SOCY 151: Foundations of Modern Social Theory

Lecture 22

 - Durkheim and Types of Social Solidarity


Emile Durkheim, a French scholar who lived from 1858 until 1917, was one of the first intellectuals to use the term “sociology” to describe his work. In the early years of his career, Durkheim’s orientation was functionalist (The Division of Labor in Society) and positivist (The Rules of Sociological Method); in the early twentieth century he took a cultural turn and became interested in religion (The Elementary Forms of Religious Life). Throughout his career, Durkheim was a methodological collectivist, and–unlike Marx and Weber, who were interested in social conflict–was consistently interested in what holds society together. Durkheim argues in The Division of Labor in Society that the type of social solidarity has changed, due to the increasing division of labor, from mechanical solidarity between similar individuals to organic solidarity based on difference. Inspired by Montesquieu, Durkheim tracks this change in types of solidarity and change in what he termed the “collective conscience” by looking at a shift in law, from penal law focused on punishing individuals to restitutory law based on contract. Durkheim believed that society would function better if individuals labor at different and complementary tasks with the same vision or goal in mind.

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Foundations of Modern Social Theory

SOCY 151 - Lecture 22 - Durkheim and Types of Social Solidarity

Chapter 1. Durkheim in a Historical Context [00:00:00]

Professor Iván Szelényi: Good morning. Now we move to our last author in this course, to Émile Durkheim. There are really two Durkheims. We have seen certainly two Marxs and two Webers. There are also two faces of Émile Durkheim. To put it bluntly, the young Durkheim has been a functionalist and a positivist, and then late in his life he has–his epistemological turn–he became a cultural analyst. Well it’s not quite true, because each author is more complex, and there were already elements of his culturalism in the early work. But there was certainly a dramatic change in the way how Durkheim conceived what the job of social sciences, later in his life, in his book The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. I think it had a lot to do also with his personal life, and we will talk about this.

He was brought up in a rabbinical family and was supposed to become a rabbi, and then he revolted against the parental household–much like Nietzsche did–and turned probably into an atheist, but certainly not an active believer in Judaism. And later in his life he became again interested in religion, and not only philosophically, but also existentially interested in religion. Well in the course we have only four lectures on Durkheim. So I’ll leave Durkheim the culturalist out, and we will be doing work only on his earlier work, The Division of Labor, the wonderful book Suicide, and a somewhat difficult book, The Rules of Sociological Method. And I’ll just leave The Elementary Forms of Religious Life; I don’t have time to fit this into. Durkheim had an extraordinary impact on American social science.

Initially it was particularly the younger Durkheim, the functionalist Durkheim, who had such an extraordinary impact. Unlike Weber or Marx, whose impact was broad and affected history and economics and political science, Durkheim’s impact was much more focused on sociology. So in this course the only author who, properly speaking, is a sociologist is Émile Durkheim. All the others you discussed were not really identified themselves as sociologists. Later in his life Weber did, but not on the whole. Émile Durkheim identified himself and his project as sociology. It, of course, has a lot to do that these disciplinary boundaries between economics, political science, and sociology became much more sharply drawn by the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and sociology as an academic discipline was really established by the late nineteenth century.

So this is Émile Durkheim–born in 1858 and died in 1917. Just very briefly about his life. He was born in a small town, Épinal in France. As I said, his father was a rabbi and he was expected to become a rabbi himself. In ‘79, he was admitted to the École Normale Supérieure, which is one of these very elite schools, MIT version in France, and by the time he went to university–École Normale Supérieure is a university–he lost his religious beliefs. He was for some time a professor at the University of Bordeaux. Then he became politically active in the 1940s [correction: 1984], especially in the so-called Dreyfus Affair; and I will just briefly mention what that was. Then in 1902, he became professor at the University of Paris, which is not quite as distinguished as École Normale Supérieure. His son was killed in the war, and shortly after this he died in Paris.

So this is Alfred Dreyfus. This is a very important event in French, and in many ways in European, history. What was the Dreyfus Affair? You probably all know. In 1894, Dreyfus, who was Jewish, was falsely accused to be a German spy, and was imprisoned. That was obviously an anti-Semitic trial, and this mobilized the French intellectuals, and not only French intellectuals, but French intellectuals in particular. Émile Zola, whom some of you may have read, the leading French writer of this epoch, wrote an important article which appeared in the leading French daily newspaper: J’Accuse–“I accuse the French judiciary of being anti-Semitic.” Well Durkheim joined other prominent French intellectuals to protest the trial. It took them a long time but eventually they were successful. Dreyfus was eventually exonerated of all charges and made a Knight of the Legion of Honor. So it was a happy ending of French anti-Semitism, for awhile. Then it came back with vengeance during the occupation, Nazi occupation. The French are not as innocent about anti-Semitism as you may want to believe it. Many were collaborating with the Nazis.

Well about the work. In ‘93 he wrote a dissertation, which probably is still his most influential book, The Division of Labor in Society, and today’s lecture will be focused on this. ‘95, it was followed by The Rules of Sociological Method, which is his most positivistic statement. The Division of Labor is his most functionalist work. And then in ‘97 he wrote Suicide. Suicide is a very important book because it’s really the first piece of rigorous empirical social science, which takes a very unusual, very rare phenomenon, like suicide, and crunches numbers extremely carefully to test whether he can identify social determinants of such a rare phenomenon. Fortunately even in countries where many people commit suicide, it’s still a rare phenomenon. But he managed to come up with a very provocative theory, what he demonstrated with very careful empirical analysis.

We will be looking at two parts of The Division of Labor. Today we will be looking at the major arguments of Division of Labor. And then also we will look at, Thursday, on his theory of anomie, which is a central piece of the book, Division of Labor, but a kind of by-the-way analysis. And, as I said, in 1915 he wrote this book, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, which is a major break in his work, and shows his renewed interest in the spiritual and the metaphysical.

Okay, just very briefly, what is in the books. As I said, The Division of Labour was his Ph.D. dissertation. But unlike many scholars whose only good book is their dissertation, Durkheim followed it up with a number of good other books. Many professors are actually one book people, or at least they should have been, because their only good book was the dissertation and what they published later only published because ‘publish or perish’–right?–to get tenure; that’s why they probably published too many books. Anyway, he was inspired by Montesquieu. Well Durkheim is very French, and his roots are deeply in Montesquieu, and to some extent in Rousseau; he admired Rousseau as well. But Montesquieu is really the major inspiration behind him. And well what he does, he uses law as a measure of social development–much like Montesquieu did, sort of–and he explains, by using the law, the legal system how the division of labor evolved, what were the stages of the development of division of labor.

Well just a very brief contrast. Right? Marx was interested in economic conflict–right?–in struggle around scarce economic resources. Weber was interested in struggle for power. So was Nietzsche. Durkheim was interested in social solidarity. Marx and Weber are conflict theorists. They try to explain what breaks up society. Durkheim is a theorist which tries to understand what holds society together, what brings us together, why society is not falling apart. Right?

Well in the book he makes a crucial distinction between two types of solidarity: mechanical and organic solidarity. And I will speak about this at great length. This is another attempt to develop a typology of evolution of societies. You are already familiar with Marx’s modes of production–right?–the evolution from slavery to feudalism to capitalism. You are familiar with Max Weber: traditional authority and legal-rational authority. Now Durkheim’s alternative is mechanical and organic solidarity. Right? What Weber called traditional authority is kind of mechanical solidarity for Durkheim; or what Marx called pre-capitalist formations is mechanical solidarity. Organic solidarity described legal-rational authority or modernity or capitalism.

Well he also identified pathological forms of division of labor, and this is what he called anomie. And his idea of anomie is a kind of similar or analogous distinction, what was alienation in Marx and what was disenchantment in Weber–though there are very important differences as well, and I will be talking about this Thursday.

Now on Suicide–as I said, this is one of the first very rigorous empirical studies of a social phenomenon–a phenomenon we think is not quite social, we think it is really an individual decision whether you take your life or not. But Durkheim actually was capable to show that even in this very private action, when you take your life, there are social determinants, who is committing suicide or not. And he’s making a distinction between different types of suicide–anomic, altruistic, egoistic and fatalistic ones–and I will be talking about this after you return from Thanksgiving’s break.

Now about the methodology. He was a methodological collectivist, much like Montesquieu or Rousseau, and very much unlike Hobbes, Locke or Mills; you know, Marx being kind of halfway between methodological individualism and collectivism. As a theorist of revolutionary consciousness, he was a methodological collectivist. We will see Durkheim’s notion of collective conscience is not all that different from Marx’s idea of class consciousness, which is not the sum total–right?–of the individual consciousness of workers. But Marx, in his theory of exploitation, as you have read his text, reads almost like Adam Smith, or John Stuart Mill. Right? It’s self-interested, rational individuals, from which he explains the nature of exploitation. Well it’s much more difficult to figure out how Weber fits into these categories. I think he’s also vacillating between collectivism and individualism. Later in his life he’s becoming more of a methodological individualist. But Durkheim, the consistency in Durkheim, is that from day one he’s a methodological collectivist, and remains a methodological collectivist. But at the same time he believed in the existence of social facts, and that social facts, on the other hand, can be observed with rigorous empirical methodology; and this is what makes him, in a way, a positivist. So this is just a brief introduction to who the author is. And now let me move to the division of labor.

Well my computer is getting slower, as the semester is progressing. So it’s probably time for the semester to end, because my laptop, though it is new, it still will become unbearably slow by the end of the semester.

Chapter 2. The Division of Labor in Society: Major Themes [00:17:17]

Okay, so this is Émile Durkheim and the division of labor in society. So how does Durkheim proceed in the work? And today’s presentation will focus on the question why Durkheim begins the analysis by taking the law as the point of departure. And then we will proceed how he makes the distinction between organic and mechanical solidarity. So the question actually is, for a methodological collectivist, that you need to find some collective expression, in order to study society–not individuals. And much like Montesquieu, he believes that the law is such a collective phenomenon; law, which can be studied and established without studying individual views or individual opinions. Right? It’s parts of what–Durkheim’s terminology is the collective conscience, and which is above individual consciousnesses.

Okay, so that’s–what are the most important issues in the work, as far as we’ll discuss it today? Well he’s interested in solidarity. As I pointed out, we are–his real question is what holds society together? We are so different, societies should fall apart. Right? He is writing in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. This is the time of industrialization, of urbanization. People are dislodged from their traditional communities, from the traditional villages, pushed away from peasant agriculture, and move into urban industrial employment. And the question is will society break down, will social order break down, if the traditional order does not keep us together? And this is what he tries to figure out; what in a modern urban and industrial society can keep us together? And he tries to find solidarity. And well what creates this solidarity is collective consciousness.

And the fundamental idea in Durkheim about collective consciousness–as I said, it is analogous to the notion of the general will in Rousseau, or the notion of class consciousness in Marx. So therefore it is not the sum total of individual consciousnesses, but something of shared norms, beliefs and values, which exist prior an individual is being born, prior society actually existed, which is passed on from one generation to the other. Right? And therefore he tries to show–right?–these collective consciousnesses which persist over time. And, of course, the most obvious, most rigorous way to go about this, to look at law. Because that’s exactly what the law is. Right? The law is changing over time, but usually the change is very slow and reaches over several generations.

So for somebody who is a French social scientist, and one unique–we already talked about this. Well the French are very methodological collectivists. The Anglo-Saxons tend to be methodological individualists. And the French, unlike the Germans, are very scientifique; they are very much scientists. The word scientifique in German does not exist. The Germans say, “I’m Wissenschaftler”; Wissenschaft means–Wissen is knowledge. Science in German is constituted by all sorts of knowledge. Right? It’s a much broader notion. Right? In French, or in English, with science we really mean rigorous science of the natural science types. Well Durkheim did not go as far as saying it is natural science. But certainly he was very scientifique in insistence of rigorous analysis of objective data. Right? That’s what–why the Germans–Wissenschaftler, all those who study ideas are Wissenschaftlers. It’s a much broader notion. Natural scientists are also Wissenschaftlers. But people who study humanities and history of ideas are also Wissenschaftlers. People who are an expert on Hobbes and spend their life writing on Hobbes is a Wissenschaftler–right?–in German. We can hardly say somebody who does–right?–history of ideas to be a scientist. Right? We are iffy. We call it humanities.

We talk about social sciences with a lot of anxiety, and real scientists ask us, “Social science, what do you mean? What is science about what you are doing?” Well those of you who take economics, they make sure it looks like science, because you have all the equations on the blackboard. So therefore a scientist can relax. But if you are listening to my lectures, and not a single equation on the blackboard, you probably have doubt that this is really social science. Anyway, he was scientifique, in the sense of being very rigorous in his analysis.

Sort of what is collective consciousness–I give here a citation for you. Right? It is a totality of beliefs and sentiments which are common to the average member of society–right?–but which has a life of its own. Right? That’s what he calls collective consciousness. So this is different from the consciousnesses of the individuals; though he’s a scientist. Right? He’s scientifique. It has to be realized in individuals. So therefore, I mean, Durkheim would not necessarily be opposed to carry out even survey research, and ask individuals about their customs or values, and sort of aggregate this up and try to find those patterns, especially over time and across nations. That’s not really what he did. But I think he would be open for this kind of research, which, of course, made him so influential in early American sociology in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, because American sociology has been very positivist and very empirical.

Chapter 3. The Law in Pre-modern and Modern Societies [00:26:16]

Well but the most obvious example of collective conscience is the law–probably also the language. Well there are differences in law in pre-modern and modern societies. Now we are getting into–he’s building the argument up to make the distinction between mechanical and organic solidarity. And let me just go through of this. So the argument is then in pre-modern societies the law which existed is primarily a repressive or penal law. Well there is–the purpose of punishment is to punish evil behavior. And we tend to agree what is evil behavior is, and punishments therefore also tends to be harsh, to prevent further aggressive behavior by individuals. So this is the legal system of pre-modern societies. Well I will give you a couple of citations, and I won’t read them. I will put them on the internet and you can read it at your leisure. It kind of elaborates on the points what I made.

Okay, but in modern society the legal system is very different. The legal system is based on contract; the essence of modern legal system is contract. It’s not that we do not have a penal code–right?–the penal code survives. But what is novel is contractual law, which is restitutive; which is not about punishing evil, but simply restitute the damage somebody, by breaking a contract, caused to the other contracting partner. Right? And he said, well this is a new type of law which emerges with modernity. Marx would say it is a new legal system which emerges with legal– with capitalism, and Weber would say this is the essence of legal-rational authority.

Well why does he study law? I don’t want to elaborate on this too long. That’s obvious– that the legal system is the single best measure of what he tries to get at, collective conscience, which can be studied the most objectively. Right? There are law books and legal practices and minutes of recordings how the courts operated, and how law was made and implemented, which can be studied with a great level of rigor. For instance, it’s very easy to study whether indeed contractual law is a new form of law. You can go back to legal history and to establish exactly when contractual law emerged. This was actually also very much on the mind of the young Weber, when he was also looking at basically the emergence of contractual law in late medieval Italy, in his Ph.D. for the law degree.

I think I already made this point, what is interesting, that Durkheim and Weber sort of ignored each other. I don’t think they ever cited each other. I don’t recall ever seeing a citation to one another, though they were working on the same area. Of course, they both did speak both of the languages, and they were, of course, aware that the other giant exists. They were probably, in many ways, too close–too much in competition with each other–to cite each other. I mentioned already that Durkheim did review Marianne Weber’s book, but never any of Weber’s books, though Marianne was writing–right?–about marriage law, which was of marginal interest to Durkheim, and Weber was writing on religion, which was so central for Durkheim’s interests. Nevertheless they kind of ignored each other.

Chapter 4. Mechanical Solidarity and Organic Solidarity [00:31:41]

Now about the two types of solidarity. Well mechanical solidarity–it’s hard to remember the distinction. One would think organic solidarity must be old–right?–and mechanical must be modern, the machines. Now the opposite is true. I kept making these mistakes for the first two or three years when I was reading Durkheim, some forty-five years ago. Well mechanical solidarity is which describes pre-modern societies, and this is a solidarity which is based on the similarities of the parts. Well this is why you can have a penal law, because a penal law does not make a distinction between contractual partners; it assumes a sameness of the group as such. And mechanical solidarity–right?–as I said, is primarily based that we see ourselves similar in the group. Organic solidarity, so will Durkheim argue, is one which is based on differences in society. A higher level of division of labor in society produces organic solidarity. Organic, he meant, it is a kind of biological analogy.

Modern societies, like the human body. Right? There are functional differences between the human organs. That’s why it is organic solidarity. Right? The heart performs a different function than the lung, but the lung could not live without the heart. Right? This is why this is organic solidarity. Society operates more like an organism. In earlier times, society was more operating like a machine where you actually–a part is taken out, mechanically it doesn’t matter all that much. Right? It is a simple machine, I mean. So that’s the fundamental distinction.

By the way, also for Durkheim–and this is also in the text what you are reading–this distinction between mechanical and organic solidarity is developed in order to describe societies as such. But much like Weber’s notion of traditional authority and legal-rational authority, he is also using this to understand society–social solidarities in contemporary life. So mechanical solidarity does exist in contemporary society as well. And he makes this reference to finding a marital partner, whom we want to date with, and whom we consider to marry. And occasionally we are–we try to find somebody who is more similar than we are, and people will say, “Well you look like”–if you are heterosexual–“like brothers and sisters”. Or if you are gay, “Well you look like brothers” or “You look like sisters.” Right? You look the same, you look similar. And that can be–right?–a consideration for a lasting partnership. I’m trying to find somebody who likes the same stuff what I like, who is like me. Right? But it can be the opposite as well. Right? You may be looking for a person–you may follow the logic of organic solidarity, right?–you may be looking for a person who will complement you. Right? I’m bad in keeping the books, and therefore what I am trying to look for is somebody who will balance the checkbook. Right? So occasionally looking for a partner, we are looking for somebody who will complement us. Now that describes–right?–modern society, with a higher level of division of labor.

Division of labor, he said, can bring us together, much like the bodily organism, that we are performing different functions in society. We complement each other–we need each other–on the basis of our differences, rather than our similarities. And, in fact, the contractual law expresses the spirit of organic solidarity as such.

Well Durkheim will show us that there is, in fact, a lot of trouble in the transition from mechanical to organic solidarity; and this is what he will call anomie. In the transition from mechanical to organic solidarity, moving from a traditional society to a modern society, our value system breaks down, we find ourselves in the situation of anomie. But this is a topic I will be talking about Thursday. Thank you very much.

[end of transcript]

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