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Social order is a concept used in sociology, history and other social sciences. It refers to a set of linked social structures, social institutions and social practices which conserve, maintain and enforce "normal" ways of relating and behaving.

A "social order" is a relatively stable system of institutions, patterns of interactions and customs, capable of continually reproducing at least those conditions essential for its own existence. The concept refers to all those facts of society which remain relatively constant over time. These conditions could include both property, exchange and power relations, but also cultural forms, communication relations and ideological systems of values.



The issue of social order, how and why it is that social orders exists at all, is historically central to sociology. Thomas Hobbes is recognized as the first to clearly formulate the problem, to answer which he conceived the notion of a social contract. Social theorists (such as Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons, and Jürgen Habermas) have proposed different explanations for what a social order consists of, and what its real basis is. For Marx, it is the relations of production or economic structure which is the basis of a social order. For Durkheim, it is a set of shared social norms. For Parsons, it is a set of social institutions determining moral behavior. For Habermas, it is all of these, as well as communicative action.

Principle of dependence

The principle of dependence is one that has an important role on social order as a whole. It states that the more dependent a person is on a group, the more likely they are to conform to group "norms". This means that if a group means a lot to a person, they will be more likely to do what it is that the group wants them to.[1]

Principle of visibility

One of the main principles of social order is the principle of visibility. The principle of visibility refers to the extent that the behavior of group members can be observed by other members of the group. The higher the observation rate of a group is, the more likely the members of that group will follow the group's norms.[1]

A prime example of a society with a high level of observability is Japan. Most offices are close quartered, open office spaces without any partitions. The employees work in full sight and hearing of their supervisors. This high level of visibility encourages workers to stay constantly on task lest they suffer reproaches from their supervisors.

Principle of extensiveness

Another key factor concerning social order is the principle of extensiveness. This states the more norms and the more important the norms are to a society, the better these norms tie and hold together the group as a whole.

A good example of this is smaller religions based around the U.S., such as the Amish. Many Amish live together in communities and because they share the same religion and values, it is easier for them to succeed in upholding their religion and views because their way of life is the norm for their community.

Groups and networks

In every society people belong to groups, such as businesses, families, churches, athletic groups, or neighborhoods. The structure inside of these groups mirrors that of the whole society. There are networks and ties between groups as well as inside of each of the groups that create social order.

Some people belong to more than one group, which sometimes causes conflict. The individual may encounter a situation in which he or she has to choose one group over the another. Many who have studied these groups believe that it is necessary to have ties between groups to strengthen the society as a whole and to promote pride within each group. Others believe that it is best to have stronger ties within a group so that social norms and values are reinforced.

Status groups

"Status groups" can be based on a person's characteristics such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, region, occupation, physical attractiveness, gender, education, age, etc. They are defined as "a subculture having a rather specific rank (or status) within the stratification system. That is, societies tend to include a hierarchy of status groups, some enjoying high ranking and some low."[2] One example of this hierarchy is the prestige of a school teacher compared to that of a garbage man.

A certain lifestyle usually distinguishes the members of different status groups. For example, around the holidays a Jewish family may celebrate Hanukkah while a Christian family may celebrate Christmas. Other cultural differences such as language and cultural rituals identify members of different status groups.

Inside of a status group there are more, smaller groups. For instance, one can belong to a status group based on one's race and a social class based on financial ranking. This may cause strife for the individual in this situation when he or she feels they must choose to side with either their status group or their social class. For example, a wealthy African American man who feels he has to take a side on an issue on which the opinions of poor African Americans and wealthy white Americans are divided, and finds his class and status group opposed.

Values and norms

Values can be defined as "internal criteria for evaluation". Values are also split into two categories, there are individual values, which pertains to something that we think has worth and then there are social values. Social values are our desires modified according to ethical principles or according to the group we associate with: friends, family, or co-workers. Norms tell us what people ought to do in a given situation. Unlike values, norms are enforced externally - or outside of oneself. A society as a whole determines norms, and they can be passed down from generation to generation.

Power and authority

An exception to the idea of values and norms as social order-keepers is deviant behavior. Not everyone in a society abides by a set of personal values or the group's norms all the time. For this reason it is necessary for a society to have authority.

In societies, those who hold positions of power and authority are among the upper class. Norms differ for each class because the members of each class were raised differently and hold different sets of values. Tension can form, therefore, between the upper class and lower class when laws and rules are put in place that do not conform to the values of both classes.

Spontaneous Order

Order does not necessarily need to be controlled by government. Individuals pursuing self-interest can make predictable systems. These systems, being planned by more than one person, may actually be preferable to those planned by a single person. This means that predictability may be possible to achieve without a central government's control. These stable expectations do not necessarily lead to individuals behaving in ways that are considered beneficial to group welfare. Considering this, Thomas Schelling studied neighborhood racial segregation. His findings suggest that interaction can produce predictability, but it does not always increase social order. In his researching he found that "when all individuals pursue their own preferences, the outcome is segregation rather than integration," as stated in "Theories of Social Order," edited by Michael Hechter and Christine Horne. The unregulated interaction of rational selfishness produces an unwanted outcome.

Social honor

Social honor can also be referred to as social status. It is considered the distribution of prestige or "the approval, respect, admiration, or deference a person or group is able to command by virtue of his or its imputed qualities or performances.". The case most often is that people associate social honor with the place a person occupies with material systems of wealth and power. Since most of society finds wealth and power desirable they respect or envy people that have more than they do. When Social Honor is referred to as Social Status it deals with the rank of a person within the stratification system. Status can be Achieved, which is when a persons position is gained on the basis of merit or in other words by achievement and hard work. Status can also be ascribed, which is when a persons position is assigned to individuals or groups without regard for merit but because of certain traits beyond their control, such as race, sex, or parental social standing. An example of Ascribed status would be heiress to the Hilton dynasty Paris Hilton. An example of Achieved Status would be Oprah Winfrey and her empire.[3] [4]

Attainment of social order

There are currently two different theories that explain and attempt to account for social order. The first theory is "order results from a large number of independent decisions to transfer individual rights and liberties to a coercive state in return for its guarantee of security for persons and their property, as well as its establishment of mechanisms to resolve disputes." as stated in Theories of Social Order by Hechter and Horne. The next theory is that "the ultimate source of social order as residing not in external controls but in a concordance of specific values and norms that individuals somehow have managed to internalize." also stated in Theories of Social Order by Hechter and Horne. Both the arguments for how social order is attained are very different. One argues that it is achieved through outside influence and control and the other argues that it can only be attained when the individual willingly follows norms and values that they have grown accustomed to and internalised. Weber's insistence on the importance of domination and symbolic systems in social life was retained by Pierre Bourdieu, who developed the idea of social orders, ultimately transforming it into a theory of fields.

See also


  1. ^ a b Sociology: Tenth Edition by Rodney Stark, 211
  2. ^ Sociology: Tenth Edition by Rodney Stark, 114
  3. ^ JSTOR: Accessing JSTOR
  4. ^ Joseph R. Gusfield (1986), Symbolic crusade: status politics and the American temperance movement, p. 14

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