The term social is wildly overused, most frequently when the word “societal” is required. The point the speaker is trying to make, perhaps, is that something is broadly characteristic of a society, or of a large part of it, not that something is held in common or has been created through a communal process. However, close observation tells us that hardly anything is properly speaking held in common, even when the legal or political form claims that it is so, and that almost nothing is created equally by all individuals in a population.

Knowledge-creation may serve as an example since it is sometimes, indeed often, said to be social. However, it is unlikely ever to be true in the strict sense. Of course, the processes of knowledge creation are frequently, indeed nearly always collaborative, but the parties involved in those collaborations are only a selection from the wider population, both over time and at any one time. Knowledge is rarely if ever fully social, that is completely or overwhelmingly collaborative. I cannot think of a plausible candidate for social knowledge creation in the strict sense, not even language, for it is or should be notorious that there is no natural kind of, say, English, a cairn to which all users have contributed, but only numerous overlapping pools of linguistic competence with correspondences and resemblances between them. A language is not an organism.

Social is an extremely strong, indeed universalist term, implying collective interest or participation across or through the entire population, however that population is to be defined, and neglect of this characteristic accounts for most of the errors in its use. Because of this strength it is to be used very sparingly. For example, we might be tempted say that public health, or national independence has a social dimension, one affecting every individual in the population. But even in these cases, where most would agree it has legitimacy, it should be employed with care. Public health issues do not affect all individuals equally, and may not affect some individuals at all. One might regard such instances as outliers that can be safely put to one side in order to gain insight, and I would not disagree. But it is clear that reflection on the details of claims to sociality tends to erode the rigoristic legitimacy of the term.

Consequently, we can now see why the vague, rhetorical or poetic use of the term only achieves its suasive and elusive power by failing to define the population to which it refers, thus implying without actually claiming and thus obliging the claimant to defend universality of creative participation and entitled interest. In truth, it is all too often not a descriptive term, but a normative one, expressing the wish or the demand that all those addressed should accept sociality and adjust their behaviour accordingly. In other words, it is an act of aspirational or coercive rhetoric.

And very vulnerable rhetoric it is. If we define the populational extent carefully, as we always should, then the magic disappears, and the warm glow may turn to a chill. Often enough, we find ourselves no longer included in the alliance, we are the prey not the predator. For this is the dark truth of rhetorical claims of sociality, namely that they prove to be spurious assertions of entitlement to the work of others, and even at their mildest are more or less subtle calls for a share of a dish in the cooking of which they have played no part. Rather than ask for favour, with all the implied promise of thanks and reciprocity that must accompany it, the speaker demands a share of right and without any recompense. The warmth of the term social barely conceals the threat and indeed the fact of robbery with menaces, and it should be avoided as a general rule. While some degree of more or less common interest most certainly occurs, it deserves explicit demonstration with all exceptions noted, not a suspiciously loose insinuation of unbounded community. As ever, praise undeserved is scandal in disguise.