Thanks to all the members for their participation and comments during the first series of debates.  I would like to open the second in this series of debates by inviting the next motion from the membership.  After a few days, if I do not get any suggestions, I will post the next operative question and invite members to argue for or against, and for any suggestions on how the question could or should be reframed.

 

Again the rules for the debate are as follows:

 

1. Debate starts with the reading of the operative question and the selection of participants;

2. This will be followed by a brief period for points of clarification;

3. Debate is set to a minimum of 2 rounds but can be extended upward to four if requested by either participant;

4. Although there is no specific length to statements or rebuttal, we ask that debate be as concise and to the point as possible;

5. Following completion of the rounds, the operative question will be opened to discussion from the membership;

6. Participants may be asked if they are open to points of information following their respective rounds; and

7. Points of inquiry from the membership (to the participant) can only be made following the complete series of rounds.

8. After a period of one week, we will move to the next operative question.

 

Thank you…

 

tchau

 

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I would like to invite members to argue for or against the following motion.

OPERATIVE QUESTION: One of the major challenges of anthropology is the redefinition of the concept “society.”

Thank you for your participation.

tchau...
Neil, just a thought about framing questions: This one leaves me not knowing where to begin. A Google search using the input "define: society" yields


*an extended social group having a distinctive cultural and economic organization

*club: a formal association of people with similar interests; "he joined a golf club"; "they formed a small lunch society"; "men from the fraternal order will staff the soup kitchen today"

*company: the state of being with someone; "he missed their company"; "he enjoyed the society of his friends"

* the fashionable elite
wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn

*A "society" is an abstraction of a collection of relationships between individuals, usually including distinctive cultural, economic, or political properties and vary greatly in complexity and scope.
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Society

*Society is a massively multiplayer online real-time strategy game in development by Stardock. It is to be initially released on their online game subscription service, TotalGaming.net for free.
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Society_(video_game)

*Society is a scientific journal founded in 1962 dealing with discussions and research findings in the social sciences and public policy. The journal is published by Springer and was previously titled Transaction: Social Science and Modern SOCIETY. The chief editor for 2008 was Jonathan Imber.
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Society_(journal)

*Society is an American horror film released in 1992. It was finished in 1989, but not released in the US until 1992. It was Brian Yuzna's directorial debut and was written by Rick Fry and Woody Keith. ...
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Society_(film)

*"Society" is a 1996 song by the California punk band Pennywise. It was released on the album Full Circle in 1997.
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Society_(song)

* Society was an 1865 comedy drama by Thomas William Robertson regarded as a milestone in Victorian drama because of its realism in sets, costume, acting and dialogue. ...
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Society_(play)

*Serial Experiments Lain was created as a multimedia production, including an anime, a video game, a manga, and several artbooks and soundtracks.
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Society_(Serial_Experiments_Lain_episode)

*A long-standing group of people sharing cultural aspects such as language, dress, norms of behavior and artistic forms; A group of people who meet from time to time to engage in a common interest; The sum total of all voluntary interrelations between individuals; The people of one’s country ...
en.wiktionary.org/wiki/society

*From the standpoint of communication, every social structure can be seen as an interplay of discourse and dialogue. Because society, viewed in this light, is a web whose function is to produce and pass on information so that it can be stored in memories.
www.european-photography.com/labor/lab_vf_glo_e.shtml

*(Gesellschaft) is the continuing rational relationship.
www.ne.jp/asahi/moriyuki/abukuma/outline/outline_basic_concept.html

*Society is a system, composed of many parts, which we call members, and which are intelligent systems or societies themselves. Since the basic building block of societies is the intelligent system, it has all the properties of an intelligent system. ...
www.intelligent-systems.com.ar/intsyst/glossary.htm

One suspects that you have in mind a particular anthropological notion of society, which you would like us to advocate or critique. A few more clues would be helpful.

Neil Turner said:
I would like to invite members to argue for or against the following motion.

OPERATIVE QUESTION: One of the major challenges of anthropology is the redefinition of the concept “society.”

Thank you for your participation.

tchau...
Thanks John, I will try to flush out my idea a little more.

One term than has been highly contestable to the identity of social anthropology has been that of the concept of “society” itself. Indeed, one of its problems is that this concept inculcates a certain way of thinking about groups of people. Another problem, equally important, is that our way of writing about “society” carries with it various implicit meanings. The objective of this round is to debate whether this concept is an accurate description of what actually exists in the world and if our discourse on it is as relative as our way of studying it.

Any suggestions on how to reframe the question are welcome.

tchau...


John McCreery said:
Neil, just a thought about framing questions: This one leaves me not knowing where to begin. A Google search using the input "define: society" yields


*an extended social group having a distinctive cultural and economic organization

*club: a formal association of people with similar interests; "he joined a golf club"; "they formed a small lunch society"; "men from the fraternal order will staff the soup kitchen today"

*company: the state of being with someone; "he missed their company"; "he enjoyed the society of his friends"

* the fashionable elite
wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn

*A "society" is an abstraction of a collection of relationships between individuals, usually including distinctive cultural, economic, or political properties and vary greatly in complexity and scope.
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Society

*Society is a massively multiplayer online real-time strategy game in development by Stardock. It is to be initially released on their online game subscription service, TotalGaming.net for free.
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Society_(video_game)

*Society is a scientific journal founded in 1962 dealing with discussions and research findings in the social sciences and public policy. The journal is published by Springer and was previously titled Transaction: Social Science and Modern SOCIETY. The chief editor for 2008 was Jonathan Imber.
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Society_(journal)

*Society is an American horror film released in 1992. It was finished in 1989, but not released in the US until 1992. It was Brian Yuzna's directorial debut and was written by Rick Fry and Woody Keith. ...
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Society_(film)

*"Society" is a 1996 song by the California punk band Pennywise. It was released on the album Full Circle in 1997.
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Society_(song)

* Society was an 1865 comedy drama by Thomas William Robertson regarded as a milestone in Victorian drama because of its realism in sets, costume, acting and dialogue. ...
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Society_(play)

*Serial Experiments Lain was created as a multimedia production, including an anime, a video game, a manga, and several artbooks and soundtracks.
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Society_(Serial_Experiments_Lain_episode)

*A long-standing group of people sharing cultural aspects such as language, dress, norms of behavior and artistic forms; A group of people who meet from time to time to engage in a common interest; The sum total of all voluntary interrelations between individuals; The people of one’s country ...
en.wiktionary.org/wiki/society

*From the standpoint of communication, every social structure can be seen as an interplay of discourse and dialogue. Because society, viewed in this light, is a web whose function is to produce and pass on information so that it can be stored in memories.
www.european-photography.com/labor/lab_vf_glo_e.shtml

*(Gesellschaft) is the continuing rational relationship.
www.ne.jp/asahi/moriyuki/abukuma/outline/outline_basic_concept.html

*Society is a system, composed of many parts, which we call members, and which are intelligent systems or societies themselves. Since the basic building block of societies is the intelligent system, it has all the properties of an intelligent system. ...
www.intelligent-systems.com.ar/intsyst/glossary.htm

One suspects that you have in mind a particular anthropological notion of society, which you would like us to advocate or critique. A few more clues would be helpful.

Neil Turner said:
I would like to invite members to argue for or against the following motion.

OPERATIVE QUESTION: One of the major challenges of anthropology is the redefinition of the concept “society.”

Thank you for your participation.

tchau...
Perhaps we should consider the process of definition/redefinition. Many here will, I am sure, be tempted to approach the matter philosophically, imagining society as an entity defined abstractly by necessary and sufficient conditions. I propose, instead, that we approach the question operationally, asking what anthropologists with this or that definition of society in mind conducted their fieldwork.

In my case, the view of society that framed my understanding of relations between society and culture, society and personality, society and ritual, etc., was grounded in the colonial practice of British social anthropology and, in particular, the British colonial policy of indirect rule. The key questions for those who would govern the colonies were (1) how do these people divide themselves into groups, (2) who is in charge, and (3) how are succession to office and inheritance of property handled. Since the groups in question were often defined in terms of kinship, understanding kin classification, the rules governing marriage, and the rights ascribed to corporate groups and statuses were the first topics to be studied closely. In practical terms, the anthropologist entering the field was expected to begin with house and village diagrams, a census and genealogies. These structural data would become the foundation for discussion of terminologies, rituals, and conventional sentiments, all conceived in terms of jural (legal) rights and obligations. A society was, for practical purposes, the largest group within which a particular system of rights and obligations, local law and custom, applied.

As the field developed, empirical problems appeared. It was noted that, among peoples inclined to feuds and vendettas, the range of those involved was highly flexible. Disputes might be conceived in terms of family, lineage, clan or some larger political unit, with those who were enemies in more local battles uniting against more distant others. Individuals with options might identify with one group in one circumstance, with another in a different situation. It was observed that accidents of demography and differences in ability to accumulate wealth might make it difficult, if not impossible, for members of a society to live up to the ideal models envisioned in its laws. It was realized that legalistic framing and analytic abstraction in terms of jural rules gave too little weight to the tangible and emotional qualities of social and ritual drama. On the positive side, however, a sound grasp of local law and custom, especially related to kinship, marriage, property and succession to office provided a solid foundation on which more inclusive and nuanced analysis, of process as well as structure, could be built.

From this perspective, the intellectual move toward cultural interpretation freed from all but the grossest sorts of sociological framing seems to me misguided. When the devil is in the details, broad statements about ideas and attitudes untempered by careful attention to the individuals, particular relationships, and particular interests at stake yields nothing more than weak speculation. Terms like "globalism," "capitalism," "gender" or "class" may usefully point to topics worthy of closer attention. Deployed as explanations of particular events or processes, they amount to nothing more than the sorts of stereotypical thinking that, to this anthropologist at least, should be the anthropologist's bête-noire.

It would be extremely interesting to hear from those with different training what "society" has meant in practice in other anthropological traditions.
Erratum: asking what [sic] anthropologists with this or that definition of society in mind conducted their fieldwork should be asking how anthropologists with this or that definition of society in mind conducted their fieldwork.

John McCreery said:
Perhaps we should consider the process of definition/redefinition. Many here will, I am sure, be tempted to approach the matter philosophically, imagining society as an entity defined abstractly by necessary and sufficient conditions. I propose, instead, that we approach the question operationally, asking what anthropologists with this or that definition of society in mind conducted their fieldwork.

In my case, the view of society that framed my understanding of relations between society and culture, society and personality, society and ritual, etc., was grounded in the colonial practice of British social anthropology and, in particular, the British colonial policy of indirect rule. The key questions for those who would govern the colonies were (1) how do these people divide themselves into groups, (2) who is in charge, and (3) how are succession to office and inheritance of property handled. Since the groups in question were often defined in terms of kinship, understanding kin classification, the rules governing marriage, and the rights ascribed to corporate groups and statuses were the first topics to be studied closely. In practical terms, the anthropologist entering the field was expected to begin with house and village diagrams, a census and genealogies. These structural data would become the foundation for discussion of terminologies, rituals, and conventional sentiments, all conceived in terms of jural (legal) rights and obligations. A society was, for practical purposes, the largest group within which a particular system of rights and obligations, local law and custom, applied.

As the field developed, empirical problems appeared. It was noted that, among peoples inclined to feuds and vendettas, the range of those involved was highly flexible. Disputes might be conceived in terms of family, lineage, clan or some larger political unit, with those who were enemies in more local battles uniting against more distant others. Individuals with options might identify with one group in one circumstance, with another in a different situation. It was observed that accidents of demography and differences in ability to accumulate wealth might make it difficult, if not impossible, for members of a society to live up to the ideal models envisioned in its laws. It was realized that legalistic framing and analytic abstraction in terms of jural rules gave too little weight to the tangible and emotional qualities of social and ritual drama. On the positive side, however, a sound grasp of local law and custom, especially related to kinship, marriage, property and succession to office provided a solid foundation on which more inclusive and nuanced analysis, of process as well as structure, could be built.

From this perspective, the intellectual move toward cultural interpretation freed from all but the grossest sorts of sociological framing seems to me misguided. When the devil is in the details, broad statements about ideas and attitudes untempered by careful attention to the individuals, particular relationships, and particular interests at stake yields nothing more than weak speculation. Terms like "globalism," "capitalism," "gender" or "class" may usefully point to topics worthy of closer attention. Deployed as explanations of particular events or processes, they amount to nothing more than the sorts of stereotypical thinking that, to this anthropologist at least, should be the anthropologist's bête-noire.

It would be extremely interesting to hear from those with different training what "society" has meant in practice in other anthropological traditions.
For those who might be considering ways to develop this discussion, a useful starting point might be this essay on the revival of interest in Gabriel Tarde at Understan.... For those who may not know the site, Understanding Society is one of the true treasures of the Web, a cornucopia of thoughtful thinking about society, sociology and social theory.
I have been concerned with where society is and how humanity might make one at the most inclusive level. This is expressed most fully in an essay, Studying world society as a vocation. One reason for the current dissatisfaction with society as an object of inquiry is that, when the social sciences were formed a century or more ago, society and the nation-state were considered to be coterminous. There is no doubt that when Durkheim tried to found a science of society, he had entities like France in mind.

What interests me is less whether the term applies to anything out there and more how to think about the range of meanings that might allow us to study a shift in the history of ideas concerning forms of association. I am particularly exercised by the apparent homology between the original Latin meaning of the term and the idea of network society that has become current in the age of the internet. The postmodern turn of the 80s expressed a widespread sense that pairs like society/individual were becoming obsolete and I take that to mean that the nation-state was losing its monopoly of our conventional understanding of the term society.

Here is an appendix to the essay I mentioned above.

Appendix: Terms of Association

Associate — to connect or join together; combine.
Society — the totality of social relationships linking a large group of human beings.
Societas — (Latin) a league of allies committed to mutual support in the event of an attack on one of them (sokw-yo from root sekw- to follow).
Société — (medieval French) A bounded unit with a single centre, i.e. a state.
State — society centralized as a single agency.
Territory — the land and waters under the jurisdiction of a state.
Nation — a people who share a state.
Federation — a union in which power is divided between a central authority and the constituent political units.
Corporation — a group of people combined into or acting as one body.
Community — a sense of belonging to a group; people united by a common purpose.
Social network — an open-ended, often informal set of interconnections.
Market — a social network constituted by buying and selling.
Internet — the network of networks; the system of global communications.
Civilization — the ethical, rational and cultural standards by which a great people live; the largest unit below world society.
Humanity — a collective noun for all people, past, present and future; a quality of kindness.
World — the earth with its inhabitants; universe; human society; people as a whole; all that relates to or affects the life of a person.
World society — the totality of social relationships linking the inhabitants of earth.
the revival of interest in Gabriel Tarde....

The return from the dead of Gabriel Tarde is intriguing. Tarde is mainly famous (as far as I am aware) for his book the Laws of Imitation (available in English translation for free http://openlibrary.org/books/OL7240797M/laws_of_imitation and in French http://classiques.uqac.ca/classiques/tarde_gabriel/lois_imitation/l...). It isn't very surprising, if you read the book, why Durkheim stole a march on Tarde; Durkheim can integrate more with his apparatus. The book is extremely interesting in its own right, nonetheless. Tarde argues that the most obvious feature of social activity is imitation. It is imitation or repetition that gives society its stable appearance, but imitative practices are also responsible for social variation and ultimately for modern heterogeneity. Creativity in social terms is a matter of random adaptations based on imitative practices. When people copy each other they cannot hope to copy with absolute fidelity, hence each mimetic act contains the potential for the emergence of something genuinely new.

But this new thing has little to do with the creativity of the individual mind and everything to do with the qualities and quantities of the social forces involved. The debt to Darwin is rather obvious. He makes the valuable point that rejection of an idea usually takes the form of 'counter-imitation' - the production of a negative version of the idea/practice in question. Dialectics... Because environments are not the same, copies bounce off into new forms despite the original attempt at faithfulness. Hence, Columbus, in trying to copy other navigational practices, forced the creation of an entirely new set of social relationships and thereby transformed the social environment.

Tarde is interested in those moments when there is a shift from custom (stable imitation) to fashion (exponential take up). So, he points to statistical instances like the sudden upsurge in use of 'private telegraphic despatches' - from 9000 in 1851 to 4 million in 1859 to 14 million in 1879. Or the growth in use of sugar beet - 7 million kilograms of which were grown in 1828, 50 million kilograms in 1858. Road building grew constantly from the 1800s in France until 1849 when rail building took over. Imitative/repetitive behaviour can suddenly take a new form and it is this that interests Tarde - compare Durkheim's use of statistics to show long term stable facets of the suicide rate. Tarde is interested in the curves, which is why he has been resuscitated. The reason why he disappeared from view is surely because his theory lends itself to diffusionist theorising which became discredited some time around 1918.
The sudden upsurge of interest in Tarde? This can be understood in Tarde's own terms as a case of fashionable imitation - Latour introduced Tarde as one of the ensemble of theorists who prefigure his own concerns. Latour has many imitators and hence Tarde will now also enjoy a fashionable curve of imitation. He does add a new name and the Laws is a very valuable read somewhat along the lines of Veblen's two Theory books.

the sudden upsurge in use of 'private telegraphic despatches' - from 9000 in 1851 to 4 million in 1859 to 14 million in 1879. Or the growth in use of sugar beet - 7 million kilograms of which were grown in 1828, 50 million kilograms in 1858. That referred to France, I should have specified.
The reason why he disappeared from view is surely because his theory lends itself to diffusionist theorising which became discredited some time around 1918.

I wonder how much the rejection of diffusionist theorizing and the embrace of Durkheim had to do with the role of the anthropologist in providing material for colonial policy that required a conception of societies as geographically bounded spaces within which a particular body of traditional law and custom applied, itself closely connected with romantic nationalism of the one blood, one soil, one language variety? From this perspective the revival of interest in Tarde might be seen as a part of a larger wave of rejection of the nation-state/unitary society model that structural-functionalism embraced.

I note, too, that diffusion has become a fashionable topic again, not only for anthropology, where talk of diasporas, scapes, the global diffusion of pop culture icons, etc., has become increasingly common, but also for social science at large. Diffusion is a major topic of studies using a social networks perspective that now range from ecology and epidemiology to political campaigns and the spread of innovations in schools, companies, international trade networks, supply chains, etc.

Rank speculation, but I wonder if Tarde isn't the right sort of ancestor for social science in the age of global markets and memes in the way that Durkheim was for an age of rising nationalism and assertion of ethnic identity.

Any thoughts?
I think this is a good place to conclude the points of clarification and would like to open the discussion to comments from the membership. Thanks to John, Keith and Huon for getting us started in this series.

tchau...
I think we can all agree that the term “society” evolved from a certain set of Eurocentric historisms and possesses a long history of foreign cultures being analyzed and compared to Euro-Western concepts. However, it has always been my belief that the challenge and indeed the promise of anthropology lies in our ability to bring ourselves to think of society in “other” ways; a quest for an alternative conceptual description based on the tendency of people to associate with others and to form groups that would enable us to express the way in which these groups of people come into being through relationships without being relegated to a domain of abstraction.

My objection to the accuracy of the term lies not so much in its precise meaning but in the other concepts it has engendered notably the idea that society is some sort of ideal group of persons whereby all other groups must be molded into the same image. Without denying the orthodox anthropological usage of the term, it does possess a certain political and rhetorical significance. For example, it can be used to represent the claim of the nation-state upon its denizens or as a term to mobilize certain political realities. But in order for this term to be a precise representation of human beings and how they are organized in their habitats, I think we must go back into history to find alternative senses of this term and then to follow the path of their development through history in order to find entirely new representations or for that matter entirely new questions. Should we, for example, strive for theoretical consistency regardless of ethnographic application? Or, how about interpreting human culture as an evolution of aesthetic or territorial behavior; what would such a group be called – a tribe? Claro que não! (Clearly not!)

The obvious paradox of this term invariably leads us to search for answers to the dichotomy between society and the individual and whether this term has become a liability rather than an asset to anthropology.

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