Hugh McLachlan: There really is no such thing as ‘society’

Margaret Thatcher. Picture: Getty
Margaret Thatcher. Picture: Getty
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THE late Margaret Thatcher once said that there is no such thing as society. It is remarkable that her claim provoked a reaction of anger and repugnance from many of her numerous opponents.

This is more a reflection of their ill-will towards her than of the nature and worth of the view she was expressing.

It is far from clear precisely what she meant by her claim. It seems cryptic and puzzling, particularly when considered out of its context. Her opponents appear to have assumed that, because she said it, she must have meant something objectionable and something right-wing. However, the view that societies do not actually exist is one which various celebrated thinkers have held. It is not a particularly right-wing or left-wing position.

For instance, the Austro-British philosopher Karl Popper and the German sociologist Max Weber believed that the reality of social phenomena could be reduced to the reality of the individual human beings whose interaction constituted them. Popper said that apparent things such as, for instance, armies do not actually exist, only individual soldiers.

Popper might be thought to have been a conservative thinker, but Weber is generally considered to have been a moderate sort of liberal. The French sociologist Emile Durkheim is considered to have been noticeably more conservative in his political thought than Weber, yet he stressed that “social facts are things” and should be considered as things.

In Durkheim’s view, when individuals interact, phenomena of a new sort are produced. He argues that such social entities can be just as real as natural phenomena and just as real as individual human beings. They are just as real because they can be causes and effects in precisely the same sort of way as can individuals and natural phenomena. Not all real phenomena and actual causes and effects are tangible. Thus, for instance, electricity is not a tangible thing in the sense that an electric fire or blanket is a thing but it exists. It is something. Social phenomena can have a similar sort of existence. They are akin to electricity rather than to electric fires and electric blankets, according to Durkheim, despite the potentially misleading expression that “social facts are things”.

On this issue, I agree with Durkheim rather than with Popper, Weber and, it might seem, Mrs Thatcher. However, it would be bizarre if disagreement about such a matter were to produce animosity.

Whether or not social phenomena are real in the sense that natural objects and phenomena are, neither Durkheim nor sociologists in general have been able to give a convincing answer to the question of what constitutes a society. What are its boundaries? For instance, is there a Scottish society? Are there various societies that are Scottish ones? Is Scotland part of a wider European or British society? Baroness Thatcher’s comment on the reality or unreality of “society” was made in the context of what seem like innocuous remarks about individuals and responsibility. She said in an interview for a woman’s magazine: “I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand ‘I have a problem, it is the government’s job to cope with it’ or ‘I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it’. ‘I am homeless, the government must house me.

“And so, they are casting 
their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing. There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.”

When we think that people have said something that is wrong or even stupid, there is no reason to fall out with them – far less to revile them for their supposed stupidity. It is not obvious that Lady Thatcher has said something that is wrong here, far less something that is stupid.

She continued: “There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.”

If someone other than Mrs Thatcher had said this, it is difficult to imagine that it would have created a stir of any sort. We should, surely, be prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and be prepared to help those who are unfortunate.

To say that individuals are responsible for providing something or other is not to deny that agents and agencies of the state might also have responsibilities for and concerning its provision. For instance, parents are responsible for trying to ensure that they and their dependent children are fed, clothed and housed.

However, it is essential that our public policies are such that where such attempts do not succeed, children and their parents are, nonetheless, fed, clothed and housed.

However, it is worth stressing that, as Mrs Thatcher suggests, where particular members of the citizenry have money spent upon them by the state, other citizens provide it, one way or another.

When politicians appear to offer us, say, free higher education, free bus travel and free healthcare, we as citizens foot the bill. Neither the government nor “society” pays.

As citizens and as human beings, we ought to be prepared to give help to those who need it. This moral platitude is quiet unrelated to the conclusion of any philosophical debates about the ontological status of social phenomena.

The belief that there is no such thing as society has no association, whether logical or psychological, with selfishness.

If we want to make Scotland a better, fairer place to live in, we could start by treating those whom we dislike and with whom we disagree better and more fairly. We have, perhaps, a moral responsibility to do so.

• Hugh McLachlan is Professor of Applied Philosophy in the Glasgow School for Business and Society at Glasgow Caledonian University