- A theory of social order that was popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, although the idea goes back to Plato. The social contract is an unwritten agreement between the state and its citizens, in which the relative rights and duties of each are expressed. Thomas Hobbes , John Locke , and Jean-Jacques Rousseau propounded three of the most famous contracts, each describing an ideal rather than a real distribution of power. Hobbes argued that security and order could only be achieved by a contract in which all citizens would give up all their individual powers to a central power (the Sovereign), in return for the protection of life and property. Locke suggested an almost opposite strategy of minimal and revocable government, his contract being grounded in the ‘natural laws’ of acquisitiveness and self-interest (a view which found its way almost unchanged into the American system of government); Rousseau imagined a contract requiring complete equality and democratic participation based on the expression of a ‘General Will’. Social contract theory, because of its fanciful and imaginative nature, has not been congenial to modern social scientists. But it still raises many interesting questions about the nature and purpose of government, and the characteristics of the ideal society.
Dictionary of sociology. 2013.
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