Society: A Colonial History of the Concept
There is perhaps no more frequently cited concept in modern thought to have excited so little historical investigation as 'society'. Conventionally, scholars trace the origins of modern understandings of 'society' to Enlightenment philosophers for whom 'society' referred to the realm of essentially unforced though heavily regulated interaction between autonomous individuals. On this reading, the concept of 'society' imbibes both the repressive connotations of regimes of self-discipline, and the liberating potential of unforced interaction. I will argue in this paper however, that such a reading misses the colonial history of the concept, which shows a darker side to the concept and its history. By focusing on early British colonization in Australia, it will be argued that colonial efforts to govern the Indigenous inhabitants by 'civilising' them, were premised on the view that the British were 'fitting' the Indigenous peoples of Australia for 'society'. The colonial history of the concept thus reveals that early European notions of society were premised on 'civilization'. Civilisation was the process which ensured that individuals could be made capable of 'society', and thus society itself could only be understood as an artifact of regulation, government and control. Key Words: Society, Indigenous people, civilization, colonial, government.
TASA 2005 Conference Proceedings