Society holds a strange ontological status. People know it exists but no-one can define it.
Margaret Thatcher’s famous comment, that “there is no such thing as society,” appears to address the first statement but is actually an affirmation of the second. We cannot collectively explain anything, blame or praise, by using a concept we cannot define. The notorious student essay, that beings ‘In today’s society,’ we know is off to a bad start because it’s going to try to explain our shared life from a causal force, society, which lacks any agreed definition. So this attempt at explanation simply cherry picks some favourite attributes to explain everything … or, more likely, the phrase ‘in today’s society’ is a discursive way to avoid the fact that we know nothing about what our collective life really is.
This is a serious problem for everyone. It puts social science in its own Dark Ages, a place where academic studies go on but nobody can explain the past, act in the present, or predict the future. For studying society, current social science is the equivalent of living in a climate without having any weather forecasting service. We record past weather statistics; we report on what is actually happening; and we make guesses about the future. But in no way can current social science venture any ‘societal weather forecast’ – however close in the near future or unreliable. We currently live in a social science Dark Age because this kind of prediction cannot be attempted at all.
The reason for this is that we don’t know where to begin. With what facts could we start to build a model of social life? We don’t know what our subject matter is. Progress is confounded by the lack of any working definition of ‘society.’ Meteorology has air, humidity, temperature, pressure, and the surface of the Earth. These result in very complex effects but at least weather forecasters know what they are dealing with. It’s not magic being released out of a bottle; the problem of prediction is limited to forces they already know about. Weather scientists are able to move on to the next step which is lots of time-contingent data collection, followed by modeling of this data by computer algorithms.
I am perfectly aware that human beings are different from the planetary atmosphere and that modeling human behaviour is different from natural science. Human beings can do things that are entirely new; this makes prediction of social phenomena harder. On the other hand, social scientists get information from their subject matter; human beings communicate about what they are planning and this makes social prediction easier than that faced by natural scientists. So, overall, which is easier to predict, the natural or the social? Nobody today knows the answer to this question for one simple reason. Social scientists haven’t even tried to do their part.
The social cannot become a science until its subject matter is defined. Professional social scientists still haven’t discovered what society is. Data could be collected but we are not doing this on the scale and in time-sensitive speed needed because we do not know what we are looking for. And we aren’t continuously running predictive models on our computers because we haven’t collected the relevant data about society. So we truly are in the Dark Ages of social science. We haven’t reached the starting point of being a science.
This is not because nothing is going on. Social scientists are working hard at researching and publishing. The problem is that their work is scattered into various mutually incomprehensible disciplines. We do not know whether these various fields are the cause or the symptom of not knowing how to collect together the information from different academic professions.
Let’s return to the fundamental challenge of defining society. The professions cannot agree on what society is as a whole thing; but they do provide plenty of components they believe exist within society.
Everyone agrees that society has, within it, a ‘polity’; we can all see government.
And we know that society has an economy. We know this because we measure the GDP and we can add in government expenditures – all using money currency. So we can know that US GDP is a bit over $18 trillion and that of China about $11 trillion. The economy is an illuminating example of what social science can do. Collectively, we have put the money and effort into continuous collection of economic data and whole industries are devoted to analyzing this information and predicting the future. In contrast, it is clear that an equivalent effort has not been put into studying society’s non-economic features.
And third, we know that society contains other areas of life that are outside both polity and economy. These are various and lack any unifying feature. As a result, various academic disciplines look at them, usually with unique approaches. Psychology looks a feelings but typically ignores other people and rejects the idea of studying people’s social roles in society. Demography looks quantitatively at populations as defined by biology and institutions; this means reporting fertility, nuptuality, morbidity, mortality and migration. Ethnographers ignore this and describe small pieces of current living with lots of descriptive detail. Unfortunately, this ignores all the big features of society such as its historical evolution, polity, economy, demographics and popular culture.
So, in this chaos of non-communicating disciplines, academic social scientists live in little villages ignoring each other and occasionally vying for dominion over others … which is exactly what we would expect to find in the Dark Ages. Nothing has risen up to the level of a unifying civilization. This is how far social science is behind the times.
The fact is that I, personally, have, for many years, been working on a definition of society. I’ve created one now which could be neater and appears rather complex. This is because it describes society in term of four sub-concepts that themselves need explanation to sociologists and to other social scientists. These new concepts still need defining and a lot of explaining to others will be needed. I am still optimistic that I can provide a good working definition of today’s society.
Does this mean progress is near at hand? Other social scientists, in their various fields, are no more aware of the missing definition than are lay people in the general public. In fact, non-professionals are, in many ways, ahead of what academic social scientists are able to acknowledge. This is the problem of ‘academic professional lag’ by which professors, in their private lives, are doing things that orient themselves to society which they cannot acknowledge in their professional writing and teaching. Currently, much that is practiced as part of society is inadmissible as professional social scientific truth. Consider marriage. Most educated people do marry in their private lives but nothing about this exists in social scientific publications. Again, consider generations. Academics are as ready as any lay person to recall what it meant to be ‘a child of the 90s.’ And they identify their formative decade as using Myspace before Facebook existed. But none of this time-contingent object-based knowledge will appear in their publications. As yet, key elements of social life cannot be connected, by any disciplinary field, with social scientific concepts of society.
This is why, officially speaking, society still does not exist. Still today, no academic sociologist can give you a definition of society that could be recognized as ‘American society,’ for example. Here’s a checklist of what such a definition should include to distinguish it from cave dwellers or ancient Babylon; polity, economy, ethnography, demographics, media culture and all the other unnamed stuff that holds large complex societies together. The presence, in the mind of one isolated speculative thinker, of a plausible definition of modern society isn’t going to lift social science out of its Dark Ages any time soon. Something big will have to come along to shake up a lot of people’s ways of thinking – not least within the walls of academia where science is supposed to dwell.