Margaret Thatcher famously said: ‘there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families’. Her point was that she was railing against the identification of society with the state, and her negative view of the reliance of the individual on state support, whether through welfare or nationalised industries.
From a semantic point of view, one could say that ‘society’ is just a word and has no basis in social reality. But to pick holes, one could equally paraphrase the Iron Lady and say that there is no such thing as family, only a couple, possibly children and extended relations of some sort. Family is then just a word too. But words such as family and society are names we, as a language-using species, have employed to define specific social relations which have the power to be acted upon. We could use ‘family’ to highlight its importance as the basis of society, as Thatcher indeed unwittingly implied in her quote; without reasonably stable family structures we would be living in a more disordered world.
Society, as a word denoting a social whole, has been implied by politicians of all stripes in their rhetoric regarding policies serving ‘One-Nation’. Whether such intonations turn out to be some kind of truth, they represent an idea that policies can serve people from all walks of life, from the whole nation, indeed from the whole society. Both Labour and the incumbent Conservatives in the UK have used the One-Nation concept as part of their spin, aiming to convince us that they effectively stand up for everyone, not simply an elite at the top of the income and wealth scales.
In economics, politics, sociology, and political economy more broadly, the term society is not something solid or material, but a social structure, emergent from the interactions of individuals, but not reducible to them. In other words, we can perceive and act upon society as individual agents, whether we are government or the governed, and the outcome can ’emerge’ as a change in society as a social structure beyond and larger than the individual. Society can be studied and changed through the wilful action of human agency. Indeed this is the aim of our elected politicians, one might hope: to enact policies which will change society for the better, as they perceive it. What counts as better will of course vary between individual politicians and political parties, as well as among the electorate, and can tend also to be seen as serving particular interests, which will often be narrower than society as a whole.
We can talk about, analyse and act upon ‘society’, at many levels, whether this is the local club, the nation or even globally. Yes, it is merely a word, but a word with meaning, associated with a particular concept, and with the power to persuade and change ourselves and others, as individuals but also as members of a larger social whole.