Definition of Social Order in Sociology

Overview and Theoretical Approaches

People of different races work together to assemble a puzzle, symbolizing the concept of social order.
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Social order is a fundamental concept in sociology that refers to the way that the various components of society—social structures and institutions, social relations, social interaction and behavior, and cultural aspects like norms, beliefs, and values—work together to maintain the status quo.

Outside sociology people often use the term "social order" to refer a state of stability and consensus that exists when there is an absence of chaos or upheaval. Sociologists, however, have a more complex view of the term. Within the field, it refers to the organization of many inter-related parts of a society that is built on social relationships between and among people and all of society's parts. Social order is only present when individuals agree to a shared social contract that states that certain rules and laws must be abided and certain standards, values, and norms maintained.

Social order can be observed within national societies, geographical regions, institutions and organizations, communities, formal and informal groups, and even at the scale of global society. Within all of these, social order is most often hierarchical in nature; some hold more power than others in order to enforce the laws, rules, and norms that undergird it.

Practices, behaviors, values and beliefs that are counter to those that maintain social order are typically framed as deviant and/or dangerous and are curtailed through the enforcement of laws, rules, norms, and taboos.

Social Order Follows a Social Contract

The question of how social order is achieved and maintained is the question that gave birth to the field of sociology. English philosopher Thomas Hobbes laid the groundwork for the pursuit of this question within the social sciences in his book Leviathan. Hobbes recognized that without some form of social contract, there could be no society, and chaos and fighting would reign. According to Hobbes, modern states were created in order to provide social order. People within a society agreed to empower the state to enforce the rule of law, and in exchange, they gave up some individual power. This is the essence of the social contract that lies at the foundation of Hobbes's theory of social order.

As sociology crystallized as a field of study, the earliest thinkers within it were keenly interested in the question of social order. Founding figures like Karl Marx and Émile Durkheim focused their attention of the significant transitions that occurred before and during their lifetimes, including industrialization, urbanization, and the waning of religion as a significant force in social life. These two theorists, though, had polar opposite views on how social order is achieved and maintained, and to what ends.

Durkheim's Cultural Theory of Social Order

Through his study of the role of religion in primitive and traditional societies, French sociologist Émile Durkheim came to believe that social order arose out the shared beliefs, values, norms and practices that a group of people holds in common. His is a view of social order that sees it in the practices and social interactions of daily life as well as those associated with rituals and important events. In other words, it is a theory of social order that puts culture at the forefront.

Durkheim theorized that it was through the culture shared by a group, community, or society that a sense of social connection—what he called solidarity—emerged between and among people and that worked that bind them together into a collective. Durkheim referred to the collection of beliefs, values, attitudes and knowledge that a group shares in common as the "collective conscience."

In primitive and traditional societies Durkheim observed that sharing these things in common was enough to create a "mechanical solidarity" that bound the group together. In the larger, more diverse and complex, and urbanized societies of modern times, Durkheim observed that it was, in essence, a recognition of a need to rely on each other to fulfill different roles and functions that bound society together. He called this "organic solidarity."

Durkheim also observed that social institutions, like the state, news media and cultural products, education, and law enforcement play formative roles in fostering a collective conscience in both traditional and modern societies. So, according to Durkheim, it is through our interaction with these institutions and with the people around us with whom we interact and build relationships with that we participate in the maintenance of rules and norms and behave in ways that enable the smooth functioning of society. In other words, we work together to maintain social order.

This perspective on social order became the foundation for the functionalist perspective which views society as the sum of interlocking and interdependent parts that evolve together to maintain social order.

Marx's Critical Take on Social Order

Taking a different view and focusing on the transition from pre-capitalist to capitalist economies and their effects on society, Karl Marx created a theory of social order that states that it stems from the economic structure of a society and the relations of production—the social relations that underlie how goods are made. Marx believed that while these aspects of society create social order, other cultural aspects of society, social institutions and the state work to maintain it. He referred to these two different sides of society as the base and the superstructure.

In his writing on capitalism, Marx argued that the superstructure grows out of the base and reflects the interests of the ruling class that controls it. The superstructure justifies how the base operates, and in doing so, justifies the power of the ruling class. Together, the base and the superstructure create and maintain social order.

Specifically, based on his observations of history and politics, Marx wrote that the shift to a capitalist industrial economy throughout Europe created a class of workers who were exploited by factory and company owners and their wealthy financiers. This created a hierarchical class-based society in which a small minority hold power over the majority whose labor they exploit for their own financial gain. Social institutions, including education, religion, and media, diffuse throughout society the worldviews, values, and norms of the ruling class in order to maintain a social order that serves their interests and protects their power.

Marx's critical view on social order is the basis of the conflict theory perspective in sociology which views social order as a precarious state that results from ongoing conflicts between groups in society that have uneven access to resources and rights.

Putting Both Theories to Work

While many sociologists align themselves with either Durkheim's or Marx's view on social order, most recognize that both theories have merit. A nuanced understanding of social order requires one to acknowledge that it is the product of multiple and sometimes contradictory processes. Social order is a necessary component of any society and it is deeply important to a sense of belonging, connection to others, and cooperation. On the other hand, there can be oppressive aspects of it that are more or less present from one society to another.