Social Order as Moral Order

  • Anne Warfield Rawls
Part of the Handbooks of Sociology and Social Research book series (HSSR)


This chapter will argue that replacing the established focus on social institutions with a focus on constitutive orders of interaction has important implications for Ethics. Treating “social” facts as if they were “natural” facts has resulted in a focus on concepts in place of practices. Treating social facts as “instituted” has resulted in a conception of social order as contingent and of morality as relative to particular social institutional arrangements. However, social institutions are in almost all cases comprised of sets of rules for constructing and maintaining inequalities that are not moral in any general sense. A conception of constitutive order changes this. If the crucial social objects (including self) are understood as social and not natural objects, and their fragile character and dependence on constitutive orders for their existence (rather than on institutions) is accepted, then the whole question of morality and its relationship to society is changed. A relationship usually viewed as both relative and merely pragmatic (or functional) is recast in terms that transcend the particulars of institutionalized social arrangements, consummating a social contract position. There are implications not only for Ethics, but for a conception of democratic society in a context of modernity and diversity.


Social Order Social Institution Interaction Order Social Object Institutional Constraint 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



I would like to thank Albert Ogien, Louis Quere, L’Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociale, the Marcel Mauss Institute, and the City of Paris International Scholars Program for supporting my work on this chapter through a Senior Scholar “Laureate” appointment 2009–2010. The interest of Louis Quere, Albert Ogien, Michel de Fornel and Bernard Conein in matters of constitutive order over some 40 years has been crucial to the development of studies of constitutive order in France. I thank Albert Ogien and Sandra Laugier for invitations to speak and for facilitating translations and publications. Lorenza Mondada was indispensible on my first trip to Paris in 2003. There have been many earlier versions of this argument over the years and I am indebted in particular to Randy Collins, Norbert Wiley, David Maines, Norman Denzin, and Peter Manning for early support and encouragement. Fran Waksler introduced me to Harold Garfinkel who has been a sustaining critic and touchstone over many years. In a serious way it all began with his insights and their intersection with Goffman. Jeff Coulter introduced me to the philosophical debate on the issues. Alisdair MacIntyre, John Findlay, Tom McCarthy, Erazhim Kohak, Kurt Wolff, and Bernard Elevitch taught me philosophy. From Tom I learned about Habermas. Doug Maynard read and commented on early versions when I was at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the 1980s and has been a friend and colleague for many years. Anthony Giddens during a visit to Boston in the early 1980s challenged me to demonstrate that in constitutive orders mutual intelligibility does indeed fail when interactional reciprocities (equalities) fail. I hope that I have taken up this challenge. As always my debt to Peter Manning is incalculable.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyBentley UniversityWalthamUSA

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