communities of communities".

The theory behind communitarianism is probably 50 years out of date.

The list of issues communitarianism fails to address is just too extensive for it to command the centre stage of policy thinking - class, social identity and difference, conflict, public order, religious fundamentalism, nationalism, new technology, the mass media, globalisation. When sociologists rework the idea of society to take account of the new social realities we need to remove the deeper premise in the logic of communitarianism, namely the belief that society depends above all on a membership bond between individuals and a particular community. Almost invariably this takes on a territorial basis.

Globalisation has produced a new situation for sociology because it has generalised the idea of society beyond any local, territorial arrangement. It forces us to conceptualise it in a way which is independent of every inference except that of the species and its environment. The world today pushes us, as it does in Anthony Giddens' work, towards discovering the pure concept of society.

Sociologists themselves are to my mind doing fundamental work today in recording and accounting for changes. But we need to promote theory if we are to achieve recognition of their reality and importance among policy makers.

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders