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How to define society?

Written by Pertti Koskela

Human are social animals living in societies. PHOTO: Pxhere

This article is an edited excerpt from the upcoming book “A Proposal for a New History of Humankind, Part 1: The Birth of the Human genus, Human, and Society”. This part was written by Pertti Koskela and will be published in Finnish in early 2022.

The next parts are in the making and will hopefully be completed during 2022. Heli Santavuori writes about the prehistory, and Pertti Koskela about the birth of the modern world.

The aim of the book series is to present Matti Puolakka’s philosophical view of history, combining the latest research data from empirical disciplines. A summary of the entire book series is published here: “The Evolutionary Phases of Human History”.

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Defining society is essential

Human is a social being. This view is widely accepted among philosophers and representatives of relevant disciplines as well as among laypeople.

To understand the origins of human species and modern humans, it is necessary to define human society. The Puolakkaist definition of society presented here is Aristotelian-Linnaean, i.e. it presents the differentia specifica of society – the specific characteristic that distinguishes all human societies from all animal colonies. It is a logical definition of society.

The question of defining society is now more topical than ever in many ways. The challenge is far from academic.

Humanity is in danger of self-destruction. It has failed to organise its internal relations sustainably and obviously does not have control over the development of the society it has created. Consequently, it has not been able to build its relationship with other nature sustainably either.

At the same time, signs of a global society that transcends nation-states have begun to emerge. In our view, it is not a global state run by some world government. Nation-states will survive, but at the same time, international law will evolve, and supranational institutions will gradually democratise. This development cannot be rationally conceived and consciously guided without a philosophical synthesis of the origins of humans and society and the basic stages of history.

A synthesis is not only necessary but also possible – for the first time in history. The process by which society came into being and humans separated from the animal world is now decisively better known than before, thanks to the of the relevant empirical sciences. Similarly, our knowledge of the variety of societies that existed before the state-society emerged has increased substantially.

Defining society is an integral part of this synthesis.

Our knowledge of prehistory has revolutionized over the last 50-60 years, e.g. due to the significant development of research methods. However, a philosophical summary is missing. PHOTO: an archaeological excavation in Finland in 2012. Ilarius, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Sociology sees no point in defining the object of its research

Prehistorians have no definition of society and do not even seem to understand the need for one. But the definition of society is also missing in social sciences, for example in sociology, which studies society and its phenomena.

In his excellent book ‘Society’, Risto Kangas, a researcher at the University of Helsinki, handles the problem of defining society in the international debate of decades. [1] He notes that many presentations on the history of sociology and basic sociology textbooks explicitly refuse to define society or even reject the concept altogether. [2]

According to him, the only unifying feature of the various definitions of society that appear in everyday language and public debate seems to be that society refers to some unspecified force or factor external to or above individuals. And in sociology, “the concept of society is used in an equally ambiguous way”. [3]

That is indeed the case. Kangas uses the well-known Finnish sociologist Erik Allardt as an example. In his textbook on sociology, Allardt puts it bluntly: “In many cases, it is pointless to define society more precisely because, after all, everyone knows what we are talking about.” At the same time, he argues that sociology is a discipline that “studies society and humans as members of communities.” [4]

However, according to Allardt, there are cases where a more accurate definition of society is not pointless. But he doesn’t say what definition is then used although he says that “everyone knows what we are talking about.” It seems that Allardt does not know how to define society but does not want to admit it.

The internationally renowned Finnish sociologist Erik Allardt .
The internationally renowned Finnish sociologist Erik Allardt in the mid-1960s. PHOTO: Wikipedia Commons, Public Domain.

Sociologists unequivocally declare their discipline to be a “fundamental social science”. [5]

But if sociology cannot define society, its object of study, precisely – or if it does not consider it necessary to define its object of study more precisely “in many cases” – can it be a “fundamental social science”? Can it be scientific at all? [6]

Instead of defining society, Allardt confines himself to listing its characteristics: a territory with ‘population’, ‘relative independence’, ‘social structure’, ‘social institutions’, and ‘its own overall culture’. [7 – As a scholar, he had to know that a definition is different from a descriptive list of characteristics of a phenomenon.  Such a list is inevitably arbitrary, at least because if a phenomenon has no definition, there is nothing to determine the limits of the list – it is endless.

Globalisation exacerbates the problem, as the development of structures of global cooperation underlines the need to define society. According to Kangas, the opposite has happened:

“With globalisation, the concept of society seems to have lost much of the analytical clarity and theoretical explanatory power that it was thought to have – –”.[8]

“This change is reflected not only in the disappearance of the concept of society from sociological analyses of contemporary social phenomena, in its dissolution into a concept of social, but also in explicit calls to abandon the whole concept.” [9]

“A fundamental social science” that has abandoned the definition of its object of study – no wonder Kangas notes that sociology “once again in crisis. [10]

What is the “fundamental social science”?

In our view, the fundamental social science is the philosophy of history. It is the umbrella science of all human sciences and deals with the most general laws of development of the Homo family and society.

The importance of the philosophy of history increases as our knowledge of prehistory grows. Prehistory is a period of 2.5 million years, and we can see various phases in it. It can no longer be regarded just as some prelude to the historic period. The philosophy of history must deal with the history of the entire Homo family, not just the socially organised Homo sapiens.

The questions and concepts of the philosophy of history are, in our view, essential to all disciplines dealing with prehistory.

From that point of view, it is striking how the philosophy of history is conspicuous by its absence in the – in themselves meritorious – summaries of the entire human history that have appeared in recent years, for example in the works of Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari.

The Puolakkaist definition of society

Our definition: society is an administrative entity within which there are rules that apply to everyone, even when its members and the groups they form do not directly cooperate with each other for daily livelihood or for reproduction.

This definition does not imply that everyone has equal rights and obligations. A rough example: if a country is ruled by an emperor, no one may break the rules related to the emperor with impunity. And peasants are governed by their own rules, which the emperor is not allowed to break arbitrarily. In a feudal society, if an emperor starts behaving like a peasant, he will soon be a former emperor…

The human genetic heritage includes the ability to adapt to life in the most diverse forms of organisation. Humans have learned to control their desires and adapt to common rules, even with previously unknown conspecifics. Members of society necessarily do not even know each other personally.

In short: the spirit of laws created human society.

The above definition of society is our own. We haven‘t seen it elsewhere. It is based on our historical-philosophical view of the evolution of the Homo family.

The definition contains the differentia specifica of human society: It shows how human society differs not only from all herds and flocks of animals but also from the earlier organisational model of the humans, the bands of the Homo family. The bands of the Homo family had common rules for everyone, but the meaning of those rules was different because everyone in the band was dependent on each other for their livelihood.

The origin of humans cannot be explained without the concept of society; without it, the question “what is a human being?” cannot be answered satisfactorily. Without the concept of society, the generally accepted thesis about humans as ‘social beings’ is left empty.

Moreover, our definition applies to all human societies: pre-state societies, state societies, and the emerging global society. The process of the emergence of a global society cannot be understood without the concept of society.

An Indian chief.
Every human society has had some kind of central power. With hunter-gatherers and many later tribes, the power of the tribal chief was very limited. It was based on respect, personal qualities, not coercion. It was not until the emergence of a class society — that is, a society in which a small minority was able to subjugate the majority — whether it was a state or a stateless civilization, that the relationship between central government and grassroot level changed substantially to the opposite. PHOTO: Oberholster Venita, Pixabay.

What is society composed of?

The definition of society also includes a view of the basic components of society.

The basic components of society are those elements that have a fundamental impact on the ‘sharing of the cake’, that is, on the status, rights and duties, power and authority that each individual has in society.

The basic components of human society are (1) central power, (2) the citizen level and (3) local (regional) middle-level power structures and interest groups. The development of society depends on changes in the interrelationships between its parts.

The central internal factor determining the development of all human societies is the struggle for power: the conflict between central power and the citizen (grass-root) level.

Material production – the social exploitation of nature – forms the basis, the starting point and the framework of historical development. However, the actual driving force of history, which determines the direction of development, is only ‘how the cake is shared’. What is essential for the cohesion and development of human society is always how conflicts of interest are dealt with. [11]

The forces of production – the technical division of labour and the level of the means of production – are not the basic elements of society, contrary to what was thought in Marxism. [12]

The revolutionary changes in the development of human society do not depend on what is produced and how. An example from the era before society: the tools of the Homo bands that migrated to the savannahs were no more sophisticated than those of the forest-dwelling bands. But the more difficult natural conditions forced them to a more human-like way of distributing food. This led to a leap in technology and the emergence of the Acheulean culture around 1.7 million years ago.

In society, individuals become persons

In society, individuals are forced to live under the cross-pressure of the demands of official power and the aspirations of their basic community. Between these two forces, individuals become persons – individuals socially responsible for their choices.

In human society, an individual is always a person. Persons are always individuals, but individuals are persons only in society. If individuals, born and raised in society, try to be “non-persons” and completely ignore their social consciousness, the rights and responsibilities society imposes on them, and act solely according to their desires they face a path to prison, mental hospital or (mental or physical) suicide.

Persons know that they have both duties and rights in their society. They know that they are both responsible for their duties and entitled to defend their rights before the official representatives of the society’s administration.

Persons are persons even when their human rights in society have been deprived. Accordingly, persons are persons even if, as members of the repressive machinery of society, they participate in the persecution of people deprived of human rights.

A person can behave ethically in an unjust society and unethically in a just society – or vice versa.

The telos of society

The development potential of society includes the social organisation of production. The socialisation of production means that the subsistence of economic units – from basic units to ever larger economic units, occupation groups, villages, and eventually economic regions – become dependent on the mutual distribution of labour and commodities. The division of labour and commodities becomes more diversified and complex, and society becomes increasingly multi-layered.

The socialisation of production contains a potential for the unification of humanity. The prerequisite for the actualisation of this potential is ultimately the development of social justice. The struggle for social justice it is the driving force of societal development.

Justice means, firstly, the human rights of each individual and, secondly, the autonomy of basic communities. The ultimate telos of society: to defend and support people’s individuality, personality, and autonomy.

References

[1] Kangas Risto, Yhteiskunta, Tutkijaliitto 2001. (Only in Finnish. In English, the name of the book is Society.)

[2] Kangas, 2001, 22.

[3] Kangas, 2001, 20.

[4] Allardt Erik, Sosiologia I, WSOY 1995, 95. (Only in Finnish. In English, the name of the book is Sociology 1. The translations are our own.)

[5] “Sociology”, University of Helsinki, Faculty of Social Sciences, Contemporary Societies, Master’s Programme, Research, https://www2.helsinki.fi/en/admissions/degree-programmes/contemporary-societies-masters-programme/research.

[6] However, sociology does, in our view, have undeniable merits in the study of “humans as members of communities”.

[7] Allardt, 1995, 95–96.

[8] Kangas, 2001, 305. (The translations are our own.)

[9] Kangas, 2001, 306.

[10] Kangas, 2001, 307.

[11] In the later parts of the book series, we will return to the debate on the basic concepts of philosophy of history.

[12] Marxist philosophy of history was once a scientific view of the laws of motion of the development of humanity. It included two opposing views on the central concept of the driving force of history: according to one, the driving force was the development of the forces of production; according to the other, class struggle. In a way, the collapse of socialism refuted both views: on the one hand, the development of productive forces did not prevent the collapse of socialism – rather, socialism prevented the development of productive forces, which contributed to the collapse of socialism; on the other hand, the emphasis on the continuation of class struggle led China to catastrophic failure. Matti Puolakka showed the contradictory and ambiguous nature of the concepts of Marxist philosophy of history in his book The Crucial Question Is the Human Essence – The Crisis of Marxism, the Biggest Turn in World History and the Necessity of a New World Outlook (1982). Despite his criticism, Puolakka always recognised the historical value of Marxism. In fact, Marxist philosophy of history has become generally accepted.

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