This section is from the book "Principles Of Sociology With Educational Applications", by Frederick R. Clow. Also available from Amazon: Principles of sociology with educational applications.
One of the old ways of stating the relation between the individual and society was in the form of an antithesis: the individual versus society. Herbert Spencer entitled one of his books "Man versus the State." Recent sociologists have shown that this antithesis is not correct. The essential point to their objection is that the individual is himself a part of society and so cannot be set over against it. And yet these recent refutations are not entirely satisfactory. There is something in the individual's relation to his surroundings which constitutes antithesis - a contrast, an opposition. The trouble is, perhaps, that the old antithesis is not so much false as incorrectly stated. We may begin our analysis of the problem with two very obvious propositions.
(1) Society is not a thing which exists apart from the individuals of which it is composed. A society or an institution is merely a group of individuals. What we study under the name of sociology is the relations which bind the group together or relate it to other individuals or groups as parts of a still larger group. We may study these relations apart from any concrete group and so make an abstraction of them; we thus get the generalized relations of science.
(2) Each individual is distinct from every other individual in both body and mind. All are related, of course, and any two of us may be much alike in bodily form or mental content; we may be identical in some respects, even may conceivably be identical in all respects; yet each is perfectly distinct from every other. Every man's consciousness is just as certainly his own as is his body. Of all the things that exist, a person is the most clearly marked off from every other.
Now the antithesis is not between the individual and society, but between one individual and another. It is you versus me; you versus the person with whom you are conversing; the orator versus the person in the audience who catches his eye for the instant; David versus Jonathan. However closely the soul of David was knit with the soul of Jonathan, yet when Saul cast the javelin at David, it was a different experience to David from what it was to Jonathan. You and the person with whom you are talking are carrying on a running antithesis. Two persons look at a sunset. They do not observe the same things or have the same emotions. One speaks; the other responds with approval or disapproval, and adds his own further thought. As long as two persons are communicating with each other, their relation is an ever-changing comparison, contrast, opposition, a process of give and take like boxing or tennis.
What we call society is this personal antithesis multiplied many times. The tennis game of doubles is played by two persons on a side: A and B against C and D. There is first the antithesis between A and B, and sometimes it amounts to opposition: both start for an approaching ball, but one strikes it and deprives the other of the chance. A similar antithesis goes on between C and D. Then the A-B combination is in opposition to the C-D combination. In the same way a literary society, a city, a political party, a nation, even the whole human race, is only an intricate compounding of such personal antitheses. What we sometimes call the opposition between the individual and society is only the opposition between A and B, or between A and C-D, or between A and some larger group of which he is not a member. A student, for instance, opposes some officer of the school, or some teacher, or those persons in authority who are responsible for a certain policy. But no one of these or all of them together constitute the entire school; he himself is a part of the school. If the student severs his connection with the school, then he may possibly set himself in opposition to the entire school. That, however, is not likely, for, among all the people connected with it, there are probably some against whose work or policy he has no antagonism; any wholesale condemnation which he may utter is not literally true.
And so, although the individual is always a part of society in the broad sense and cannot be placed in antithesis over against it, yet the individual always stands in an antithetical relation to some other person or group of persons. This antithesis is of every degree, from friendly cooperation, a reciprocal interchange of services to the advantage of both parties, to mortal antagonism such as exists between two duelists.
"I haven't anything against you," said a boy to a teacher, when he was leaving school, "and I haven't anything against the school, but I can't get along with old X" (the principal).
"Society is a plexus of personal reactions." - American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 18, p. 206, A. W. Small.