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Constructing and performing society
We have already identified ‘relations between people’ as necessary to the idea of human society. We talked of them as durable, widespread, and resistant to control. We implied that these features in themselves allow us to talk about society as a fact of life.
The idea of society rests on relations between people and brings us to recognise entities which are configurations of those relations. These are simultaneously outcomes of human action which come and go and never take a final determinate shape. Society contains both social entities and their flux.
We may get a bit frustrated by these constant shifts between objects and processes, between people and things. One moment we are talking about society as a fixed object; at another moment about forming and reforming society through human practices.
For example, one of the important changes since 1945 in Western countries has been the growing acceptance of different kinds of sexual relationships. If our main concern as a sociologist is to fit these to a predetermined classification of married versus non-married, and to pigeon-hole people accordingly, we may miss what is most interesting—namely, to explain just what meaning people give to marriage and sexuality today and how they come to make or not make partnerships of all kinds. To do that we are bound to take people’s own accounts seriously and ‘the family’ in a traditional sense may not figure in them.
It is difficult to find adequate language to capture the flux of society, but that is because, like any reality, society is more than just the language we use to account for it, and natural language has its limitations. Everyday language tends to separate objects from processes, certainly from actions. In the sentence ‘Jo bakes a loaf’, ‘Jo’ is a person, the verb ‘bakes’ refers to the skilful activity, and the noun ‘loaf’ to the resulting object.
The syntax has the lucid banality of the child’s learning to read a book. If we talk about society in the same way we are easily misled. In ‘We make a society’, ‘we’ are already society, and society is already in the making. We can hardly say ‘Society societies a society’, but that is closer to the reality.
For a huge misapprehension results from thinking that just because people can be subjects and human society an object of a sentence, then somehow they can just make it as they want, or alternatively that it has some ‘loaf’-like object character. ‘Society’ is as much in verbs as in nouns. It’s all those things that go on between subject and object, and when we study ‘it’ we also study the deeds, events, changes and processes which are involved in social relations. These relations are neither iron girders nor idle imaginings, they are the ordering and reordering of people’s activities with regard to each other.
The concept of society involves the making of society through society. So long as there are people it never stops. It involves continuous making and remaking. It reproduces itself but never stays the same. It depends on people. It is the constantly changing nature and qualities of their relations with each other.
Social relations exist in and through construction and performance which are modes of their special reality. They underlie outcomes, artefacts, collectivities. They are intangible, but always around, never directly visible but always leaving traces. Just incidentally they also provide sociologists with their field of research.
This chapter has stressed the fluidity of society and at the same time the need to render an account which fits the changing times. A snapshot freezes movement however fast, which is what we do with graphic representation. We have a heightened awareness now of society which does not correspond with older nation-state definitions. We might represent the contrast in two diagrams. The first (Figure 1.1) is the image of a world of nation-state societies, enclosing families in a series of evermore inclusive territorial communities, which abut on to each other without intervening space. The second image (Figure 1.2) is of societies, all kinds of associations which as spheres overlap and interlock, and where individuals cross boundaries and voids as often as they stay within them.
These are visual aids to the imagination. They suggest alternative maps for the territories of society. As possibilities they are one version of the imaginary limits to society which we seek to explore through research into the realities of social relations.