In the past, the state and society were considered as the same. First Greek thinkers, Plato and Aristotle, and later idealists like Hegel. Bradley and Bosanquet equated state with society. However, this was found to be wrong subsequently.
Now it is clear that society and state are separate entities. There was already the society before the state came into existence. Society is older and more comprehensive than state, but the state is more powerful. There are differences between them, but they tend to affect each other.
Distinction between Society and State
The following are the main differences between the society and the slate.
1. Social System vs Political System:
Society is a social system while state is a political system. Society is wider than the state. Society is the complex of social relations formed and developed through various groups and associations. State is an important part of society and refers only to the politically organised portion of society. At best it can be said to be society in its political aspect.
Territoriality is the distinguishing feature of state, not of society. The state has a definite territory. A society may be broader or narrower than the state. The Red Cross Society or the Rotary Club are international societies and cut across the territories of a large number of states.
3. Society is prior to the state:
Society is prior to the state. Man by nature is a social animal and different forms of society have existed from time to time to serve his needs. State is a developed form of social organisation and is a later growth. Some form of social organisation existed even before the state came into being.
4. Natural vs Organised:
Society is a natural organization, but state is not a natural organization, it is a political organization.
Society is permanent, but state is not permanent. State may disappear. It may be forcibly occupied by another state; it may voluntarily merge itself into another state.
State possesses sovereignty, society does not. The state operates through the instruments of compulsion and coercion. The state applies force to implements its laws and policies. Society has no coercive power comparable to that of the state.
Authority in society is based on custom, convention, moral persuasion or pressure of public opinion. To use the language of Barker : “The area of society is voluntary cooperation, its energy is good will and its method is elasticity; while the area of the state is mechanical action; its energy is force and its method is rigidity.”
7. Internal or External:
The society controls both internal and external activities of the individual while the state controls his external activities only. The state formulates rules which regulate the external behaviour of individual; it cannot regulate his thought.
It is compulsory for individual to become the member of the state. But his membership of society is voluntary; he cannot be forced to become its member.
9. Laws and Rules:
The laws and rules of state are definite and clear. These are made by the legislature of state. But those of the society are not so clear; they are generally ambiguous and vague. They are based on customs and conventions.
The Laws of state are uniform, so are punishments which are imposed upon the individual violating any law of the state. But the laws of society are not uniform. The laws of one group may be different from those of another group on the same matter. Similarly, different social groups have different punishments for violation of same law.
The government is the executive organ of state. It makes and implements laws of state. But the society does not possess such machinery. The society regulates itself by customs, traditions and conventions.
Finally, failure to distinguish between society and state can have dangerous implications for democracy and individual freedom. Political philosophies such as extreme idealism and fascism equate the state with society.
Failure to distinguish between society and state results in totalitarianism bringing all aspects of life and activity under the total control of the state. This can spell disaster to individual’s liberty and to all spontaneous and creative spheres of activity.