Skip to main content

Unit information: What is a Society? in 2020/21

Unit name What is a Society?
Unit code SOCI20075
Credit points 20
Level of study I/5
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Professor. Thomas Osborne
Open unit status Not open




School/department School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies
Faculty Faculty of Social Sciences and Law


Social scientists study society. But what is a society? This unit takes a critical, historical and conceptual look at the question of the differentiated semantic field of the notion of society. The unit will address key topics amongst the following: non-human societies; biology, psychology and society; conceptions of society in so-classical sociology and the history of ideas; ideas of society as ‘high society’; societies as anthropological objects; cities, nations and societies; conceptions of society in the history of empirical sociology; the relations between conceptions of society and conceptions of culture and ‘civilization’; relations between political structures and society; ‘civil society’; communitas; liberalism and the concept of society; social interaction and society; issues of societal change, ‘progress’ and decline; historical constructs and conceptions of society; systems conceptions, and postmodern conceptions of society.


- to address historical, conceptual and other models of society - to convey the diverse semantic reach of the concept of society - to convey the range of techniques, styles and methodologies for approaching the question of society

Intended learning outcomes

On completion of this unit, students will be able to:

  • distinguish between different styles of conceptualising society and contiguous concepts
  • appreciate the diversity of notions of society in different approaches and methodologies
  • critique received views of what constitutes society

Teaching details

The unit will be taught through blended learning methods, including a mix of synchronous and asynchronous teaching activities

Assessment Details

Formative: 1500 word essay (0%)

Summative: 3000 word essay (100%)

Both assessments test all learning outcomes listed above

Reading and References

Crone, P. Pre-Industrial Societies

Elias, N. The Court Society

Foucault, M. Society Must be Defended

Frisby, D. & D. Sayer, Society

Gellner, E. Conditions of Liberty

Heilbron, J. The Rise of Social Theory

Mauss, M. Sociology and Psychology