social order

Quick Reference

Explanations of social order, of how and why societies cohere, are the central concern of sociology. The ‘Hobbesian problem of order’, for example, preoccupied those classical sociologists faced directly with the apparent consequences of industrialization and urbanization: the demise of community, disruption of primary social relationships, loss of authority on the part of traditional agencies of social control, and general instability associated with rapid social change in the 19th century.

There are essentially two types of explanation of social order, which can be linked with the names of Émile Durkheim on the one hand, and Karl Marx on the other. The former, associated also with Talcott Parsons and the functionalist school of thought, focuses on the role of shared norms and values in maintaining cohesion in society. For Durkheim, this emphasis arose out of his critique of utilitarian social thought, popular especially among social and political theorists such as Herbert Spencer in Britain, who focused on mutual self-interest and contractual agreements as the basis of social order in increasingly complex industrial societies. For Durkheim, by comparison, questions of morality were central to the explanation of social integration. In his view, the ‘mechanical solidarity’ of pre-industrial societies rested on shared beliefs and values, located primarily in the conscience collective. However, the advent of industrial society sees the emergence of a new form of ‘organic solidarity’, based on interdependence arising out of socialization and differentiation (see structural differentiation). Moral restraints on egoism arise out of association and form the basis of social cohesion. While Durkheim did not deny the existence of conflict and the use of force, especially in periods of rapid social change, Parsons underlined the importance of a prior moral consensus as a necessary pre-condition for social order. He saw organic solidarity as a modified form of the conscience collective and argued that the acceptance of values by the internalization of norms is the basis of integration and social order in modern societies. Because of the importance which he attached to a shared body of norms and values, Parsons was persistently criticized for over-emphasizing consensus, and for neglecting conflict and change in his sociological analyses.

The second explanation of social order derives from the Marxist tradition within the discipline and offers a materialist rather than a cultural account of cohesion. Marx emphasized inequalities in material wealth and political power in capitalist societies. The distribution of material and political resources is the source of conflict between different collectivities—social classes—who want a greater share of those resources than they may already enjoy. Conflict implies there is no moral consensus and social order is always precariously maintained. It is the product of the balance of power between competing groups, whereby the powerful constrain weaker groups, and cohesion is sustained through economic compulsion, political and legal coercion, and bureaucratic routine. While many Marxists have increasingly embraced cultural accounts of social order, for example by explaining working-class incorporation through a dominant ideology, others have noted that economic and political coercion has proved a remarkably effective source of stability, especially where power is legitimated as authority. Nevertheless, persistent conflict implies tension and change, rather than enduring stability.


Subjects: Sociology.

Reference entries