Sociology Mind
2012. Vol.2, No.1, 34-40
Published Online January 2012 in SciRes (
34 Copyright © 2012 SciRes
Social Order in Sociology: Its Reality and Elusiveness
Sabo Suleiman Kurawa
Department of Sociology, Bayero University, Ka n o, Nigeria
Email: sabokurawa@ya h
Received April 24th, 2011; revised September 28th, 2011; accepte d N o v ember 1 5th, 2011
In the past, as well as in the present, depending on certain circumstances, sociologists tend to espouse one
or the other of the contradictory answers proposed by political philosophers: social order is the result of
some people being able to coerce others into obedience; or it rests on the general agreement among the
members of the society; or it stems from their striking bargains with each other which are to every one’s
individual advantage as well as the collective advantage. I argue that it is unhelpful to consider these
viewpoints as mutually exclusive categories. For the sociologist, social order must be a matter for empiri-
cal investigation. It is obvious that each of the above stated old philosophical views has its own grain of
truth inherent in it, for each comes near to describing what is observed in some societies, or part of socie-
ties, of different types, at different periods of history, in particular situations or circumstances. But to con-
sider each, as a “theory” of social order of universal validity, is to put it mildly unrealistic or absurd. To
escape from this unrealistic approach which pervades some sociological discussions of social order it is
pertinent to remember that social harmony is very often not achieved, and that social order and disorder
are very much relative terms. I therefore posit that the actual state of relative order to disorder in a par-
ticular society or part of society is the outcome of complex forces of dependence and interdependence, of
cooperation and conflict, of strength and weakness, of alliance and cleavage between people and groups.
Thus, in this paper, a treatise is put forward, for the emergence of social order within the context of the
theories of social integration and conflict in sociology. The essence is to describe how social order ema-
nates under different circumstances with a view to analyzing its reality and elusiveness in daily social in-
teractions in society. It appears that reality is in some sense Janus-faced (integration and conflict being
the two unpropitious faces) and, despairing of ever encompassing both aspects in one theoretical frame-
work. The big question is that: should the choice of reality be left to the whim of each sociologist?
Keywords: Social Order; Integration; Conflict; Reality; Elusiveness; Sociology
It is rightly assumed that the central or salient issue of socio-
logical theory is why there is order in society. Thus, it is neces-
sary to sociology, as to any other discipline seeking to generate
reliable and cumulative knowledge, that there be order in its
subject matter. This means that only orderly, regular patterns
can be discerned in social phenomena. It is only regularities
which make possible description and explanation, in social
sciences as much as in the natural sciences. Therefore, sociolo-
gists are expected to find order and regularity not only in stable
societies and smoothly functioning organizations, but in bitter
social conflict, in bloody uprisings, and in period of rapid, un-
planned and superficially chaotic transformation. Needless to
say law and order may breakdown in orderly regular ways. But
order in this sense of regularity may be quite imperceptible to
participants, and only apparent to sociologists faced with data
on many similar situations as illustrated by Barton (1969) on
communities plagued by natural calamities.
However this is not the sense of “order” in which “the prob-
lem of order” is said to be central or salient to sociological the-
ory and it is significant that the two meanings be distinctively
separated. What we refer, in sociology, by “the problem of
order” is akin to the question(s) posed by Thomas Hobbes
(1951): why do men cooperate with each other in society? Why
is there not a continual “war of every one against everyone”, as
each individual pursues his own self-interest by whatever
means, including force, at his disposal? Why is life, in conse-
quence, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short?” How, in other
words, is a degree of harmony achieved? These questions can
never be addressed and understood through the old political
philosophy of social order arising from the coercing of people
into obedience; or general consensus among people in a society;
or striking bargains for individual and collective advantage.
Contrary to these reasons, the question of understanding “social
order” involves unraveling complex forces of dependence and
interdependence, cooperation and conflict, strength and weak-
ness, alliance and cleavage, etc. between people, groups or
nations. Central to understanding these complex forces is based
on our ability to appraise and comprehend the division of la-
bour in societies.
Division of Labour as Analogous to “Role
Differentiation” and “Structural Differentiation”
In a very old book, The Division of Labour, which has been
regarded as one of the most celebrated of all discussions of the
division of labour, Adam Smith (1970; orig., 1776) described
the advantages of specialisation in human activities. Explaining
further, Smith (1970: pp. 109-110) illustrated that with the pin-
makers’ shop where, in making each pin, about eighteen sepa-
rate operations were involved in an interdependent, specialized
form of relationship. He further indicated that where a single
worker carrying out each and every operation-drawing and cutting
the wire, sharpening the points, forming and attaching the head,
etc.—he could only make no more than twenty pins a day. Con-
versely, when ten men working together in one of the crude or
archaic “manufactories” of Smith’s period, each specializing in
one or more operations, it was found that they could produce
forty eight thousand pins a day. Thus, they could produce to-
gether at least two hundred and forty times as many pins a day
in comparison to when they worked separately. Given this em-
pirical finding it was not surprising that Smith considered the
division of labor as a chief cause of “the wealth of nations”, and
that it has been carried forward in industrial societies without
apparent limit.
It is noteworthy that the division of labour was not restricted
only to economic activities. In sociological parlance, the terms
“role differentiation” and “structural differentiation” signify
sociology’s recognition that increasing specialization of activi-
ties is not exclusively confined to the sphere of production.
The chief interest of the division of labour, on the part of the
economist, is the vast multiplication of output of goods and
services it provides. The sociologist, too, has not lost sight of
the great incentives and possibilities associated with and accru-
ing to specialization. It is however significant to note that even
if the increased output is distributed very unequally, it is quiet
likely that, in factual economic terms, everyone concerned will
be better off in the end. However, for the problem of social
order, increasing specialization as such is of less significance
than its inevitable corollary: the growing web of interdepend-
ence which it spins through society. People’s position in the
division of labour both makes others dependent on them and
simultaneously makes them dependent on others; it is a source
both of power and limitation or constraint. The degree of power
and dependence varies widely. On the one hand, everyone who
performs some specialized task on which others depend has
some resources for power. The resources are obvious in the
case of the owner of a factory producing some general or basic
necessity, especially if he has a degree of monopoly power in
the product market and monopsony power in the labour market.
However, they are at least obvious in the case of the unskilled
labourer, whose labour power may be considered insignificant,
when he may be readily replaced by someone else, particularly
when he is not organized into a union of workers with some
degree of monopoly of power.
On the other hand, in an industrial society, the overwhelming
majority of the population directly produce for themselves no
more than an infinitely small fraction of individual needs. Even
the most powerful are dependent on countless others. Con-
comitant with an advancing division of labour, then, is a great
lengthening of what may be called “chains of interdependence”
(Elias, 1970) or “interaction chain length” (Blain, 1971; Kemper,
1972; Alias, 1998). Chains or networks of interdependence may
include a few dozen people in a hunting and gathering band, or
they may stretch across the world to hundreds of millions of
people in contemporary society. Thus, the longer the chains of
interdependence, the smaller will be the proportion anyone will
know personally of those with whom he is interdependent.
Contacts are more frequently indirect than direct and face-
to-face. All this can be deciphered, albeit implicit, in such clas-
sical discussions of social solidarity as those of Toennies and
Durkhiem (Blain, 1971). But their famous dichotomies between
Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft; and mechanical and organic
solidarity; fruitful as they certainly have been, they however
tend to distort our perception of what is essentially a continuous
not a dichotomous variable. A proportion of relationships are
indirect except in the very smallest of social units. We must be
guided by this in relation with “consensus theory”, on how
social integration is achieved through the interplay of common
norms and values.
Consensual-Behavioural Re lat ion sh ip
It is a seemingly undeniable fact that groups of people who
interact with each other over a period of certain duration are
likely to evolve normative regularities in their behaviour to-
gether. Some attempts were made to test empirically the plausi-
bility of this assumption. The study which almost inevitably
used to illustrate this is the Hawthorne “Bank-Wiring Group”
(Roethlisberger & Dickson, 1939), in which norms constraining
the maximum output were observed to develop within the
work-group apparently from fear of reductions in piece rates. A
norm, in this sense, is plainly something more than an average;
it is a standard of behaviour to which people adhere to a greater
or lesser extent. But the question is: why do they adhere to
them? There are answers to this question. Talcot Parsons (1951:
p. 37) clearly recognized the two main possible reasons which
answer the question. He reasoned that adherence arose due to: 1)
conformity for the sake of expediency; and 2) conformity in
response to moral commitment. Expediency better explains the
behaviour of the bank-wiring group and many other cases, but
having recognized the possibility of merely expedient confor-
mity, Parsons virtually drops it from his work, subsequently.
For Parsons, the great proponent of the consensual views of
social order, moral commitment, to shared norms and values
becomes an almost mystical element in social life. It is referred
to as mystical because it is often difficult to see how his all-
embracing conception of the social order to be proven as either
right or wrong.
Thus, for Parsons, social structure is made up of roles, norms,
values, and collectivities (1961: p. 41). His model of dyadic
interaction purportedly shows that in any continuing interaction,
the actors must conform to each other’s role expectations and
establish stable cooperation. Norms and values are the building-
blocks for the huge edifice erected by Parsons to which his
explanations of social structure are based. He is generally ac-
cused of having a shaky foundation as well as a problem of
relativism (Sheida, 1988).
Parsons sees a norm as an element in the expectations of par-
ticular roles. Wherever there is “role-differentiation”, norms
“define the rights and obligations applicable to one role but not
to another” (1961: p. 42). It is plausible that everyone may
recognize and even accept the norms, but not everyone is bound
by them because people occupy different roles. To recognize
the norms defining the role of a farmer does not mean that eve-
ryone is expected to behave as a farmer. In contrast, values “are
shared by the members over and above their particular roles”.
For instance, in a factory, the production engineer may be ex-
pected to concentrate on maintaining the quality and output of
the products, the accountant to be concerned with keeping
down unit costs, and the personnel manager to be in pursuit of
the great virtue of establishing and upholding harmonious la-
bour relations. These three role-specific norms may to a degree
conflict with each other in specific circumstances. Yet each
may be seen as a reflection of the engineer’s, the accountant’s
and the personnel manager’s shared commitment to the value of
efficient production, and of their common goal of maintaining
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 35
the survival and prosperity of their factory. The difference be-
tween a value and a goal, incidentally, is that between a mile
post and a destination; the former is a general conception of the
desirable, the latter a specific and desired situation. On collec-
tivities, less need be said; if everyone in the factory shared the
aforesaid values, it would be described as a collectivity. With
his customary eloquence, Parsons defines a collectivity as a
“system of … interaction of a plurality of role performers …
normatively regulated in terms of common values and of norms
sanctioned by these common values” (1961: p. 42).
The difference between norms and values is relative and it is
a question of scope. What is a value at one level may be a norm
at another. As Parsons sees it, “norms within one group of roles
are legitimated by more general values which transcend these
particular roles; but these values may themselves be relatively
specific norms which are legitimated by still more general val-
ues at a higher level” (1961: p. 45). Thus, Parsons implicitly
identifies religion as the top most value which holds the whole
structure together.
Edward Shils, advocate of Parsons’s position, has explicitly
written on the ‘central value system’ of society which “… par-
takes of the nature of the sacred. In this sense, every society or
its exponents and interpreters conceive of it, more or less cor-
rectly, as a secular, pluralistic and tolerant society” (Shils, 1961:
p. 117). The central value system consists of the values and
standards espoused and more or less observed by those in au-
thority and it always legitimates the existing distribution of
roles and rewards. It rests on the need which human beings
have for incorporation into something which transcends and
transfigures their concrete individual existence (Shils, 1961: p.
121). However, Shills does not suggest that every member of
any society subscribes to the central values. Rather there is a
minimum level of acceptance of authority in society, which
presumably disintegrates if the minimum is not met.
It is a mistake to dismiss consensus out of hand as a factor
which, in many circumstances, promotes social integration. Yet
it is a difficult task to investigate the beliefs which people actu-
ally hold and which guide their actions. In consequence, the
claims made by Parsons and his followers for the unifying
power of shared values often seem too sweeping and empiri-
cally ill-founded. Alvin Gouldner pointed out that: “Parsons
never allows moral values to become just one other variable in
the social equation. Paradoxically, however, neither does he
ever mount a full-scale and systematic exploration of the nature
and functioning of moral values” (Gouldner, 1971: p. 140).
For as soon as attention is turned to the practicalities of so-
cial life, numerous difficulties to any solution of the “problem
of order” exclusively in terms of value integration become ob-
vious as follows:
Firstly, it is implicit in Parsons’s view of a hierarchy of
norms and values of ever-increasing generality that the topmost
and most widely spread are also the most abstract, vague and
unspecific. They can therefore be used to legitimate any social
structure and none in particular. Parsons himself notes (1951: p.
293) that revolutionaries appeal to the same abstractions of
“democracy” and “justice” as do the upholders of the status quo.
He chooses to interpret this as evidence that the overt conflict is
the top tenth, so to speak, of an ice berg of underlying unity;
but it might as easily be taken as evidence of the inability of
common commitment to abstract ideas to maintain social cohe-
Secondly, a related point, in many particular situations two
or more general values may conflict with each other. Lipset
(1964) identifies “achievement” and “equality” as two key vari-
ables or values in the American credo; but as often as not, op-
portunities for “achievement” mean competition for unequal
rewards. Mann (1970) points out that, in such circumstances, it
is likely that “cohesion results precisely because there is no
common commitment to core values” Mann (1970: p. 424).
Thus, less privileged groups may be more tolerant of inequality
just because they are less committed to achievement.
Thirdly, “negative consensus” may contribute more to social
cohesion than “positive consensus”. Douglas (1970) empha-
sizes the signi ficance of “accommodative morality” in complex,
pluralistic societies. The diversity of tastes and commitments
which abounds in pluralistic societies is facilitated by a general
value of privacy-embodied in the privacy of the home, numer-
ous private clubs and associations and in the anonymity of the
Fourthly, it should not be too readily assumed that consensus
on values promotes social harmony irrespective of the content
of the values. As Van den Bergh pointed out, “consensus on
norms such as extreme competition and individualistic laissez-
faire, or suspiciousness and treachery..., or malevolence and
resort to witchcraft is hardly conducive to social solidarity and
integration” (1963: p. 87).
Fifthly, does consensus need to be about the central institu-
tions of society? There is abundant evidence that only small
minorities can give expressions to a reasonably articulate set of
beliefs about social institutions (Converse, 1964), yet it tends to
be assumed that even the inarticulate have absorbed the general
values. Thus, quite complex patterns of social interaction may
continue, not because participants share any specific values
concerning the broad organization of society, but because their
relations are pervaded by less ethereal feelings like trust, and
because everyone gets something out of their mundane rela-
tionships. The significance of trust between parties to exchange
relationships has long been recognized. Systems of ceremonial
exchange were discussed by Malinowski (1944) and Mauss
(1954) among others, serve to generate trust and alliances,
which promote social understanding and cohesion as well as
trade in commodities. How then does social exchange start?
Gouldner (1960) suggested that the norm of reciprocity (treat
others as you would like them to treat you) is a culturally uni-
versal phenomenon and acts as a starting-mechanism for social
transactions. Such a norm may indeed, be found in every soci-
ety, but as Blau (1964: p. 92) comments, moral commitment to
it probably only reinforces tendencies which stem from t he very
logic of interdependence. For, where people are interdependent
with one another, it is merely prudential and expedient behav-
iour to follow the principle of reciprocity, no matter what one’s
moral feelings are. This is not to deny the fact that every culture
contains countless standards as to what constitutes fair ex-
change in particular situations. It is significant to note that, in
extending his theory of social exchange from face-to-face bar-
gaining to the level of macro-structures, Blau finds it necessary,
like Parsons and others, to posit commitment to more general
values which promote understanding and the establishment of
social order.
Conflictual-Behavioural Relationship
Conflict is an ubiquitous phenomenon. Thus, if agreement of
one sort and another is found in every society, so is conflict.
6 Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Coser (1956), building very directly on the work of Simmel
(1955, orig., 1908), has done a great deal to overcome the hith-
erto common assumption that conflict is necessarily something
destructive or pathological. Perhaps he went too far and painted
too rosy a picture of the consequences of conflict. For it must
not be denied that conflict often creates chaos out of order.
History documents how conflict within and between societies
can destroy complex organization, reverse the division of la-
bour and reduce standards of living. Yet conflict takes many
forms and has many consequences; it is certainly absurd to see
consensus and conflict simply as opposites. Cooley (1918: p. 39)
puts the matter in a nutshell when he observed that “conflict
and cooperation are not separable things, but phases of the
process which always involves something of both” the same
scarce resources which require cooperation to produce become
as often the focus of conflict over how they shall be distributed
as rewards among those who helped to produce them. Then
again, the very experience of close cooperation can set up ten-
sions between the cooperating individuals and groups.
It is noteworthy that conflict is rarely unlimited. Some meas-
ure of agreement is usually evident even between antagonists.
There is generally at least a minimal consensus on the “rules of
the game”, on the means which shall and shall not be used in
the conflict. For instance, in pressing for a wage claim, by
workers in an industry, a strike is accepted as a legitimate
means of effecting the outcomes, while slapping or shooting the
supervisor or the manager is not, even wars do usually proceed
on some ground rules. As Simmel emphasized, conflict is a
relationship between opponents.
Conflict may or may not be accompanied by hostility and
animosity between the parties to it. Where conflict is the ex-
pression of emotional hostility, it becomes an end in itself.
Hostility may, perhaps, be directed impersonally against all
members of a minority group, but intimate personal relation-
ships are particularly likely to give rise to violent hostility. On
the other hand, where conflict is pursued as a means to an
end—as a trial of strength over the allocation of resources, for
example—it is possible that the parties may feel little bitterness
towards each other. Much depends on how the parties define
the situations. Ideology may intensify conflict by representing it
in terms not of personal or sectional interests, but of broad
ethical principles. Then again, it may render the conflict less
bitter and hateful. When opponents are seen only as prisoners
of social situations, they ought scarcely to be hated so much.
It is not a simple matter to generalize about the consequences
of conflict, either within groups and organizations or between
them. Conflict within groups may destroy them as units capable
of collective actions or it may actually assist them. A family
row may clear the air and a strike may, on occasion, be settled
to the satisfaction of both parties. On the other hand, families
do break up, and strikes often end in greater discontent and
lower productivity than when they started. Conflict is more
likely to serve as a safety valve or to resolve clashes of interest
when there is already an underlying unity present. The more
secure the matrix of agreement within which conflict takes
place, the more internal conflict the group may be able to ab-
sorb. Paradoxically, then, the correlation between consensus
and conflict may be positive, not negative (Coser, 1956: p. 81).
Thus a well integrated organization may be able to encourage
internal conflict as a source of ideas which can be put to fruitful
use. But again much depends on the type of organization. What
may be true of say an advertising agency, is not necessarily true
of a religious or political sect. The latter often show monolithic
agreement, but they typically cannot tolerate much internal
conflict. They require unanimity and total involvement of their
members, so that when disputes break out on outwardly trivial
points of dogma, they can be extremely bitter and the outcome
may be a sudden and violent division of the group.
Conflict within groups are related in complex ways. First of
all, conflict, and even just passive hostility between groups,
serves to define group boundaries and makes it clear who is one
of “us” or who is one of “them”.
Membership of “in groups” and “out groups” is not always at
all clear cut. In open pluralistic structures, an individual is a
member of many groups. This not only means that he is less
likely to be totally involved as a personality in any one of them,
but that he will participate in a variety of inter group conflicts,
the lines of which cross cut each other. As a result, people who
are antagonists in one conflict are allies in another. The “web of
group affiliations” as Simmels translator so aptly phrased it,
thus serves to moderate the intensity of conflicts. An off- shoot
of this idea is the notion of cross-pressures. It has often been
suggested that individuals who belong to two or more groups
which pull their loyalties in contrary directions react by feeling
less intensely about the issue in question.
According to circumstances, conflict between groups may
promote social cohesion or disruption; internal conflict may
create schism or be a sign of basic unity; ideology may inten-
sify conflict or reduce it.
Structure of Conflict
Some of sociology’s most exciting propositions have, how-
ever, been very much concerned with not only the form but also
the content of consensus and conflict in historical societies. In
this, Marx and Weber, and other writers in their traditions, offer
a marked contrast to Simmel on issues particularly dealing with
group interests and group consciousness within the context of
the structure of conflict.
Marxian Notion
Marx and his works generally tended to generate a lot of
controversy. Hence any brief statement is bound to be disputed
by someone. With that caution; we view Marx as one of the
greatest writers on social conflict. Yet he was equally con-
cerned with the conditions which promote consensus as those
which lead to conflict. It is true that he saw little prospect of
society wide harmony, except in the communist society of the
future. But he was much concerned with the circumstances in
which men in similar social situations would recognize their
common interests and unite in groups capable of collective
action in pursuit of their interests.
The material bases of a society-its modes of production and
economic organization—generate a finite number of social
groupings, the members of each of which share a similar social
situation and therefore have common interests. These groupings,
however, are mere categories—Dahrendorf (1959) was later to
call them “quasi-groups”—and their members are by no means
necessarily conscious of their common situation and interests.
There may, therefore, be considerable conflict between seg-
ments of the same grouping. Marx asked how social categories
could become conscious of a common identity and unite against
other groups.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 37
Marx was, however, not so much interested in the formal and
abstract process as in the particular case of the genesis and
dynamics of capitalist society. The structure of interests changed
during its growth. Hence, Marx did not have a romantic utopian
image of the past; he saw that the proletarian and bourgeois
classes had a common interest in the overthrow of the remnants
of feudalism, and wrote glowingly of the vigour with which the
bourgeois entrepreneurs transformed the economy (Marx &
Engels, 1968). As industrialization proceeded, however, the
interests of the two classes came to be at odds. The workers
might fail to perceive this, and retain a false conception of their
true interests, but economic forces gradually drew them into
conflict with the bourgeois. In the early capitalist economy,
many groups persisted whose class affiliation was ambiguous,
the artisan whose special skills were in short supply, the self-
employed craftsman, the small factory-owner who worked
alongside his men. Marx predicted the increasing polarisation
of society into two camps. The petty bourgeois would disappear,
particularly when prosperity would be making him a true bour-
geois, or lack of it would make him to be a wage-slave; with
him would disappear the ambiguities of interest and the cross-
cutting ties between the classes. The reason(s) for such a hap-
pening, as argued by Marx, was essentially economic. The logic
of machine production and economies of scale would dictate
larger and larger productive units, driving out the self-em-
ployed craftsman and the small factory owner (if he did not
himself expand). Machines would also make many hitherto
scarce skills redundant, and make men into unskilled machine
minders. Thus, with labour increasingly being homogeneous,
its strength in the market would decrease. The reserve army of
the unemployed, any member of which could do a job as well
as the unskilled labour then in employment, would bid down
wage rates, leading to mass pauperization. Furthermore, Marx
accepted the view of the competitive process advanced by Ri-
cardo and the English classical economists. Competition be-
tween entrepreneurs would be so fierce that profit margins
would leave little room for the indulgence of humanitarian
delusions; an employer who paid more than the market wage
would soon be driven into bankruptcy. However, the 20th cen-
tury economists have suggested that the growth of economic
units and the emergence of oligopolistic markets make such
strict market discipline unlikely or untenable.
Suffering itself would assist for the emergence of class con-
sciousness, and make evident the advantages of solidarity, of
collective action to multiply the industrial bargaining power of
the workers, and eventually to overthrow the capitalist system.
Militancy would be especially likely to emerge, for example, in
mining and other extracting industries, where the workers share
a common lot in a homogeneous community. In contrast, diffi-
culties of communication would prevent the emergence of the
peasantry, who are scattered across the countryside, as a self-
conscious class (Marx & Engels, 1968: pp. 171-172). The ex-
tent to which external leadership is necessary to catalyze class-
consciousness has long been in dispute between Marxists such
as Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg. Marx, however, firmly pre-
dicted increasing organization along class lines for collective
action, at first in trade unions for industrial objectives, later
broadening to concerted political action for the overthrow of
It is argued that Marx’s prognostications have not all proved
to be as accurate as expected. For instance, why have the lines
of conflict in capitalist society not become deeper and more
clear-cut? The answer seems to lie partly in social develop-
ments which Marx did not entirely foresee, but also partly in
theoretical difficulties in the notion of objective class interests.
Weberian Approach
Many of Weber’s differences with Marx centre on the notion
of interests. Certainly the sociologist may observe that a cate-
gory of people share a common situation in some respect. But
can such people be said to have objective interests as a group,
interests which they may or may not perceive “correctly”? We-
ber was extremely sceptical about the validity of any definition
of individual or group interests except as they appeared to the
individuals themselves.
Though Weber did not by any means reject all of Marx’s
analysis of class, he saw nothing inevitable in the emergence of
class consciousness and collective class action. A category of
people could be said to have a common class position insofar as
the life chances of its members were determined by their simi-
lar position in the market (Weber, 1968).
The common situation may not be recognized at all. Or it
may produce nothing more than similar individual reactions,
taking the form of low morale, unorganized and perhaps semi-
conscious go-slow, or at most, sporadic individual acts of sabo-
Since Weber did not suppose there were only two class situa-
tions in society-the market would continue to differentiate the
life chances of those with different kinds of property and vari-
ous kinds of skills-he saw little reason why causes and conse-
quences of life chances should necessarily become more trans-
parent in explaining class situation.
Furthermore, Weber recognized that the common economic
situations were not the only bases for collective social action.
Categories of people who shared a common status, religion,
ethnic background or political outlook could also enter as units
in social conflict. Of particular interest were people who shared
a common “status situation”.
Sharing a common “style of life”, status-groups are normally
conscious of their common status situation. Status distinctions
are, of course, most often correlated with economic inequality,
but “the notion of honor peculiar to status absolutely abhors
that which is essential to the market: hard bargaining” (Weber,
1968: p. 937). The question here is, which principle gets the
upper hand? Weber suggests that, when there is little economic
change and a stable pattern of allocation, status-groups will
tend to form and tend to impede the development of free mar-
kets. Where the economy is rapidly changing (and this can stem
from the impact of change from outside the society), status will
tend to be undermined by market and class be more prominent
as a basis for social action. In relatively stable situations, vari-
ous power resources (economic, honorific, political-organiza-
tional, etc.), are probably distributed in much the same way; in
periods of rapid transition their distribution may be discrepant,
with economically powerful perhaps not being accorded high
Changing Trends after Marx
Weber’s discussion suggests reasons why patterns of social
conflict have remained more complex than Marx expected;
there have also been a number of specific social trends which
have, so far, frustrated Marx’s predictions. They fall into three
8 Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
groups, as follows:
Firstly, there have been several developments in industrial
economies which have tended to fragment and diversify the
distribution of interests and, it is argued, to create more quasi-
groups rather than fewer. Though it is true that, in some indus-
tries, technology has reduced the worker to an unskilled ma-
chine minder, the broader trend of the division of labour has
been to make labour more heterogeneous rather than homoge-
neous. This is the trend which Dahrendorf (1959: p. 48) re-
ferred to as “the decomposition of labour”. More workers have
skills which cannot quickly be learned, so they cannot easily be
replaced and are able to command high wages. Even relatively
unskilled groups may occupy strategic points or positions in the
division of labour that, if well organized, they have immense
bargaining power. In short, there are many groups of employees
who have an advantageous position in the labour market, and
this differentiation does not facilitate class solidarity.
A related development has been the emergence of the “new
middle class”—the salaried occupations ranging from high
bureaucrats to lowly clerks. They now form a much larger pro-
portion of the labour force than in Marx’s day, and in some
technologically most advanced industries actually outnumber
the manual workers. Some of them earn less than some manual
workers, others much more. In such a situation, to which class
do they belong? If they earn their living entirely by selling their
labour they might be considered objectively as “working class”.
But we know that this fails to coincide with the subjective iden-
tification of most of them. Lockwood (1958), and Sabaz (2010)
made an obvious point that the “work situation” of particular
groups the “significant others” they encounter in their work,
tend to influence their group identification. For instance, we
should not expect domestic servants to form a hotbed of mili-
tancy and radicalism.
On the other hand, at the opposite side of the market there
has been a corresponding “decomposition of capital” (Dahren-
dorf, 1959: p. 41).This is the frequently discussed phenomenon
of “separation of ownership and control” which has occurred
since Marx’s day, made possible by the spread of the Joint-
Stock, Limited Liability Company. Economic units have be-
come larger, yet their ownership has become more dispersed
through share holdings, while practical control has passed to
salaried bureaucrats. The literature in sociology and economics
on the extent of this development and its implications for eco-
nomic motivation and social relations can be sought from
Nichols, (1969) and Wallace, (2009). From his own viewpoint,
Dahrendorf argued that Marx’s conception of ownership and
non-ownership of capital as the great divide in society was
excessively legalistic. What is now important, said Dahrendorf
is not whether people legally own capital, but their relationship
to authenticity and control. In any “imperatively co-ordinated
association”, there was a “command class”. Hence, it is not
clear how, in a multi-tier chain of command, one decides the
zero-point dividing those in authority from those in subordina-
tion. Thus, within a complex division of labour, few people
escape a considerable degree of constraint. In any case, Dahren-
dorf’s view would give a much weaker prediction about the
lines of conflict in society as a whole than did Marx’s. Since, in
a pluralistic society, a man may belong to many groups, being
in authority in one and taking orders in another, the “theory”
gives no guidance as to whether certain lines of conflict will
become more salient than others, or how groups will coalesce
in alliances for common objectives.
Secondly, many factors have impeded the crystallisation of
quasi-groups as self-conscious entities capable of collective
action in conflict with others. A sense of society-wide consen-
sus, even if it be only a limited sense of common membership
in one society, is said to impede the emergence of full class
consciousness. Marshall (1950) traced the growth of what he
called rights of citizenship in Britain from the 17th century.
“Civil” rights of citizenship—equality before the law—were
followed by the gradual extension of political rights to all
adults, and later by “social” rights of citizenship as embodied in
the provisions of the welfare state. As a whole, it is argued, this
process has achieved the “civic reincorporation” of the working
classes, who no longer feel themselves “outside” a system
which exists for the benefit of others. Associated with this ten-
dency (whether as cause, effect, or both) has been the increas-
ing institutionalization of class conflict. Lipset (1960) speaks of
“the democratic class struggle”, and Dahrendorf remarks that:
“Instead of a battlefield, the scene of group conflict has be-
come a kind of market in which relatively autonomous forces
contend according to certain rules of the game, by virtue of
which nobody is a permanent winner or loser” (Dahrendorf,
1959: p. 67).
Free collective bargaining illustrates this par excellence, and
serves, on the whole, to prevent industrial conflict spilling over
into the serious political conflict which Marx predicted. As
governments in the United States, Britain and elsewhere have,
for macroeconomic reasons, increasingly intervened in collec-
tive bargaining, it remains to be seen whether or not the insula-
tion of spheres of conflict is a long term phenomenon. Afflu-
ence, too, has often been said to dampen down discontent and
discourage class conflict, though, as Goldthorpe, Lockwood, et al .
(1969) have argued at length, the relationship between eco-
nomic prosperity and political outlook is far from being simple.
Thirdly, individual social mobility is a factor which may, in
some ways, be seen as an alternative to inter-group conflict.
Seeking to explain why there was no strong socialist political
party in the United States, Sombart suggested, as early as 1906
that abundant opportunities for individuals to make good-to use
the system—would reduce demands for changing the system.
Dahrendorf goes further and suggests that “individual competi-
tion and collective action are in principle mutually convertible,
that they are basically equivalent expressions of the same great
social force, contest” (Dahrendorf, 1967: p. 19). In other words,
the individual discontented with his lot can, in an open and
pluralistic society, strive with some hope of success to change
his situation by individual effort(s). However, inequalities of
many kinds restrict most individuals’ chances of realising their
interests alone, and therefore there are, even in the most open
societies, probably limits to the extent to which individual mo-
bility can supplant collective action in groups. Hence social
order is sometimes being viewed as a reality or as an elusive
phenomenon. It can therefore not be seen as exclusively only
present in social integration or only an inclusive category in
social conflict.
It is illustrated that, if sociologists remain interested in “so-
cial order” as a general problem, it is because they are salvag-
ing particular insights from old systems and subjecting them to
relatively modest empirical tests. Hence, the big, bold, tradi-
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 39
40 Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
tional and ideologically charged “theories” of social integration
and conflict increasingly appear like dinosaurs ill adapted to the
complexity of contemporary societies. They however retain
their emotional appeal, and there is a note both of satisfaction
and regret in Dahrendorf’s conclusion that “the social structure
of interests no longer guides us directly to the parties and plat-
forms of political conflicts; interests seem to get ‘lost’, or per-
haps satisfied, before they ever appear in the area of group an-
tagonism”, (Dahrendorf, 1967: pp. 14-15). The Parsonian con-
cern with the social structure of values is no more adequate. It
is therefore likely to prove more fruitful to formulate well-
defined propositions of limited scope, identifying what factors,
present in what strengths and combinations tend to change the
level of consensus or conflict; harmony and disharmony or
stability and instability divides. Hence, I wish to finally state
that the debates between “consensus” and “conflict” views of
society cannot be settled in the realms of “theory”, for it is es-
sentially an empirical question whether a society, of a particular
type and in a particular time and at a particular situation will
show a high level of conflict or consensus. The primary con-
cern is to illustrate the relevance of “theory” to an empirical
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