Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Micro Foundations of Hobbes’ Problem of Social Order

Shane Thye, Jeongkoo Yoon, Edward J. Lawler

Thomas Hobbes, philosopher.

Thomas Hobbes. Image: Public Domain.

The English Enlightenment philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, originally asked: How is social order possible?

He claimed that because people are venal, avaricious, and highly competitive, it is difficult for them to avoid a “war of all against all” when they try to create human communities. This is due to an inherent conflict between the interests or preferences of individuals and the interests of groups or organizations they inhabit. Many solutions to this individual-group conflict are offered in the social sciences but, for the most part, they emphasize “top down” processes such as authority, control, and sanctions, because presumably only these processes can control the selfish instincts of humanity. We’d like to suggest a counterpoint to such a point of view.

We make two broad claims that depart from prevailing ideas about the Hobbesian problem of social order.

The first is that social orders are driven by “bottom up” conditions and processes rather than “top down” processes. Interpersonal interactions, small groups, and local networks necessarily underlie macro-level, society-wide social orders. In the absence of micro level processes, macro level structure and culture entail only potentialities not actualities.

Second, social order is problematic even if there is no tension or conflict between the preferences and interests of individuals and those of the group or organization in which they are members. It is often the case that individuals with shared interests and cooperative goals find it difficult to collaborate or cooperatively get from point A to point B. Micro level, social psychological phenomena underlie and explain these enduring social order problems. We explored many other solutions, in particular micro-sociological processes with “bottom up” effects.

Consider a couple of examples of micro-sociological processes that generate social orders “bottom up.”

We often experience mild, everyday emotions when interact with others in groups or organizations. These positive emotions can spread beyond the small groups in which you feel them to the larger organization. If a work team generates a lot of positive vibes across time as people work together, those feelings can spread to the larger organization and create an affective tie to that larger unit. So, not only do the people feel emotionally attached to the others in their team but they also feel good about the organization. If they attribute their individual feelings to the organization, they come to value the organizational affiliation as an end in itself, not just a means to individual ends.

In this way the spread of positive emotions promotes a more stable and resilient organization.

Another “bottom up” effect occurs through status structures that develop in group interactions.

People size each other up quickly when they work on a task together, and they tend to defer to those they believe have more potential or talent to contribute. Cultural beliefs about people in certain categories (women, African American, Asian, etc.) can be activated in these task interactions and if they are, the status order in the group enacts and mirrors the one in the larger culture.

However, this macro status order has little real meaning or effect unless people use the cultural beliefs and expectations to guide their interactions with others in local, micro situations. Interpersonal, group interactions are necessary.

About The Authors

Shane Thye

Shane Thye is a co-author of Order on the Edge of Chaos (2015). He is a professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina. He is a series co-editor of Advances in Group Pr...

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Jeongkoo Yoon

Jeongkoo Yoon is a co-author of Order on the Edge of Chaos (2015). He is Professor in the School of Management at Ewha Womans University, South Korea. His research applies power an...

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Edward J. Lawler

Edward J. Lawler is a co-author of Order on the Edge of Chaos (2015). He is the Martin P. Catherwood Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Professor of Sociology at Corne...

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