A society is a group of people living or working together. There are various different uses of the term society.
The casual meaning of society simply refers to a group of people living together in an ordered community.1
The social sciences use the term society to mean a group of people that form a semi-closed (or semi-open) system, in which most interactions are with other individuals belonging to the group. More abstractly, a society is defined as a network of relationships between entities. A society is also sometimes defined as an interdependent community.
The origin of the word society comes from the Latin societas, a "friendly association with others." Societas is derived from socius meaning "companion" and thus the meaning of society is closely related to what is social. Implicit in the meaning of society is that its members share some mutual concern or interest in a common objective. As such, society is often used as synonymous with the collective citizenry of a country as directed through national institutions concerned with civic welfare.
Human societies are often organized according to their primary means of subsistence: social scientists identify hunter-gatherer societies, nomadic pastoral societies, horticulturalist or simple farming societies, and intensive agricultural societies, also called civilizations. Some consider Industrial and Post-Industrial societies to be separate from traditional agricultural societies.
Societies can also be organized according to their political structure: in order of increasing size and complexity, there are band societies, tribes, chiefdoms, and state societies.
Peoples of many nations united by common political and cultural traditions, beliefs, or values are sometimes also said to be a society (for example: Judeo-Christian, Eastern, Western, etc). When used in this context, the term is being used as a means of contrasting two or more "societies" whose representative members represent alternative conflicting and competing worldviews.
Also, some academic, learned and scholarly societies and associations such as the "American Society of Mathematics" describe themselves as societies. In the United Kingdom these are normally non-profit making and have charitable status. In science they range in size to include national scientific societies including the Royal Society to regional natural history societies. Academic societies may have interest in a wide range of subjects, including the arts, humanities and science.
In the United States, the title "society" is most common in commerce, in which a partnership between investors to start a business is usually called a "society". In the United Kingdom, partnerships are not called societies but cooperatives or mutuals are often known as societies (such as friendly societies and building societies).
If society is something of a shibboleth, confusions in its understanding can often be traced to the various nuances in which it has been used to describe a great variety of political opinion. For example, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously denied that society exists at all. However, Thatcher's use of the term was narrow and should be understood within the context of her polemic. In the interview in Women's Own magazine, October 3, 1987, Thatcher argued that the obligation for solving social problems, commonly expected of the government, was more properly the responsibility of individuals and families: "no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first" (Thatcher 1987). Thatcher only denies the existence of "society" as she understands it -- the idea that social welfare is the responsibility of society at large (or, in a narrower sense, governments) and not individuals.
As a related note, there is still an ongoing debate in sociological and anthropological circles if there exists an entity we could call society. Some Marxist theorists, like Louis Althusser, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek, argued that society is nothing more than an effect of the ruling ideology of a certain class system, and shouldn't be used as a sociological notion.
Note 1: Definition of Society (http://www.askoxford.com/concise_oed/society) from the OED.
- Lecture notes on "Defining Society" (http://core.ecu.edu/soci/juskaa/SOCI2110/Lectures/Lect1) from East Carolina University.
- Learning Commons - What is Culture ? - Glossary Item - Society (http://www.wsu.edu:8001/vcwsu/commons/topics/culture/glossary/society.html)