Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

Social Contract

relevant to American immigrants and minorities

thanks to

Oxford English Dictionary. Social Contract. 2. Philos. A tacit and implicit agreement between members of a society to cooperate for social benefits, usually by sacrificing some individual freedom in return for state protection.

The "social contract" is a concept essential to philosophy, history, and sociology that is adaptable to many different social conditions.

"Social contract" describes values, duties, and responsibilities to which citizens agrees as part of their relation to a situation, institution, or state. In return, the state or culture guarantees for the citizens certain rights or securities.

As a metaphor, the social contract appears in everyday speech:

"This isn't what I signed up for." Or,

"It wasn't what I thought, but I signed up for it, so I went ahead."

 Larger meanings involve concepts of public order and the attitudes and behavior  of individuals in support of a state, nation, or status quo.

The phrase derives from The Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right (1762) by Jean-Jacques Rousseau—source of the famous Romantic utterance, "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains."

In popular discourse, "social contract" becomes a metaphor for any large-scale situation in which individuals and their social environments or institutions make general agreements about their expectations of each other.

The immigrant narrative, for instance, promises self-determination and opportunity in the "pursuit of happiness" or socio-economic advancement. As President Clinton used to say, "If you work hard and play by the rules, you'll get ahead."

If the immigrant narrative and American Dream represent social contracts for American dominant and immigrant cultures, these social contracts may not be historically appropriate for American minorities.

American Indians may see historical immigration as destructive of their economic infrastructure and cultural values.

African Americans, instead of exercising self-determination in coming to America, were forced or kidnapped from Africa to the Americas, where they found not opportunity but slavery.

Thus the social contracts for minority groups were historically different than for immigrants or their descendants.

When the dominant culture tells minorities to "get over it" and "forget the past," they are urging minorities to act like immigrants, who leave their pasts behind voluntarily and keep moving.


In terms of the progress of American or Western Civilization, the idea of a social contract replaces or succeeds the idea of a divine and social covenant: