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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Society, as a sociocultural term or concept, can be a research framework in itself if defined according to how a culture, a group, a population, or a geography understands and conceptualizes it.

There are cultures whose words for society are based on socialization. Some define it according to group membership. Others consider it an imaginary space.

In my culture, our word for it is "lipunan", which is from the root word lipun (group) and the suffix -nan (converge). So, if I have to use how we define society in my fieldwork, I can look at it as a space where a group converges. I can, for instance, make the ocean as my focal point if I am in a fishing village to study a group of fishermen.
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.

What you have just articulated is one of the foundational ideas behind social network analysis. The first steps in its evolution from metaphorical usage, e.g. in the phrase "crystallization of institutions through routinization of individual behavior," to analytic significance are usually attributed to Georg Simmel, for his pioneering thoughts about the difference between dyads and triads. It is with triads that structural effects first become significant. The relevant recent history is covered in the attached file, a prepublication version of

Social Network Analysis: An Introduction
Alexandra Marin and Barry Wellman
Department of Sociology, University of Toronto June 11, 2009
Forthcoming in Handbook of Social Network Analysis. Edited by Peter Carrington and John Scott. London: Sage, 2010

Wellman is the founder of the International Network for Social Network Analysis (INSNA). Marin is his junior colleague at U. of Toronto.
Attachments:
Helllo all

For me, to think of the concept of society or its ‘redefinition’ is to bear in mind the differences in which it exists as a reality sui generis in the Durkhemian sense, or how it becomes a web of signification within a particular system of thought and practice.

With an anthropological training that began with society and culture as paradigms, I’m incline to follow the questions anthropologists ask, how those questions rely on the evolution of perspectives within the discipline, and the relation of theory to their ethnographic findings. What is interesting for me in the interaction between system and practice is how practice operates in a system compared to how a system operates in practice, even though in a way the last has been valuable in a certain period and useful in the sense of following the debates within that particular practice of framework, because of the predisposition towards the existing meaning of relations and other practices in a nutshell.

As shown for example in the debates between Sahlins and Obejesekere, certain conditions become important to understand social relations between culture and historical processes.
That distinction is very important, especially in the conditions under which anthropology and ethnography are currently valued. An analogy to 'society' might be that when we talk of 'clouds' an expert may say 'there are no clouds; only airborne water droplets that take on recognisable configurations for the human observer'. There is a history of how people have interpreted 'clouds' as objects with diverse meanings and so forth.

On this point, Polanyi argues that 'society' as we still recongise it was invented in Europe some time around 1780. 'society' was the thing that had to be re-engineered in order to stop the disruption caused by so many indigent individuals being displaced out of the countryside. The feudal notions of obligation and hierarchy had collapsed with the feudal organisation of agriculture. Dislocated people became individual units whose labour had either a high or low social value (from the point of view of the theorists); ideally they would fit back into a market in labour where units of labour power could be bought, sold and recombined. It was thought that a science of society would discover the equivalent of the Newtonian laws of action and reaction between individuals and clusters of individuals.

MAI Saptenno said:
Helllo all

For me, to think of the concept of society or its ‘redefinition’ is to bear in mind the differences in which it exists as a reality sui generis in the Durkhemian sense, or how it becomes a web of signification within a particular system of thought and practice.

With an anthropological training that began with society and culture as paradigms, I’m incline to follow the questions anthropologists ask, how those questions rely on the evolution of perspectives within the discipline, and the relation of theory to their ethnographic findings. What is interesting for me in the interaction between system and practice is how practice operates in a system compared to how a system operates in practice, even though in a way the last has been valuable in a certain period and useful in the sense of following the debates within that particular practice of framework, because of the predisposition towards the existing meaning of relations and other practices in a nutshell.

As shown for example in the debates between Sahlins and Obejesekere, certain conditions become important to understand social relations between culture and historical processes.
I am glad that this thread has attracted renewed participation, since it is already full of interesting ideas and the paticipants, while few, bring a wide range of experience and perspectives to the table. Perhaps it was always too ambitious to try to organize a debate along narrowly controlled lines during the summer holidays for Americans and Europeans. But it seems that the question itself and the proposed organization bear some responsibility for the lack of direction too.

Neil wrote: 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.”

The rules include the following:

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;

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

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

It is not obvious where we are in this sequence, since I don't know who was selected to propose and oppose the motion. I do know that Neil tried to move beyond the clarification stage and that, to the extent that anyone is still interested, the thread consists of unsystematic observations vaguely related to the question.

One problem, apart from the question being itself rather vague, is that it is hard to imagine how someone could argue against it. We are instead airing variations on positive answers or prolegomena to such. In order to argue against the proposition, someone would either have to say that the notion of society in anthropology is unproblematic or identify another issue that is more important, which would lead us further astray. Neil's clarification of the question in his last post might have got us off to a more focused start, if it had come earlier; but in any case we seem to be agreed that only a historical approach could yield interesting answers.

So we need to know if anyone would be willing to oppose the motion and to select someone to propose it, presumably from among those who have shown an interest so far. If not, Neil should take suggestions in this thread concerning how the debates should be organized and what might be suitable questions. I believe the latter should be live issues today and produce unequivocal yes/no answers with participants willing to argue the case for or against.

In the meantime, I would like to make a substantive response to the very interesting issues already raised in this thread and will do so in my next post.
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.
A footnote: It may be that we are mistaken to pose the problem of society as something distinctive for anthropology. Anthropologists, because of their willful escapism and refusal to engage with mainstream political ideas, are usually the unconscious victims of intellectual fashion in the societies that produce them. The triumph of economism in recent decades has made it very difficult to talk or think about society. Read this excellent lecture by Tony Judt, who died this week, on how we might begin putting the 'social' back into democracy. I wonder if the OAC is any different from the anthropological norm. Maybe this thread would be a good place to find out.
It is hard to argue with the proposition that one of the major challenges of anthropology is the redefinition of the concept of society. The redefinition of society in light of forms of social life unfamiliar to the larger audiences to whom the anthropologist hopes to speak has long been part of the discipline's stock in trade. We are, as Mary Douglas once put it, the people who read a sociological proposition, raise our hands and say, "Not in Bongo-Bongo."

Keith points, however, to a deeper problem, i.e.,

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.

Few here would disagree that the principles listed here are demonstrably false in a world of multicultural nations, global diasporas, and what at least appears to be accelerating change.

The question is, then, what anthropologists have to contribute to a larger conversation about what society is and properly demands of its members. Keith suggests that we 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.

This is certainly one possible approach, but not the only one. I think of the renewed interest in the relationship of human biology to human behavior exemplified by sites like Neuroanthropology or the current Edge debate "The New Science of Morality." These look forward instead of backward, to current science instead of dusty philosophies. The same might be said of the social network analysis in which I am currently engaged.

Philosophy, or science, or both? An what can we, as ethnographers or as scholars with a broader than usual awareness of the range of human possibilities contribute to these enterprises? These, I suggest, are the questions to which this discussion points us.
I am not in the debate but you have my vote for the simplicity of the definition of the term society.

M Izabel said:
Society, as a sociocultural term or concept, can be a research framework in itself if defined according to how a culture, a group, a population, or a geography understands and conceptualizes it.

There are cultures whose words for society are based on socialization. Some define it according to group membership. Others consider it an imaginary space.

In my culture, our word for it is "lipunan", which is from the root word lipun (group) and the suffix -nan (converge). So, if I have to use how we define society in my fieldwork, I can look at it as a space where a group converges. I can, for instance, make the ocean as my focal point if I am in a fishing village to study a group of fishermen.
As a related note, it is my understanding that there is still an ongoing debate in some sociological and anthropological circles as to whether there exist an entity we could call society. Some Marxist theorists, like Louis Althusser, Ernesto Laclau and more recently Slavoj Zizek, have argued that society is nothing more than an effect of the ruling ideology and is not an accurate description that should be used.

Formerly, the founders of modern sociology Pareto, Durkheim, Weber and Sombart also stressed difference in their ideas and concepts of society, social and natural, especially in terms of the differences in human actions. Today, on the other hand, we realize that the conditions of the term demand a certainty that defines the diversity of humankind. That is to say, to what extent our modern world with its contemporary difficulties diverges from its description and use.

Clearly, every postulate in sociology and anthropology contain and use this term as a prerequisite when referring to a particular people, a nation state, or to a broader cultural group. For instance, some social sciences use the term to refer to a group of people that form a semi-closed system; more abstractly as a network of relationships; at other times, as an independent community. And still other scholars believe that society is an abstract term, that is to say, it cannot be seen or touched and therefore does not exist in the same way that people exist. Yet, each seeks to draw contrasts between the other. Should we not as anthropologists examine such terminology and the theory from which it emerges more closely? Did not the founders of anthropological schools of thought examine the course of the discipline that proceeded them only to find something insufficient or lacking before finding it necessary to introduce new perspectives?
Are we being absurdly rational yielding to the use of terminology that no longer functions to accurately describe the multifarious greatness of humankind? It seems to me that one of the directions of anthropology should be to engage the redefinition of our terminology and to engage it from a different perspective in an attempt to make us think much harder about what we are willing to accept and what we are willing to believe.

tchau...
NOTE: It has been difficult to find anyone that would propose or oppose the operative question in this particular sequence of the debates. Perhaps, due to the vagueness of the question or the difficulty in opposing a term that has long been embedded within the drapery of Western culture. Nevertheless, we would like to continue our pursuit of this issue hoping to force into the light other relative points that may come out in further discussion. Thanks to all the participants.

tchau,
Neil, you have raised a number of issues that could be debated in quite polarized terms: that society is a western ethnocentric notion, an expression of ruling class ideology or an uninspected concept that anthropologists have taken for granted or that contemporary anthropologists are less sensitive to the issues than their forefathers were and so on. I could dispute all of those assertions and all of them are more precise than the original question.

Whether ideas that come out of western history need to be abandoned or reformulated for use by a more diverse humanity or even constitute a means of continuing domination is a long-running question that has vociferous proponents on both sides.

I would argue that only some founders of the modern discipline took the idea of society seriously (mainly French and English) and Germans and Americans did not (which accounts for their preference for culture). The Marxist argument launched by Althusser is half a century old and no longer current. It was by-passed by the postmodern turn which has subjected the idea of society to withering critique for thirty years. What is Marilyn Strathern's work about if not the dethroning of society and its twin the individual? And she is not exactly a neglected wallflower.

So I think that your contribution has sharpened up the issues considerably, but you must be careful of claiming that society is and has been for decades a central part of the unthinking anthropological mainstream. In this respect anthropologists have followed the denigration of society begun by Thatcher and the neoliberals, if they were ever into it in the first place. That's why I circulated the Tony Judt essay about the need to put the social back into democracy. He claims that it has become impossible to develop a coherent analysis of social dimensions of contemporary politics and he's probably right.

If I were framing a question along these lines, it would be: Anthropologists have never been serious about the study of contemporary society and now less than ever, but they ought to be. Discuss. Then someone else could come in with a critique of the idea of society that might lead us to abandon the concept altogether.

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