Thursday, February 16, 2012

Getting Back to the Social Order Problem

Contemporary academic practitioners of the social sciences give little attention to questions of the nature and maintenance of social order.  Insofar as they touch on it at all, they tend to assume order to be inherently unjust and oppressive.  Our conferences have become celebrations of “transgression,” even while the conference goers not only conform carefully to the ideologies of their colleagues but also follow the highly patterned rituals of colloquia.

The refusal to take order seriously as a theoretical issue is a fairly recent historical development.  In 1951, Talcott Parsons and Edward Shils described the problem of social order as "one of the very first functional imperatives of social systems.”  This problem is not only a philosophical issue,  it is also a practical matter since the order or disorder of a social system has immediate consequences for the lives of its members.

 Dennis Wrong’s 1994 book, The Problem of Order, was one of the few relatively attempts in the past few decades to revive examination into this fundamental subject.  Wrong, the product of an older generation of social scientists, considered the forces that hold people together in social groups. Wrong pointed out that this term has two closely related but distinct meanings. It can refer to regularity or rule in human social interactions and it can refer to patterns of cooperation among actors.  He argues that people develop regularities as norms, roles, and institutions in the course of recurrent interactions.  In this sense, social order tends to "take care of itself," since the lives of human beings largely consist of interactions with others.  These interactions, though, may differ greatly in character, since they may be products of a variety of motivations.

The second type of order problem, according to Wrong, is that of conflict versus cooperation.  This is not an absolute choice, as suggested by Hobbes' unfortunate and misleading description of the natural human state as a "war of all against all."  Humans in a state of total conflict could exist no longer than the time it would take parents to murder their children. Perfect cooperation, at the other extreme, seems to be a social state that exists only in the imagination.  In response to classic functionalism's "oversocialized" conception of cooperative order as the product of norms imposed on individuals from an external society, Wrong argued that human beings produce particular blends of conflict and cooperation from expectations developed in the course of their dealings with one another.

It seems to me that one of the main tasks for social science today is to turn away from its obsession with advocacy and return to the issues of what constitutes order in social life, how it is maintained, and why societies vary in their combinations of conflict and cooperation.

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