What Is Society?
The concept of "society", for sociological purposes, can be defined in terms of two related dimensions:
what society involves.
Secondly, what society does.
Although the above distinction provides us with a starting point for understanding the concept of society, it does not, as yet, provide us with an answer to the question "what is society?".
One reason for this is that when we try to study "society", we have, as social scientists to confront the problem that society is not a thing that has a physical existence.
Unlike natural scientists (such as chemists, physicists and biologists) the thing that we are trying to study cannot be sensed. That is, we cannot see, smell, touch, taste or hear the thing we call "society".
scientists don't have this problem because when they study their particular area
they can sense the things they are studying.
For sociologists (as with other social scientists such as psychologists or economists), this inability to "physically see" the things we are studying has had two major consequences.
a. The first is our inability to point to something solid and say "This is Society".
This fact has had a number of consequences, not the least of which being sociologists have developed different opinions about the nature of society, the way it is organised and the way it affects our behaviour.
In this respect, not all sociologists agree about how society is defined or how it can be studied. There are frequent arguments within sociology about these fundamental questions and we will look at some of these at a later point when we consider the question of sociological perspectives in detail.
b. The second is that sociologists are often accused of not being "real scientists" (real scientists being defined as chemists, physicists and so forth). Whether or not this matters probably depends upon how important you consider this status to be.
However, it does tend to mean that the value of sociological knowledge is generally downgraded, mainly because sociologists do not seem capable of producing knowledge that allows us to predict the behaviour of human beings. Although this begs the obvious question of whether or not people's behaviour is potentially predictable (in the same way that the behaviour of inanimate matter may or may not be predictable), this is not a question we need to really consider here.
For the moment, we can
note that there are plenty of things in the natural world that can be studied without
the scientist being able to see them. For example:
The important thing is not that we are able to see them as things but that we can see or sense their effects. To take but one example from the list above, while we cannot see gravity (it is a force rather than a thing), we can feel its effect.
In a similar way, if we think about society not as a thing but as an invisible force, it should be possible to study its effects and, by so doing, show that society has some form of existence. When we adopt this view (or perspective) we are starting to get a little closer to answering the question "What is Society?" and, by extension, to answering the question "What is Sociology?".