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.

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