Seraching for a viable defintion of society - formation and figuration

To understand societal processes it is important first to define exactly what society is. This is even more important if we aim on the development of policy measures. If they are designed to be successful in providing a long-term answer on challenges, going beyond administrative and/or superficial measures it is particularly important that they provide an answer that

* tackles the multidimensionality of the field, i.e. the complex links to other aspects of social life and to “environmental” aspects (referring to the natural and social environment alike)

* accepts the challenge of “being accepted” – where acceptance is necessarily a question of “bearing” rather than agreement.[1]

This requires to look for a definition that defines society on the basis of “people living together” rather than one which refers to “people being together”. The difference simply is that the latter can refer to a “formal” point of definition – usually the mingling of “state” and “society”. This neglects that “societies” can well exist on a sub-national level as well as it does not take into consideration that “supranational societies” can – and in fact do – emerge. Both aspects are of topical meaning. Globalisation, the emergence of political and/or economic blocs (NAFTA, EU, GATT et altera are important even if they are [not all] such supranational societies) and regionalisation and a distinct re-nationalisation show how delicate and tricky the consideration is.

To provide some ground for such search for a valid definition some definitions and explanations are listed in this section, which

* show the importance of various aspects of the issue and#

* make own considerations possible.


By figuration we mean the changing pattern created by the players as a whole – not only by their intellects but by their whole selves, the totality of their dealings in their relationships with each other. It can be seen that this figuration forms a flexible lattice-work of tensions. The interdependence of the players, which is a prerequisite of their forming a figuration, may be an interdependence of allies or of opponents.

Norbert Elias: What is sociology?; London : Hutchinson ; 1978: 130


Although we mighty speak of “dance in general”, “no one will imagine a dance as a structure outside the individual”. Dances can be danced by different people, “but without a plurality of reciprocally oriented and dependent individuals, there is no dance.” Figurations, like dances, are thus “relatively independent of the specific individuals forming it here and now, but not of individuals as such”.

Robert van Krieken: Key Sociologists – Norbert Elias; New York : Routledge, 1998: 58; referring to: Norbert Elias: The Civilizing Process – 1994: 214

Figurations are seen as meshes of interdependence. As such they limit autonomous action as it consists of social dependencies. In consequence we find a corridor consisting of interdependencies between many individuals which gains some independence and can exist beyond the individuals.

What is characteristic is the fact that these figurations do consists nevertheless of independent human beings and that the relationship is characterised by a shifting asymmetrical power.

An earlier term used by Elias was the one of Verflechtungsfigur.


Instead of using the term society the historical materialism as general sociology of Marxism orients the term socio-economic formation of society or economic formation. As such the term is first and foremost expression of a specific level of abstraction. The term is only meaningful if and when it grasps essential relationships and characteristics of a society independent from their multiple superficial appearances. Formation, reflecting upon the society in their total entity, has to abstract from these concrete and immediate appearances and reproduces the essential patterns. However, this does not mean that formation is just a theoretical construct. Rather, formation exists as inner structure of a concrete society, the essence and reflecting their objective foundation.

Taking this real-historical foundation as point of the reference the next question is how to define the substantial dimension of this category.

‘I have already pointed out that from the standpoint of the old (not old for Russia ) economists and sociologists, the concept of the economic formation of society is entirely superfluous: they talk of society in general, they argue with the Spencers about the nature of society in general, about the aim and essence of society in general, and so forth. In their reasonings, these subjective sociologists rely on arguments such as—the aim of society is to benefit all its members, that justice, therefore, demands such and such an organisation, and that a system that is out of harmony with this ideal organisation ("Sociology must start with some utopia"—these words of Mr. Mikhailovskys, one of the authors of the subjective method, splendidly typify the essence of their methods) is abnormal and should be set aside. “The essential task of sociology,” Mr. Mikhailovsky, for instance, argues, “is to ascertain the social conditions under which any particular requirement of human nature is satisfied.” As you see, what interests this sociologist is only a society that satisfies human nature, and not at all some strange formations of society, which, moreover, may be based on a phenomenon so out of harmony with “human nature” as the enslavement of the majority by the minority. You also see that from the standpoint of this sociologist there can be no question of regarding the development of society as a process of natural history. ("Having accepted something as desirable or undesirable, the sociologist must discover the conditions under which the desirable can be realised, or the undesirable eliminated"—"under which such and such ideals can be realised"—this same Mr. Mikhailovsky reasons.) What is more, there can be no talk even of development, but only of various deviations from the “desirable,” of “defects” that have occurred in history as a result . . . as a result of the fact that people were not clever enough, were unable properly to understand what human nature demands, were unable to discover the conditions for the realisation of such a rational system. It is obvious that Marx’s basic idea that the development of the social-economic formations is a process of natural history cuts at the very root of this childish morality which lays claim to the title of sociology. By what means did Marx arrive at this basic idea? He did so by singling out the economic sphere from the various spheres of social life, by singling out production relations from all social relations as being basic, primary, determining all other relations. Marx himself has described the course of his reasoning on this question as follows:

“The first work which I undertook for a solution of the doubts which assailed me was a critical review of the Hegelian philosophy of right. . . . My investigation led to the result that legal relations as well as forms of state are to be grasped neither from themselves nor from the so-called general development of the human mind, but rather have their roots in the material conditions of life, the sum-total of which Hegel, following the example of the Englishmen and Frenchmen of the eighteenth century, combines under the name of civil society, that, however, the anatomy of civil society is to be sought in political economy. . . . The general result at which I arrived . . . can be briefly formulated as follows: in the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations . . . relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum-total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or—what is but a legal expression for the same thing—with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations, a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the conditions of production, which should be established in terms of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic—in short, ideological—forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production. . . . In broad outlines Asiatic, ancient, feudal, and modern bourgeois modes of production can be designated as progressive epochs in the economic formation of society."

Lenin, Vladimir : What the “Friends Of The People” are and How They Fight the Social-Democrats. (A Reply to Articles in Russkoye Bogatstvo Opposing the Marxists); Written in the spring and summer of 1894 First Published: Hectograph edition,1894 Source: Lenin’s Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 4th English Edition, Volume 1, pages 129-332 Translated: Translated: Unknown Online Version: Lenin Internet Archive, 2001; Transcribed\HTML Mark -up: David Walters


Structuration theory: basic points

1. All human beings are knowledgeable agents. 'Objectivism' fails to appreciate the complexity of social action produced by actors operating with knowledge and understanding as part of their consciousness. People understand the world, often better than sociologists appear to.

2. The extent of people's knowledge of the world is bordered on the one side by the unconscious and on the other by the unacknowledged conditions and intended consequences of action.

3. Day to day life is bound up with the reproduction of social institutions and hence it is a valuable area of study. The context of day to day interaction is an important area of study.

4. The predominant form of day to day activity takes the form of routine - behaviour which appears to outsiders as extreme and bizarre becomes routine after a while, for example with violent or 'evil' behaviour. The Nazi Holocaust was able to be carried out with such murderous efficiency partly because it was for the most part a routine activity for those involved.

5. Constraints on behaviour associated with structural properties of the system are not unique, but are only one type of constraint on the individual person. There are varying degrees of 'systemness' or 'structuredness' in society. The predominance of the nation state leads us to think that societies are clearly bordered and defined when they may not be.

6. The study of power is not a secondary consideration for social science. Power is means to ends, and hence is directly involved in the actions of every person.

7. Actors (people) are knowledgeable. Their everyday sociological knowledge feeds into their behaviour. They have reasons for doing what they do. Because of that, sociology should not be used as an excuse to explain behaviour as due to 'society'. People are responsible for their actions.  

( - 13.12.2001)


Elias sees in the habitus the socially learned "second nature" that individuals acquire in a process of social learning. It could be said it is the “subjectivised society”.


Bourdieu’s view would be, on the contrary, best summarised as habitus as a “socialized subjectivity”

Central to that middle ground is his concept of human habitus. The Latin, habitus, means condition (of the body); character, quality: style of dress, attire, disposition, state of feeling; habit. Bourdieu’s concept of human habitus matches somewhat this original Latin meaning, except perhaps for “character.” For Bourdieu, habitus refers to socially acquired, embodied systems of dispositions and/or predispositions. Hence it refers not to character, morality, or socialization per se, but to “deep structural” classificatory and assessment propensities, socially acquired, and manifested in outlooks, opinions, and embodied phenomena such as deportment, posture, ways of walking, sitting, spitting, blowing the nose, and so forth. Habitus underlies such second nature human characteristics and their infinite possible variations in different historical and cultural settings. While habitus derives from cultural conditioning, Bourdieu does not equate habitus with its manifestations; nor does he think of habitus as a fixed essence operating like a computer program determining mental or behavioral outcomes. Bourdieu rejects crude determinist notions of human action as passive reflexive responses to conditioning stimuli. He also rejects structuralist notions of behavior as execution of imperceptible yet determinate rules of action.


Governance is the capacity of human societies to equip themselves with systems of representation, institutions, processes and intermediary bodies in order to manage themselves by intentional action. This capacity of conscience (the intentional action), of organisation (the institutions and intermediary bodies), of conceptualisation (the systems of representation), of adaptation to new situations (EU-forward studies unit) is a characteristic of human societies.

Subsidiarity I

Subsidiarity asserts that ‘a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society’.


(Pope John Paul II)


Subsidiarity II

The Community shall act within the limits of the powers conferred upon it by this Treaty and of the objectives assigned to it therein.

In areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Community shall take action, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States and can therefore, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved by the Community.

Any action by the Community shall not go beyond what is necessary to achieve the objectives of this Treaty.


(EU-Treaty, Article 3b)



Sorry, not all sources are mentioned – some are from Internet sites that I cannot trace back anymore. Reworking this bit at a later stage will be take more caution.

[1]    What exactly this means is, of course, debatable. The important factor here is that a formal agreement is as meaningless as meaninglessness can be said for bearing a fact as there is now alternative (which would be near to or even identical with tyranny.