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Summary Article: SOCIETY from Dictionary of Visual Discourse: A Dialectical Lexicon of Terms

A generic term for the sustaining configuration of social relations and practices. An ideological construct designating the principal ‘object’ of the human sciences (sociology, politics, economics, etc). Hence the matrix of social institutions that determines the complex and changing figurations of social life, social experience, social relations, social practices and social systems. The term ‘society’ tends to conjure up a closed, geographically bounded and normatively discrete sphere of objects and relations (infamously exemplified by the reified functionalist image of the social organism and the Marxist theorization of the social totality). Durkheim famously describes society as a reality sui generis. Marx (and Marxists) speak of society as the total social formation.

Such formulations, however, actively occlude the historical and constructive work through which ‘the social’ is imaginatively produced and performatively maintained. Against this reification we can note that, by virtue of its reflexive character, all possible sciences of the social must be inquiries into the historical configurations of reflexive social praxis (symbolic practices through which the social is actively produced and reproduced). Paradoxically, Margaret Thatcher's observation that there is no such thing as society turns out to be both true and false (the full text comes from Woman's Own in 1987: ‘There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.') Cf. Schopenhauer's ‘Nations are in reality mere abstractions; only individuals actually exist’ (1966, vol. 2: 591). A similar ‘methodological individualism’ is defended in the interpretive sociology of Max Weber and Alfred Schutz.

See Semiopraxis

© Barry Sandywell 2011

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