Is there any purpose or meaning that the word “societal” has which is not equally well served by “social”? Is “societal” just one of those words that makes you sound more policy-wonkish? Or does it really have some more specific meaning than “social”?

Because for some reason “societal” always sticks in my craw when I’m grading student papers or reading scholarly work.

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16 Responses to Societal?

  1. Bill Hooker says:

    Ah, I’m glad to see I’m not alone in my dislike of “societal”. There might be a case for a distinction along the lines of:

    societal: arising from the conditions set by society; “racism is pretty clearly a societal construct, whether or not humans are predisposed to prejudice”

    social: relating to, part of society; “Fred was most at home in the New York social milieu”

    but I think that context is more than adequate to separate the two senses (to the extent that there really is a difference, of which I’m not persuaded). “Societal” just seems clumsy to me.

  2. sharon says:

    As far as I can see, the only valid reason for using ‘societal’ is if you’re specifically talking about things pertaining to Societies (ie, formal organisations with defined, exclusive criteria for membership such as paying subscription fees, passing entrance examinations, etc) rather than societies. I think this is what Michael Mann is referring to in The Sources of Social Power: “Human beings need to enter into social power relations, but they do not need social totalities. They are social, but not societal, animals.” But I suspect that there are plenty of people (not least students…) using societal wrongly, as a synonym for social, because they think it’ll sound more impressive and intellectual.

  3. Alan Baumler says:

    I agree that it rather annoys me when students utilize that word.

  4. kieran says:

    ‘Societal’ has a narrower range of meaning than ‘social.’ I was about to cite the same quote from Mann as an example of this … and I agree with her that most of the time people using the word don’t intend to make this distinction.

  5. Ralph says:

    I agree that “societal” is used incorrectly at least nine times out of ten; and am glad to be reminded that it has a correct useage!

  6. SamChevre says:

    In addition to the above points, I might use “societal” if I was already using “social” in the same piece of writing, and wanted to keep clear what I was talking about at any given point. For example, “Teenagers’ social anxieties are inherent to the process of becoming an adult, but are often magnified and distorted by societal forces.”

  7. BLB says:

    For ‘societal,’ the OED helpfully lists the defns ” Societary; social” (and then the defn of ‘societary’ they list is: ‘Of, pertaining to, concerned or dealing with, society or social conditions; social.”)

    In my own personal use, I always think of ‘social’ as pertaining to social networks and ‘societal’ as pertaining to the relationship between groups and some kind of a dominant ‘society.’ So, something like “the social groupings of tuscan merchants were shaped by societal restrictions on marriage patterns and male-bonding in 14th century italy.”

    And can anyone explain the difference between -ic and istic? Viz. satanic, satanistic?

  8. Henry Swift says:

    The use of “social” may connote some sort of relationship to lefty sorts of things. You might use “societal” to avoid suggesting such a link. For example, you know exactly what “socially responsibly investment” means, it’s less clear what “societally responsible investment” would mean.

  9. Chris Clarke says:

    Alan beat me to my joke.

  10. Minivet says:

    I think (if you Socratized them) people would say they use it because they feel “social” has a broader range of meanings, associated more with peer groups and in-groups (social pressure, social climb) and political causes (social work), and see “societal” as demarcating the academic meaning of “social” specifically — the structural, total meaning.

    It’s not necessary, but it’s not new either. “Familial” was invented to mean “relating to the family” after “familiar” became too broad.

  11. Minivet says:

    Imagine a ‘/i’ after “academic” above. Why no preview?

  12. fran says:

    what about “the socius”? i’ve been reading an article about social conflict and the author periodically talks about “problems in the socius”. it’s the first i’ve come across the word and am not sure if it means something specific.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    Problems in “the socius”? That sounds more like a medical text. “Doctor, I have a problem in my socius”. It has the smell of a crit-theory neologism about it. I’ve seen it once or twice in such texts; the vague sense I get of what is meant is a sort of “apparatus” or constellation of institutions, constituencies, professions, etc. within civil society.

  14. kieran says:

    “problems in the socius”

    Oh for Godius sake.

  15. fran says:

    ah, i’m glad it sounds and smells suspicious. i half expected to return here and find (yet another) critical perspective on society that I had missed!

  16. DFF says:

    Although I find Sharon’s suggestion very attractive, dictionaries and real usage don’t seem to bear it out–both the New Oxford American Dictionary and the Oxford Dictionary of English define ‘societal’ as ‘relating to society or social relations’ and the illustrative quotations in the OED show this as well. So with respect to Ralph, those who use the term as a synonym for social aren’t using it wrongly (though I wish that I could tell them they were). Poking around in the OED quotations also suggests that perhaps ‘societal’ arose out of a short-lived attempt to retitle sociology as ‘societology’ which would at least explain the extra syllables in ‘societal’.

    As to socius, unless the stuff that fran is working with is classics/Roman history, I’d guess that what is meant is “the individual person, considered as the unit of human society, the social self” as the OED has it.

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