This week, we have the pleasure of reviewing the well renowned French sociologist, Émile Durkheim. Durkheim, being a Functionalist (in contrast to Mark being a Conflict theorist, and Weber being a Conflict/dialectical theorist), sought to understand what it was that held a society together and kept the inner mechanisms functioning properly. Functionalism focuses on he role each actor (or social object) plays in contributing to a society. Thus, in contrast to Weber and Marx who examined society through a lens of “how conflict defines society”, Durkheim saw society through a lens of “how society is held together”. He examines phenomenons in society with regard to their function (you’ll notice a reoccurring theme here) in facilitating social cohesion. We’ll delve into several of these concepts that Durkheim was interesting in examining, like division of labor, religion, and suicide under this functionalist lens.
First, we’ll go ahead and discuss the forms of solidarity Durkheim described. Durkheim refers to “social solidarity” as simply the cohesion of social groups. With this in mind, he goes on to describe the two forms of social integration: mechanical solidarity, and organic solidarity. Mechanical solidarity refers to the sameness of feelings and shared sentiments among a social group. The text refers to it as a feeling of “oneness” among societies/communities. Organic solidarity describes the interdependence and specialization that occurs in social groups, and the solidarity that is achieved through such. Through these two different types of solidarity, societies are able to organize themselves (a concept inherent in functionalist theory). These two different types of social integration were also associated with unique characteristics to each form. Mechanical solidarity is most prevalent in smaller societies. Durkheim coined the term “common conscience” which refers to the shared beliefs and sentiments previously mentioned in these societies. This common conscience is the glue, so to speak, that bonds the social relations within the group. As a social group expands, division of labor increases as well. Thus, we’d have organic solidarity. There are individual differences, and not each person necessarily believes the same thing like they would in mechanical solidarity, but there is still this sense of social cohesion. People begin to specialize, and perform tasks that are for the good of the whole. This interdependence stimulates and facilitates interaction within the group, which then promotes solidarity.
Now, we’ll segue in to what is one of Durkheim’s most important concepts: anomie. To be in a state of anomie is to be “without norms”. In other words, you don’t have any social expectations that would guide your behavior. The “norms” can be moral, religious, or civic. When the norms are no more, it can lead to the destruction of the social order, and when this happens, the laws and regulations can no longer ensure social control. Being in a state of anomie can be confusing and produce anxiety, since normally we glide through our social interactions on autopilot doing whatever our culture’s norms program us to do. One example Durkheim uses in the Division of Labor in Society to illustrate anomie, is when a person experiences a sudden change in economic status–either you all of a sudden lose your job and become chronically unemployed, or you go from working at a gas station to being a millionaire by winning the lottery–you are thrust in a new social position and don’t know how to act as a result. The person who wins the lottery doesn’t know how to manage their money, so they end up broke again in two years; the person who becomes unemployed doesn’t know how to clip coupons, cut down on luxuries, so they do worse than other people who are comparably poor. In such a sudden change of status, you will experience anomie because you won’t know how to behave properly–the norms of behavior that accompany that status. The most important point of anomie is the disintegration of those norms and not the desire of not obeying to them. In other words, the cause of anomie is not the lack of integration of social norms.
Perhaps the most famous categorization of suicide comes from Emile Durkheim. His categories are: (1) Altruistic Suicide: killing oneself for the sake of others (i.e. “My mother will be better off without me, I am only dragging her down”); (2) Egoistic Suicide: life is meaningless, I have figured it all out; (3) Fatalistic Suicide: I’m getting nowhere in my life. Everything is the same, over and over, and I feel trapped; (4) Anomic Suicide: No one understands me, I’m an outsider. These categories can be helpful in understanding the suicidal mindset.
Durkheim saw religion in many facets as well. he espoused the idea of group consciousness and this sort of unspoken social structure. There are actions or rituals that can be “sacred” or “profane” depending on the context. Rituals are described as a highly routinized act. Sacred rituals are those that are extraordinary, above and beyond the everyday world. Profane rituals are the mundane or the routine. These all matter within the context of which they occur. Imagine a rock concert. Everyone is there to see the same band. The band is considered the “sacred” object of the show. Everyone sings along to the songs in unison. This would be an example of a ritual, and one that promotes cohesion. These social structures create the same social pressures that religion does (consider if someone was trash-talking the band, or even just being politely honest about their distaste for the band). Aversion to certain rituals is a recipe for ostracism. It will almost always be ill-received, particularly by those that are so consumed by their convictions.
Modern Application of Theory
As aforementioned, anome is a state of “normlessness”, or without norms, or a detachment from society. If we take a look at this video: Football Trick, we’ll see anomie in action. The kid in the center does something unexpected. He is actually violating a norm. But now the other kids around him are momentarily paralyized by anomie–they don’t have norms that tell them how to react to the situation, so it takes them a second to process the meaning of what just happened, and formulate an appropriate response. By then, of course, it’s too late 🙂
I fundamentally disagree with Durkheim on the usefulness of religion. While he argued they were necessary for social cohesion and to avoid being in states of anomie, I don’t believe it has a necessary function. Community and coming together, working together, is important for humans. But why do we need to involve elements and characters that are beyond study and criticism? I think religion exists because it takes advantage of multiple human characteristics. I don’t think we “need” religion, because we can get both meaningfulness and social fulfillment from other avenues, though only to the extent that secular versions of these are made available by society (cultures, subcultures, etc.). That may seem tautological, but if secular alternatives aren’t permitted to be made public, or if they’re stigmatized, they aren’t available in the same way their mainstream religious counterparts are.
Possible Research Questions
- In our modern day, do we see evidence of cyber solidarity?
- Do we see more or less instances of suicides in societies who fall more under mechanical solidarity, or organic solidarity?
Appelrouth, Scott and Laura Desfor Edles. 2012. Classical and Contemporary Sociological Theory. 2nd ed. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.