Social world is a broadly relational concept used in sociology and social psychology, as well as history, journalism and literature to indicate any particular system or network of social knowledge, awareness and relations. Thus, when someone refers to “my social world” they are ordinarily indicating an entire set of people, places and things that includes the people they know or have known in the past, their various social roles and the relationships, networks, organizations and institutions in which they participate, as well as the things they believe about the nature of the world in general (including the cosmology and makeup of the physical and natural world).
The idea of a social world usually implies a particular reference point, whether that is a starting point for action in that world, a particular observation post or the view of some individual within that particular social world. Thus, one may speak of the social world of a president or ruler, as well as of peasants, villagers slum dwellers, as well as fashionista or celebrities. The 20th-century U.S. humorist James Thurber entitled his most famous book (which was also the name of a television series) My World, and Welcome to It.
In the social and behavioral sciences and social history, social world is most often used as a micro-social concept closely associated with concepts like group, community, neighborhood, sub-culture, reference group and reference other. In many instances, the term is used as a linguistic substitute for society as the largest relevant reference group or domain of shared values and outlooks. This is particularly true for symbolic interactionists, libertarians, individualists and others who find the term society ambiguous, incoherent, authoritarian, or in other ways unacceptable. This is also the case for some localists (such as those in the environmental movement who characterize themselves as locovores and of particularists, or those practicing exclusive adherence to, dedication to, or their own group, political party, sect, cult, or nation. Thus, it should not be a surprise that many such groups have been particularly interesting targets for ethnographic research (See below Ethnography).
The phrase world view (like the German, weltanschauung) is used to describe the particular reference point or outlook implied by a social world. One may speak of historical referents like [the Social World of the New Testament], the medieval social world, the post-industrial social world, or the Elizabethan world view.
Perhaps the most systematic theoretical usage of the concept of social world in this subjective sense has been in various constructivist theories and perspectives growing out of the 1967 book by Berger and Luckmann entitled The Social Construction of Reality, which was, as those authors note, partly a recapitulation of the sociology of the German phenomenologist Alfred Schütz. Commenting on the work of German philosopher Max Scheler, Berger and Luckmann observe in their introduction that "human knowledge is ordered by society," that this order is "relative to a particular socio-historical situation" and that it "appears to the individual as the natural way of looking at the world." These observations lay the groundwork for the argument that the particular social world one inhabits shapes one's worldview.
Later, the title of Berger and Luckmann's book was gently lampooned in philosopher John Searle's defense of realism, The Construction of Social Reality--underscoring that this sort of relativism is far from universally accepted by philosophers.
A great deal of ethnographic research has been devoted to the reconstruction of social worlds. Beginning with studies of various forms of unusual employment such as taxi dancers by sociologists of the Chicago school in the 1920s, a large body of ethnographic studies of social worlds has been produced by symbolic interactionists, phenomenologists, and feminist researchers. This includes recent research on medical social worlds, as well as studies of ethnic and minority communities beginning with William Foote Whyte's 1943 study of Street Corner Society and Elliot Lebow's Tally's Corner.
Social Worlds in Literature and Art
Fictional authors who attend to the construction of extensive or highly detailed social worlds often concentrate on novels of manners (aka culture, folkways, customs, lifestyles, et. al.). Fictional social worlds figure directly and indirectly in a wide variety of 19th and 20th century social realist literature and various other forms of art. Thus, for example, one can speak meaningfully of "the social world of Dickens" for the various works conveying life in mid-19th century London, and earlier "the social world of Hogarth" that is conveyed in his line drawings and political cartoons. By contrast, we seldom speak of "the social world of Shakespeare" simply because his body of work is not limited to any particular social mileau, but instead ranges across time and space from ptolemaic Egypt and the Roman Empire, to the Italian City states of Venice and Verona, to medieval Denmark (Hamlet), England (e.g. MacBeth) and many other locales.
Some of the greatest as well as quite ordinary novels continue to be read in part for their reconstructed social worlds. There is William Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County, for example, as well as the suburban worlds created by John Cheever, who has been called "the Chekov of the suburbs."
There are many other cases in fiction where construction of social worlds is a major feature of an author's body of work. Reconstructing for the modern reader the social world of 18th century rural English life is one of the features of the novels of Jane Austin, for example. The same may be said of the ways in which the novels of Louisa May Alcott reconstruct the social world of family life in 19th century Concord, Massachusetts and Willa Cather, Booth Tarkenton, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis and many others can similarly be said to have reconstructed social worlds. Jane Austin
The fictional creation of new social worlds continues with a variety of contemporary writers. For example, the novels of Alan Furst are interesting in part for the heavily-researched and very convincing reconstructions of the social worlds of refugees, partisans, intelligence operatives, soldiers and others operating in Paris and various locales in eastern and central Europe during the period 1933-1945.
These examples all raise an important issue that pervades all social worlds created in fiction: Are these literary works reconstructions of social worlds, akin to journalistic or sociological accounts, or are they the unique fictional inventions of their authors' imaginations?
- Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann. 1967. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Anchor Books., p. 8