Who is the author of the social order

Solidarity and social order. A sociological perspective

Contributions from the Forum Business Ethics annual journal 2016

Ulf Tranow


Solidarity is one of the basic moral concepts of modern society. Appeals to solidarity and also complaints about their disappearance are ritual language games that we can observe regularly and in which we often take part ourselves. However, the extensive use of the term in everyday and political usage cannot hide the fact that its meaning is highly unspecific. There should be consensus that solidarity has something to do with help, support and cohesion, but when it comes to defining the term more concretely, a number of questions quickly arise: Does solidarity require altruistic motives or can it also be out of self-interest be done? Is solidarity tied to voluntariness or is it compatible with coercion? Are feelings of connectedness a prerequisite for solidarity or can it also be achieved for reasons of reason?

Anyone who hopes for clear answers to these questions from a look at the philosophical and social science literature will quickly be disappointed. There are countless definitions of solidarity, each with a different focus and often contradicting each other with regard to the points listed (see Tranow 2012, Chapter 1). As an alternative to discussing definitions, I propose to approach solidarity from a problem-oriented perspective. Solidarity is a social value and is demanded because there is an expectation that it will achieve something and solve problems.

But what are the problems and what is a solution through solidarity? In the following I will offer a sociological answer and link solidarity with the question of the conditions for the formation of social order. The core argument is that in all groups in which people pursue common goals, four central problems of cooperation arise: problems of the collective good, problems of distribution, support and loyalty. Solidarity is a system of norms that aims to solve these problems by establishing certain standards of cooperation.

Social order as a sociological reference problem

The connection between the concept of solidarity and the problem of social order goes back to the founding days of sociology. In view of the massive social upheavals resulting from industrialization and urbanization, social theorists in the 19th century dealt intensively with the question of the foundations of social cohesion. The most important solidarity theory of this time comes from Émile Durkheim (1858-1917). Durkheim starts from the assumption that individuals cannot form a social order “without making sacrifices to one another” (Durkheim 1992/1893, p. 285). Behind this is the basic sociological insight that social order actually represents a problem, the core of which is a “transhistorical” and “inescapable” conflict between the wishes of individuals and the demands of society (Wrong 1994, p. 36). In order to solve the problem of social order, Durkheim refers to the need for a social force to become effective which “forces man to reckon with the other, to regulate his movements by something other than the instincts of his egoism” (Durkheim 1992/1893 , P. 468). He identifies this social force with norms that oblige the individual “to make concessions, to compromise, to consider interests higher than his own” (ibid., P. 284).

If one follows Durkheim, then solidarity manifests itself in a social cohesion of groups established by norms. The question of the solidarity of a group then translates into the question of how a system of norms establishes society as a co-operation context. This reference to the problem “inherited” from the classical sociology of Durkheim, however, remains rather vague for an approach to solidarity. For a sustainable concept of solidarity, it is important to associate solidarity with the most specific problem constellations of social order and related norms. Based on Lindenberg (1998), I will differentiate between four problem constellations or critical situations: critical collective good, distribution, support and loyalty situations. The core of these critical situations are in each case a lack of incentives to provide certain services for the benefit of other individuals or the community. Analogous to these four critical situations, four solidarity norms can be differentiated - collective good, distribution, support and loyalty norms - each of which aims to establish a certain standard of service provision and cooperation. My thesis is that these critical situations and solidarity norms have a universal character and are (potentially) to be found in all group contexts, regardless of their size, their structure and their moral character. We find it in romantic couple relationships as well as in profit-oriented companies, in sports clubs as well as in terrorist associations, at the national level as well as at the level of the EU or global society.


Four critical situations and their solution through solidarity norms

Before I present the four critical situations and solidarity norms in more detail, two preliminary remarks are useful, firstly on the basis of the construction of the critical situations and secondly on the underlying concept of the norm.

Typing the critical situations requires a model of action against the background of which the situations appear to be critical in terms of their incentive conditions. The starting point here is the model of rational utility maximization. However, there is no plea for homo oeconomicus as an adequate actor model. From countless findings in experimental behavioral economics, we know that this model is highly unrealistic, which is why a number of additions and extensions have been developed in economic and sociological theory of action. The basis of the model of rational utility maximization is justified here for the methodological reason that with its help the problem contents of the four critical situations can be contoured as sharply as possible. The problem levels remain virulent even when the realistic premise is assumed that individuals can have altruistic preferences and a fixed value and, moreover, are only rational to a limited extent.

Generally speaking, norms are expectations that actors in certain situations refrain from or carry out certain actions (Tranow 2016). Solidarity norms are a specific type of norms that demand from their addressees a transfer of resources in favor of other individuals or the community without receiving compensation in the sense of a fixed consideration - such as wages (cf. Hechter 1987 ; Tranow 2012). I am starting from a very broad concept of norms that encompasses both formal and informal norms. Against this background, tax liability is just as much a solidarity as the diverse, non-codified Sollens expectations of mutual support within the framework of the family, neighborhood or colleagues. In most cases (solidarity) norms are accompanied by sanctions. These can vary greatly in their severity and the degree of their institutionalization, from facial disapproval to violent exclusion from a group and from spontaneous criticism to legal punishment. Even if (solidarity) norms are accompanied by sanctions, these do not necessarily have to be the decisive determinant of action. Rather, many (solidarity) norms are followed out of an inner drive and a sense of obligation. I will go into this in more detail in Section 4.


Critical collective good situations - collective good norms

In most groups and communities there are goods that are provided as collective goods. For a large part of the common goods it is true that they have an intentional character. Spouses, shared apartments, work companies or state-run political communities agree on which goods should be provided as collective goods within their framework. With the aim of realizing a good as a collective good, the question is raised of who should participate in its provision and to what extent. The standards according to which an “appropriate” service provision is determined is variable. Whether it is considered right that all members of a group make the same contribution, or whether it is preferred that the contributions vary depending on certain criteria (e.g. performance, age, gender, intensity of use), is subject to contingent value convictions and interests. Regardless of which standards are used, in many cases the provision of “reasonable” contributions cannot be assumed without any problems due to the existing incentive conditions. Critical collective good situations arise above all when there are incentives to free-ride. Common good norms require members of a group to make an “appropriate” contribution to a common good and not to take advantage of free-rider opportunities.


Basic structure of critical collective good situationsIn a group, a good should be made available as a collective good, but the relevant actors lack incentives to make an “appropriate” contribution to its creation.
Core of common good normsGroup members should “appropriately” participate in the provision of a collective good.
Examples of norms for the collective goodHusbands should give due consideration to the housework instead of resting on traditional roles.

Employees should take part in the labor dispute instead of letting their colleagues commit to the common cause.

Citizens should take part in political elections and thus take responsibility for our common democracy.

illustration 1


Critical distribution situations - distribution norms

In all cooperative relationships there are distribution situations in which the fruits and burdens of the division of labor are shared between the parties: spouses are faced with the challenge of dividing the household income among themselves; Work colleagues are faced with the challenge of distributing work tasks; Companies face the challenge of dividing profits or losses between the owners and the workforce.

For distribution situations, there can be different ideas about what is required from a fairness point of view. The most important normative principles of distribution include egalitarianism, which requires equal distribution among those involved; Ascriptivism, which justifies preference based on the criterion of group membership (for example of men over women, locals over foreigners, etc.); individualism, which demands distributions according to individually attributable characteristics such as performance or effort, and the need principle, which justifies a distribution of goods depending on need. As a rule, these principles are not assigned a universal, but rather a situation- and context-specific validity. Modern societies differentiate themselves into different “spheres of justice” (Walzer 1983/1992), for each of which different distribution principles are assumed to be “fair”. While the need principle usually exists in the context of close relationships, individualism dominates in the context of professional and market-mediated relationships.

Regardless of which principle is considered relevant in a specific context, in many cases actors can be expected to find incentives to “unfairly” maximize their advantage at the expense of the other party. It is precisely this incentive structure that defines the basic constellation of critical distribution situations. Distribution norms are “should-do” expectations, which require in these situations to refrain from “exploitative” behavior and to orientate oneself towards a certain principle of fairness.


Basic structure of critical distribution situationsThere is a cooperation between A and B. A is in a position to undertake the costs and benefits of the cooperation. A has incentives to maximize its own advantage in an “unfair” way at B's expense.
Core of distribution normsCooperation partners should behave “fairly” when dividing the costs and benefits of a cooperation.
Examples of distribution normsFamily members and friends should not make any economic profits from one another.

Companies should let the workforce share in the profits.

EU member states should accept refugees according to their economic capacity.

Figure 2


Critical support situations - support norms

We are regularly confronted with situations in which others are dependent on support and help, both in our immediate vicinity and through the media. In everyday life, the term solidarity is most likely to be associated with support and help behavior in such need situations. Demand situations can have a dramatic or everyday character. In acute distress due to hunger and illness, it is just as much a need situation as it is in the case of difficulties in coping with a task in the workplace. The determination of a need is normatively by no means neutral, but already implies that a remedy through support services is necessary. Whether a situation is defined as a need situation and who in this case should provide support services to what extent is subject to extremely variable social definitions. The least disputed thing here is that in emergency situations in which the physical existence is threatened by hunger, illness or injury, all witnesses are obliged to provide life-saving support within the scope of their possibilities (cf. Kersting 1998, p. 414 ). But as soon as the area of ​​“existential borderline situations” (ibid.) Is left, the criteria lose clarity as to what situations are required, who is obliged to provide support and what is an “appropriate” support service. The definition of social needs is to a large extent “culturally impregnated, socially coded and dependent on the material level of demands of a society” (ibid.). With increasing distance from life-threatening situations, the group of those who are assigned a duty of support also becomes more particular.

Since support services are often associated with a victim, it is not to be expected that “adequate” support will be reliably provided in every need. It is not uncommon for situations of need to have the structure of critical support situations in which there are insufficient incentives for the relevant actors to behave in this way. This may be because they simply have no interest in the other party's welfare. From empirical research on the bystander phenomenon, however, we know that in many cases there is no support because they rely on the intervention of others or the overall situation is assessed as unclear (Elster 2007, p. 183). Support norms require that “appropriate” support be provided in situations of need, even when it may be tempting to place responsibility on others or to slip away from the situation without further assessment of the needs.


Basic structure of critical support situationsB is in a need situation. A has the opportunity to provide an “appropriate” support service, but does not have sufficient incentives to provide it.
Core of support normsWitnesses to a need situation should provide "appropriate" support rather than ignoring the need or imposing support on others.
Examples of support normsChildren should support their parents in need through their own services.

Neighbors should keep an eye on children playing and intervene in dangerous situations.

EU member states should support each other financially in times of crisis.

Figure 3


Critical Loyalty Situations - Loyalty Norms

The success and existence of cooperation relationships depends not least on the willingness to participate showing a certain stability, which in practice cannot, however, be unconditionally assumed.The change in personal preferences and goals, the change in the conditions of cooperation and the emergence of new options can lead to the interest in a cooperation dwindling and an “exit” (Hirschmann 1974) appearing attractive. People change lovers, mafia members collaborate with the judiciary, companies relocate and wealthy citizens move their primary residence to tax havens, because they can improve their situation by leaving an existing and entering a new cooperative relationship

Although an exit is often associated with a disadvantage for the party left, this fact alone does not mean that an exit is to be assessed as illegitimate. A loyalty problem only arises when a corresponding loyalty value is applied. Technically speaking, loyalty values ​​embody ideas about the amount up to which the acceptance of opportunity costs for remaining in a cooperation relationship is normatively expected. Depending on worldviews and ideologies, these can vary greatly. As a rule, higher demands on the legitimacy of divorces are derived from religious in comparison to secular-liberal moral concepts. Loyalty standards also vary with social situation and relationship contexts. The economic market is generally regarded as the social sphere in which the actors are at least partially released from moral unreasonable demands and can legitimately give priority to their own interests. As a rule, the loyalty standards applied between business partners are likely to be lower than those between friends or family members. The basic structure of critical loyalty situations is characterized by a tension between a loyalty standard and the incentives to exit from a cooperation relationship. In these situations, loyalty norms require that a cooperative relationship be continued and that alternatives be avoided.


Basic structure of critical loyalty situationsA cooperation relationship exists between A and B. There is a new option for A that makes an exit appear attractive to her. An exit from A would contradict a loyalty value.
Core of loyalty normsAs long as the opportunity costs of continuing a cooperation relationship do not exceed a certain level (loyalty value), cooperation partners should refrain from an exit.
Examples of loyalty normsSpouses should remain true to each other.

Mafia members should not cooperate with the police after their arrest.

Companies should not relocate their production location despite the prospect of higher profits.

Figure 4


Solidarity at the individual level as a solidarity standard bond

The core of the argument so far has been to identify solidarity with four norms that aim to solve central problems of social order and human cooperation. In our everyday understanding, however, we do not primarily associate solidarity with norms, but with personal characteristics such as willingness to make sacrifices and feelings of connectedness. At this point it must now be clarified in what way solidarity manifests itself at the individual level and the relationship between individual solidarity and the establishment of solidarity norms at group level.

From the perspective of the concept proposed here, solidarity is expressed at the individual level in a solidarity norm bond, i.e. in a feeling of obligation to solidarity norms, which becomes effective as a motive for action. People with a solidarity standard make contributions to collective goods, orient themselves towards fairness principles, support others in situations of need and are loyal to their cooperation partners, even if the immediate incentives suggest different actions. This idea of ​​solidarity at the individual level corresponds to our everyday understanding. We only refer to people as “in solidarity” if we assume that they are providing services for the benefit of others or the community for an intrinsic motivation and not for strategic-opportunistic reasons.

From an analytical point of view, the enforcement of solidarity norms does not necessarily depend on individuals who show solidarity. Under certain conditions, a strategic-opportunistic attitude can be sufficient to guarantee transfer payments in the sense of the four solidarity norms. This is the case if there is a sanction and / or reciprocity mechanism in a group that functions without any gaps. Under this condition, individuals must expect that if they refuse solidarity services, there is a high probability that they will face severe sanctions and / or that they will be excluded from benefiting from solidarity services in the future. The effective functioning of both the sanction and reciprocity mechanisms depends on the existence of a high level of transparency in action. In reality, however, this condition is often not met. Even in connection with legally codified solidarity norms (e.g. tax laws) there are often gaps in control and with them incentives to act opportunistically. For this reason it can be stated that the realization of solidarity norm claims in many group contexts depends on at least a certain proportion of group members being motivated in solidarity and not acting primarily opportunistically.

This raises the question of what the social prerequisites are for individuals to develop such a bond in their different social contexts - family, workplace, political community, etc. This point can only be touched briefly here, which is why I limit myself to one aspect that is central from a sociological perspective. Since solidarity norms impose certain sacrifices on individuals, a bond with these norms is to be assumed as full of preconditions and fragile. Under no circumstances can one rely on individuals acquiring a “disposition to solidarity” in their socialization, which is permanent. Rather, a solidarity standard must be produced and reproduced in everyday contexts of experience. In this context, two important mechanisms should be mentioned: Firstly, it is beneficial for a stable solidarity standard if individuals receive recognition and appreciation for this characteristic, as this reduces the subjective costs of acting in solidarity. Second, regular group rituals are helpful, in which the members can assure themselves that the group goals continue to exist and that solidarity orientations dominate. This is particularly important because a solidarity norms commitment has a conditional character: the willingness of individuals to commit themselves to solidarity norms is essentially dependent on the assumption that the other members also have a solidarity rather than an opportunistic orientation (see Tranow 2012, Chapter 4).


The normative and functional evaluation of solidarity

Solidarity was introduced here as a solution mechanism for central cooperation problems. This is accompanied, at least implicitly, by a positive connotation of solidarity, as we are used to from everyday linguistic and political use of the term. From a sociological perspective, however, one must warn against a one-sided positive assessment of solidarity. Not every variant of solidarity is morally desirable; rather, certain forms of solidarity can pose a serious problem for the normative and functional integration of modern societies. Terrorist groups and criminal organizations are also confronted with cooperation problems and rely on robust solidarity norms to solve them. From the perspective of the majority society, however, it is a matter of solidarity that must be prevented and which the state is actively trying to undermine, for example through drop-out programs. In addition, solidarity can take on a repressive character and stand in tension with liberal and emancipatory values. Strong marital loyalty norms can, for example, make a self-determined lifestyle more difficult and, in extreme cases, cement relationships of sexual exploitation. Extensive family support norms can curtail personal educational and career paths because they bind young adults socially and spatially closely to their families of origin. It must also be pointed out that the dominance of solidarity norms can have dysfunctional effects in some areas of society. A functioning constitutional state, an efficient bureaucracy and a prosperous economy are threatened by systems of nepotism, which are based on strong solidarity obligations among members of their own group. Particular solidarity obligations threaten to undermine official procedural rules and factual criteria in decision-making processes.

From the perspective of sociology it can be said that every social order remains dependent on a certain amount of solidarity, but what kind of and how much solidarity is desirable cannot be determined sociologically. This depends on contingent values ​​and the functional requirements that are placed on sub-areas of society. The establishment of concrete solidarity relationships must be repeatedly negotiated and fought for in open societies. It will also be about identifying and combating undesirable forms of solidarity. In this social understanding, sociology does not have the task of making moral judgments or demanding a certain solidarity, but rather to explain how solidarity “works”, what it does and what side effects it can be associated with.



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Elster, J. (2007): Explaining Social Behavior. More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences, Cambridge.

Hechter, M. (1987): Principles of Group Solidarity, Berkeley.

Hirschmann, A. O. (1974): Migration and contradiction, Tübingen.

Kersting, W. (1998): International Solidarity, in: K. Bayertz (ed.), Solidarity: Concept and Problem, Frankfurt a. M., pp. 411-429.

Lindenberg, S. (1998): Solidarity - Its Microfoundation and Macrodependence. A Framing Approach, in: Doreian, P. - Fararo T. (ed.): The Problem of Solidarity. Theories and Models, Amsterdam, pp. 61-112.

Tranow, U. (2012): The concept of solidarity. Action-theoretical foundation of a sociological key term, Wiesbaden.

Tranow, U. (2016): Norm, social, in: Kopp, Johannes –Steinbach, Anja (ed.): Basic concepts of sociology, 11th edition, Wiesbaden, pp. 256-260.

Walzer, M. (1983/1992): Spheres of Justice - A plea for plurality and equality, Frankfurt a. M.

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The author

Jun.-Prof. Dr. Ulf Tranow

has been junior professor for sociology with a focus on sociological theory at Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf since 2013, where he previously worked as a research assistant and assistant to the management. His dissertation on “The Concept of Solidarity. Action-theoretical foundation of a sociological key concept ”was awarded the 2011 drupa prize. His current focus of work includes the question of what contribution political strife can make to the social integration of heterogeneous societies.

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