Why we urgently need to bring the concept of society up-to-date

This post is taken from Disputed Questions: a series of debates organized by Neil Turner for the Open Anthropology Cooperative.

I would like to argue for the motion: One of the major challenges of anthropology is the redefinition of the concept “society.”

The idea of society started out as a Latin expression for an ad hoc alliance between stateless peoples in the event of an attack on any one of them. The latter would assume temporary leadership of the alliance and the rest would follow them (the word is derived from the root, to follow). Much later society came to be thought of as a centrally organized, bounded entity, medieval precursor of the nation-state. Just as the English-speaking peoples have done most to promote the idea of economy in the modern world, the French have contributed most to concern with society and its derivatives, including the central question of the sources of solidarity. Social anthropology is in large part a continuation of this French project and in France, because of Durkheim and Mauss, sociology and anthropology are not as strongly demarcated from each other as they are elsewhere.

I believe that humanity is caught precariously in transition between two notions of where society is located, the nation-state and the world. The dominance of the former in the 20th century fed the ethnographic revolution in anthropology which, rather than following the needs of colonial empire as is commonly assumed, was in fact an attempt to make the national model of society universal by finding its principles everywhere, even in so-called primitive societies. These principles included cultural homogeneity, a bounded location and an ahistorical presumption of eternity. The centrality of the state to such a concept of nation was negated by the study of stateless societies in these terms.

Clearly world society is not yet a fact in the same sense as its principal predecessor. But the need to make a world society fit for all humanity to live in is urgent for many reasons that I don’t need to spell out. Retention of ethnography (which first emerged in Central Europe to serve a nation-building project) as our main professional model has made most of us apologists for a fragmented and static vision of the human predicament, reinforcing a rejection of world history that amounts to nothing less than, “Stop the world, I want to get off”. We no longer study exotic rural places in isolation from history, but, in abandoning that exclusive preoccupation, we have failed to bring the object, theory and method of anthropology up to date.

Ethnographic fieldwork, joining the people where they live to find out what they do and think, has been too fruitful an innovation to be replaced. But we do need to renew our engagement with the discipline’s 18th and 19th century antecedents, with a humanist philosophical critique aiming at democratic revolution and a world history adequate to our current planetary dilemmas.

The idea of world society has already made a tentative appearance in the form of world religions, world war, global markets, the UN, the digital revolution in communications, fear of global warming and much else. Nation-states have for half a century or more been coming together for mutual self-defence in large regional trading blocs like the European Union, NAFTA, ASEAN and Mercosul. The largest federal states (the US, China, Russia, Brazil, India etc) are microcosms of world society from whose variations we could learn much about what a world society might look like. But, as John said, the most striking consequence of recent developments has been the rise of network society as an alternative model to that of the nation-state.

Anthropologists have been in the forefront of research into network society, which has obvious affinities with their earlier focus on stateless peoples and on the emergent forms of internet-based networks. We could bring this focus more concretely back home by asking what sort of society the OAC is, represents or points toward; and what kind of anthropology we are uniquely suited to develop as a practical social experiment. But my main case for supporting the motion lies in the obvious historical fact that our current social forms are inadequate to the pressing dilemmas facing humanity now and that anthropology ought to be at least in part a means of addressing them intellectually. For that reason, existing notions of society in our discipline need to be revised.

By making a case in this way, I leave it open for my main thesis to be challenged either in specific terms or by proposing alternative approaches to the problem of society for anthropology. In my previous message I promised to engage concretely with earlier posts and haven’t done so. Rather than post a third contribution, I will leave such points to come out in further discussion, if any ensues. But I would like to restate that this intervention arises out of stimulation by previous contributions to this thread, especially the most recent examples.

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Category: Anthropology