Durkheim’s Mechanical and Organic Solidarity: what holds society together?


emile durkheim is one of the three big names in modern social theory next to Karl Marx and Max Weber Durkheim’s called the father of sociology the formal study of society so he focused on social rather than individual explanations for things when looking at racism for example he wouldn’t look at individual psychology and circumstances he’d look at stuff like economic inequality or media or migration Durkheim had a name for this social stuff he called them social facts so norms culture values law morality population size political institutions technology they’re all social facts social facts affect one another and they affect people but while social facts have their roots in individuals they can’t be understood at the level of the individual law and morality aren’t things that exist inside the heads of individuals they exist in the network of interactions between people like how consciousness exists not in any one neuron nor pineal gland but in the networks that they form point being Durkheim was into social explanations so I’ve got a basic idea of what to accounts about let’s look at one of these big ideas so solidarity is the cohesion in society what holds it together it’s the feeling the individual members have that they were part of the whole Durkheim proposed two different ways that solidarity can work mechanical solidarity for pre-modern societies and organic solidarity for modern societies what’s pre-modern mechanical society like well let’s say you’re a bloke called Sven you’d be white and bearded and you’d believe in Thor and you’d farm potatoes for a living and everyone around you would also be bearded white people also called Sven who also believed in Thor and also farm potatoes and since you and everyone else you interact with does basically the same stuff as you they have the same experiences as you hold the same values of course realistically there will probably be some differences and divisions men and women might have different social roles there might be a leader of some kind with greater responsibilities and privileges but the point is that for the most part people in their societies are bound together by commonalities similitudes and likenesses what Durkheim calls collective consciousness religion is a big part of this but all the little shared experiences matter – it all contributes to the basis of pre-modern mechanical solidarity similarity now modern society is obviously very different there are lots of different people with different gods different jobs different experiences different values there isn’t a lot of similarity here so what holds society together the answer according to Durkheim is interdependence what this means is that while all these people are very different they rely on each other unlike Sven here who is pretty much self sufficient as long as he’s content with potatoes the modern person relies on the butcher and the policeman and the banker and the teacher in the bus driver and the child laborers who make our clothes and the person who makes the intertubes work we need each other and that’s what holds modern society together the analogy here is that organic society is like a human body with individual organs each doing their own specialized job to keep the whole system working there’s still some collective consciousness here some similarity but it’s limited to some very general and indeterminate ways of thought and sentiment which leaves a room open for a growing variety of individual differences those are Durkheim’s words and they’re a pretty good reflection of modern society right we all have pretty different experiences and values but there are some basics that we all share in how we live and think and feel one thing in particular that’s valued by most modern Western societies is individualism emphasis on the value and interests of the individual rather than wider society individualism is particularly visible in the culture of consumerism the endless acquisition of things in order to gratify the self that is economically and socially foundational in the modern world I mean just turn on a TV we are constantly told that we are free unique individuals living and thinking and buying in whatever ways satisfies or expresses asked personally so individualism is one of the few things collectively valued by modern society Durkheim likens up to a religion but he also points out that even though individualism is collectively valued it doesn’t promote social solidarity because it’s not to society that it attaches us it is to ourselves so one of the few things that just about everyone does have in common in Western modern society ironically does not unite us we are very much separate individuals bound together largely by our reliance on one another so one of the key differences between mechanical and organic solidarity is division of labor in a pre-modern society everyone does basically the same stuff especially if you take it back to hunter-gatherer societies but in modern societies everyone has these highly specialized roles specialization is powerful individual people can make specific individual bids which come together to make something that no one person could have made alone but a consequence of individuals only knowing how to make their own specialized bit is that they can’t survive alone so again organic solidarity is based on specialization which creates interdependence which is the basis of social cohesion in one societies one other difference is related to law so in a mechanical society everyone tends to have the same values so when someone breaks the rules people respond emotionally and intensely so you get these harsh biblical and medieval punishments in organic societies on the other hand everyone believes different things there isn’t this great unified morality so you usually don’t get this huge collective mob outrage thing so much but since everyone depends on everyone else to follow the rules the focus of law is on righting wrongs making sure that the system keeps working so instead of getting creative with our punishments we focus on correcting and reforming people who break the rules at least in theory in durkheim’s words the judge speaks of law and says nothing of punishment this is called restitutive law distinct from retributive law interestingly Durkheim saw crime as a natural and healthy feature of society it sort of reaffirms and makes clear society’s laws to have transgressions occur and be dealt with which you know is an old argument is there no way to reaffirm society’s laws without breaking them and disrupting society it’s hard to see chronic violent crime as a healthy part of society but anyway Durkheim also discussed what causes the transition from pre-modern mechanical solidarity to modern organic solidarity he said it’s caused by dynamic density his term for the number of people in a society and the degree of interactivity between them we see this in contemporary globalization people goods money and information are all moving across the globe faster and further and easier than ever before dynamic density is increasing and has been for some time so Durkheim argues that as dynamic density increases competition increases creating a natural dry for society to find more efficient ways of doing things so system like the division of labor arise and gradually become a foundation of organic solidarity according to Durkheim organic solidarity interdependence comes from greater density and interactivity so now a really quick criticism Karl Marx founded a line of thought called conflict theory he wrote in his communist manifesto that the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles Freeman and slave patrician and plebeian blah blah blah oppressor and oppressed Marxist thought sees capitalism and therefore modern society as being founded on domination exploitation and alienation now Durkheim does say that there can be problems with the division of labor one is what he calls the enforced division of labor he says sometimes if changes too fast or society otherwise messes up you might get a situation where economic power or status is determining who performs what economic role rather than actual qualifications another kind of problem he calls the anomic division of labor basically there’s too much individualism and people are cut adrift in their highly specialized activities left without a clear idea of what is and is not moral behavior in this state of anomie people are isolated reduced to the repetition of meaningless tasks Durkheim recognizes both of these things as bad but save them is unusual and temporary phenomena that society quickly corrects with new rules and systems basically Durkheim doesn’t think economic baptism class conflict are a big deal to the extent that he recognizes class conflict as a thing he argues that it’s not the cause but merely a symptom of social problems so easy right it does seem pretty clear that there are severe and unjust imbalances of power in the world that arise from the division of labor look at world wealth inequality at how much tax big companies pay at what goes on in the special economic zones where all our phones are made look at revolutions slavery social equality movements class conflict and the enforced and anomic division of labour are not only more than brief and rare aberrations but pretty foundational parts of how the world works Durkheim just didn’t sufficiently recognize conflicts generally it’s been pointed out that Durkheim one of the most significant social theorists I could offer little sociological explanation or consolation on the first world war probably the biggest world event of his time Durkheim’s whole social thought is so focused on solidarity that it fails to see conflict and conflict clearly is a profound influence on society throughout history so Durkheim’s contrast between mechanical and organic solidarity is a pretty interesting way of looking in society and contemporary phenomena like consumerism and globalization illustrate that it’s a pretty accurate conception of the modern world but it fails to capture the flaws in the division of labor described by marx and conflicts generally which are major forces shaping the modern world thanks for watching this video let me know if you’d like to see more of this kind of content you

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