Cite as: Jean Terrier, ‘On Social Forces: Tension as a Metaphor and the Image of Society’, in Tension/​Spannung, ed. by Christoph F. E. Holzhey, Cultural Inquiry, 1 (Vienna: Turia + Kant, 2010), pp. 185–205 <>

On Social ForcesTension as a Metaphor and the Image of SocietyJean Terrier


This article conceptualizes tension as a relation between elements in which at least two forces with different directions are involved. How can this concept of tension be applied to the analysis of the peculiar logic of life in common? The article offers a reading, inspired by the method of conceptual history, of the use of the concept of ‘force’ in three models of society: Hobbes’s political model, the economic model proposed by the thinkers of commercial society, and Durkheim’s social theory. The analysis sheds some light on the ways in which the presence of contradictory forces can be taken to be constitutive of the social itself. This observation is then used to suggest that the puzzling fascination exerted by the notion of tension can be better understood if we see it pointing to some fundamental features of our way of collectively inhabiting the world.

Durkheim, Hobbes, social theory, tension