This article provides information about the relationship between individual and society!
Traditionally, two theories – the social contract and the organic theory – have explained the relationship between the individual and society. According to social contract theory, society is the result of an agreement entered into by men who originally lived in a pre-social state. And because society is made by man he is more real than his creation. Society is mere aggregation of individuals.
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According to the organic theory on the other hand, society is an organism. Just as the parts of an animal body are functionally related and none can exist isolated from the rest. So the members of a social body are functionally related to each other and to the society as a whole. Therefore, society is more real than the individual and is greater than the sum of its individual members.
Both the theories have failed to explain adequately the relationship between the individual and society. The relationship between individual and society is not one-sided as these theories indicated. The social contract theory tends to ignore man’s social character.
It fails to sufficiently appreciate the importance of society in developing the individual. The theory also assumes that man is or could become human outside or apart from society which is false. It implies that the individual and his society are separable.
That is to say, man is born social. But the man is not born social. As Park says, “Man is not born human but to be made human. No human being is known to have normally developed in isolation. If the child is abstracted from contact with his fellows at birth, it will grow up into a “feral man without knowledge of human speech, without any concept of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
That individual’s human nature is dependent upon his or her membership in a society is supported by several case studies, the famous German case of Kaspar Hauser, the case of the ‘Wolf-Children’ of India – Amala and Kamala, the case of Ramu and the case of Anna. All this tends to show that no human being can normally develop in isolation.
The organic or group-mind theories is correct in so far as it stresses the dependence of man on society. But these theories almost entirely discount the roll of individual 4n social life and deny individuality to the individual. It is wrong to say that society is more real than its members, that our consciousness is only an expression of social consciousness, social mind. Indeed society can have little meaning”, as says Maclver, “Unless individuals themselves are real”.
The reality is that there exists a fundamental unit-whole inter relationship between the individual and the social order. The human child is at outset an organism belonging to an animal species. It is through his interplay with his parents and then gradually with other fellows (friends, teachers) that he gets his human nature and his personality.
Every individual is thus the product of social relationship. He is born to a society which subtly moulds his attitudes, his beliefs and his ideals. At the same time society also grows and changes in accordance with the changing attitudes and ideals of its members. Social life can have no meaning except as the expression of the lives of the individuals.
Society has meaning to the individual only because it supports and contributes to the ends, the purposes of individuals themselves. It is these ends which gives society a unity. It is by helping the development of individuality of the individual that society achieves its purpose and significance.
There is thus a close relationship between individual and society. As says Maclver, “Individuality in the sociological sense is that attribute which reveals the member of a group as more than merely a member.” For he is a self, a centre of activity, of feeling, of function, of purpose.
The more a society is complex and organised, the more the society affords opportunity for initiative and enterprise, the greater the degree of individuality among the members. There is no inherent antagonism between individuality and society, each is essentially dependent on other. According to Maclver, “in the real world of man, society and individuality go hand in hand”. It would be however misleading to say that there exists complete harmony between individuality and society.
Society is a system of relations among individuals. The system moulds our attitudes, beliefs and our ideals. This does not mean that individuals belong to society as the leaves belong to the trees or the cells to the body. The relations between the individual and society are closer.
Society is a relation among individuals; its members. It is the sum of individuals who are in state of interaction. But this interaction creates something which is more than the sum of individuals. And it is this interaction which differentiates society from the mere aggregation of individuals.
There is, thus, a fundamental and dynamic interdependence of individual and society. The only experience that we know is the experience of individuals.
All thoughts or feelings are experienced by individuals. Feelings or thoughts are like, but not common. There is no common will of society. When we say that a group has a common mind or common will it means that there are tendencies to thought, feeling and action, widely dominant in group. These tendencies are the product of past interaction between individuals and their present relations. But they do not form a single mind, single will or purpose. Society cannot have a mind or will of its own.
It is only in the light of our interests, our aspirations, our hopes and fears, that we can assign any function and any goal to society. Conversely individuals have interests, aspirations, goals only because they are a part of society. To quote Ginsberg, “Society is the condition of his having any ends at all since social life moulds all his ideals and gives definiteness and form to all his impulses.” It follows that the relationship between individual and society is not one-sided.
It may be concluded that individual and society are interdependent. Neither the individuals belong to society as cells belong to the organism, nor the society is a mere contrivance to satisfy certain human needs. The individual and society interact to one another and depended on one another. Both are complementary and supplementary to each other.
Relationship between Individual and Society!
There would be no society if there were no people talking to one another, acting and interacting, cooperating with one another. But how to behave in one’s society or what is right and what is wrong in the society, all these things one -has to learn in the society. Each society has its own special set of rules, its own customs and traditions, its own set of values and beliefs, and each must teach its members to fit into the society.
The idea of society implies a mutual give-and-take by the individuals concerned either in the form of mutual glances, waving of hand, greeting, handshake, conversation or the more subtle forms of give-and-take such as letter writing, season or festival greeting, sending and acknowledging of gifts, talking on phone, e-mailing, Internet chatting and participating in public affairs.
The relationship between individual and society can be viewed from three angles:
(ii) Inter-actionist, and
(iii) Culture and personality.
Functionalist view: How society affects the individual?
What is the relationship of the individual to society? Functionalists regard the individual as formed by society through the influence of such institutions as the family, school and workplace. Early sociologists such as Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim and even Karl Marx, who was not a functionalist, examined society as existing apart from the individual. For Durkheim, society is reality; it is first in origin and importance to the individual.
Durkheim’s keen discussion of the collective consciousness showed the ways in which social interactions and relationships and ultimately society influence the individual’s attitudes, ideas and sentiments. He utilised his theory of ‘collective representation’ in explaining the phenomena of religion, suicide and the concept of social solidarity.
Thus, Durkheim is classed as a ‘social realist’, a champion of ‘sociologism’, for he propounded the kind of ‘social realism’ that gave ultimate social reality to the group, not to the individual. Durkheim’s conception left little room for individual initiative and freedom.
In contrast to Auguste Comte (known as father of sociology), who regarded the individual as a mere abstraction, a somewhat more substantial position by Durkheim held that the individual was the recipient of group influence and social heritage. In sociological circle, this was the ‘burning question’ (individual v/s society) of the day.
How society is important in the formation of individual’s personality is clearly reflected in the cases of isolated and feral children (children who were raised in the company of animals such as bears and wolves). The studies of feral children, referred to earlier (Anna, Isabelle, Kamla, Ramu etc.), have clearly demonstrated the importance of social interaction and human association in the development of personality.
Interactionist view: How is society constructed?
How an individual helps in building society? For inter-actionists, it is through the interaction of the people that the society is formed. The main champion of this approach was Max Weber (social action theorist), who said that society is built up out of the interpretations of individuals.
The structuralists (or functionalists) tend to approach the relationship of self (individual) and society from the point of the influence of society on the individual. Inter-actionists, on the other hand, tend to work from self (individual) ‘outwards’, stressing that people create society.
This perspective is sometimes referred to as ‘symbolic interactionism’. W.I. Thomas, George Mead and Herbert Blumer were the most influential figures among the inter-actionists. Other recent approaches, which also place emphasis on individual, are ethnomethodology and phenomenology which is basically a philosophical perspective.
Symbolic interactionism emphasises the importance of symbolic means of communication—language, gesture and dress etc. Inter-actionists fully accept that society does constrain and form individuals but they also consider that there is invariably opportunity for some ‘creative’ action (W.I. Thomas).
A prominent theorist of the last century, Talcott Parsons (1937, 1951) ignored the American symbolic interactionists and tried to attempt a grand synthesis of individual action and large-scale structure in his theory. But, his emphasis was heavily on the large-scale structure (society).
He believed that it is the structure of society which determines roles and norms, and the cultural system which determines the ultimate values of ends. His theory was severely criticised by George Homans (1961). In his Presidential address (1964), “Bringing man Back In”, Homans re-established the need to study individual social interactions, the building blocks of society.
A recent well-known theorist Anthony Giddens (1984) has not accepted the idea of some sociologists that society has an existence over and above individuals. He argues: “Human actions and their reactions are the only reality and we cannot regard societies or systems as having an existence over and above individuals.”
Culture and personality view: How individual and society affect each other? Or how individual and society interacts?
Both the above views are incomplete. In reality, it is not society or individual but it is society and individual which helps in understanding the total reality. The extreme view of individual or society has long been abandoned. For sociologists—from Cooley to the present—have recognised that neither society nor the individual can exist without each other and that they are, in reality, different aspects of the same thing. Many studies conducted in the field of social/cultural anthropology substantiate this view.
This view was laid down mainly by Margaret Mead, Kardiner and others who maintained that society’s culture affects personality (individual) and, in turn, personality helps in the formation of society’s culture. These anthropologists have studied how society shapes or controls individuals and how, in turn, individuals create and change society.
Thus, to conclude, it can be stated that the relationship between society and individual is not one-sided. Both are essential for the comprehension of either. Both go hand in hand, each is essentially dependent on the other. Both are interdependent on each, other.
A few writings of the past and present individualists—Thomas Hobbes (17th century) and John Stuart Mill (19th century) have failed to recognise this interdependency. And today, on the basis of same misunderstanding of ±e interrelationship, we hear long echoes of this ‘threat’ of the social order to the individual in our legislative assemblies, UNO and champion of human rights organisations.
These institutions and organisations regard every new measure of social security (such as MESA or POTA Acts in India) as a ‘blow’ to liberty. The same misunderstanding is held by thinkers such as Benjamin Kidd and philosopher Hegel who oppose the above views.
In their opinion the individual should be subordinated to society. They say that the individual should sacrifice their welfare at the cost of society. Both these views are extreme which see the relationship between individual and society from merely the one or the other side. But surely all is not harmonious between individual and society. The individual and society interact on one another and depend on one another. Social integration is never complete and harmonious.
Currently, serious students question the utility of this prolonged debate over individual versus society. They perceived the individual and society as different sides of the same coin. Society cannot exist without individuals nor can individuals exist outside the society. “Sociology studies interaction between the self (or individual) and groups, and interaction between the groups. The self may both affect certain groups (and so society) and be affected by these groups.
Individuals are part of society” (Mike O’ Donnell, 1997). It is unlikely that this controversy will ever be solved. Moreover, it is a debate, which is not just confined to sociology, but preoccupies scholars in all fields of the social sciences.