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Social Theory and Social Ties

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As to the question which gave rise to this work, it is that

of the relations between the individual personality and social

solidarity. What explains the fact that, while becoming more

autonomous, the individual becomes more closely dependent

on society? How can he simultaneously be more personally

developed and more socially dependent? For it is undeniable

that these two developments, however contradictory they may

seem, are equally in evidence. That is the problem which we

have set ourselves. What has seemed to us to resolve this

apparent antinomy is a transformation of social solidarity

due to the steadily growing development of the division of

labour.

(Emile Durkheim 1964a [1893]: 37–38)

How is social order created? How is social order maintained? What

makes people live together in peace and initiate mutual ties? What are

the origins of the trust that is needed to be able to exchange goods

and services? What are the psychological, social, and cultural conditions

for the development of social ties? Those are the old questions to

which social science – as advanced by its classical as well as its more

modern authors – has attempted to find answers. The theme of social

order has not exclusively been a central focus in the sociological

discipline, but also in anthropology. In addition to Durkheim, Weber,

and Parsons, who took primarily (but not exclusively) Western society

as point of departure for their analyses, ethnologists and anthropologists

such as Malinowski and Lґevi-Strauss have studied the conditions

for the genesis of a common culture. Processes of reciprocal exchange –

of gifts, goods, and services – and the sense of moral obligation originating

in these processes proved to be the basis of many non-Western

societies.

In speaking of social order as a “problem,” Talcott Parsons identifies

two conditions at its root. First, people have limited capacities to

sympathize with their fellow human beings: there is a constant tension

between the moral obligations they feel toward other people and

the impulse to promote their own interests. What is desirable from

a normative perspective does not necessarily correspond to our actual

needs, wishes, and desires; this may be called a moral shortage. Second,

people inhabit an environment that provides insufficient resources to

fulfill the needs of all members of society; here, a material shortage,

apr oblem of scarcity, is involved. “The problem of order is . . . rooted

in inescapable conflict between the interests and desires of individuals

and the requirements of society: to wit, the pacification of violent

strife among men and the secure establishment of co-operative

social relations making possible the pursuit of collective goals” (Wrong

1994: 36).

The more society is in a process of change, the more social science

is concerned with the concepts of cohesion and solidarity. Therefore, it

is not surprising that at the end of the nineteenth century sociologists

were analyzing the consequences of the transition from traditional to

modern society for social cohesion and solidarity and anthropologists

were wondering on which principles culture and order in non-Western

societies were based. Which were their main ideas, and what can we

still learn from them? Why is the theory of the gift a theory of human

solidarity?