Why ‘There’s No Such Thing As Society’ Should Not Be Regarded With Moral Revulsion


At the end of March, Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, said that the coronavirus crisis had proved there really was such a thing as society. There is no apparent rational basis to his assertion. He seems to have been alluding to a notorious remark of Margaret Thatcher’s to the contrary. Many people have tended to regard Thatcher’s claim that “there is no such thing as society” with moral revulsion, as some sort of expression or defence of individualistic selfishness. This is mistaken.

But the claim that there is no such thing as society is common. For instance, many sociologists would be very reluctant to say that they believe in the objective existence of society.

That view is associated in particular with the French sociologist Emile Durkheim. He argued that the objects of study in sociology are ways of acting, thinking and feeling, which he called “social facts”. He argued that because they can have a causal effect upon individuals, social facts are just as real and just as objective as natural physical objects and forces. We can be affected by, say, public opinion or inflation as well as by something like gravity. For Durkheim, society is the ultimate “social fact”.

Many sociologists would say that, on the contrary, what appears to each and all of us as “social reality” is, to a greater or lesser extent, subjective. It is a product of our own social interactions and the meanings we attach to them. On this account, societies are like the sorts of “imagined communities” that nations are sometimes said to be.

The current coronavirus pandemic gives no reason to abandon such a view of societies. For each of us, it might be said that society as it was prior to the lockdown no longer exists and never will again. After the lockdown, we will be faced by different social realities.

Who is society?

Within social sciences, there are longstanding controversies about the nature of social phenomena and the proper ways of explaining them. The celebrated philosopher of science Karl Popper argued that societies do not exist. According to him, such collective terms refer to concepts, to theoretical entities that we construct to try to explain what actually exists and occurs rather than to existing things themselves. He writes that:

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This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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