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People: in search of a concep


Few words are used in more different contexts than «people». Its meaning is so fluid that social scientists have little respect for the term, preferring to speak of society or social classes. But, as Ludwig Wittgenstein says, «the meaning of a word depends on its usage». Among us, those who use «people» more positively are those who are interested in the fate of the lower classes: the «people».

We will attempt to give analytical content to «people» so that its use may serve those who feel excluded from society and want to be «people».

The first philosophical-social meaning has its roots in the classical thinking of antiquity. Cicero and then Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas affirmed that «people is not just any gathering of men, it is the union of a multitude around a consensus of the correct and common interests». It is the State that must harmonize the different interests.

A second meaning of «people» comes from cultural anthropology: it is the population that is part of a given culture, and inhabits a given territory. So many cultures, so many peoples. This meaning is legitimate because it distinguishes one people from another: a Bolivian quechua is different from a Brazilian. But this concept of «people» obscures differences and even internal contradictions: both an agro-business landlord and the poor peon who lives on his lands are part of the «people». But in a modern state power is legitimate only if it is rooted in the «people». This is why the Constitution says that «all power comes from the people and must be exercised in the name of the people».

A third meaning is key to politics. Politics is the common search for the common good (the usual meaning) or the activity that seeks the power of the State in order to administer society (specific meaning). On the lips of professional politicians «people» is very ambiguous. On the one hand, it means the undifferentiated gathering of the members of a given society (populus), and on the other, it means the marginalized and generally uneducated poor, (plebs = common people). When politicians say that «they go to the people, talk to the people and act for the benefit of the people, they are mostly thinking of the poor».

Here lies a dichotomy between the majorities and their leaders or between the masses and the elites. As Nelson Werneck Sodre said: «a secret intuition makes everyone think of himself as being more of the people to the degree that he is more humble. He has nothing, and therefore, he is proud of being of the «people» (Introdução à revolução brasileira, 1963, p. 188). For example, our Brazilian elites do not consider themselves to be of the «people». Before he died in 2013, Antonio Ermirio de Moraes said: «the elites never think of the people, they only think of themselves». That is the problem.

There is a fourth meaning of «people» that comes from sociology. Here some rigor of the concept is needed in order not to fall in populism. Initially, it has a political-ideological meaning, to the degree that it obscures the internal conflicts of the group of persons with different cultures, social status, and different projects.

That meaning has little analytical value because it is too all-encompassing, even though it is used most in the language of the mass media and of the powerful.

Sociologically, «people» is also a historical category, between the masses and the elites. In a class-based society that was colonized, the concept of the elite is clear: it is those who hold power, who are the owners, and have education. The elite has its ethos, habits and language. In contrast to the elite is the Native, those who neither have full citizenship nor can implement their own projects. They assumed, and unconsciously incorporated, that of the elites. The elites are expert manipulators of «the people»: that is populism. The «people» is co-opted as a supporting actor in a project formulated by the elites, for the benefit of the elites.

But there are always bumps in the process of hegemony or class domination: from the masses charismatic leaders slowly appear, who organize social movements with their own vision for the country and their future. They stop being «people-mass» and start to be relatively autonomous, active citizens. New unions appear, movements of the landless, the homeless, women, the Afro-descendants, the Indigenous, among others. From the creation of those movements a concrete «people» is born among them. That «people» no longer depends on the elites. They develop a consciousness of their own, a different plan for the country. They teach means of resistance and for transforming the current social relationships. Thus the «people» is born, as a result of the development of the movements and active communities. This is the new reality in Brazil and in Latin America in recent decades, that is culminating now in new democracies of a popular and republican nature. A leader of the new political party, «We Can» in Spain, put it well: «it was not the people who produced the uprising, it was the uprising that produced the people». (Le Monde Diplomatique, January 2015 p. 16).

Now we can speak with some conceptual rigor: a «people» is emerging here, to the degree that it has consciousness and its own vision for the country. «People» also has an axiological dimension: all are called upon to be people: to be neither dominated nor dominators, but citizen-actors of a society where all can participate.

Free translation from the Spanish sent by
Melina Alfaro,,

3 Comentários leave one →
  1. 11/02/2015 9:12

    Texto interessante, reflete, literalmente a definiçao POVO.



  1. People: in search of a concep | EVS NOTÍ...
  2. People: in search of a concep | AFAGO...OU AFOGO.

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