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Individual and Society


Disciplines > Sociology > Articles > Individual and Society

Individual separation | The traditional separation | Boundaries | Rules | See also


Individual separation

Modern social rules encourage individuality and separation. Social touching is increasingly forbidden as a suspected sexual advance. The rights of the individual often take precedence over society. Capitalism has largely defeated Communism. We are progressively more alone.

Science does not help either, as we are encouraged to be objective to the point when we stand outside ourselves. Emotional Intelligence is lauded as a good thing.

The traditional separation

But are individuals separate from society or a part of society? Is either or both an illusion? Individuals in society are not 'free agents' as they are constrained by social rules.

Many people feel individual and separated, and this has echoed through history. Descartes said 'cogito ergo sum'. Leibnitz described a self-view of 'windowless monads'. Kant talked of us as 'who from his aprioristic shell can never quite break through to the 'thing in itself' '. A classic email .sig is 'At the center of the known universe'.

Much social research still separates the individual and society. Society is seen as a unity of its own, implying boundaries. Individuals are seen as free and independent, acting a closed systems. Homo philosophicus, the rational philosopher, was never an adult arrives as an adult with clear logic and no disturbing past. Elias (1968) describes homo clausus (based in homo philosophicus and many other such models) a theoretical being used by sociologists who thinks and acts independently, whilst living within society. This person lives in a little world of their own. In practice, individual and society are closely intertwined and interdependent.


Elias describes figuration as a dynamic, shifting set of connections that haze the the boundary between individual and society.

Individuals can be viewed as separate and independent of society. They may be viewed as being contained within it. When within it, they can be seen as having a clear boundary and interacting with similar others. Yet another view is of them having less clear boundaries so they are more closely merged into society than might be realized. Like atoms in molecules and solids, even though we have some individual identity, we are tightly bound together in a merged mass.

Socialization is the breaking down of individual barriers and merging them into the larger mass. The trade is giving up individual freedoms in exchange for safety and belonging.


Where are the boundaries of society? How does one stand outside of it? This perhaps is defined by the rules of a society, which are many. Rules can be formal (the 'law') and informal (morals and social norms). Informal rules arise through the operation of social networks and social leaders and spread through righteous discussion. Formal rules appear through public debate and a legislative structure. Informal rules are applied variably according to the context and the ability of people to apply them. Formal rules are applied by a legislature of judges and managed by a police force.

Punishment for breaking informal rules is shaming and ultimately ostracization. Punishment for breaking formal rules is fining and ultimately incarceration. Both thus remove the offender from society, preventing them from re-offending and acting as a warning to others.

In theory, there is only one boundary as defined by formal and informal social rules. In practice there are many boundaries and we belong to many groups and institutions.

See also

Ideology, Norbert Elias, Sociology


Bourdieu, P. (1987). The biographical illusion. Working Papers and Proceedings of the Centre for Psychosocial Studies (Univ. of Chicago) 14, 1-7

Elias, N. (1978). The History of Manners. The Civilizing Process: Volume I. New York: Pantheon Books

Elias, N. (1982). Power and Civility. The Civilizing Process: Volume II. New York: Pantheon Books


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