Social order, as we are using the term, depends on the ongoing implementation of solutions to two separate problems: coordination and cooperation.

By coordination we mean the establishment of stable expectations about one another's behaviors. A classic coordination problem is one in which the substance of the solution does not matter, but having everyone adopt the same solution does. Perhaps the most common example is driving on one side of the road or the other.

By cooperation, we mean individuals making behavioral choices that can combine with the choices of others to produce collectively better outcomes, behavior that makes the world a better place if everyone (or most everyone) does it. We sometimes refer to this as engaging in pro-social rather than selfish behavior. A common example is volunteer donations to public radio: if enough of us do it, the world is better because we can all enjoy public radio.

What are some "things" that depend on social order? time; driving; language; parties.


  1. Brainstorm and generate a list of 8 to 10 everyday phenomena that depend on social order for their existence.
  2. Select one and write a brief description of how it depends on coordination and how it depends on cooperation.

Include your brainstorm list as a part of your essay. Your essay should be more than 200 but less than 500 words (the examples below are on the "thin" and "short" end of the spectrum — you might aspire to say a little more). It should be in the standard format.

Example 1: Time

Although time is a "natural" phenomenon, how we reckon it is social. Clocks and calendars involve arbitrary ways of dividing time (though some, such as the day and the month and the year, are related to natural phenomena). Time as a social resource only works if we can "get on the same page" about how to count time and when to start.

Coordination. Consider clocks; to use them humans need to agree to non-natural fixed time points. If you and I understand that noon is when the sun is directly overhead and that we will meet at fifteen minutes past noon half-way along the east-west road that connects our villages then the one of us who lives in the eastern village will do more walking because noon happens earlier for her. To save ourselves endless calculations we have to agree on a fixed noon and so we set up a clock tower in one of our villages and agree to both set our watches based on it.

Cooperation. The clock tower might be on the road between our villages so that both of us are setting our watches "wrong" with respect to true noon. In a completely selfish world, we would set our watches to our own local time, but by each agreeing to use the standard we all benefit from being able to meet on time.

Example 2: Parties

What does it take to make a successful party?

Coordination. The most obvious coordination problem for successful parties is that everyone needs to know where and when the party will happen. But there are other coordination problems too. It might be potluck and so the invitees need to bring things that complement one another so as not to end up with too much wine and too little food. The attendees also need to know what kind of a party it is and what they should wear and the hosts need to know who will come and will not. Note that most of these coordination issues go into defining what an invitation is.

Cooperation. For a party to "work" the people who come have to act in a pro-social manner. This can include things like not getting drunk, not monopolizing people, keeping the chit-chat light enough for general circulation, eating only as much of the food as makes sense given the size of the crowd, etc. Note that all of these might run counter to what one might "really want to do" or what people actually do when they get "out of control."