Social Order Essay

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Social order is synonymous with society and social science. People do not regularly live in chaos, even when they are the denizens of postmodern societies which characteristically exacerbate the already chaotic tempo bequeathed by modernity. Regardless of whether it is edifying to accept, ritual and routine, not rebellion and revolution, absorb the lion’s share of everyday energies. Likewise, apart from whether society is conceived theoretically as organism or system, language game or mode of production, interaction ritual or ethereal spectacle, the essential notion of society” is scientifically and practically meaningful only when it refers to routinely observable phenomena about which lasting statements are possible. Without social order, social science would dissolve into the ephemeral study of ephemerality.

Probably no figure in the history of sociology more clearly represents the concern for theorizing the practical achievement of social order than Talcott Parsons. Parsons self-consciously built an integrated theory of social order through synthesis of previous ambitious attempts to grasp the totality of human society, including via the work of Herbert Spencer, Vilfredo Pareto, Emile Durkheim, Alfred Marshall, and Max Weber, the last four serving as the principal subjects of Parsons’s The Structure of Social Action (1937). The problem of order,” as Parsons put it, is further systematized in the aptly titled The Social System (1951), which outlined a model of society as a functionally differentiated set of institutions and cultural patterns. In such a view, social order is conceived as the aggregate equilibrium which is achieved when subsystems adapt to meet a priori societal needs. As determinative as this model appears, Parsons (1977) emphasized that social order was always already precarious” and problematical,” not an imperative” to be associated with theoretical, much less actual, ”fascism.”

Parsons’s critics, such as C. Wright Mills (1959), viewed his attempt to grasp an overarching social order as an instance of grand theory,” a pejorative highlighting the theory’s ahistorical and empirically disconnected quality as well as usefulness as ideological buttress for the specific faults of the mid-century United States of America. Alvin W. Gouldner (1970) pushed this criticism further, assessing the conservative roots of Parsons’s theoretical system in Platonic philosophy and announcing the need for a thorough rethinking of sociology’s order-based self-conception. Harold Garfinkel’s (1967) ethnomethodology” rejected Parsons’s airy theoretical approach in favor of empirical analysis of everyday rules (the ethno-methods) which actors use in creating social order.

Parsons’s problem of social order remains an ongoing practical as well as theoretical problem. On the one hand, researchers’ plates are full in pursuit of empirical analysis of postmodernity’s acceleration, intensification, dispersal, and differentiation of social and cultural life, which may or may not ultimately facilitate the production of social order. Does the World Wide Web integrate globally, or divide humanity into disparate viewers of superficial information? Does the emergence of post-Fordist/Keynesian economic systems provide efficiency and facilitate meeting increasingly differentiated consumer demand, or globalize the crisis of overproduction without hope of an equally global Keynesian fix? Does the fact of planetary ecological crisis portend unprecedented forms of international cooperation, or will the North” use its political, military, and economic power to suppress the South’s” demands for an equitable and democratically coordinated response? Will globalization result in genuinely pluralist societies, or will atavistic and ethnocentric responses undermine civility among culturally diverse populations? Will medical technologies result in the further amelioration of disease and mortality, or will social order be subverted by viral contagions, whether organic or computer, endemic or laboratory synthesized, unintentionally or by menacing design? The twenty-first century appears destined to challenge the achievement of social order on terms as particular and general as human experience provides.


  1. Garfinkel,    (1967)   Studies   in Ethnomethodology. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
  2. Gouldner, A. W. (1970) The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology. Basic Books, New York.
  3. Mills, C. W. (1959) The Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  4. Parsons, T. (1977) Social Systems and the Evolution of Action Theory. Free Press, New York.

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