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Social

From Academic Kids

The term "social" is derived from the Latin word "socius", which as a noun means "an associate, ally, business partner or comrade" and in the adjectival form socialis refers to "a bond between people" (such as marriage) or to their collective or connected existence.

Although the term "social" is a crucial category in social science and often used in public discourse, its meaning is often vague, suggesting that it is a fuzzy concept. An added difficulty is that social attributes or relationships may not be directly observable and visible, and must be inferred by abstract thought.

Thus the sociologist C. Wright Mills invented the expression "the sociological imagination", which referred to the need to think imaginatively beyond what an individual can empirically observe in order to grasp the social domain in all its dimensions - connecting, for example, "private troubles" and "public issues".

A similar point is made in the context of architecture by Ole Bouman and Roemer van Toorn in their pathbreaking work The Invisible in Architecture. General problems concerning the nature of social reality and what (or how) we can know about it are the object of social theory.

In the absence of agreement about its meaning, the term "social" is used in many different senses, referring among other things to:

  • attitudes, orientations or behaviours which take the interests, intentions or needs of other people into account (in contrast to anti-social behaviour);
  • common characteristics of people or descriptions of collectivities (social facts);
  • relations between people (social relations) generally, or particular associations among people;
  • interactions between people (social action);
  • membership of a group of people or inclusion or belonging to a community of people;
  • co-operation or co-operative characteristics between people;
  • the public sector ("social sector") or the need for governance for the good of all, contrasted with the private sector;
  • in existentialist and postmodernist thought, relationships between the Self and the Other;
  • interactive systems in communities of animal or insect populations.

In one broad meaning, "social" refers only to society as "a system of common life", but in another sense it contrasts specifically with "individual" and individualist theories of society. This is reflected for instance in the different perspectives of liberalism and socialism on society and public affairs.

In the view of Karl Marx, human beings are intrinsically, necessarily and by definition social beings who - beyond being "gregarious creatures" -cannot survive and meet their needs other than through social co-operation and association. Their social characteristics are therefore to a large extent an objectively given fact, stamped on them from birth and affirmed by socialization processes; and, according to Marx, in producing and reproducing their material life, people must necessarily enter into relations of production which are "independent of their will".

By contrast, the sociologist Max Weber for example defines human action as "social" if, by virtue of the subjective meanings attached to the action by individuals, it "takes account of the behaviour of others, and is thereby oriented in its course". In this case, the "social" domain really exists only in the intersubjective relations between individuals, but by implication the life of these individuals also exists in part outside the social domain. "Social" is thus implicitly also contrasted with "private".

In the positivist sociology of Emile Durkheim, a social fact is an abstraction external to the individual which constrains that individual's actions. In his 1895 work Rules of Sociological Method, Durkheim writes: "A social fact is every way of acting, fixed or not, capable of exercising on the individual an influence, or an external constraint; or again, every way of acting which is general throughout a given society, while at the same time existing in its own right independent of its individual manifestations." In Durkheim's view, sociology is 'the science of social facts'.

The term "socialism", used from the 1830s onwards in France and England, was directly related to what was called the social question, in essence the problem that the emergence of competitive market societies did not create "liberty, equality and fraternity" for all citizens, requiring the intervention of politics and social reform to tackle social problems, injustices and grievances (a topic on which Jean-Jacques Rousseau discourses at length in his classic work The Social Contract). Originally the term "socialist" was often used interchangeably with "co-operative", "mutualist", "associationist" and "collectivist".

The term social democracy originally referred to the political project of extending democratic forms of association to the whole of society, substituting popular sovereignity, the universal franchise and social ownership for the rule of a propertied class which had exclusive voting rights.

In contemporary society, "social" often refers to the redistributive policies of the government which aim to apply resources in the public interest, for example, social security. Policy concerns then include the problems of social exclusion and social cohesion. Here, "social" contrasts with "private" and to the distinction between the public and the private (or privatised) spheres, where ownership relations define access to resources and attention.

The social domain is often also contrasted with that of physical nature, but in sociobiology analogies are drawn between humans and other living species in order to explain social behaviour in terms of biological factors. The term "social" is also added in various other academic sub-disciplines such as social geography, social psychology, social anthropology, social philosophy, social ontology, social statistics and social choice theory in mathematics.

Some references:

  • Herbert Gintis, Samuel Bowles, Robert T. Boyd, and Ernst Fehr (eds.), Moral Sentiments and Material Interests; The Foundations of Cooperation in Economic Life.
  • Max Weber, Economy and Society.
  • Talcott Parsons, The Structure of Social Action.
  • Goran Therborn, Science, Class and Society
  • Russell Keat and John Urry, Social Theory As Science.
  • Alex Callinicos, Social Theory: an Historical Introduction.
  • C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination
  • Ole Bouman and Roemer van Toorn (eds.), The Invisible in Architecture.
  • Jürgen Habermas, Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.
  • Charles Derber, The Pursuit of Attention; Power and Ego in Everyday Life.
  • Richard Levins & Richard Lewontin, The Dialectical Biologist

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