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.
In the most original recent contribution to the theoretical debate about social order, David Lockwood (Solidarity and Schism, 1992) has demonstrated that neither Marxian nor Durkheimian theory satisfactorily resolves the issues, since each approach is forced to employ residual categories which turn out to be the central analytic elements of the other. In Durkheim's work, the concept of moral classification is the key to social structure, whereas for Marx it is production relations. That is, one theory emphasizes the socially integrative structure of status, the other the socially divisive structure of class. However, Durkheim cannot explain how anomic declassification (disorder) occurs or is structured (schismatic) without introducing concepts of power and material interests into his schema, whereas Marx cannot explain the persistence of capitalist societies without recourse to a generalized category of ideology which introduces the (unanalysed) conceptual problem of the nature and variability of consensus.
Explanations of social order tend to be macro-theories which focus on society as the unit of analysis, although studies of family obligations, crime, and leisure (to cite but a few examples) raise issues of social order at the micro level. Quite different accounts of how social order is reproduced during face-to-face interaction will be found in the writings of symbolic interactionists, in dramaturgy, ethnomethodology, and exchange theory (all of which are discussed separately elsewhere in this dictionary). The best general account of the various theories and the issues they raise is Dennis Wrong's The Problem of Order: What Unites and Divides Society (1994). See also FATALISM; HOBBES, THOMAS; SOCIAL CONTRACT; SOCIAL INTEGRATION AND SYSTEM INTEGRATION.
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