Generally, a group of people who share a common culture , occupy a particular territorial area, and feel themselves to constitute a unified and distinct entity-but there are many different sociological conceptions (see, Society, 1986).
In everyday life the term society is used as if it referred in an unproblematic way to something that exists ‘out there’ and beyond the individual subject: we speak of ‘French society’, ‘capitalist society’, and of ‘society’ being responsible for some observed social phenomenon. On reflection, however, such a usage clearly has its problems: for example, is British society a clear unity, or can we also talk of Welsh, Scottish, and Northern Irish societies? And, even within England, are there not wide cultural differences between (say) north and south? Is there one capitalist society-or many? Nor is a society the same thing as a nation-state. The former Yugoslavia clearly contained several societies: Croat, Slovenian, Serbian, and so on.
While many sociologists use the term in a commonsense way others question this use. Some symbolic interactionists , for example, argue that there is no such thing as society: it is simply a useful covering term for things we don't know about or understand properly (see, The Making of Symbolic Interactionism, 1979). Others, such as Émile Durkheim , treat society as a reality in its own right (see The Rules of Sociological Method, 1895).
Some sociologists have tried to develop more specific concepts to replace that of society. The Marxist theoretician Louis Althusser, for example, suggested the term social formation : a combination of three levels of relationships (economic, ideological, and political) which can have varying connections with each other (see For Marx, 1969). Anthony Giddens, arguing against the identification of society with the nation-state, prefers to talk about social systems and institutions which may or may not be limited by national boundaries (see his A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism, 1981). See also formalism ; function ; Goffman, Erving.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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