What is a Society, Gabriel Tarde

In Laws of Imitation, Gabriel Tarde poses the question, What is a society?

What is a society? The general answer is as follows: It is a group of distinct individuals who render one another mutual services. But this definition is as false as it is clear. It has been the source of all those confusions which have so often been made between so-called animal societies, or the majority of them, and the only true societies, which do include, in a certain connection, a small number of animals.

For this wholly economic notion, a notion which bases the social group upon mutual helpfulness, it might be an advantage to substitute a purely juristic conception of society. In this case, an individual would not be associated with those to whom he was useful or who were useful to him, but with those, and only with those, who had established over him recognised rights of law, custom, and conventionality, or over whom he had analogous rights, with or without reciprocity. But we shall see that although this is a preferable point of view, yet it unduly restricts the social group, just as the economic point of view unduly enlarges it. Finally, we might think of the social tie as entirely political or religious in character. Belief in the same religion or collaboration for the same patriotic purpose, a purpose common to all the associates and one absolutely distinct from their different individual wants, for whose satisfaction it matters little whether they aid each other or not, would constitute a true social relationship. Such moral and mental unanimity is undoubtedly characteristic of mature societies; but it is also true that social ties may begin without it. They exist, for example, among Europeans of different nationalities.

Consequently, this definition is too narrow. Moreover, the conformity of aims and beliefs of which we are speaking, this mental likeness, which may characterise tens and hundreds of millions of men at the same time, is not born all of a sudden. It is produced little by little, and extends from one man to another by means of imitation. This, then, is always the point to which we must return.

If the relation of one social unit to another consisted essentially of an exchange of services, we should not only have to recognise the right of animal groups to be called societies, we should have to admit that they were the societies par excellence. The mutual services of shepherd and husbandman, of hunter and fisherman, of baker and butcher, are far less than those which the different sexes of white ants render one another. Among animals themselves, the most typical societies would not be formed by the highest, by bees, ants, horses, and beavers, but by the lowest, by the siphonophorse, for example, where division of labour is so complete that eating and digesting are carried on separately by different individuals. There can be no more signal interchange of services than this.

Applying this view to mankind it might be said, without irony, that the strength of the social tie between men was in proportion to the degree of their reciprocal usefulness. The master who shelters and nourishes his slave and the noble who defends and protects his serf, in return for their subordinate services, are examples of mutual service. The reciprocity is gained, to be sure, by force; but that fact is insignificant if the economic point of view is the primary one and if we think that it is bound to encroach more and more upon the juristic point of view.

. . .

We have erred in thinking that societies in becoming civilised have favoured economic at the expense of juristic relations. In doing this, we forget that all labour and service and exchange is based upon a true system of contract . . .

Society is far more a system of mutually determined engagements and agreements, of rights and duties, than a system of mutual services.

. . .

Economic production exacts a specialisation of aptitudes. If this specialisation were fully developed in accordance with the logically inevitable although unexpressed wish of economists, we should have as many distinct human species as there are miners, farmers, weavers, lawyers, physicians, etc. But, fortunately, the assured and undeniable preponderance of juridical relations prevents any excessive differentiation of workers. In fact, it is continually diminishing such distinctions.


Tarde, Gabriel de. The laws of imitation . New York : H. Holt and Company. Kindle Edition.

Tarde is arguing against Durkheim’s theory of the division of labor. For Durkheim, increasing division of labor is a sign of an advanced society–that is, a society held together by organic solidarity. But Tarde is saying that the law (juridical relations) works against increasingly specialization. If everyone is expected to follow the same laws, we won’t evolve into “many distinct human species.” The education system and the mass media also counteract the specializing tendency of the economy.

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