Social Order Essay

Social order is the result of a common search for cohesion within a given group or society. Some theoreticians believe that social order comes from coercision, while others argue that it is a rational decision made by individuals.

As opposed to the brutal rule of the strongest, French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau explained in his classic book Le Contrat Social that in advanced European societies humans agreed to exchange their natural freedom and the possibility to get anything they could see around them with the guarantee of security and the incontestable ownership of what legally belonged to them. In his 1893 thesis on The Division of Labor in Society, French sociologist Emile Durkheim stated that social order exists because people need one another and try to agree on some shared moral values; therefore, social solidarity is the result of the need for people to live and work together to reach consensus.

Max Weber analyzed the moment when people begin to agree with a legitimized authority, which is central in citizenship studies, and whenever some people refuse the rules, which is of interest for criminology. In a classic passage in his posthumous book Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, Max Weber identifies three ideal types of legitimate domination: rational-legal authority, traditional authority (religious institutions), and charismatic authority (whenever citizens recognize a leader).

If Karl Marx explained the acceptance of the domination of the upper classes as a result of their power and dominant ideologies, it is the neo-Marxist Louis Althusser who coined the most efficient formula to explain the process. In his famous essay, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus,” French philosopher Althusser argued that social order could be maintained only through two levels of control made by the state—either through the dominant ideology or coercision made by the police or the army. Throughout history, various institutions were given a role of protecting social order, such as through a censorship commission.

According to its founder Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, anarchism as a system rejects the actual forms of domination from the state, and cries for another form of order emerging from individuals. In his Revolt of the Masses, published in 1930 (only six years before the Spanish Civil War began), Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote that the state represents the biggest danger for people. In the 1960s, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu wrote extensively about how society reproduces itself, and in his book cowritten with Alain Darbel, La Reproduction, both authors argue that the habitus was like a second nature that made people accept social order as it is and as impossible to change.

Legitimacy is key to understanding how social order can or cannot be accepted. Studying the phenomena of riots in prisons, British sociologist Eamonn Carrabine (2005) demonstrated that there is more than one level of social order in jails, from the legal authorities but also through inner circles of social stratification among some privileged prisoners who can achieve some kind of control. Institutionized corruption in a given organization or country indicates a point of no-return for a society when authorities, such as political leaders, civil servants, the police, or the army, reach a certain level of organized corruption.

Some classic movies illustrate the limits of social order in situations of rebellion, such as Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike and Potemkin, Fritz Lang’s masterpiece Metropolis, and Masaki Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion. Perhaps French poet and singer Leo Ferre gave the most efficient definition in 1972:”Disorder is like order, but without power.”


  1. Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus (Notes Toward an Investigation).” In Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. London: New Left, 1971.
  2. Bourdieu, Pierre. On Television and Journalism. London: Pluto, 1998.
  3. Carrabine, Eamonn. “Prison Riots, Social Order, and the Problem of Legitimacy.” British Journal of Criminology 45, no. 6 (2005): 896–913;
  4. Durkheim, Emile. The Division of Labor in Society, translated by W. D. Halls, 1893. Reprint, New York: Free Press, 1997.
  5. Ferre, Leo. Leo Ferre sur la scene, 1972. Reprint, Monaco: Editions La Memoire et la mer, 2001.
  6. Hechter, Michael, and Christine Horne, eds. Theories of Social Order: A Reader. 2nd ed. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2009.
  7. Weber, Max. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. 2 vols, edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. 1922.
  8. Reprint, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

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