January 13-17, 2003
Sociology of Emile Durkheim
Adams and Sydie begin their discussion of early sociology with a presentation of the sociological work of conservative writers (pp. 59-60). After the French Revolution and the Enlightenment, some writers were concerned with how social order could be maintained in the face of progress, revolution, disorder, and rule by the people. Early sociology is often considered to have emerged out of this conservative reaction to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution – writers such as Saint-Simon, Comte, and Spencer looked on the emergent capitalist society as generally good and progressive, but were concerned about how society holds together given the individualism that emerged and the changes in political order.
According to Adams and Sydie, there were three main approaches (p. 59)
1. Positivism – society is orderly and rational and social scientists, through careful study of history and the society around them, could develop an understanding of the social world. August Comte (1798-1857) is often regarded as the early champion of this approach. A French writer, he coined the term sociology and considered the scientific study of society to be social physics – an application of the scientific method, used in natural sciences such physics, to the social world (p. 39). Writers adopting a positivist approach consider it possible to investigate the social world and, from regularities and patterns of human behaviour, discover social laws that explain the workings of the social world. We will not discuss Comte and the positivist approach further at this point, but positivism has been one long-standing influence in sociological theory and practice.
2. Evolutionism – society changes slowly and the process of change includes self-correction to problems and strains in the social world. Most nineteenth century sociologists developed some form of evolutionary approach to society. That is, societies change, there are stages to social development (tribal, primitive or traditional, modern, post-modern), change is relatively gradual (although the radical approach of Section III developed a more cataclysmic view of change), and where there are conflicts or disagreements among groups in society, these tend to be corrected through evolutionary forces. These writers generally viewed later stages as higher or more developed forms of society as compared with earlier stages of social development. Spencer, Sumner, Comte, and Durkheim all developed variants of this approach. Writers who are not in the conservative tradition, such as Marx and Weber, also developed a view of society in stages, although they were not always so evolutionary in their approach – Marx adopted a view of revolutionary change.
3. Functionalism – society is similar to a biological organism or a body, with interrelated parts, needs and functions for each of these parts, and structures to ensure that the parts work together to produce a well-functioning and healthy body. Such an approach was adopted by some less conservative sociologists as well. Even today it is common for sociologists to discuss the function of the family in socializing individuals and in helping preserve social order, or the function of profits to help encourage economic growth and a well-functioning economy and society. While functionalism has been an important theoretical approach, it is sometimes theoretically lazy to use this form of explanation as a substitute for understanding and determining how the social world works. For example, using a functionalist approach we may not be able to understand why the family is functional for society, why it developed the way it has, and how changes in the family occur. If the family form is functional, why is it always changing, and why do new family forms appear as functional as earlier ones? Durkheim is often considered a functionalist, but Adams and Sydie note that “Durkheim clearly distinguished between causal and functional explanations of social facts.” (p. 97). That is, Durkheim understood that it was necessary to explain the reasons why particular social structures emerged historically, and if such structures were functional, this required a separate explanation.
Rather than discuss each of the early conservative sociological approaches, we will move directly to Durkheim, one of the major influences in twentieth century sociology. First, there will be a short overview of Durkheim’s sociology, a short biography, and then a more detailed discussion of two major parts of his theoretical approach – the division of labour and the analysis of suicide. In conclusion, we will have a short discussion of the methods used by Durkheim’s and other issues he examined.
B. Emile Durkheim (1858-1916)
1. Durkheim’s sociology
a. General approach
Durkheim adopted an evolutionary approach in that he considered society to have developed from a traditional to modern society through the development and expansion of the division of labour. He compared society to an organism, with different parts that functioned to ensure the smooth and orderly operation and evolution of society. He is sometimes considered a structural functionalist in that he regarded society as composed of structures that functioned together – in constructing such an approach, he distinguished structure and function. While he considered society to be composed of individuals, society is not just the sum of individuals and their behaviours, actions, and thoughts. Rather, society has a structure and existence of its own, apart from the individuals in it. Further, society and its structures influence, constrain, and even coerce individuals in it – through norms, social facts, common sentiments, and social currents. While all of these were developed from earlier or current human action, they stand apart from the individual, form themselves into institutions and structures, and affect the individual.
Durkheim was especially concerned with the issue of social order, how does modern society hold together given that society is composed of many individuals, each acting in an individual and autonomous manner, with separate, distinct, and different interests. Adams and Sydie note that he focused on problems of “reconciling freedom and morality, or individualism and social cohesion in modern society” (p. 90). His first book, The Division of Labour in Society, was an exploration and explanation of these issues, and he finds the answer in the concept of social solidarity, common consciousness, systems of common morality, and forms of law. Because these forces and structures are not always effective in producing and maintaining social order, and because there is social change as the division of labour and society develop, there can be disruptions in social solidarity and common consciousness. Durkheim connects these to what he calls the forced division of labour (eg. slavery) and to periods of confusion and rootlessness, i.e. what he calls anomie. He also considers anomie to be one cause suicide – in his book Suicide he explores the causes different suicide rates at different places and times in Europe, and explains why they differ.
b. Durkheim’s definition of sociology
One of Durkheim’s major contributions was to help define and establish the field of sociology as an academic discipline. Durkheim distinguished sociology from philosophy, psychology, economics, and other social science disciplines by arguing that society was an entity of its own. He argued that sociologists should study particular features of collective or group life and sociology is the study of social facts, things which are external to, and coercive of, individuals. These social facts are features of the group, and cannot be studied apart from the collective, nor can they be derived from the study of individuals. Some examples are religion, urban structures, legal systems, and moral values such as family values. Durkheim argued that these are “features of collective existence … which are not reducible to features of the atoms, individuals, which make it up” (Hadden, p. 87).
Durkheim considers the beliefs, practices, and consciousness of the collective to be coercive on individuals as actors. In this sense, Durkheim has a structuralist approach, considering the social structures to exert a strong influence on social action. Of course, it is individuals who act, but they do not act on a purely individual basis. Rather, they have obligations and duties, and generally act in ways that are strongly influenced by the structures of which they are part. Sociology can be distinguished from psychology in this way – noting that psychologists study individuals and their mental processes, whereas sociologists are concerned with the structures that influence social action and interaction. It is this study of society as a whole, individuals in their social relationships with other individuals, and the connections of these social relationships to society, that constitutes the subject matter of sociology.
This leads to the title of the chapter – society as sui generis – that is, society as a thing in itself, something of its own kind, or a thing apart. Durkheim’s view was that society has an existence of its own, apart from the individuals in it, and is thus a proper object of study. Adams and Sydie note the more specific reference of Durkheim to this is social facts or the “facts of social existence, sui generis” (p. 91) – the facts that cannot be reduced to individual acts, for example, social obligations, social currents such as broad social moods of pessimism or optimism.
2. Durkheim’s life
Emile Durkheim (1858-1916) was born in Epinal in Lorraine, France. He was a contemporary of Weber (1864-1920), but probably never met Weber, and lived his adult life after Karl Marx died. Durkheim came from a Jewish background, and was a superior student at school and University. Eventually he was able to attend the elite Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. He taught for a number of years, and then received an appointment to a position in philosophy at the University of Bordeaux in 1887. There he taught the subject of moral education and later taught the first course in sociology at a French university. In 1902 he was appointed to a professorship at the Sorbonne, in Paris, where he remained until he died. Durkheim's most famous works are The Division of Labor in Society (1893), The Rules of Sociological Method (1895), Suicide (1897) and The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912).
Durkheim is often considered a conservative within the field of sociology, being concerned primarily with order, consensus, solidarity, social morality, and systems of religion. His theoretical analysis helped provide a basis for relatively conservative structural functional models of society. However, Durkheim was involved politically in the Dreyfus affair, and condemned French racism and anti-Semitism. Durkheim might more properly be considered a political liberal, in that he advocated individual freedom, and opposed impediments to the free operation of the division of labour. In contemporary terms, he might be considered a social democrat, in that he favoured social reforms, while opposing the development of a socialist society.
In his theoretical model, he advocated the development of “professional groupings” or “occupational groups” as the means by which the interests of special groups could be promoted and furthered. For Durkheim, these would promote more than just their own interests, the general interests of the society as a whole, creating solidarity in a society that had developed a complex division of labour. In advocating this, he comes close to some versions of pluralism. Durkheim was not generally involved in politics, and can be considered a more academic sociologist than either Weber or Marx.
In terms of the development of the field of sociology, Durkheim is especially important. He was the first to offer courses in sociology in French universities, at a time when sociology was not well known or favoured. His writings are important within the field of sociology, in that several of them are basic works that sociology students today are expected to read and understand. Much of the manner in which sociology as an academic discipline is carried on follows Durkheim's suggestions and approach. French sociology, in particular, follows Durkheim, and some of Durkheim's books are likely to serve as texts in French sociology. Much American sociology is also heavily influenced by Durkheim. In recent years, there has again been much attention paid to his writings.
C. Division of Labor in Society
In The Division of Labor in Society Durkheim attempts to determine what is the basis of social solidarity in society and how this has changed over time. This was Durkheim's first major work, so it does not address all the issues that be considered important. But in this work he began his study of how society is sui generis, an entity of its own. This work presents many of Durkheim’s views and illustrates his methodology.
Durkheim’s argument is that there are two types of social solidarity – how society holds together and what ties the individual to the society. These two forms mechanical solidarity, which characterizes earlier or traditional societies, where the division of labour is relatively limited. The form of social solidarity in modern societies, with a highly developed division of labour, is called organic solidarity. Durkheim argues that the division of labour itself which creates organic solidarity, because of mutual needs of individuals in modern soceity. In both types of societies, individuals for the most part “interact in accordance with their obligations to others and to society as a whole. In doing so, each person also receives some recognition of his or her own rights and contributions within the collectivity. Social morality in this sense is ‘strictly necessary’ for solidarity between people to occur; without morality, “societies cannot exist.’” (Grabb, p. 79).
According to Giddens (p. 73), the main substantive problem for Durkheim stems from “an apparent moral ambiguity concerning the relationship between the individual and society in the contemporary world.” On the one hand, with specialization and the highly developed division of labour, individuals develop their own consciousness, and are encouraged in this specialization. On the other hand, there are also moral ideas encouraging people to be well rounded, of service to society as a whole. These two seem contradictory, and Durkheim is concerned with finding the historical and sociological roots of each of these, along with how these two seemingly contradictory moral guidelines are reconciled in modern society.
This book can also be read with a view to illuminating Durkheim's methods. In the first chapter, he outlines his method, and the theory which could be falsified. By looking at morality, he is not pursuing a philosophical course, mainly in the realm of ideas. Durkheim is critical of “moral philosophers [who] begin either from some a priori postulate about the essential characteristics of human nature, or from propositions taken from psychology, and thence proceed by deduction to work out a scheme of ethics.” (Giddens, p. 72). That is, Durkheim is attempting to determine the roots of morality by studying society, and changes in society. These forms of morality are social facts, and data from society must be obtained, and these used to discover causes. The data used by Durkheim are observable, empirical forms of data in the form of laws, institutions (legal and other), norms and behaviour. In this book, Durkheim adopts a non-quantitative approach, but in Suicide his approach is more quantitative.
In examining the roots of social solidarity, Durkheim regards the examination of systems of law as an important means of understanding morality. He regards “systems of law” as the “externalization of the inner core of social reality (solidarity), it is predicted that as the inner core undergoes qualitative changes from ‘mechanical’ to ‘organic’ solidarity, there should be manifest shift in the ratio of types of legal systems ... as a proportion of the total legal corpus.” (Tiryakian in Bottomore and Nisbet, p. 214)
Since law reproduces the principal forms of social solidarity, we have only to classify the different types of law to find therefrom the different types of social solidarity which correspond to it. (Division, p. 68).
That is, since social solidarity is a concept that it not easily observable or measurable, Durkheim attempts to use systems of law as an index of forms and changes in socialsolidarity. In the above quote, Durkheim states that law constitutes such an index since it “reproduces the principal forms of solidarity.” Since systems of law can be studied historically and in contemporary societies, Durkheim felt that by tracing the development of different systems of law he could study the forms of social solidarity. From this, Durkheim begins to build a proof of the division of labour as the basis for the different forms of solidarity. He then attempts to show the nature of society, how it changes over time, and how this results in the shift from mechanical solidarity to organic solidarity.
1. Mechanical solidarity
Early societies tended to be small scale, localized in villages or rural areas, with a limited division of labour or only a simple division of labour by age and sex. In this type of society, people are very similar to each other, and Durkheim titles this chapter “Mechanical solidarity through likeness.” In this type of society, each person carries out essentially similar types of tasks, so that people share the type of work they carry out. These societies are characterized by likeness, in which the members of the society share the same values, based on common tasks and common life situations and experiences.
In these early societies, Durkheim argues that legal codes or the system of law tends to be repressive law or penal law. If there is a crime in this society, then this crime stands as an offense to all, because it is an offense to the common morality, the shared system of values that exists. Most people feel the offense, and regardless of how serious it is, severe punishment is likely to be meted out for it. Zeitlin notes (p. 264):
Anything that offends the common conscience threatens the solidarity – the very existence of society. An offense left unpunished weakens to that degree the social unity. Punishment therefore serves the important function of restoring and reconstituting social unity.
Penal law is concerned with sanctions only, and there is no mention of obligations. Punishment is severe, perhaps death or dismemberment. Moral obligation and duty is not stated in the punishment, because this is generally understood. Rather the punishment is given, and that is the completion of the penalty.
Some of the following quotes from The Division of Labor in Society show the nature of Durkheim's argument: In the quotes, note that the act is criminal because the act offends the collective conscience. For Durkheim, the collective consciousness reaches all parts of society, has a distinct reality and is independent of individual conditions, and is passed on from one generation to the next. In this, it differs from particular or individual consciences. (Division, pp. 79-80).
Quote 5. Collective Consciousness. the only common characteristic of all crimes is that they consist ... in acts universally disapproved of by members of each society. (Division, p. 73).
The totality of beliefs and sentiments common to average citizens of the same society forms a determinate system which has its own life; one may call it the collective or common conscience. (Division, p. 79)
an act is criminal when it offends strong and defined states of the collective conscience. (Division, p. 80)
we must not say that an action shocks the common conscience because it is criminal, but rather that it is criminal because it shocks the common conscience. We do not reprove it because it is a crime, but it is a crime because we reprove it. (Division, p. 81).
Referring to repressive or penal forms of punishment in early society, Durkheim notes that it may extend to:
the innocent, his wife, his children, his neighbours, etc. This is because the passion which is the soul of punishment ceases only when exhausted. If, therefore, after it has destroyed the one who has immediately called it forth, there still remains force within it, it expands in quite mechanical fashion. (Division, p. 86).
In contrast, modern legal codes are quite different, with punishment being less important. Instead, society is concerned with restoration of the original situation, rather than exacting revenge on the offender. “But today, it is said, punishment has changed it character; it is no longer to avenge itself that society punishes, it is to defend itself.” (Division, p. 86).
This distinction between different types of legal codes and punishment may provide a means of noting what mechanical solidarity means.
Quote 6. Mechanical Solidarity. They must re-enforce themselves by mutual assurances that they are always agreed. The only means for this is action in common. In short, since it is the common conscience which is attacked, it must be that which resists, and accordingly the resistance must be collective. (Division, p. 103).
(Thus, the analysis of punishment confirms our definition of crime. We began by establishing inductively that crime consisted essentially in an act contrary to strong and defined states of the common conscience. We have just seen that all the qualities of punishment ultimately derive from this nature of crime. That is because the rules that it sanctions express the most essential social likeness.)
Thus we see what type of solidarity penal law symbolizes. ... not only are all the members of the group individually attracted to one another because they resemble one another, but also because they are joined to what is the condition of existence of this collective type. ... They will as they will themselves, hold to it durably and for prosperity, because, without it, a great part of their psychic lives would function poorly. (Division, p. 105).
These quotes show how the collective consciousness works in societies without a highly developed division of labour. The primary function of punishment, therefore, is to protect and reaffirm the conscience collective in the face of acts which question its sanctity. In order to carry this out, such societies develop forms of repressive or penal law.
While the common values in these societies can change over time, this process of change is generally quite slow, so that these values are generally appropriate for the historical period in question. At other times, the laws may be inappropriate, and might be maintained only through force. However, Durkheim generally considers this to be an exceptional circumstance, and one that is overcome.
2. Organic solidarity
With the development of the division of labour, the collective consciousness begins to decline. Each individual begins to have a separate set of tasks which he or she is engaged in. These different situations lead to quite a different set of experiences for each individual. This set of experiences tends to lead toward “a ‘personal consciousness,’ with an emphasis on individual distinctiveness.” (Grabb, p.81). The common situation which created the common collective consciousness is disturbed, and individuals no longer have common experiences, but have a great variety of different settings, each leading towards its own consciousness.
As the developmen of the division of labour erodes the collective consciousness, it also creates a new form of solidarity. This new form is organic solidarity, and is characterized by dependence of individuals on each other within the division of labour, and by a certain form of cooperation. There is a
functional interdependence in the division of labour. ... Organic solidarity ... presupposes not identity but difference between individuals in their beliefs and actions. The growth of organic solidarity and the expansion of the division of labour are hence associated with increasing individualism. (Giddens, p. 77).
Cuff et al. (p.31) note that this means that “differences are expected and indeed become expected. ... Thus the nature of the moral consensus changes. Commonly shared values still persist because without them there would be no society, but they become generalized, as they are not rooted in the totality of commonly shared daily experiences. Instead of specifying the details of an action, common values tend to be a more general underpinning for social practices. It is in this sense that the division of labour can be seen as a moral phenomenon.”
Thus Durkheim argues that there are individual, and probably group, differences, at the same time as there is a new form of social solidarity.
Quote 7. Organic Solidarity. There are in each of us, ... two consciences: one which is common to our group in its entirety, which, consequently, is not ourself, but society living and acting within us; the other, on the contrary, represents that in us which is personal and distinct, that which makes us an individual. Solidarity which comes from likeness is at its maximum when the collective conscience completely envelops our whole conscience and coincides in all points with it.
Durkheim speaks of the centripetal and centrifugal forces, and draws an organic analogy:
Individuality is something which the society possesses. Thus, .. personal rights are not yet distinguished from real rights. (Division, 129-30).
It is quite otherwise with the solidarity which the division of labour produces. Whereas the previous type implies that individuals resemble each other, this type presumes their difference. The first is possible only in so far as the individual personality is absorbed into the collective personality; the second is possible only if each one has a sphere of action which is peculiar to him; that is, a personality. ... In effect, on the one hand, each one depends as much more strictly on society as labor is more divided; and, on the other, the activity of each is as much more personal as it is more specialized. ... Society becomes more capable of collective movement, at the same time that each of its elements has more freedom of movement. The solidarity resembles that which we observe among the higher animals. Each organ, in effect, has its special physiognomy, it autonomy. And moreover, the unity of the organism is as great as the individuation of the parts is more marked. Because of this analogy, we propose to call the solidarity which is due to the division of labour, organic. (Division, 131).
In the structure of societies with organic solidarity (quote 8):
Quote 8. Social Structure. They are constituted, not by a repetition of similar, homogeneous segments, but by a system of different organs each of which has a special role, and which are themselves formed of differentiated parts. Not only are social elements not of the same nature, but they are not arranged in the same manner. They are not juxtaposed linearly ... but entwined one with another, but co-ordinated and subordinated one to another around the same central organ which exercises a moderating action over the rest of the organism. (Division, p.181).
b. Restitutive or restorative law. Modern systems of law tend to be restitutive or restorative, according to Durkheim. While there are elements of penal or repressive law, such as the death penalty for murder, that continue to exist in modern societies, modern systems of law are primarily characterized by judgments that require the offending party to restore the situation to the original state – eg. paying restitution for theft or to victims. Modern business and contract law governs the conditions of contracts but says little or nothing about what type of contract parties can enter into.
“The progressive displacement of repressive by restitutive law is an historical trend which is correlated with the degree of development of a society: the higher the level of social development, the greater the relative proportion of restitutive law within the judicial structure.” (Giddens, p. 76). For Durkheim, this form of law is concerned with “a simple return in state. Sufferance proportionate to the misdeed is not inflicted on the one who has violated the law or who disregards it; he is simply sentenced to comply with it.” The judge “speaks of law; he says nothing of punishment.” (Division, p 111).
As the division of labour develops, people do not have the same consciousness, so that the form of law must change. “The very existence of restitutive law, in fact, presupposes the prevalence of a differentiated division of labour, since it covers the rights of individuals either over private property, or over other individuals who are in a different social position from themselves.” (Giddens, p. 76) Along with this could come Weber’s rational law, perhaps much the same as Durkheim's restitutive law. Systematic codes governing exchange and contracts are necessary, but these are the result of the general acceptance of individual rights within the system of a division of labour.
c. Cause of organic solidarity. Durkheim is critical of the economists who regard the development of the division of labour as a result of the coming together of people with different abilities and specialties. While Durkheim did not make reference to Adam Smith, he also may have had in mind Smith’s view that people have a natural propensity to truck, barter and trade. Finally, he was critical of the economists' point of view that merely examined the technical conditions for the division of labour, and the increased efficiency associated with it, without consideration of the broader societal conditions necessary to maintain it. Thus Durkheim did not consider the division of labour as a natural condition.
Durkheim considers the development of the division of labour to be associated with the increasing contact among people. There is a greater density of contact, so that people are led to specialize. The division of labour emerges in different ways in different societies, leading to somewhat different forms of solidarity. However, it is these developments which create the division of labour and “Civilization develops because it cannot fail to develop.” (Division, p. 337).
Adams and Sydie (p. 94) state that Durkheim regarded this as an increase in moral or dynamic density. This moral relationship can only produce its effect if the real distance between individuals has itself diminished in some way. Durkheim refers to this an increasing density. Moral density cannot grow unless material density grows at the same time. The two are inseparable though. Three ways in which this happens are:
i. Concentration of people. People begin to concentrate together. Agriculture may begin this, and it continues with the growth of cities as well.
ii. Cities. Formation of cities and their development. “Cities always result from the need of individuals to put themselves in very intimate contact with others. They are so many points where the social mass is contracted more strongly than elsewhere. They can multiply and extend only if the moral density is raised.” (Division, p. 258).
iii. Transportation and Communication. Increased number and rapidity of means of transportation and communication. This results in “suppressing or diminishing the gaps separating social segments, they increase the density of society.” (Division, pp. 259-260).
The division of labor varies in direct ratio with the volume and density of societies, and, if it progresses in a continuous manner in the course of social development, it is because societies become regularly denser and generally more voluminous. (Division, 262).
We say, not that the growth and condensation of societies permit, but that they necessitate a greater division of labor. It is not an instrument by which the latter is realized; it is its determining cause. (Division, p. 262).
As a result of this greater contact, the “struggle for existence becomes more acute” and this results in the development of the division of labour. If needs are the same, then there is always a struggle for existence. But where different interests can be pursued, then there may be room for all. Quote 8:
Social Structure (2nd part) In the same city, different occupations can co-exist without being obliged mutually to destroy one another, for they pursue different objects. ... Each of them can attain his end without preventing the others from attaining theirs.
The closer functions come to one another, however, the more points of contact they have; the more, consequently, are they exposed to conflict. ... The judge never is in competition with the business man, but the brewer and the wine-grower ... often try to supplant each other. As for those who have exactly the same function, they can forge ahead only to the detriment of others. (Division, p. 267).
In proportion to the segmental character of the social constitution, each segment has its own organs, protected and kept apart from like organs by divisions separating the different segments. ... But, no matter how this substitution is made, it cannot fail to produce advances in the course of specialization. (Division, 269).
Instead of entering into or remaining in competition, two similar enterprises establish equilibrium by sharing their common task. Instead of one being subordinate to the other, they co-ordinate. But, in all cases, new specialties appear. (Division, 270).
For Durkheim the result of the division of labour is positive in that there is no need to compete in the sense of struggling just to survive. Rather, the division of labour may signify that there are sufficient material resources for all in society, and this division allows a certain form of co-operation. Quote 9:
Division of Labour. The division of labour is, then, a result of the struggle for existence, but is a mellowed dénouement. Thanks to it, opponents are not obliged to fight to a finish, but can exist one beside the other. Also, in proportion to its development, it furnishes the means of maintenance and survival to a greater number of individuals who, in more homogeneous societies, would be condemned to extinction. (Division, p. 271).
The division of labour cannot be anticipated, in terms of the form of its development. It is the sharing of functions, but not according to a preconceived plan. “The division of labour, then, must come about of itself and progressively.” (Division, p. 276). It must come to pass in a pre-existing society (Appendix quote 9).
Division of Labour. Work is not divided among independent and already differentiated individuals who by uniting and associating bring together their different aptitudes. For it would be a miracle if differences thus born through chance circumstance could unite so perfectly as to form a coherent whole. Far from preceding collective life, they derive from it. They can be produced only in the midst of a society, and under the pressure of social sentiments and social needs. That is what makes them essentially harmonious. ... there are societies whose cohesion is essentially due to a community of beliefs and sentiments, and it is from these societies that those whose unity is assured by the division of labour have emerged. (Division, p. 277).
Civilization is itself the necessary consequence of the changes which are produced in the volume and in the density of societies. If science, art, and economic activity develop, it is in accordance with a necessity which is imposed upon men. It is because there is, for them, no other way of living in the new conditions in which they have been placed. From the time that the number of individuals among whom social relations are established begins to increase, they can maintain themselves only by greater specialization, harder work, and intensification of their faculties. From this general stimulation, there inevitably results a much higher degree of culture. (Division, pp. 336-337).
Durkheim thus sets out an analysis of the division of labour which emphasizes the special functions of each of type of occupation and endeavour. The biological model, with a well functioning body, where each organ properly serves it function seems to be uppermost in Durkheim's mind. Unlike some of the structural functionalists, Durkheim's method distinguishes the cause of the function from the actual function filled. That is, Durkheim observes the function that the occupation fills in society, but attempts to investigate the development of the cause in an historical manner, examining how this function emerged. In this, one can consider there to be a certain “conflict as a mechanism, within a quasi-Darwinian framework, which accelerates the progression of the division of labour.” (Giddens, p. 79).
Durkheim is also providing a criticism of the economic models which argue that people with different specialties come together to trade the products of their specialties. For Durkheim, specialties are not natural in any sense, but are developed. Similarly, the division of labour is not natural either, but develops in different forms in different societies. While there may be a great similarity among these (perhaps like Weber's rationality), national differences emerge. In that sense, Durkheim has an historical model, fairly solidly grounded on the material realities.
On the other hand, Durkheim’s analysis may be considered to be mainly descriptive, proposing some fairly straightforward observations concerning culture. His notion of solidarity, mores, morals and norms come very close to the conventional sociological model of these, and may be considered to be widely accepted by all. The question is how these emerge, and whose interests they serve. Here the conflict approach differs dramatically from Durkheim.
Finally, Durkheim's analysis can be considered to be evolutionary and fairly optimistic. For the most part, Durkheim looks on the developments in the division of labour as signalling higher stages of civilization. He does not consider there to be any grand plan to this, and no single factor which guides it. Rather, there is competition, which results in the development of the division of labour, and the outcome of this process cannot be predicted. However, the result is generally positive, because people need each other, and this produces an organic solidarity in society.
3. Abnormal forms of the division of labour
At the end of The Division of Labor in Society, however, Durkheim does note that there can be problems in society. There are two abnormal forms of the division of labour, and the division of labour itself does not always function as well as it could in modern society.
a. Anomic division of labor. When there are industrial and commercial crises, there may be a partial break in organic solidarity. Also, where there is conflict between capital and labour, this may be an unusual situation. Part of this is caused by the increased separation of employee and employer under capitalism (Division, p. 354), so that the conditions for a lack of solidarity are expanded as capitalism and the division of labour develop. This anomie is a sense of confusion and rootlessness, or lack of social regulation because of disruptions or rapid change in the division of labour. Examples are the Great Depression of the 1930s and the rapid expansion of the 1990s. In the latter, some sectors of business and business executives were insufficiently regulated by society, and seem to have viewed themselves above such regulation. The corporate excesses and crimes that resulted are an example of anomie.
Irregular forms such as crime are not treated as part of the breakdown, rather these are treated by Durkheim as differentiation (Division, p. 353), not part of division of labour. Durkheim compares these with cancer, rather than with normal organs.
The real problem is a lack of regulation or a weakened common morality that can occur in modern society. For example, in the economic sphere, there are no rules which fix the number of economic enterprises (Division, p. 366), and there is no regulation of production in each branch of industry. This might be an overall form of irrationality, in Weber's sense. There can be ruptures in equilibrium, capital labour relations may become indeterminate. In the scientific field there may be greater separation of different sciences. (Division, p. 367).
If the division of labour does not produce solidarity in all these cases, it is because the relations of the organs are not regulated, because they are in a state of anomy. For the individual this means there are not sufficient moral constraints and individuals do not have a clear concept of what is proper and acceptable. (Ritzer, p. 85). See Appendix quote 10:
Anomie. ... the state of anomy is impossible when solidary organs are sufficiently in contact or sufficiently prolonged. ... if some opaque environment is interposed, then only stimuli of a certain intensity can be communicated from one organ to another. Relations, being rare, are not repeated enough to be determined ... (Division, pp. 368-9).
Durkheim also discusses conditions of the worker under capitalism in terms that come very close to Marx’s description of alienation and exploitation. He discusses the degrading nature of the division of labour on the worker, the possibility of monotonous routine, and the machine like actions of the worker. (Division, p. 371). However, Durkheim does not consider these to be the normal form, but one which results when the worker does not have a sufficient vision of the whole process of production.
... the division of labour does not produce these consequences because of a necessity of its own nature, but only in exceptional and abnormal circumstances. ... The division of labour presumes that the worker, far from being hemmed in by his task, does not lose sight of his collaborators, that he acts upon them, and reacts to them. He is, then, not a machine who repeats his movements without knowing their meaning, but he knows that they tend, in some way, towards an end that he conceives more or less distinctly. (Division, p. 372).
b. Forced division of labour. The forced division of labour is where the division of labour is not allowed to develop spontaneously, and where some act to protect themselves and their positions. These could be traditional forms, which are external to the division of labour, or they could be castes, Weber's status groups, or Marx's classes. Any factors that prevent individuals from achieving positions which would be consistent with their natural abilities indicates a force division of labour. Ritzer notes (p. 98) that this could be inequalities in the structure of work or inadequate organization, with the wrong people in particular positions or incoherent organizational structures. Any interference with the operation of the division of labour that results in the position being filled by those who are not most apt for the position would be forced division of labour. Quote 11:
Forced Division of Labour. We may say that the division of labour produces solidarity only if it is spontaneous and in proportion as it is spontaneous. ... In short, labor is divided spontaneously only if society is constituted in such a way that social inequalities exactly express natural inequalities. ... It consists, not in a state of anarchy which would permit men freely to satisfy all their good or bad tendencies, but in a subtle organization in which each social value, being neither overestimated nor underestimated by anything foreign to it, would be judged at its worth. (Division, p. 376).
Examples of the forced division of labour include societies with slavery or a caste system, where some individuals are prevented from participating normally in the division of labour. Interferences with equality of opportunity, such as discrimination in hiring or in obtaining educational opportunities, are examples of forced division of labour. Class and wealth also interfere with such equal opportunity, but Durkheim views this as abnormal and not the normal tendency.
even this last inequality, which comes about through birth, though not completely disappearing, is at least somewhat attenuated. Society is forced to reduce this disparity as far as possible by assisting in various ways those who find themselves in a disadvantageous position and by aiding them to overcome it." (Division, p. 379).
4. Role of state and occupational groups
Having said that Durkheim was generally very optimistic concerning the development of the division of labour in developing an organic solidarity, Durkheim was also concerned with the state of modern society. The development of the division of labour did have the tendency to split people, and the organic solidarity might not be sufficient to hold society together.
One solution for regulation that Durkheim discusses is the state. In some senses, Durkheim was a socialist, although not of the same type as Marx. Ritzer notes that for Durkheim, socialism “simply represented a system in which moral principles discovered by scientific sociology could be applied.” (Ritzer, p. 73). While the principles of morality had to be present in society, the state could embody these in structures, fulfilling functions such as justice, education, health, social services, etc., and managing a wide range of sectors of society (Grabb, p. 87).
The state “should also be the key structure for ensuring that these rules are moral and just. The appropriate values of individualism, responsibility, fair play, and mutual obligation can be affirmed through the policies instituted by the state in all these fields.” (Grabb, p. 87).
The second major hope that Durkheim held was for what he called occupational groups. The state could not be expected to play the integrative role that might be needed, because it was too remote. As a solution, Durkheim thought that occupational or professional groups could provide the means of integration required. These would be formed by people in an industry, representing all the people in this sector. Their role would be somewhat different from Weber's parties, in that they would not be concerned with exercising power, and achieving their own ends. Instead, they would “foster the general interest of society at a level that most citizens can understand and accept.” (Grabb, p. 88).
What we especially see in the occupational group is a moral power capable of containing individual egos, of maintaining a spirited sentiment of common solidarity in the consciousness of all the workers, of preventing the law of the strongest from being brutally applied to industrial and commercial relations. (p. 10). Ritzer notes that these associations could “recognize ... common interests as well as common need for an integrative moral system. That moral system ... would serve to counteract the tendency toward atomization in modern society as well as help stop the decline in significance of collective morality.” (pp. 98-99).
In summary, Durkheim argued that there were various means by which individual and society could be connected. Among these are education, social programs through the state, occuptional groups, and laws. Together these could assist in regulating individuals and integrating individuals with society.
Cuff, E. C., W. W. Sharrock and D. W. Francis, Perspectives in Sociology, third edition, London, Routledge, 1992. HM66 P36 1984
Durkheim, Emile, The Division of Labor in Society, New York, The Free Press, 1933. Referred to in notes as Division. HD 51 D98
Durkheim, Emile, The Rules of Sociological Method, New York, The Free Press, 1938. Referred to in notes as Rules. HM 24 D962
Durkheim, Emile, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, New York, The Free Press, 1951. Referred to in notes as Suicide. HV 6545 D812
Giddens, Anthony, Capitalism and Modern Social Theory: An Analysis of the Writings of Marx, Durkheim and Max Weber, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1971. HM19 G53.
Grabb, Edward G., Theories of Social Inequality: Classical and Contemporary Perspectives, second edition, Toronto, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1990. HT609 G72
Hadden, Richard W., Sociological Theory: An Introduction to the Classical Tradition, Peterborough, Ontario, Broadview Press, 1997.
Ritzer, George, Sociological Theory, third edition, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1992. HM24 R4938.
Sydie, R. A., Natural Women Cultured Men: A Feminist Perspective on Sociological Theory, Toronto, Methuen, 1987. HM51 S97 1987.
Thompson, Kenneth, Emile Durkheim, Chichester, E. Horwood, 1982. HM22 F8 D8737
Zeitlin, Irving M., Ideology and the Development of Sociological Theory, fourth edition, Englewood Cliffs, Prentice Hall, 1990. HM19 Z4 1990
Last edited January 18, 2003
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