Society includes numerous institutions like religion, art, and government. It is still unclear how people and these institutions interact. Among the viewpoints of anthropologists are the following: Functionalists think that the institutions are created only to serve some need of the people. Structural-functionalists think that once the institutions are created, they exist in a complex web of other institutions and serve only to perpetuate themselves; they may cease serving some need of the people. Marx thought that social instutions resulted from conflicts between various classes of people, which come into being once people start doing agriculture. Durkhiem thought that the social instutions, once in place, fostered stagnation and stasis. A single society can include multiple cultures, and will affect how people of different cultures interact with one another.

People are products of their circumstances. If a man is born in Saudi Arabia, he is a Muslim. If a man is born in United States, there is about a 90% chance he is Christian, and certainly that percentage is close to 100% if his family and community are religious.* Similar statistics hold for most modern and historical societies with widely-varying religions. I have done an informal survey of the food preferences of my fellow multinational graduate students. With few exceptions, Japanese students prefer Japanese foods over all others, Chinese students prefer Chinese foods, and Korean students prefer Korean foods.

Religion and food preferences are transparently obvious examples of how individuals are shaped by society. But almost everything about each of us was chosen for us by society. The clothes we wear, the music we listen to, and the hobbies we enjoy, though seemingly unrelated, are highly correlated. Recently at a punk rock club I saw dozens of males with spiked pink hair, chain wallets, and slashed pants. I wonder if they ride skateboards? These individuals were largely defined by their microsociety. It is interesting to ponder how much they actively chose their microsociety and how much their microsociety was chosen for them by their circumstances. Often people point to cultural diversity as something humans should be proud of, but all it demonstrates is that people of all societies are forced to conform. What is so wonderful about masses of people who, like we, had the structure of their lives chosen for them?

Our senses of morality and etiquette are in large part decided for us by society. It is ludicrous to suggest that public nudity is inherently immoral, since at one time humans had no clothes. In some modern societies in Africa, nudity is natural and accepted. However, a person undressing in public in the United States would be met with indignant shock. He would be arrested and taken to jail for his crime. People freely smoke tobacco on city sidewalks, poisoning the air for everyone, and this is accepted. People who smoke marijuana in their homes, affecting nobody else (except extremely indirectly), are imprisoned. It's fine to blow one's noise in public, but picking one's nose is disgusting. Like our religions, our behavioral guidelines are very much founded on the whims of others. Sometimes they are so deeply ingrained that they seem beyond debate, and we never bother to justify them.

I don't think anybody would argue that humans are very much shaped by the society in which they live. Is this a good thing? Is there something to be said for the fact that almost all (all?) of the societies in Man's history have constructed a wide set of unfounded religions and brainwashed them into their constituents? Are we happier with a wide array of moral codes that were rather arbitrarily chosen for us? Are individuals happiest when they are molded into similar forms? I don't know the answers to these questions. I would guess that humans are happier when they have more freedoms and when their beliefs and lifestyles aren't imposed upon them. My sense is that modern societies are so regulated that they suck the life out of the populace. Restrictions on a person's views on his world limit the enjoyment that he could gather from making his own hypotheses and conclusions, and create internal conflict between his reasoned thoughts and his brainwashed preconceptions. I wish we had a culture of tolerance and unimposing nurturing rather than a culture of indoctrination. Unfortunately, I don't think that societies are evolving toward my wishes.

* Source: http://www.factmonster.com/countries.html

Society is a construct deriving from the necessity of groups of individuals to live in proximity to, depend on, and interact with each other. A society may define both social mores and social institutions, which take their root in the combination of individual moral values and individual activities: and as such, they are tantamount to implicit contracts that govern individuals as members of that society.

Society is used as a definer of "common good" (and by extension, often "higher good"). From a utilitarian standpoint, social mores and institutions which produce greater beneficial (subject, of course, to definition) impact for the greatest number of individuals within that society are considered superior to competing values. The social relativism (used here unpejoratively, simply to indicate adjudication based on social, rather than individual, effect) thus resulting often results in the concrete concept of the individual being demoted to near-abstraction and being supplanted by the abstraction that is society.

Unfortunately, this has been linked, especially in modern Western culture, to psychological and other problems in individuals. Common examples of the individual being placed beneath society are peer pressure (especially among adolescents) and material decadence (or "spending pressure", which has in one form or another been a prime target of American social reformers for much of the last century).

As a side note, peer pressure and conformity are some of the highest-priority concerns for adolescents. So much so, in fact, that ostracism from a group and non-conformity with that group can be severe causes of depression.

Suggestions for easing related social ills range from the minimal to the radical, and span the gamut of the individual-society gradient; and indeed, many of the key political debates of the present revolve around resolving the individual-society dichotomy. Currently the extremes (with reference to individualism/social relativism) lie at one end with the extreme liberals and conservatives of many Western governments — which advocate subjugating various aspects of individuality completely to society — and at the other with anarchists of various forms — which demand subjugating society entirely to individual whim. (See also Conservatism, Liberalism, Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Green, Communism, Politics, and any other philosophy you can think of.)

And remember, even though:

This planet has, or had, a problem, which was this. Most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small, green pieces of paper, which is odd, because on the whole, it wasn't the small, green pieces of paper which were unhappy. — Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

... the only value small green pieces of paper have is in the context of a society that values them, where they can define and promote actions of individuals possessing them within that society. So at the root of it, solving problems regarding the distribution of small green pieces of paper will not happen until problems are solved with the underlying structure of society and the implicit contracts between individuals which make it up, and the rules of interaction between individuals within a society are improved to reflect that change.

So*ci"e*ty (?), n.; pl. Societies (#). [L. societas, fr. socius a companion: cf. F. société. See Social.]

1.

The relationship of men to one another when associated in any way; companionship; fellowship; company.

"Her loved society."

Milton.

There is society where none intrudes By the deep sea, and music in its roar. Byron.

2.

Connection; participation; partnership.

[R.]

The meanest of the people and such as have the least society with the acts and crimes of kings. Jer. Taylor.

3.

A number of persons associated for any temporary or permanent object; an association for mutual or joint usefulness, pleasure, or profit; a social union; a partnership; as, a missionary society.

4.

The persons, collectively considered, who live in any region or at any period; any community of individuals who are united together by a common bond of nearness or intercourse; those who recognize each other as associates, friends, and acquaintances.

5.

Specifically, the more cultivated portion of any community in its social relations and influences; those who mutually give receive formal entertainments.

Society of Jesus. See Jesuit. -- Society verses [a translation of F. vers de société], the lightest kind of lyrical poetry; verses for the amusement of polite society.

 

© Webster 1913.

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