Dame Margaret Thatcher famously once asserted that there is no such thing as society. It has never been entirely clear what she meant by that claim. But what was made clear was that ‘society’ at the time was of the opinion that she was wrong; and that it was very angry with her for suggesting otherwise. It is not my intention here to revisit what might or might not have been meant or understood all these decades ago. Rather I would like to consider what sense we might make of the controversial proposition in the present, and what ramifications this might have for our consideration of contemporary issues like identity politics and arguments over social policy.
The first thing I would suggest that needs to be clarified is what is meant by “society” in the first place. If something is not defined, it is notoriously difficult to prove either that it exists or that it does not. Take for example the question of God’s existence. Perhaps no question has had more breath expended on arguing the case on either side with so little result in terms of anyone changing their opinion as a consequence! There are two main approaches to addressing such a problem: the empiricist and the rationalist. The first appeals to experience: I encountered God in some way in my life and therefore for me God is real. The second is to use philosophical or theological arguments about the ground of our being and/or the origins of life and the universe.
Starting with the former, the problem with empiricist reasoning is that one only establishes a particular view based on personalised experience, which is only as convincing as the experience is commonly shared. Alternatively, what is established through reason is a coherent and hopefully convincing model of God and his nature and purposes. But likewise this is only convincing to the extent that the arguments marshalled in support appear so to their audience so that the model can be said to constitute a consensus view.
What about discussions around the idea of society? Do they not avoid these kinds of problem on the basis that we all surely experience “society” in some form and would not be alive were it not so? Well, if that is the case, what is the definition of society which we infer emerges out of that purportedly shared experience? Starting this time with the rationalist approach, we can make the observation that humans exist and make meaning of their lives as participants in various groups, such as families, religions and teams formed for the purpose of work or sporting activity. Sociological identity theory would look to define society in terms of these groups, asserting that the relationship systems engendered by them create meaningful roles and that the self is constituted by the sum of the meanings of a person’s roles.
This is something akin to the ground of our being argument for God: it is a model through which humans make sense of their lives. Ostensibly this is considered a compelling argument within the sociology community. But of course it is only one of many models that have been proposed as to how humans derive meaning in their lives; and to that extent it doesn’t really define what society is, only one aspect of what it does. So the suggestion that “society” in these terms exists is really just a request for those to whom the proposition is made to validate the model as being an accurate portrayal of reality, as they perceive it. Inevitably some will assent but others not.
More interesting, in my view, is the empiricist approach: I assert that society is real because I experience it around me and interact with it. This is hard to argue with. Unlike with the God argument, everyone would claim to have experienced society in this way, so there are no disbelievers or doubters. But the problem here is again the same as that which the rationalists encounter: the thing I have “proved” to exist is not demonstrated to exist universally according to a shared definition, but only in a very personally specific way as part of my lived experience. I may conceptualise “society” in terms of a model which I find to be shared (or not) by others I converse with. But now I am back in the realm of rationalist arguments for the existence of a thing called “society”, defined in terms of a model. So no real progress is made.
So where does this leave us? Well, it might be suggested that what I have presented above is a straw man argument, posing various ways in which sense might be made of the notion of society, then shooting them down as being flawed. So let’s look instead from the opposite perspective and attempt to construct a bottom-up view of what might constitute “society”, correctly understood. I would argue that, to this end, the most useful starting point is to build on the insights of recent developments in consciousness theory and cognitive science. An excellent introduction to this topic is provided by Anil Seth in his “Being You: A New Science of Consciousness” (Faber & Faber, 2021). What we have learned is that conscious beings operate with an internal model of the “world” as they experience it, including other people (conscious beings). “My” understanding of society is then, in this way of thinking, the sum total of my lived experience in relation to other people and to the structures through which I interact with them. My life project is to validate my model and keep it aligned with my experience (“evidence”).
But, since this lived experience is unique to me, so is the conceptualisation of society which I build upon it. Thus there are as many definitions of society as there are people in this world and these definitions evolve with people’s ongoing experience in life. Of course we may discuss with others and find that we hold some things in common in our understanding. But, digging down, we will likely find that they have made sense of their experience through having been exposed to the same models of society as us in books or in the media, so the convergence is not so much in the lived experience as in the prism through which sense is made of that experience.
In short, we must conclude that the idea that there is a single thing called society which we all experience is a convenient fiction. Demands which are made on behalf of ‘society’ must on this basis be considered to be founded on questionable authority. Indeed, when such demands are made explicit, it is usually because an attempt is being made to change the thinking and/or the behaviour of individuals who appear not to be conforming to the model of society which is implicitly being put forward. To that extent it is effectively conceded that the proposed model is not one which is universally acknowledged and followed, but efforts are being made to impose it on those whose life experience leads them to follow a model which diverges in significant respects.
For example it increasingly occurs that language or referents which were common parlance only a few years previously are problematised by (self-appointed) ‘language police.’ Recent examples, of which there are many, include “breast-feeding”, “mother”, “father”, “homosexual” and “obese”. Those who have the audacity to persist in using such language are frequently stigmatised or ‘cancelled’, which can mean loss of career or, as has started to be reported recently, banking services being revoked. The intention is clear: by forcing individuals to change or restrict the language they use to describe society, an attempt is being made indirectly to have them change their internal model of society. Such behaviour is increasingly being resisted in what have become known as ‘culture wars.’ The strength of the resistance is evidence that there is no consensus in society about the adoption of new language prescriptions and proscriptions, which means there is no consensus around the underlying model of society which is implicitly being put forward as the ‘right’ one: we are back at the prism argument we discussed above.
Finally, we should mention there is another sense in which the idea of society has often been weaponised politically without it being clarified what is meant by the term. This is in arguments along the lines that ‘society’ needs to take action to address a certain problem, typically related to such things as poverty, health or the environment. What is really being suggested here is that the people who make up society (the real existing society) have failed to provide adequate protection for all the members of that society. What is usually advocated then is government intervention, usually spending taxpayers’ money, on attempting to remediate such a problem. Of course a consequence of this is that efforts that were being made elsewhere in society are displaced by government-sponsored programmes. Opinions will vary about the desirability of such shifting of responsibility, but it is surely a misnomer to suggest it constitutes society taking responsibility when what is really happening is government is taking responsibility away from society.
In conclusion, whichever way we look at it, there doesn’t appear to be a meaningful definition of society which can be used to justify political action other than by deliberate obfuscation or sleight of hand. In that sense Dame Margaret Thatcher’s claim appears to be supported.