SOCY 151: Foundations of Modern Social Theory

Lecture 23

 - Durkheim's Theory of Anomie


In the transition from mechanical solidarity to organic solidarity, brought on by increasing division of labor, industrialization, and urbanization, Durkheim argues that there will be social pathologies, which he calls anomie. These abnormal and unhealthy consequences of the change in type of social solidarity have various causes. Durkheim is best known for arguing that a lack of moral regulation leads to social pathologies, but he also argues that overregulation–in the form of forced division of labor–will lead to fatalism, a kind of anomie. Anomie resulting from excessive demands on individuals from the market is similar to Marx’s notion of alienation, although Durkheim does not use the terms alienation or exploitation. For Durkheim, anomie is an irregular form of the increasing division of labor and industrialization; it is not internal to the system itself. Durkheim’s optimism about capitalism and his position that people need regulation, similar to Hobbes’s conception of human nature, contrast sharply with Marx’s ideas.

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Foundations of Modern Social Theory

SOCY 151 - Lecture 23 - Durkheim's Theory of Anomie

Chapter 1. Review of The Division of Labor in Society [00:00:00]

Professor Iván Szelényi: All right, good morning. I think it is just ten thirty. Well I suppose you are ready for your Thanksgiving’s break. So am I. We all need a break. And I think there were some rational actors. They checked the internet. They realized that I put up slides which were different from what I presented in the lecture. I figured these were actually better slides, what I put on the internet. But they also already included the slides on anomie, which is our subject today. I had a slideshow for the whole book of The Division of Labor. Anyway, if you didn’t check it yet, you will find it. But as I see from the attendance, I think the double effect, right, of Thanksgivings and the slides already available before the lecture made rational actors decide to get an early flight out of here, or just to prepare for another assignment.

By the way, about assignments. I am working on the questions for the next test. And I may do it–may post it before the 22nd. I even may post it today. I’m not done with it yet. But as soon as I’m done, I will post it. So check your email. Right? And don’t complain, if it comes up before the 22nd, that you did not know and others had an advantage over you.

Okay, so today is about the notion of anomie. And anomie seems to be a very simple notion. Anomie means the state of normlessness, and therefore it’s very easy to interpret–it looks like it is very easy to interpret anomie. I will show that’s far from the case. In fact, Durkheim has a pretty complex notion about abnormalities in the transition to a market economy, in the transition to modernity.

But before I do so, let me come back to the issue of the division of labor in Durkheim. Though he stages the book with the idea of collective conscience, and goes long lengths explaining why he’s using law as an indicator of collective conscience–and we discussed that at great lengths–when it comes to describing the crucial differences between mechanical and organic solidarity, he doesn’t make much out of it really. What drives the analysis of this distinction, right, pre-modern and modern societies, to put it in other words–the crucial criteria is actually the division of labor. What drives the story is the division of labor. So in this sense, in fact, I think Durkheim can be understood as being greatly inspired by Adam Smith, right, who also saw evolution of human societies, as you’ll recall, as a gradual evolution of the division of labor. Durkheim just does not offer such complex or sophisticated periodicization of societies, like hunting/gathering, and animal husbandry, and agricultural and commercial. He just makes this bipolar distinction between mechanical and organic.

But if you ask, well yes there is a difference in the legal system. But what is fundamentally different is the division of labor. Right? Mechanical solidarity has little division of labor, based on similarity of the actors in the society. Organic solidarity has a great deal of division of labor, and a great deal of dissimilarity of the action. And this is puzzling, because the question is, if it is such a high level of division of labor, and such a great diversity, where on earth solidarity will come from, how we hang together? So that’s, I think–we should appreciate how important the division of labor for Smith from Durkheim was. By the way, in some ways, even the early Marx, in The German Ideology, also tried his periodicization of society with the division of labor. So I think this is also the influence of Adam Smith. So I think there is a clear Adam Smith impact on the work of Durkheim, on the types of solidarity.

There is also another issue I would like to mention. I pointed out how important, right, Montesquieu was for Durkheim. And it’s obvious. He acknowledges his debt to Montesquieu, starts the book with collective conscience and the notion of–and law as the best empirically observable indicator of this collective conscience comes, of course, directly to Montesquieu. But there is another less frequently noticed impact of Montesquieu on Durkheim, and that makes actually Durkheim a very interesting author for us today. As I mentioned, he primarily has an impact today with his later work as the cultural analyst. But in his early work, he responded to another stimulating idea of Montesquieu, and that is the interaction between social system and the environment, and the ecological system. I went at some lengths in the lecture on Montesquieu to show how important it was, and how unique Montesquieu’s contribution was–how important it is for us today, though he made it in a very naïve way.

Durkheim actually has a much more sophisticated and complex understanding of the relationship between environment and society, and the type of solidarity, and the division of labor in society. Unfortunately, this is sort of a neglected element in Durkheim. Too bad because, in fact, the problem of environment and studying environment should be a central issue in economics, political science, sociology and anthropology. And it is not quite as central as it should be, especially I think in political science and sociology and anthropology. The study of environment is too narrowly focused on environmental social movements. Well Durkheim has a different interesting take, which I think should inspire social researchers; be they economists, political scientists, sociologists or anthropologists.

What is it? Durkheim, in The Division of Labor, has a core of an idea what one can call the ecosystem. Right? He sees an inter-relationship between the physical environment, the size of population which lives in this physical environment, the technology which is used in this environment and the division of labor, and the type of social organization what we have, what kind of social solidarity you have. Let me just put this on the blackboard. I think this is rarely noticed. You will rarely hear in Durkheim’s lectures, or rarely read about this when you read about Durkheim. So the idea is that you have the environment, you have the population, you have technology, and you have social organization, and these constitute a system, right, which interacts with each other; and what ought to be studied is really this whole system. And, of course, technology has a lot to do with division of labor. Right?

And that’s what can be called the ecosystem. He doesn’t call it this way, but environmental researchers would call it today as the ecosystem. And I think this is an extremely productive way for social scientists to think about the problems of the environment. Right? And let me give you an example. Why don’t you think about Southern California? Right? Southern California, before the Europeans appeared on the scene, right, was a very dry climate–suffered from the lack of water resources. So the Los Angeles Basin probably could accommodate a livelihood for something like 20,000 people. Right? These 20,000 people, right, lived in this very arid environment, used very elementary technologies, and had a very limited division of labor. So the population size was greatly affected with the technology and the environment. And they had mechanical solidarity. Right? That was the way how society was organized.

Now today we’ve figured out how to solve the hydraulic problems for the Los Angeles Basin, for the time being. Don’t hold your breath because in no time we may have a major crisis. So in the same basin where 20,000 people lived, now twenty million people live. But they live at a very high level of technology, where we successfully pollute the air, which is, right, hard to breathe in downtown Los Angeles during a hot summer day. Right? And we have, of course, organic solidarity operating. Right? And we managed to screw the environment, thank you, quite nicely. And we keep doing it, in no time the LA Basin will be uninhabitable. Right? That’s why I think it is interesting to think about this Durkheimian idea of ecosystem, how it interacts. As I said, it would offer you a very rigorous, right, scientific framework to study the interaction, right, between social organization, the demographic problem, the technological issues, right, and its relationship; how we can live, if we can, peacefully with the environment. Anyway, just a backdrop because, to show again the centrality of the division of labor for Durkheim.

Chapter 2. Anomie: Abnormal Consequences of the Divisions of Labor [00:11:14]

Now today I will talk about anomie. And anomie is one of the abnormal consequences of the division of labor. And well this is one of the troubling aspects of Durkheim’s work–the whole idea of abnormality or social pathologies. And he has been criticized about this a great deal. How do we know what is abnormal, and how on earth can we tell what is the normal state of society? Pathology does assume, right, that social researchers have some way how to judge what is the healthy condition for society. And this comes from Durkheim’s early functionalism, as I said. Right? He was greatly influenced by biology. He was not a biologist by any means. But as I pointed out, the whole metaphor of organic solidarity uses the human body, right, as the example. Right? How in the human body diverse organs depend on each other to reproduce each other.

And therefore the word pathology is also borrowed from medical sciences. Society will have pathological features as well, and there are abnormalities in society–and somehow believes that social researchers will be able to establish what abnormality is and what pathologies are. This is, I think, troubling for most social scientists, right, because we seem to have some commitment to at least value neutral type of analysis, right, in which we do not label necessarily phenomena out. Right? We know labeling theory; you may have heard about it. You label something as criminal or abnormal, simply because it’s probably unusual in society. But what was abnormal in one society may become absolutely normal in another society. So you have to be extremely careful, right, with the notion of normal and abnormal.

Let’s say being gay, until fairly recently, was seen–I mean, except antiquity, but for most human societies and most cultures, being gay is seen as a kind of abnormal behavior. Today very few people will think about this, at least in a country like the United States, that somebody gay is abnormal. Right? So what sexual behavior is normal or abnormal depends on the times. Right? It’s really not the job of the social scientist to be able to decide what kind of sexual behavior should be called normal or abnormal. The best we can do, why on earth some people call some sexual practices abnormal and others normal? Why is there differences in a society, accepting some kind of sexual behaviors and not others? Right? That is a question what social scientists could study.

Anyway, this is I think clearly a problem for contemporary social scientists with Durkheim’s work. But anyway he did believe that he is capable to show that some abnormal developments do take place. He was especially, as I pointed already in last lecture out, on the transition from mechanical to organic solidarity, and when that happened, then pathologies could emerge. And again, put it into the social context. Durkheim is writing in the 1890s and early 1900s. He’s in Bordeaux, and then he’s moving to Paris, the city of the sin, right, and he sees all the signs of social pathologies. Right? Alcoholism and homelessness and prostitution and theft and crime, which was inexistent or much rarer in rural France, just a couple of decades ago. So he’s confronted, right, with massive phenomena, which is being seen as abnormal or pathological, and he identifies them as the results of the transition from mechanical to organic solidarity.

Well pathologies can have two different roots. And what we normally understand from Durkheim, that he identifies pathologies from the absence of rules. That’s what the term anomie refers to. But interestingly enough–I have the citations for you, and if you have read the text carefully you found the citations as well–he actually also does consider that pathologies can also result from the overregulation, right, of too forced division of labor. I think it’s very intriguing to see this. Because we normally counterpose Marx’s theory of alienation and Durkheim’s theory of anomie as Durkheim is complaining there is not enough regulation in society, while Marx is arguing there is too much regulation in society. And I will give you a number of citations now from Durkheim which actually will show that the difference between Marx and Weber [correction: Durkheim] is not such gigantic as we initially may have thought, or generally would assume. Durkheim is quite sensitive to some of the Marxian analysis, even to the Marxian notion of alienation. He doesn’t use the term, but he gets very close to it.

So let me just move on further and talk about pathologies which are coming from the absence of rules. Well, and I will briefly say this interesting idea that in fact division of labor can be the source of solidarity. As I said, this is counterintuitive. We did believe that solidarity comes from relatively small-sized communities where people are relatively similar, share the same values and the same system, same norms, and then they will have solidaristic feelings towards each other. When people are very different, they are competing on the marketplace, they are strangers in the cities, they don’t know each other, they subscribe to different values, or they even don’t know what values they should obey because they are confused. They just left the village and ended in the big and sinful city, and they don’t really quite know can I do here anything? Is there any control over me, or none? It’s all up to me what to do? Even stealing is alright; selling my body is alright. I see other people who do that. Why don’t I do it? They are not being caught. I probably will not be caught either.

So that is a kind of, right, under these circumstances, when there are no similarities, why on earth– we will be solidaristic? We don’t know other people. And we have these stereotypes that in urban industrial society we are not solidaristic. Right? There are the usual stereotypes. You say you go to New York City, right, and there is somebody who is dying on the streets, and other people are just stepping over that person. Right? Who cares? You can die on the street and there will be hundreds of passengers going by and let you die. It’s actually not true. Right? If you ever have seen anybody feeling ill in Times Square, there are usually a lot of people who rush over, that say, “Are you all right?”, or this kind of stuff. But anyway. But you know the stereotype. Right? It’s a usual stereotype about cities. Anyway, so it’s puzzling why a society which is so different, anonymous, and such a high division of labor, can be solidaristic.

Then he defines various pathologies. And interestingly, pathology one sounds very similar, very close to Marx. Well there is crisis in the system, and there is increasing class conflict, and this class conflict is pathological. And the second one, well–and again something which is not all that different from old Karl Marx–division of labor can be too excessive, and too much division of labor can lead to pathological consequences. And finally his unique contribution, that pathology can come from the lack of regulation, and that’s what he calls anomie. Now let me work on this, and also the concept of anomie a little more.

So here it is: the division of labor as a source of solidarity. Right? He said, well normally the division of labor produces social solidarity. Well but it can happen that there are the opposite results. Right? So therefore, he said, “When we know when division of labor creates social solidarity, then we will be better equipped to figure out when actually social solidarity has pathological consequences.” And as you can see from the citation, he directly cites the medical metaphor. Right? “Here, as elsewhere, pathology is a precious ancillary to physiology.” So you start with the physiology of society. You identify when it works normally, and then you will be able to show when it is pathological. Right? That’s the fundamental idea. And this is, in a way, how he tries to get off the hook of the problem that he’s actually capable to tell what is pathological.

All right, now the first pathology is actually about class conflict. He said, well–and I think Marx would not have been particularly unhappy with this citation, right? “As labor becomes increasingly divided, there are commercial crises, there are bankruptcies, there is hostility between labor and capital, and then all these conflicts become more frequent.” Right? “Well in traditional societies, in mechanical solidarities, well these class conflicts were rare and unusual.” Well today they are not all that unusual. And he uses the term working class. Right? He said, “Part of the working class do not really desire the status assigned to them.” Right? Well not quite the theory of exploitation, but certainly an expression that too high level of division of labor, in absence of other, can create intense class conflict, which is a pathological consequence of high division of labor. Then he goes on and he writes about “excessive division of labor.” Well he has not read the Paris Manuscripts; which was not published, of course, for fourteen more years after he died. But, yes, you have read the Paris Manuscripts, and you can see these interesting parallels. “The individual will isolate himself in his own activity. He will no longer be aware of the collaborator who worked at his side on the same task. He has even not longer any idea at all what the common task consists.” Well is not this miraculous? He could not have the faintest idea that a work called the Paris Manuscripts exists. Right? And here what is being described is getting very, very close to the idea of alienation, right? And in fact comes very close to the Marxian notion of alienation–not the Hegelian one, the Marian notion. Because he roots it into excessive division of labor. Too much market, right, too much competition, creates this situation. So I think this is miraculous. And very often these sentences are kind of skipped over as a kind of throwaway line, by Durkheim. It isn’t. It is very important to identify what his unique contribution is. And this is indeed the emphasis that a pathology can occur out of the lack of regulation, and lack of regulation means anomie.

Well he said, “Well it is not necessary for social life to be without struggle.” Struggle in itself is not that bad at all. “The role of organic solidarity is not to abolish competition, but to moderate it.” Right? Well I just want to remind you, this in a way reminds us to Adam Smith, right? His sympathetic theory of human nature. Right? Well, unlimited competition is not right. Right? Unlimited egoistic behavior is not right. We have to be sympathetic to the other person. Right? We are struggling for recognition by others. Right? That is the idea where there is a similarity in Durkheim’s and Adam Smith’s analysis. But then he continues. “But in some cases”, and this is crucial, “the regulatory process which moderates competition either does not exist at all, or not related to the degree of development of the division of labor.” It is insufficient. There are either no regulations, or not enough regulations. “If then division of labor does not produce solidarity, it is because the relationship between organs are not regulated. And this is what I call anomie.” Right?

And again you see the social context? This is exactly coming from the empirical reference point: Rural young people get on the train and then get off the train in Gare Lazare, Saint Lazare, and then they walk into the street in wild Paris, the sinful city of Paris, and they are lost. Suddenly their value system, what they were told back home in the village, collapses. Right? Back in the village they knew exactly what they are supposed to do. Everybody knew them, and they also knew if they are breaking the laws, right, of the community, they will be immediately punished. Because there will be gossip spreading around, and get back to home, and mom and dad will exactly hear what you have done on the street, what you were not supposed to do. Now you are in Paris. Nobody has the faintest idea who you are. And even you don’t know what other people expect from you. Right? It looks like this is the realm of freedom; you can do anything. Right? Well back home in the village, if you were engaged you better do not hold hands with another partner on the street. Right? Because then the gossip will go back to your fiancée, and to her parents or his parents, and your parents immediately, and there will be a scandal. Well if you are walking on Boul’Mich, you can do anything. You can hold the hand of anybody. You can kiss anybody. Right? Nobody knows who you are. Right? So that’s it. That is the problem, right? Of anomie, that people enter in a society in which they are lost.

Well let me just labor a little longer on the idea. And here again see that even the notion of anomie, it’s probably–I don’t know whether, how much he’s making his argument too complex, or Marx’s idea of alienation was too complex. But you can see here again some similarities, even between anomie and the Marxian notion of alienation. He said, “The division of labor may reduce the worker to the role of a machine. He’s not aware of where the operations required of him are leading, and he does not link them to any aim.” Whoa. “Every day he repeats the same movements, with monotonous regularity, but without having any understanding–interest in understanding of them.” Well, how interesting. Right? That’s where, in Durkheim’s thinking, the lack of norms or values, the collapse of the value system, leading to. And for him–of course, that’s a big difference–the solution is to fix the system of values, right, to fix the system of norms, and then you solve the problem of anomie.

But he also said that, “Look, anomie is not an inevitable consequence of the division of labor.” Right? Well he has a conception that division of labor can be forced, and can be excessive. Right? There must be elements in the collective conscience which moderate, right? The competitive elements of the division of labor. But if those institutions–cultural, legal, moral, ethical institutions–are in place, then in fact the division of labor will not produce anomie; it only will produce such if there is no such systems. But then he said, “Do not read me as a romantic. I don’t want to idealize the village community, where these boys and girls, in Gare Lazare, are coming out of the train.” Right? “I don’t want to send them back to the rural village. I’m not advocating a return from organic solidarity to mechanical solidarity. All what I am showing, under what circumstances there are pathological consequences, right, in organic solidarity. And therefore we have to find the proper medication, the proper cocktail of drugs, by which we can cure this disease.” Right? That is the key idea.

Well now another very interesting argument; which is usually neglected in reading Durkheim. He said, “Look, there are pathologies in society which are coming from overregulation and forced division of labor.” Well this is already in The Division of Labor. But a crucial text is in fact the so-called “Second Introduction into The Division of Labor.” Durkheim received a lot of criticism of the First Edition of The Division of Labor–was criticized of being too conservative politically. And that’s when he wrote the “Second Introduction to The Division of Labor.” And if you are interested at all in Durkheim, you have to read the “Second Introduction”- the introduction to the Second Edition of The Division of Labor. Because here he tries to offer some, quote/unquote, progressive solution to the problems of anomie, and the nature of solidarity in organic societies–how to overcome the problem of class conflicts in modern society.

And there his idea is that really these solidarities–this is the idea he develops in the introduction to the Second Edition–that we are becoming solidaristic within our professions. These are the professional organizations in which we will find our identities and solidarities. So he actually sees the good society as evolving into a multiplicity of professional organizations, in which people fit into these professional environments, and do have a strong professional identity and solidaristic attitudes towards the profession. This is, right, a radically different idea, right, from the–it’s not dealing with markets, not messing up with the markets, or not messing up too much with the markets, to put it this way. Right? Professional organizations, if they are effective, they do mess up with the markets. Right? American Medical Association does mess up, because it’s a kind of trade union, right, which makes sure that the doctors’ interests are being particularly represented. Anyway, this is the “Second Introduction.”

But what is interesting in this citation is that he said, “Well, pathology can emerge actually from an excessive level of regulation, or forced division of labor.” And he introduces another notion here, and this is fatalism. So there are these two different pathologies of modern societies. One is emerging in the transition from mechanical to organic solidarity, given the absence of commonly shared values, and that’s anomie. And there is another possible–on the other end of the scale you have too excessive regulation, and then people become fatalistic because then they think there is nothing what they can do. Right? Anomie is when you can say, “Anything goes; I can get away with anything. Right? Or you are desperate, because you don’t know what on earth you want to do with yourself. Fatalism is when you think well I have no control over my life. I am over-regulated. Right? And then you become fatalistic. It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters because it’s overregulated.

Chapter 3. Comparing Anomie, Alienation and Disenchantment [00:38:15]

Okay. Now let me just very briefly compare these three ideas of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. Well I hope I did not confuse you too much with some of the citations, which are quite counterintuitive. But it’s important to see the sophistication of the analysis. The bottom line, after all, is he said, “Look, my unique contribution to the study of pathologies of modern society is the theory of anomie, which says that temporarily, in this transition, we have a problem of absence of rules. This will be overcome, because there is no reason why a properly moderated competition and division of labor could not create actually very high levels of solidarity.” And the mechanism, he suggests in the “Second Introduction,” is creation of professional organizations and slotting people into professional communities, as such. They are not going back to the villages, but they will be sort of belonging to professional communities and having solidaristic ideas and identities there.

So this is kind of the bottom line. He is sensitive to the problems what Marx is talking about. He understands that yes, modern society does create class conflicts, and this is a problem because the working class very often feels ill-treated–doesn’t use the term exploited, but is unhappy with the position assigned to it. So he sees this is a problem. He also sees the problem that excessive division of labor may create a sense of–he doesn’t use the term, but really what he means–alienation. Right? And he also is quite aware that too much regulation also can create a pathological state of mind: fatalism. So but the major contribution is, as I’ve said, anomie is insufficient regulation in society.

This is his unique contribution. Well alienation, as we have seen, is more like fatalism, right, in Durkheim. It comes from too much regulation. And then we have Weber’s notion of disenchantment, right, the loss of the enchanted garden. This is all coming–the kind of mood or feel, the human condition under modernity. Right? These are three different takes. For Weber, it is the loss of magic, right, and in a way the conversion of the dance and all-sided human relationships into instrumental relationships.

I think I briefly mentioned in the lecture on alienation, and probably also lecture on Weber, that this is actually very similar to the ideas of Georg Lukács, who was a Marxist philosopher and who developed the theory of reification. Weber is developing the theory of disenchantment, what is the problem of modernity. That we lost the enchanted garden–that we are too rationalistic, too cold, too instrumental–at a time when Lukács is shifting from Hegel to Marx, and invents the idea of reification. And they happen to both live at that time in Heidelberg, and Georg Lukács, who was a young man at that time, in his twenties, was a frequent guest in the Weber house, in the salon run by Marianne Weber. So there is clearly a mutual influence on Lukács’ unique interpretation of Marx’s theory of alienation–that human relationships are becoming reified–and Weber’s notion of instrumentalization of life, which is I think distinctly different both from the theory of anomie and alienation.

Chapter 4. Theory on Human Nature [00:43:24]

Okay, a final note on Durkheim’s theory of human nature; what was his theory of human nature? And here we can see a sharp distinction between Marx and Weber [correction: Durkheim]. Marx, mainly following Rousseau’s line, basically believed that–he did not have the notion of state of nature any longer; by the mid-nineteenth century people got tired and got rid of it. But he used the term species being–what is the essence, human essence? Well he said essentially humans are fine. It is the society which is the problem, not the individual. So this is exactly the Rousseauian inspiration in Marx. Society corrupts. In the state of nature we were good–and Marx even adds–I think I already made this point, but let me underline one more time.

He goes beyond Rousseau. Because Rousseau saw the noble savage as a savage, as an individual who has to be brought into society. At that point Marx disagrees with Rousseau. He sees we were born in society; we are social by nature. Right? So we are not only good, but we are also social. And it is society which corrupts us, which creates us egoistic individuals who will compete with each other and will kill each other. Right? This is exactly the opposite, right, of Hobbes, and a big step beyond Rousseau’s theory of human nature.

Now Durkheim is actually much closer to Hobbes in his notion of human nature, because he believes, right, that social pathologies emerge when there is a vacuum of control over people. That’s when you have crime and suicide and prostitution and whatever. And therefore he had a skeptical view of human nature. Unless we are controlled, then we can be evil. Right? That is the fundamental issue. Right? What you have to fix is making sure that individuals develop the proper value system. Thank you very much, and have a wonderful Thanksgiving’s break. Yes, see you the last week of the semester.

[end of transcript]

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