A Bit of Needless Definition-Mongering

Everybody’s always talking about their society, and their community. Maybe they love it, or they have duties to it, or they limit their concern to within its boundaries, or whatever.

But often it’s left vague what actually forms a certain person’s society. Obviously it’s possible to use the word in a totally subjective way – any group of people can be a society, so I can define any number of ‘societies’ that include me. And we can qualify the word to fix our reference wholly or partly – national community, local community, etc.

But surely there’s some way to use the word in which “my society” can have a single, non-subjective meaning (even if there are still grey areas or fuzzy boundaries). If not, let’s redefine the word so it can. What criteria would we use?

Something I think we often subconsciously adopt ‘country’, ‘nation-state’ as the thing that fixes the boundaries of ‘a society’. Maybe some will want to stick with this. I think it’s wrong. For a start, it seems to cut across all sorts of important factors: people might often know more people in other countries than in their own, they might speak the same language as people in another country but not the same as that of some of their country-fellows. They might do business, travel, have relationships, etc. etc. across national borders.

But also, it seems like states are supposed (in theory) to follow the boundaries of societies, not vice versa. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to go? Society is primary, it then ‘appoints’ a government to govern it? It’s not that a bunch of politicians just get together and coerce a certain number of people into being their subjects. Or rather, that latter account is unquestionably true, but it’s not supposed to be. It doesn’t fit with all the lies myths we use to legitimise the status quo. And if the myths are all worthless, then surely the nation-state system is similarly worthless, and thus even less worthy to define ‘society’ for us.

Now that that’s out of the way, I’m going to suggest what seems to me like the only reasonable way of drawing the boundaries of a society: a society is defined by systematic reciprocal interactions. It’s the different things we do together, the network of our various relationships. That fits well with the latin root, socius, “companion, associate, comrade or business partner”.

But if we adopt this (surely inoffensive) definition, the consequence that follows is surely this: that currently 99% of the world’s people form a single society. An uncertain number of comparatively miniscule other societies – preliterate societies whose interaction with ‘the outside’ is not systematic but rather disorganised and exceptional – also exist. But for most practical purposes, there is in practice a single society.

Does this have any relevance? Perhaps. If someone throws out the idea of, say, “society should look out for its weaker members”, then perhaps we should resist the easy temptation to hear this as a nationally-restricted idea and rather take it as a global one.

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