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David Emile Durkheim

Solidarity and the Division of Labor
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Solidarity and the Division of Labor
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You might have wondered at some point how you could be attracted to somebody so completely different from you while strongly disliking some one else who is different in another way. If you can come up with two people to whom this applies, think about their specific differences. Did the person you liked have differences which complemented you or compensated for what you lacked? For example, did you believe yourself to be too high-strung and begin to depend on this laidback person to calm you down? Are you very talkative and rely on this person to be a good listener while this person is shy and relies on you to keep the conversation flowing?


This situation sounds familiar to me. What does it have to do with Emile Durkheim and the division of labor?


A lot! Durkheim says “If one of two people has what the other has not, but desires, in that fact lies the point of departure for a positive attraction.” On a larger scale, it is the division of labor which provides the exchange of services which forms associations between people.


Doesn’t the division of labor only pertain to economics?


While the division of labor might be initially perceived as simply an economic term, Durkheim believed its true function to be in increasing solidarity between people. He defines solidarity as “cohesion of human groups into a social unity” and specifies two types: mechanical and organic solidarity.


Associated with mechanical solidarity is the “conscience collective,” which is “the totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average citizens of the same society”(13). The strength of mechanical solidarity depends on three conditions of the conscience collective: the relation of the volume of the conscience collective to the individual conscience; the intensity of the conscience collective; and the degree of definition of the conscience collective.


What does this mean?


In other words, the greater the conscience collective, the less individuality people have and the more they resemble each other. In a sense, they belong to society, not to themselves. With mechanical solidarity, people are linked to each other only through these similar beliefs, and do not depend on one another for subsistence. Durkheim called a group of people whose cohesiveness is based on resemblances a horde. A horde has no form or organization and is comprised of indistinguishable parts. Members are regarded as kin, and they practice collective punishment and collective responsibility. Durkheim called a group of hordes a clan.


Does solidarity change as society evolves?


As society evolves and becomes less primitive, it moves towards organic solidarity. Organic solidarity does not come from the collective conscience, but rather, from the division of labor. While mechanical solidarity is possible only when personality is submerged in collectivity, organic solidarity is possible only when individuals are specialized and different. The more individuality exists, the stronger the cohesion between people.


This seems counter-intuitive to me. Shouldn’t more individualism create weaker solidarity and less community?


Intuitively, it would seem that way, but Durkheim argues otherwise. With organic solidarity, individuals are more reliant on each other to satisfy their deeds, unlike in mechanical solidarity, where they are self-sufficient. People then view each other as irreplaceable organic parts of the whole system, which they can not neglect, lest they be neglected. This interdependence causes not only more solidarity, but also a more pronounced moral character, wherein individuals feel responsible for one another. Durkheim believed that all social evolution tended towards this moral perfection.


I understand that social evolution depends on the division of labor, but where does the division of labor come from?


Durkheim calls the acting and reacting upon each other of individual segments of society “moral density” and it increases in proportion to the division of labor. Thus, to understand what increases the division of labor, one must understand what increases “moral density.” Durkheim believed two factors responsible, which he called “material density” and “social volume.” Material density is when distance between individuals in a society are reduced spatially, as in the growth of cities and advances in communication and transportation. The “social volume” of a society is simply the total number of its members.


But how does material density and social volume influence the division of labor?


To explain this, Durkheim used Darwin’s Origins of Species, which theorized that as long as resources are plentiful and population size is limited, similar organisms can live together in peace. However, once resources become scarce and population size grows, there is conflict and competition. According to Durkheim, humans reconcile this conflict by differentiation and the emergence of individuality. 


This all seems so theoretical. Does Durkheim have any empirical evidence?


Mostly, it is very theoretical, although Durkheim did use some external indexes to measure the decline in mechanical solidarity. One of these is the decline of religion and another is the decline in the use of proverbs and adages in which “collective thought condenses itself” (22). The index Durkheim explored the most is law, which he said changed from repressive in mechanical solidarity to restitutive in organic solidarity. The goal of repressive law is to punish the individual, whereas the goal of restitutive law is only to ensure that people comply to previously established legal codes.


How does each type of law correlate to mechanical and organic solidarity?


Durkheim believed that social life takes a definite and organized form and the best indicator of this organization is law. Repressive law, which focuses on punishment, is diffused throughout an entire society, imbedded in the conscience collective, and reflects the morals of the society.  Restitutive law, on the other hand, reflects civil, commercial, procedural, administrative, and constitutional laws. It reflects the many different and complex spheres of society. Durkheim saw a progression from repressive to restitutive law which accompanied the progression from mechanical to organic solidarity.


Where did he see this progression? What were his sources?


Herein lies a common critique of Durkheim’s theory. He used the Hebrew Torah, the Twelve Tables of the ancient Romans, and the laws of early Christian Europe to form his argument about repressive law, but neglected the highly restitutive components of their legal codes. Not only did Durkheim downplay the restitutive aspects of “primitive” law, but he also downplayed the repressive aspects of modern law, disregarding its punitive side.


Fenton, Steve. Durkheim and Modern Sociology. Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1984. Simpson, George. Emile Durkheim.