From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"People aren't complicated, either you love them too much, either you don't love them enough …"
--Le Parfum d'Yvonne (1994)
A people is any plurality of persons considered as a whole. Used in politics and law, the term "a people" refers to the collective or community of an ethnic group or nation. The term "the people" refers to the public or common mass of people of a polity. As such it is a concept of human rights law, international law as well as constitutional law, particularly used for claims of popular sovereignty.
The English noun people has two distinct fields of application:
- as a countable noun, a group of humans, either with unspecified traits, or specific characteristics (e.g. the people of Spain or the people of the Plains).
- as a mass noun, people is the suppletive plural of person. However, the word persons is sometimes used in place of people, especially when it would be ambiguous with its collective sense (e.g. missing persons instead of missing people). It can collectively refer to all humans or it can be used to identify a certain ethnic or religious group. For example, "people of color" is a phrase used in North America to describe non-whites.
In philosophy and theory
The concept of personhood (who is a person within a society) is the fundamental component of any selective concept of people. A distinction is maintained in philosophy and law between the notions "human being", or "man", and "person". The former refers to the species, while the latter refers to a rational agent (see, for example, John Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding II 27 and Immanuel Kant's Introduction to the Metaphysic of Morals). Central issues of interest to people are the understanding of the human condition and the meaning of life, and survival. Religion, philosophy, and science show or represent modes and aspects of inquiry which attempt to investigate and understand the nature, behavior, and purpose of people. Sociology, economics, and politics represent modes by which people investigate how to maximize a collective survival strategy.
Various republics govern, or claim to govern, in the name of the people. Both the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire used the Latin term Senatus Populusque Romanus, (the Senate and People of Rome). This term was fixed to Roman legionary standards, and even after the Roman Emperors achieved a state of total personal autarchy, they continued to wield their power in the name of the Senate and People of Rome. A People's Republic is typically a Marxist or socialist one-party state that claims to govern on behalf of the people. Populism is another umbrella term for various political tendencies that claim to represent the people, usually with an implication that they serve the common people instead of the elite.
In criminal law, in certain jurisdictions, criminal prosecutions are brought in the name of the People. Several U.S. states, including California, Illinois, and New York, use this style. Citations outside the jurisdictions in question usually substitute the name of the state for the words "the People" in the case captions. Four states — Massachusetts, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky — refer to themselves as the Commonwealth in case captions and legal process. Other states, such as Indiana, typically refer to themselves as the State in case captions and legal process. The political theory underlying this format is that criminal prosecutions are brought in the name of the sovereign; thus, in these U.S. states, the "people" are judged to be the sovereign, even as in the United Kingdom and other dependencies of the British Crown, criminal prosecutions are typically brought in the name of the Crown. "The people" identifies the entire body of the citizens of a jurisdiction invested with political power or gathered for political purposes.