The Invention of ‘Society’ in Early Modern England

Phil Withington, University of Sheffield

This paper outlines two aspects of the semantic history of the term ‘society’: first, it traces the process by which the Latin term societas was translated into the English vernacular and popularized as an English commonplace term; second, it maps the kinds of institutions and interactions that English writers increasingly described as ‘society’. In each instance the term depicted not so much the abstracted agglomeration of social relations in their entirety (the commonplace meaning of the term today) so much as quite specific and tangible instances of voluntary and purposeful association. The paper argues that the early history of the term is a nice example of how early modern people increasingly looked backwards, to the language and values of ‘the ancients’, in order to understand and indeed control their world. It also suggests that social theorists and social historians alike have underestimated the significance of ‘societies’ both as sources of collective and public agency and drivers of social change.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 59. Data Intensive Approaches to Civil Society and Economic Concepts