Monday, 29 June 2009

What is Social? How is the term "social" understood?

What is social? – a pesky student piped up this question at a Masters level lecture on social policy at a prestigious university. The lecturer was dumbfounded and responded angrily
 “How dare you make such silly questions. This is basic stuff. Go and check the definition from a book.”
Photo source: Wikimedia commons

“Stupid” questions are often the most valuable ones. By questioning even fundamental assumptions occasionally, we manage to make quantum leaps in knowledge.

Different ways of understanding Social

Try to look up the word social from any textbook on Sociology. 

For example in Sociology: by Anthony Giddens (6th Ed.2009), in the index, the word social is always qualified. As such social is not listed, though there are lots of words like social change, social interaction, social mobility etc.

Photo source:

Sociology is defined as the scientific study of human life, social groups, whole societies and the human world as such. Here social structure is a concept. The social context of our lives is seen to be structured or patterned rather than being random assortments of haphazard events. Here we are still using the concept social to define itself.

One way to understand social is to contrast it with the individual. 

What happens inside your head is in the individual domain, what happens outside your head, in the interplay with other individuals is in the social domain. One of the most famous of these usages is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s (1712-1778) “Social contract”, which claims that an individual is under an implicit contract to conform to the “general will” in return for the benefits of belonging to society.

Many parents, educators and law enforcement understand social by contrasting it with “anti-social behaviour”. Social behaviour considers the needs, interests and intentions of other people while anti-social behaviour like vandalism or terrorism does not.

Screenshot of Mumbai terrorist from news media

Karl Marx (1818-1883) defines humans as social beings, who cannot survive and meet their needs without social association and must enter into relations of production ‘independent of their will’.

A zoologist makes no difference between humans and other animals and defines social as 

“Living in communities consisting of males, females, and neuters, as do ants and most bees.“
In areas dominated by religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, where reincarnation is a core belief, the strict dividing line between human society and nature with animals disappears. People believe that a human being can be reborn as an animal living in the forest. In Hinduism life ideally has four phases: Brahmachari (student), Grihasta (Householder) Vanaprasta (forest dweller or Hermit in semi retirement) and Sannyasi (the renounced one in full retirement). So animals also belong to the social dimension.

How different cultures use the word social

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  • In British slang: social refers to social security benefit. “My husband hates going down to the social to sign on.
  • In American slang: What’s your social? Means ‘What’s your social security number?’
  • In the Canadian Prairies it is a dance, held often also to raise money for a young couple about to be married.


"Characterized by friendliness or geniality," also "allied, associated," from M.Fr. social (14th century.), from L. socialis "united, living with others," from socius "companion," probably originally "follower," and related to sequi "to follow."

Is there a uniform concept of social inclusion?

Photo source: Wikimedia commons

Hunter-gatherers like the San people from Namibia, who live exactly like they have done for the past 10 000 years have social, economic and gender equality but ‘social’ is defined on the basis of kinship and band/tribe membership. They have no full time leaders, politicians or artists and no concept of privacy or property. 

Do they understand ‘social’ in the same way by contrasting individual with tribe or band?

What exactly is the social and who can belong is always a matter of contention. 

  • Are men and women allowed on equal terms, are immigrants given the same jobs, equal pay and status? 
  • What happens to people who differ from ‘norms’? 
  • Can people who conform to every single norm but are attracted to their same sex, function as priests, teachers or judges? – These are very hot contemporary topics and the degree of acceptance tends to ebb and flow across epochs.

The concept of ‘social’ inclusion varies among cultures and time periods. In ancient Athens, citizenship was reserved for male Athenians (if both parents were Athenians). Women and slaves could never get it.

Photo source: Wikimedia commons

Among the Native Americans and Canadian First Nations, the Two-spirits (previously Berdache) were people who mixed gender roles. The Berdache dressed and functioned as both. Some of these also had the most prestigious positions in their societies: 

  • ceremonial roles among the Cheyenne
  • foretelling the future for the Winnebago and Ogala Lakotans 
  • ritual functions for the Sun Dance among the Crow, Hidatsa and Ogala Lakotans.

The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.
William Arthur Ward.

Understanding social inclusion through social conflict

The great Arab Tunisian scholar Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) in his six-volume work The Muqaddimah (Introduction) criticises historical descriptive approaches and advocates a new science of social organisation. His central concept is  asabiyyah or group feeling and how groups or societies with strong asabiyyah dominate others with weak asabiyyah. 

Photo source:

So, getting back to the teacher’s reactions to the ‘stupid’ question, could we imagine that the lecturer’s reaction was meant to inspire students to learn to use library resources for their research? 

You would be tempted to say "Yes, but..!"

My wise research supervisor once told me that good butt muscles are as important as brains, patience and method for success in research.


ununseptium said...

This is a very interesting presentation of research.

I'm very curious about the tribe you mentioned, that has no full-time leaders and has what sounds to be complete equality, and no concept of provacy or property.

In a way, they seem the most human and real to me. They seem enlightened, almost. The short description here just struck me as very interesting.

SBA said...

I agree that research of even simple topic or question can lead to knowledge --- broadening the person's perspective. I find that happens to me with social networking when I read 'unrelated' articles. Thanks for the interesting twist.

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master level student said...

I also became interested in a question about social and had understood it, at least before in a narrow sence of the meaning. I am just reading the first pages of Bruno Latour's Reassembling the social. Latour approach seems interesting and giving a wider aspect to the concept of social.

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