Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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Social order

core definition

Social order refers to the ways in which societies remain sufficiently stable to enable co-ordinated productive and cultural activity.

explanatory context

Social order requires organisation to enable co-ordinated and co-operative activity within social structures and institutions. Social order means that thare are social practices that ensure the maintainance and enforcement of appropriate ways of behaving.

There are diverse theories about social order. For example, Marx argued that relations of production were the principle mechanism of social order. Durkheim argued that social order came from shared social norms.

analytical review

Hechter and Horne (2001–13, pp. 1–2):

Social order is a core theoretical issue in the social sciences. The problem arises because human beings are both individual and social....For social order to arise and be maintained, two separate problems must be overcome. People must be able to coordinate their actions and they must cooperate to attain common goals.
Coordination requires that people develop stable expectations about others’ behavior....We can have stable expectations and still not much social order, however....If people are to live together, they must not only be able to co-ordinate their activities but also to interact productively—to do things that help rather than hurt others. Thus highly ordered societies have a remarkable capacity to sustain cooperation.

As early as 1944 Lawrence Frank raised questions about the then taken for granted nature of social order:

Social order has long been conceived as an organization or mechanism which exists as a part of the cosmos and operates through large-scale forces acting at a distance. Social theory has taught man that he must learn to submit to these assumed forces and accept this cosmic organization as necessary to social order, while social research has attempted to measure these assumed forces. Recent studies of culture and personality indicate that social order is not given but historically developed ideas, beliefs, and patterns of conduct and of feeling which each culture has evolved as the guides to human conduct and the management of group activities.

Crossman (2013) refers to social order when defining different sociological approaches:

Conflict theory emphasizes the role of coercion and power in producing social order. This perspective is derived from the works of Karl Marx, who saw society as fragmented into groups that compete for social and economic resources. Social order is maintained by domination, with power in the hands of those with the greatest political, economic, and social resources....The functionalist perspective, also called functionalism, is one of the major theoretical perspectives in sociology. It has its origins in the works of Emile Durkheim, who was especially interested in how social order is possible or how society remains relatively stable.

Marshall (1998) offered the following :

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 nineteenth century.

There are essentially two types of explanation of social order....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.... 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....

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.

associated issues


related areas

See also

conflict theory




mechanical solidarity

organic solidarity

symbolic interactionism

Researching the Real World Section

Researching the Real World Section


Crossman, A., 2013, 'Sociological Theories', available at, accessed 28 April 2013

Frank, L.K., 1944, 'What is social order', American Journal of Sociology, 49(5), pp. 470–77.

Hechter, M. and Horne, C., 2001–13, Theories of Social Order, Second edition, Stanford University Press, available at, accessed 28 April 2013.

Marshall, G., 1998, 'Social order' in A Dictionary of Sociology, available at, accessed 29 April 2013.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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