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Emilie Durkheim, Karl Marx and the Origins of Sociology; A Brief Glimpse

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Contributed by: Chandler Barton, literature and education major

David Emilie Durkheim is quite the enigmous character to the amateur scholar of sociology despite being hailed by most contemporary social scientists as one of the founding fathers of the discipline. Along with such personalities as Karl Marx, Max Weber, Friedrich Engels et al, Durkheim’s prominence and place as one of the founders of sociology as a discipline, while well known in the academic world of the social sciences, is often overlooked in comparison to his aforementioned contemporaries in the field; if nothing else, because of the lack of “flare” or “impact” of his work—not that his work is insignificant by any stretch of the imagination—but insomuch that it didn’t lay the foundations for world-changing revolutions and changes of government as Marx himself can directly take credit for, and Weber indirectly (albeit in a bit of a different manner.) Additionally, instead of dissecting civilization and society from the holistic perspective of inherent struggle or conflict as Marx or Engels did, Durkheim was more concerned with the bigger picture of society’s function as a collective unit of individual actors, and the “glue” that influenced or held together society as a coherent entity.

In Durkheim’s 1893 doctoral dissertation, “The Division of Labour in Society,” he examined the different components that factored into the cohesion of society as a collective and the effects of such functions as social constructs, which he termed “mechanical” and “organic” solidarity. In the case of the former, Durkheim notes that less advanced civilizations rely on mechanical means of collectivity through common origin and purpose (accompanied by a lack of a formal division of labor), and that the consciousness of such a “primitive” society and how it responds to conflict or crime is, by nature of circumstance and necessity, harsher in order to maintain unity and cohesion. Conversely, more developed, capitalistic civilizations—those progressed towards an organic functioning—rely on the latter mode of inter-dependent solidarity once formal labor divisions emerge, and reactions to crime and punishment are more geared towards rehabilitation for the sake of productivity, efficiency, and order.

The underlying point behind Durkheim’s theory was two-fold; firstly, that all societies and civilizations are bound by the necessity of solidarity through whatever reason or means, and that societies will evolve and adapt to conform to this principle—in the case of differentiating mechanical and organic ones, the transition from solidarity arising from common origin/purpose in the primitive stage versus interdependence and productivity in the industrial stage—in order to insure both the survival and propagation of the collective unit, as well as the efficiency of the unit. Secondly, Durkheim postulated that the transition between the two modes of social movement and the subsequent growing pains of societal adaptation and evolution could be marked with severe strife and conflict, as the foundations of society and how it operates begins to be shaken and replaced in the transition between the mechanical and organic stages. Durkheim noted that this pathology of conflict was a natural occurrence, and would only reach its most intense form during these transition periods before eventually normalizing once the change from a mechanical to organic society was realized.

Durkheim’s theory coincided with that of others like Karl Marx, who like him believed that the transition between mechanical and organic solidarities as an inevitable occurrence that, as a natural consequence would produce conflict. However, where Marx and Durkheim begin to diverge is that while Durkheim accepted societal conflict as pathological, inherent, and natural, Marx disagreed and conjected that the conflict was rooted in class struggle and that it was the root, underlying cause of strife within any given civilization (and as such, a variable that had to be eliminated in order for society to progress towards what he felt to be the final stage: stateless communism.)

Another departure between the two is that where Durkheim did not see society transitioning from an organic mode to any other—that form of solidarity, as he felt, being the final result of evolution from a mechanical one and being the last stage of collective development—Marx believed that there was a next step in line with his theory of class division and the unequal distribution of the means of production: the revolution of the proletariat, the working class, to overthrow entrenched capitalism and to lay the proto-communistic foundation for a world utopia governed and controlled by that of the worker.

Overall, Durkheim’s work provided a powerful insight into the intricate workings of societies and collective behavior. His efforts helped to establish sociology as an academic discipline in and of itself, and his theories continue to be taught and examined in Western universities to this day. Without Durkheim, the importance of societal theory, social history and development would have never entered into such prominence or value in the wider academic world, and sociology as a discipline would be nowhere near as prominent.