There Is a Thing Called Society; Podium from a Speech by the President of the Sociology Section to the British Association for Science Conference, Cardiff
Albrow, Martin, The Independent (London, England)
SOCIETY IS, once again, a key public issue. Sociologists in the Eighties felt that the idea of society was under threat. We inferred that our discipline was also under siege, and, since we are no more altruistic than anyone else, feared for our careers.
Things have changed since the last general election. The Labour Party has come to power with society emblazoned on its shield. The new leader of the Conservative Party, William Hague, has repented on its behalf and restored society to its vocabulary.
Sad to say, you will not find sociologists rejoicing in the streets. It is not just that we are difficult to please. There always was a certain degree of posturing in our reaction to Margaret Thatcher's declaration that society does not exist. For sociologists would indeed be a happy bunch if we were all as convinced about society as the new generation of politicians.
In the privacy of our lectures and obscurity of our learned papers we acknowledge that it is not intellectually unrespectable to question the existence of society. One of the pioneers of modern sociology, Max Weber, was not even prepared to admit "society" as a scientific term. He argued that the social acts of individuals were the basic units for all sociological analysis.
Some of us actually welcomed Margaret Thatcher's remark for the extra frisson it gave to examining. Who could resist setting questions like: "Would Max Weber and Margaret Thatcher have agreed with one another, or would they each have been too anti-social to do so?"
Nor does questioning the existence of society simply betray the intrusion of ideology into science or, if it does, the contamination comes from the other end of the political spectrum too.
Alain Touraine, our radical French colleague, promotes the idea of sociology without society. He reminded us that this has been his own project since he gave a paper entitled "How to get rid of the idea of society". The view I advance is the opposite. Without the idea of society there is no sociology.
Political interest in society comes in waves. It happened in the 1880s and in the 1960s. "Society" is invoked in public debate. Government and other powerful agencies search for the appropriate specialist expertise. The quest for knowledge about society seeks not just factual data which exists in abundant, if not always useful, supply, but good theory. …