What holds society together?

Written by: Henrik Enroth


This is one of those questions that we rarely ask, unless we feel that something is already amiss. Most of the time, what holds society together is probably something we do not actively think about, like what holds our relationship or our car together. In Political Science and the Problem of Social Order I discuss how political scientists have dealt with this question, from the early twentieth century to our own day. Generally, they have dealt with it by not asking. But not asking this question has not prevented political scientists from making all sorts of assumptions about what holds society together: spontaneous coordination of diverse interests, community, consensus, support for authority, trust, and so on.

As I argue in the book, what holds society together has been a fraught question in political science. For a fleeting moment in the early twentieth century, this question was indeed openly asked and discussed. What then happened, and what has kept happening from the 1920s to our own day, is that some or other answer to this question has to be presupposed in order for us to do political inquiry, in effect preventing us from investigating social order empirically. I end the book with some thoughts on how we might hope to turn social order from a presupposition for political inquiry into an object of inquiry.

Doing so seems increasingly urgent. I started working on this book a long time ago. Much of the research was done in the early 2000s, in the wake of the so-called war on terror. That was a time when not only international political order was in question; what holds domestic society together also became a more explicit concern as tensions mounted along cultural and religious lines, not seldom politically reinforced and exploited. During the time I have spent working on the book, off and on between other projects, increasing socioeconomic inequality and political polarization have exacerbated the problem.

As the book is now published we are experiencing another moment of high tension in world politics. This leads me to add a caveat to the question of what holds society together. Answers to this question – and even the relevance of the question itself – very much depend on the kind of society in which you live. If you live in a country that is ravaged by civil war, or invaded by a powerful and ruthless neighbor, this is a question you do not have the luxury to ask. As you might guess, and as you will see when you read the book, the kind of society that has provided the template for answers to this question in political science has been the kind of society most twentieth-century political scientists knew first-hand: a liberal democratic society. At the time when I write this blog post, this is what strikes me as the most conspicuous and most unsettling difference from when I started writing the book. Not only does there seem to be an increasing number of places where this question is again being explicitly asked, and where conventional answers no longer seem convincing – many of them the kind of liberal democracies on which political scientists have historically predicated their answers to this question. There is also a disconcerting, perhaps increasing, number of places where the question does not even apply.

Political Science and the Problem of Social Order by Henrik Enroth
Political Science and the Problem of Social Order by Henrik Enroth

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About the Author: Henrik Enroth

Henrik Enroth is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Linnaeus University. He is also a Faculty Fellow at the Center for Cultural Sociology, Yale University. He has wide-ranging interests in social, cultural, and political theory. His work has appeared in journals such as Theory, Culture & Society, International Political S...

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