Design, at its core, is an embodiment of purpose and intent, shaped by and for human experiences. As we delve deeper into the realms of social design – design that seeks to effect positive change within social systems – the nuanced understanding of terminologies becomes vital. A pair of terms that often trips up the uninitiated are “social” and “societal.” Both adjectives are derived from the root noun “society,” and are used interchangeably in casual conversation, but they hold distinct meanings in the realm of design.
Social generally pertains to human interactions and relations. It’s a broad term that can refer to anything that involves individuals interacting with each other, such as social gatherings, social norms, or social networks. It can also refer to the welfare of people, as in social services.
Social often focuses on the individual within their immediate community and their interactions within that community. It tends to prioritize interpersonal relationships and individual behavior in understanding societal phenomena. This perspective may overlook broader societal structures and power dynamics that impact individual behavior, potentially reinforcing individualistic narratives that attribute societal issues to personal failings rather than systemic factors. For instance, examining poverty as a result of individual laziness rather than a result of systemic inequality is a social perspective that neglects societal dynamics.
Societal, on the other hand, is generally used to refer to larger-scale phenomena that affect a society or a group as a whole. It tends to refer to structures, systems, or issues at the level of a society, nation, or civilization, such as societal norms, societal change, or societal problems.
Societal, conversely, is employed to refer to larger systemic, structural, or cultural issues that transcend individual interactions. It implicates institutions, norms, policies, and structures that impact groups of people or society as a whole. A societal perspective emphasizes how collective actions, historical processes, cultural norms, and systemic inequities shape individual experiences and outcomes. This perspective counters individualistic narratives by highlighting the structural nature of many social issues. For instance, discussing poverty in the context of income inequality, historical processes, and policy failures is a societal perspective on the issue.
Neoliberal ideology employs the term “social” to describe social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter. This framing presents these platforms as practical tools for individual expression and interpersonal interaction, creating a veneer of community-building and democratization. It emphasizes the platforms’ ability to connect people across the globe, facilitating the exchange of ideas and fostering a sense of global and inclusive community. However, this perspective conveniently glosses over the commercial and exploitative underpinnings of these “social” platforms.
Hidden beneath the rhetoric of “social” interaction is a lucrative business model predicated on the commodification of users’ attention and personal data. Users are transformed into products, their data collected, analyzed and sold to advertisers. These practices are obscured by the focus on individual usage and “connection,” allowing corporations to profit from users’ activities under the guise of facilitating “social” interaction.
Moreover, neoliberal ideology also employs the term “societal” to frame their market-based plans as solutions to broad structural problems. They present the market as an inherently efficient and fair mechanism for distributing resources and resolving “societal” issues. This approach is typified by the advocacy for “entrepreneurial solutions” to social problems or the “gig economy” as a path to individual empowerment and economic resilience.
This “societal” rhetoric obscures how these market-based solutions often exacerbate inequalities and fail to address the systemic roots of the problems they claim to solve. For instance, gig economy jobs may offer flexibility but often lack the stability and protections of traditional employment, placing workers in precarious situations. Yet, these issues are downplayed or ignored in the discourse of market-based “societal” solutions.