Society Exists…and It’s Miraculous!

ON THE “TAKEN FOR GRANTED” IMPOSSIBILITY OF THE SOCIAL WORLD

In 1987, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously pointed out that there is no such thing as society. Specifically, she said, “there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.” Of course, as a 1980’s conservative, she was referring to the notion that society has a responsibility to care for the less fortunate, and the idea that such responsibility should rest on a government providing social welfare and safety nets. She was opposed to such a notion, privileging an alternate concept of personal responsibility and charity over state-run services.

Of course, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher never lived through a catastrophic hurricane.

Having just recently lived through a catastrophic hurricane myself I can say definitively that society does exist–and it’s miraculous!

Let me explain.

I teach sociology. If society doesn’t exist, then I’ve made the wrong career choice. In my classroom, on opening day, I point out that it’s easy to dismiss or ignore the influence of society on our lives. If society is functioning as it is supposed to, it’s largely invisible to us as we go about our day-to-day lives. We don’t think about it even as we gather in classrooms and vie for grades by going through an established curriculum using pedagogical processes and standards of assessment to accrue credit on our transcripts that we can then use to justify a diploma and even further our education in a college or university. All of these things are social constructs, imbued with subjective social meaning. They are also all taken for granted.

Society, however, takes up our focus when something upends it. It could be something simple, such as a glitch when registering for classes that upsets a graduation plan. Most revealing, however, is in the face of a natural catastrophe that shreds the networks and infrastructure upon which we run our lives and stretches human capital to its extremes.

The fact is that the contemporary life of any individual and their family is possible because of the actions and interactions of countless thousands, maybe even millions of people all over the world, almost none of whom is known to or aware of the others. Yet each connection, each individual within a social field, in conjunction with countless others in countless other social fields,1 does some small part in making life possible for individuals all over the world. Without these myriad interconnections operating in near-magical coordination, life, especially modern life becomes impossible. As Peter L. Callero points out in his book, The Myth of Individualism, “from the moment we take our first breath to the day we exhale for the last time, our lives are inextricably linked to the lives of others.”2

The example I like to use is a house–as opposed to a shelter. As an individual with some affinity for wilderness survival, I can build a satisfactory shelter by myself. This shelter, however, will not vouchsafe me even a modicum of the advantages that I get from living in a modern house. However, no individual is capable of building a modern house from scratch. One must lay the concrete, set the block, build the structure, run the wiring, insulate, set up the air-conditioning (especially in Florida!), lay the plumbing, drywall, finishing, painting, furnishing, windows, roofing tiles, shingles or stucco. The list goes on and on.

Furthermore, let’s say that I as an individual am capable of physically building a house from the ground up. Where would I get the materials? I may know how to pour concrete to lay a foundation, for instance, but can I make my own concrete? Let’s see. Concrete is a mixture of cement, water, and sand. Water and sand I can get, but what’s concrete? According to the Portland Cement Association, “Common materials used to manufacture cement include limestone, shells, and chalk or marl combined with shale, clay, slate, blast furnace slag, silica sand, and iron ore. These ingredients, when heated at high temperatures form a rock-like substance that is ground into the fine powder that we commonly think of as cement.” Okay, so before I can build my house I need to get all of those materials, plus build a blast furnace, plus a way to grind the rock-like substance into a fine powder. Then I need the water, which means I have to find a way to transport that water and…you know what? Maybe I should just leave this process to the professionals.

Just looking at the house I live in involves the intervention of I can’t even contemplate how many people, from those who extrude the wires that become my electrical delivery, to lumber producers, to state agencies that parcel out the land into little rectangles and allow me to define one of these rectangles as mine with all of the legal protections and economic benefits that go with it. Then there’s the delivery of services like electricity, water, sewage, internet. Just living in a house, something we all take for granted in the modern world, is an impossibly complex thing.

Then there’s getting dressed in the morning. Where did my clothes come from? My toothpaste? This is out of hand.

I once read that sociology is the study of finding the mundane in the amazing and the amazing in the mundane. Looking at life through a lens focused by a sociological imagination3 demonstrates the near impossibility of modern life in any meaningful way. That all of these connections come together to more or less make for a functioning modern life for a large percentage4 of the world is nothing short of amazing.

That such a thing as society works so well that it is largely invisible until a natural catastrophe severs those connections simply cannot be explained in reference to individuals and their families. Yes, individuals do the work and perform the tasks that make my life and my family’s life possible. But there are so many individual hands involved in this that it is impossible to comprehend each connection. If after the catastrophe I’m lucky enough to still have a house, as I am, I sit and wait for countless others in coordinated action to rewire the network, to clear the roads, to re-establish clean running water and restore my life to what it was–one that I can take for granted. I, as an individual, can do what’s in my power to make my family more comfortable during the process, but there’s nothing that I as an individual can do to restore life as I know it. For that, I’m dependent upon society and the dauntingly complex coordinated human action that only a functioning society can make possible.

When I look out and I see food trucks traveling with police escorts, and armies of cherry pickers waiting for the winds to die so the linemen–true unsung heroes of the modern world–can restore our electricity and get our AC running and reconnect us to the global village I realize just how dependent I am as a modern individual to an impossibly complex network of coordinated others who make living possible. When I see my neighbors struggling with something as simple as four-way-stop rules at an intersection once effortlessly regulated by a street light, I understand just how taken for granted are the mundane structures of everyday life.

Sometimes it’s difficult to really define what society is. Is society some organic body of institutions or social groups, bound together by tradition, values, and a division of labor, as suggested by Emile Durkheim? Is it the nation-state? Is it what Benedict Anderson refers to as an “imagined community?”

I try to address the definition of “society” in this video lecture.

We can quibble about the details. We can debate the roles and responsibilities that the individual should be able to expect from the state or any other institutional order. The reality is, however, that society in its particulars is almost impossible to comprehend. When it works as it should, it’s easy to take for granted. Society, though, most assuredly does exist. That it exists the way it does is nothing short of a miracle.


Notes

  1. Fligstein, Neil and Doug McAdam. 2012. A Theory of Fields. Oxford University Press. New York.
  2. Callero, Peter L. 2009. The Myth of Individualism: How Social Forces Shape Our Lives. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc. Lanham MD.
  3. Mills, C. Wright. 1959. The Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press. New York.
  4. It is no small caveat that this functioning modern life thus far rests on the exploitation of a large, arguably larger, percentage of the world population. I’m writing this piece as a significant beneficiary of a system that is in many areas brutally repressive and exploitative.
  5. Anderson, Benedict. 2016. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso Press. London and New York.

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