By Gilbert Pleuger
new perspective Vol 4, No 2
Mrs Thatcher, Prime Minister 1979-90, was not afraid of controversy and is remembered for expressing outspoken views when she sat astride her Cabinet, in European summits and in her public speeches. In the early 1980s she astounded the political world by her claim that there was no such thing as ‘society’. Puzzlement was dispelled by later comment that what she meant was that society is no more than the sum of individuals, and that it is individuals who have responsibility for their actions, not an abstraction such as society. Her view was not as it first seemed.
The word society can refer either to the whole of a people in a country, that is, the citizens of the State, or to a group within a state who are identified by a common characteristic or interest and by the relation of that group with other groups within the State. In this latter sense a study of society requires that the historian subdivide the citizens of a state, for the purposes of study and analysis, into subsidiary groups. Any criteria can be used for this subdivision. Among the more frequently used are wealth or income, type of employment, education, leisure activities, religion and political affiliation but it is possible to group the members of a state by the colour of their eyes, preferences with clothing and music, place of birth or consumption patterns. The terminology used by the mathematician for sub-groups is set and by the logician class. Karl Marx used the word class to describe the groups within society who were bound together by a common relationship to the means of production. Whatever criteria are used to identify a group, it is the distinguishing characteristics, behaviour and views of the group and the relationship with other groups, which interests the historian. Over time particular groups may increase or decrease in size, changes which may redefine their relationships with other groups. Historians chart these changes in society, that is social change, and from them overarching descriptions, such as ‘the decline of the aristocracy’ and ‘the rise of the working class’, are created to provide a very broad characterisation for a period.
Society is more securely categorised when statistical information is available. Thus, for example, changes in society can be inferred from the percentage of the employed in broad occupational groups.
Employers and proprietors 06.7 06.7 04.7
White-collar workers 18.7 23.0 35.9
Manual workers 74.6 70.3 59.3
Source: A.H. Halsey (ed), Trends in British Society since 1900 (Macmillan, 1972)
Other statistics summarise and infer more considerable change. Consider, for example, the percentage of women in Britain in work in the first half of this century.
Source: A.H. Halsey (ed), Trends in British Society since 1900 (Macmillan, 2nd edn, 1988)
Tracing the changes, and the reasons for the changes, in less tangible social features, such as style or attitudes and ideas, is a lot more difficult. The nexus of reasons for the spirit of the Sixties and even the mood which took the British Labour party to power in 1997 are not all obviously identifiable.
Apart from designated Social and Economic A-Level History syllabuses, which a minority of candidates study, the centre of most A-Level study is politics. This does not mean that social History has no importance for these students. Once those who study History move away from seeing History as the description of a series of events towards an understanding of why they happened, a progression which modern History courses encourage, an appreciation of society and social change can markedly increase students’ understanding of the events of political History. Society and the economy are the slower-moving substrata which form the foundation on which politics are conducted. All governments, in the long term, are influenced by society and the economy, and in the representative governments of liberal democracies in the Western world the influence is particularly strong.