In the Durkheim and the Internet project, I explored the purchase of sociolinguistics for constructing new social theory adjusted to the online-offline social world which has become a default worldwide. One of the recurring problems in social theory is that of the nature of groups – from “society” over “social groups” and “social formations” to “class”, “professional group”, “ethnic group”, “micropopulations” and “aggregates” of people in some joint activity.
Many of these concepts contain reifications – we imagine an object, usually a collection of people in some kind of order. This order is in turn imagined metaphysically, in terms of shared symbolic units such as “values”, with – often empirically weak and questionable – connections between such values and actual forms of behavior.
This problem of reification and empirical weakness was already spotted by Simmel, who preferred the active term “sociation” over the nominalization “society”, and I follow him in this preference. For sociolinguistics may have a simple three-step methodological program for empirical investigations into “groups” of any kind and configuration. Here it is:
- Patterns of communication necessarily involve meaningful social relationships as prerequisite, conduit and outcome;
- Such relationships will always, similarly, involve identities and categorizations, interactionally established;
- Thus, when observing patterns of communication, we are observing the very essence of sociation and “groupness” – regardless of how we call the “groups”.
Sociolinguistically, thus, we approach groups pragmatically and axiologically, from the angle of the actual observable communication practices that, eventually, characterize them through the values attributed to such practices.
Groups, then, are not collections of human beings but patterned sets of communicative behaviors and the relationships with which they are dialectically related. Whenever we see such ordered forms of communicative behavior, there is an assumption of active and evolving groupness – sociation – but the analytical issue is not the nature of the group (or the label we need to choose for it) but the specific social relationships observable through and in communication – a Batesonian focus, if you wish, overtaking a Durkheimian one. All other aspects of sociation can be related to this. So if one needs the definition of a group: a group is a communicatively organized and ratified set of social relationships.