What is a Society?
The concept “society,” like the concept “culture,” is one of the basic building blocks used by sociology to better understand the world in which we live. We defined society as the interacting people who share a common culture. This is an intentionally broad definition, since the concept
of society must encompass virtually all of the organizations and institutions we will encounter from families to nations.
Yet because this definition is so broad, it leaves many questions unanswered. Is the United States one society or many? Is there a middle-class society that is different from working-class society? Is there a society of Italian Americans that is distinct from a society of African Americans? Is there a society of thieves that exists outside the society of law-abiding citizens? If we speak of “American society,” are we referring only to people in the United States, or are we including people living in Canada? Do we want to include people from Mexico and Uruguay as part of “American society”?
There are no hard and fast rules that determine what constitutes a “society” and what does not. At one time the notion of shared territory was also a part of the definition of society, restricting the term to people who occupy a fixed geographical space. While such a definition made sense at a time when the vast majority of people had contact primarily with others who lived within a few miles, it no longer makes sense today. Modern communications technology enables us to interact by telephone, fax machine, and electronic mail with people thousands of miles away.
Many sociologists belong to the International Sociological Association, a society of people who share the common culture of sociology yet are dispersed around the world. Television fan clubs, labor unions, and religious organizations are but three of the thousands of societies that enable people who share a common culture to interact with one another, yet which are not bounded by geography. In fact, one of the key aspects of globalization is that it involves vastly increased social relations with people who are geographically distant, and therefore permits the creation of societies that are not territorially bounded.