Who’s In My Society?

If we take the words ‘society’, ‘community’, ‘association’, and ‘state’ to each mean a group of people, each of whom holds a certain relationship to at least one other, who in turn holds that relationship to another, so that the entire set of people can be traversed following instances of that relationship, with the relevant relationships being:

  • for ‘society’: any regular mutually beneficial interaction presupposing some level of mutual recognition (e.g. economic dealings, friendship, dance-partnership, etc.);
  • for ‘community’: interaction involving mutual recognition as members of a meaningful group, accompanied by positive feelings of ‘belonging’ or ‘togetherness’ and by some sense of that group’s extent, however nebulous;
  • for ‘association’: a voluntary ongoing mutual commitment by all members of the group with all others to cooperate according to a certain set of rules;
  • for ‘state’: being subject to the same laws, enforced by the same sovereign authority;

then it will follow that the four do not remotely coincide with one another.

There will arguably be one ‘society’ containin 99% of humanity, with only preliterate hunter-gatherers and the amish remaining outside it; there will be innumerable cross-cutting communities, with many or most individuals occupying several; there will be many small associations, but few with significant political power (i.e. power comparable to that exercised by a government); and there will be roughly 190 states.

Nevertheless there is, I think, sometimes some tendency to conflate them, to suppose that ‘my society’ stops at the limits of ‘my state”s territory, within which I am part of a unified community on the basis of participating in a single great association. This might, of course, be perfectly true, if different definitions of some key terms were used.

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