Society and Social Power

Society is the source of immense power. Over the past few centuries humanity has record­ed phenomenal growth in its collective capacity for accomplishment, as reflected in the 12-fold growth in global per capita income since 1800. The remarkable achievements in living standards, longevity, science, technology, industry, education, democracy, human rights, peace and global governance are the result of the exponential development of the capacity of society to harness human energies and convert them into social power for productive purposes. Today, humanity possesses the power and capabilities needed to fully meet the multi-dimensional challenges confronting global society. The source of this energy is people. Human energy is transformed into social power by the increasing reach, frequency and complexity of human relationships. Society is a complex living network of organized relationships between people. Its power issues from channelizing our collective energies in productive ways by means of organizing principles such as coordination, systems, specialization of function, hierarchy of authority, and integration. This immense social power remains largely underutilized. Social science needs to evolve a comprehensive, trans-disciplinary understanding of the roots of social power and the process by which it is generated, distributed and applied. This knowledge is the essential foundation for formulating effective social policies capable of eradicating forever persistent poverty, unemployment and social inequality. This article is based on a series of lectures delivered by the author in the WAAS-WUC course on “Toward a Trans-disciplinary Science of Society” at Dubrovnik on September 1-3, 2014. It traces the development of social power in different fields to show that human and social capital are inexhaustible in potential. The more we harness them, the more they grow. Unleashing, directing, channeling and converting human potential into social power can eliminate all the problems confronting the world today.

1. Introduction
Human beings seek to accomplish goals to fulfill their needs and aspirations. People have sought different things, depending on their economic and social position, at different periods in their lives, and at different periods in history. Needs have evolved, from personal physical survival, to emotional fulfillment, to global and idealistic concerns. Needs change over time, new ones replace earlier fulfilled ones, but throughout, we see that they have all been met. Some are met readily and easily. Some demands are conceded after a prolonged struggle. But human aspiration is eventually fulfilled, and the power for this fulfillment comes from society.

Society not only facilitates the realization of aspirations, it also anticipates our needs and fulfills unexpressed wishes. It possesses great powers and capacities that are drawn from within itself. Its potential for accomplishment is infinite. A trans-disciplinary science of society that studies the formation of society, the generation of social power and the empowerment of the individual members for personal and collective accomplishment is essential for a new human-centered development paradigm that can solve all the problems that confront the world today.

2. Society as a Web
Society is usually thought of as something out there. It is that which is outside of us, our family, home, institution or work place. It is abstract. Like the air all around, it is invisible, intangible. But if it is not there, the absence is immediately felt, and existence becomes impossible. So, what exactly is society?

Society consists of people. We do not refer to society during the Jurassic period or in the South Pole. These people who are collectively described as a society are related to each other. These relations can be physical or psychological in nature. Society also consists of structures that bring people together, and like the relationships, these structures can be physical or non-physical.

Though society feels amorphous, it has a physical basis. The biological tie is one basis for bringing people together. The family gives a sense of belonging. It is the first group with which we all identify. The parents, siblings and children form a close-knit unit. The extended family and the clan come next. Geography is another basis for a set of people to be grouped together. People of one village, town, province, city state, region, country or continent are referred to as a society. We talk about the American society, the Arabs in the Persian Gulf, the Russians in the Siberian region or the Asian immigrants in Europe.

The sense of identity felt on the basis of geographic location or biological tie used to be confined to very small groups. Today, clan loyalty or fierce regionalism is increasingly giving way to a growing sense among many people that we all share a common identity and destiny as human beings. Society is evolving from the nation state to the human community.

Society is not adequately defined by physical groupings alone. It has a psychological basis as well. Ethnicity, educational background, profession, economic stratum, class, caste and institutional membership can distinguish and group people. Thus, we have the society of the Asian industrialists, European artists, Chinese communists, the Harvard or Oxford alumni, the upper or middle class, the people below poverty or without literacy, the world’s billionaires, indigenous tribes of Africa, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, the republicans, democrats, priests, warriors, doctors, teachers, scholars, writers and so on.

Ideas can bring people together, regardless of their location or other attributes. People who are opposed to the use of nuclear power, who care deeply for the environment, who advocate greater economic equality or who believe in religious harmony, anywhere in the globe identify with each other. In this way, society also consists of groupings that are essentially mental in nature – beliefs, opinions, ideals, attitudes, sentiments, religion, political ideology and values. So we have people of different religions who are referred to collectively as a group – Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists. We have liberals and conservatives, communists and capitalists, Keynesians and monetarists, atheists and theists.

In theory, people can be grouped on the basis of various formal and informal, physical and mental coordinates. But to actually bring them together, some structures are required. Otherwise, what can make a person feel one with another person who lives a few miles away? How can one even know the other exists? Houses, roads, community halls and town squares are physical structures that bring people together physically. Villages, towns, cities and countries mark the boundaries of the groups. Shops, market places, schools, colleges and offices let them transact. Transportation facilities enable movement and help bridge distance. Telephone instruments, telephone lines, wireless devices, satellites, telecom companies, research organizations and government departments comprise communication facilities that keep people in contact.

The building that one calls house gives an objective reality to the biological tie of the family, but it is not just this physical structure that fully explains the idea of family. A set of rooms – some brick and mortar are not enough – and the social construction of roles and responsibilities are needed to make the biological tie real and complete the family. Society consists of many such non-physical structures that bind people. Language, manners, customs, standards and laws are some. They define and guide the interactions between people. They are like the standardized language, HTML, which makes it possible for billions of people to interact with one another on the internet.

Guilds, unions, currencies, governments, armies, religions, trade, markets, factories, ports, banks, courts, parliamentary assemblies, hospitals, schools, newspapers and other media are specialized institutional structures that enable society to engage in a wide range of activities – for self-defense, production, exchange, commerce, governance, healthcare, education and recreation.

Educators, educational institutions and education are three different but related components of society. Educators are a group of people, the institution is a physical structure, and education a social organization that encapsulates the collective knowledge of humanity and provides it to each child in a period of 15-20 years. Societal groups are interdependent, and often overlap. One can be an Indian Hindu software engineer, an American Republican lawyer, Chinese Buddhist Silicon Valley entrepreneur, a European banker belonging to the royalty or an African tribal who has studied to become a doctor and migrated to Canada.

Society is a complex, but organized, structure of such groups and subgroups of individuals and organizations.


3. A Living Organization
One and one makes two only in Arithmetic. In all else, ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,’ as Aristotle said. Bringing together two objects, such as the horse carriage and the engine can result in something far greater in complexity, utility and power, the motor car in this case. The integrated circuit chip, a screen and keyboard give the computer. When the computer is hooked to a telephone, we have the internet. Add any one component to the web – education, commerce, entertainment, socializing, advertising, news, book publishing – and a new industry is born. Perhaps the greatest illustration of Aristotle’s statement is society. Society is more than the sum of all people. It is an intricately linked, complex organization. It is like the human body.

Various types of molecules come together to form cells, tissues, organs, organ systems and the entire human body. But the body is much more than a collection of molecules. It is a highly complex, sophisticated organization of all these molecules, cells, tissues, organs and systems. The smooth functioning of all the parts and the interlinks between them determine the survival and functioning of the body. Even the slightest change or disturbance can result in a breakdown. Every part is integrated with every other part. A change in any one affects the whole, which is true for the human body as well as the society. Society is alive.

This living organization, just like the human being, has senses. It responds to stimuli, expresses itself, and has survival instinct. It remembers, learns, reacts, acquires skills, aspires, grows, evolves.

Minutes after Britain’s Princess Kate steps out of her car, dresses similar to what she is wearing are sold out in online stores. Society seems to be watching, literally. Fashion is one of the simplest signs of society’s senses. Society responds to its surroundings. Whenever there is any natural calamity in one part of the world, aid pours in from everywhere. Whether it is a tsunami in Asia, typhoon in the Caribbean or famine in Africa, the world comes together to act. When there is a success in one place, it is recognized, and emulated elsewhere. The Indo-Arabic numerals that we all use today originated in India, was improved in Arabia, reached Italy, and then spread to the rest of Europe. Try multiplying two 4-digit numbers using Roman numerals, and by the time you are finished, you will realize why this development is so important. Green Revolution, brought about by improved seeds, was developed and tested in Mexico. When this became a success, India imported these hybrid varieties of seeds and eliminated famine. Soon, other countries in Asia and Africa followed.

The recent Arab Spring shows how conscious society is. An unfortunate act of one poor vegetable seller in Tunisia sparked off a revolution in 20 countries, and impacted the whole world. Society sees, feels, thinks, acts. It also learns from past mistakes. After an economic crisis or humanitarian disaster, society takes steps to prevent its recurrence. After the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in 2011, it was not only Japan that changed its nuclear policy, countries everywhere chose to stop or slow down their nuclear programs.

We are becoming increasingly aware that we cannot isolate ourselves from others; we all share a common fate as humanity. Terrorism and climate change are negative reminders of this fact. Everyone is becoming aware that if trees are cut in South America’s Amazon forests, or coal is burned excessively in villages in Africa, it can result in the melting of the Polar ice caps and Himalayan glaciers and rising sea levels in America and Europe’s coasts. When scientific discovery or technological advancement in one laboratory benefits people worldwide, or online learning democratizes education for all, they remind us that we are part of one living organization called society.

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