Why It Matters: Society and Groups

Why describe society and understand how groups operate?

Not long ago, a group in France known as the Yellow Jackets have made international headlines. They have no specified leader and claim they represent a movement and an uprising by the people, not a social protest.[1] Who comprises “the people”? The most common denominator seems to be rural or provincial working-class people who feel cheated by taxes and high prices and who advocate for a direct, internet-based, popular democracy (Lichfield, 2019). One of many such web-originated uprisings around the world, the Yellow Jackets have used violence and have protested in large numbers (as many as 280,000 protestors in November 2018). They have garnered global attention for their bright yellow vests (an emergency-indicating item that all French motorists are required to keep in their car trunk) and the ways in which they have highlighted alleged presidential improprieties and growing income inequality.  

Workers in reflective yellow vests stand around in protest in Belfort, France in December 2018.

Figure 1. A Yellow Jackets protest in Belfort, France.

If we use our sociological imagination to examine France’s history, we might recall that sociology began with Frenchmen Auguste Comte’s question, “What holds society together?” Instead of questioning why the French Revolution occurred, Comte wondered why it hadn’t happened earlier! Similarly, we can think about other countries that have sizable and growing income disparities (including the United States) and ask, “What holds these societies together?” 

In the following sections, we will examine society, social institutions, and culture. Specifically, we will explore the analyses of society advanced by Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber. Finally, we will examine organizations and groups and the importance of group dynamics.

These sociological frameworks will provide us with resources for understanding groups like the Yellow Jackets or the conservative Tea Party Movement, and for theoretically contextualizing the orientations and behaviors of similar groups. 

  1. Lichfield, J. 2019. "In the Yellow Jackets' Heartland." Politico. https://www.politico.eu/article/france-protests-yellow-jackets-heartland-gilets-jaunes/.