While this essay will speak primarily from a historian's perspective, I want first to acknowledge that the idea of “societies” has had a peculiarly interdisciplinary hold on scholarship, bridging the humanities and social sciences. For sociologists it is a disciplinary foundation, for anthropologists it is often an escape hatch from the problematic notion of “cultures,” and for historians it is an organizational scheme that has stealthily metamorphosed into an unconsidered worldview. While some disciplines, especially sociology, have invested more effort than others in critically examining the idea of societies, each has produced critiques that perhaps should have killed off “societies” altogether. And yet enormous numbers of new works continue to take “societies” as their objects of study (e.g., Thum 2014), with even transnational and global studies framed as the interaction of supposedly distinct societies.

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