Durkheim's Theory of Social Class
Prof. Timothy Shortell, Department of Sociology, Brooklyn College, CUNY

Division of Labor & Social Integration

Though Durkheim was a contemporary of Weber, his work was vastly different. Both Marx and Weber are usually referred to as conflict theorists. They understood that any social order involved the regulation of opposing interests, and, as a result, that conflict between individuals and among groups was an essential part of every society. Durkheim begins with a very different premise. His approach is usually called functionalism.

The functionalist view focuses on the role of social objects or actors, that is, on what they do. Durkheim believed that harmony, rather than conflict, defined society. He examines social phenomena with regard to their function in producing or facilitating social cohesion. He studied the division of labor, religion and suicide from this perspective.

Whereas Weber was preoccupied with rationality, Durkheim is primarily concerned with solidarity: what holds individuals together in social institutions? Durkheim believed that solidarity was the normal condition of society, and even though he recognized the turmoil associated with industrialization, he considered conflict abnormal or pathological.

I. Forms of Solidarity

Durkheim identified two major types of social integration, mechanical and organic. The former refers to integration that is based on shared beliefs and sentiments, while the latter refers to integration that results from specialization and interdependence. These types reflect different ways that societies organized themselves. Where there is little differentiation in the kinds of labor that individuals engage in, integration based on common beliefs is to be found; in societies where work is highly differentiated, solidarity is the consequence of mutual dependence. The distinction reveals Durkheim's thinking about how modern societies differ from earlier ones, and consequently, how solidarity changes as a society becomes more complex.1

Societies of mechanical solidarity tend to be relatively small and organized around kinship affiliations. Social relations are regulated by the shared system of beliefs, what Durkheim called the common conscience. As a result, regulation was primarily punitive. Violations of social norms were taken as a direct threat to the shared identity, and so, reactions to deviance tended to emphasize punishment.

As a society becomes larger, division of labor increases. A complex organization of labor is necessary, in larger societies, for the production of material life (as Marx suggested). Because people begin to specialize, the basis for the collective conscience is diminished. Solidarity based on the common belief system is no longer possible. Complexity does not lead to disintegration, Durkheim argued, but rather, to social solidarity based on interdependence. Since people are no longer producing all the things that they need, they must interact. Integration results from a recognition that each needs the other. Societies of organic solidarity are arranged around economic and political organizations. Their legal systems regulate behavior based on principles of exchange and restitution, rather than punishment.

II. Anomie

Durkheim first mentions the concept of anomie in The Division of Labor in Society, but he develops the idea more completely in Suicide. The concept has been widely used by sociologists since. To understand the term, it is necessary to start with its context. Durkheim attempts to explain the function of the division of labor, and makes the observation that it creates social cohesion. The industrial revolution, of course, produced great tension and turmoil, and Durkheim recognized this. He resolved the contradiction by developing the notion of anomie.

Anomie is usually translated as normlessness, but it best understood as insufficient normative regulation. During periods of rapid social change, individuals sometimes experience alienation from group goals and values. They lose sight of their shared interests based on mutual dependence. In this condition, they are less constrained by group norms. Normative values become generalized, rather than personally embraced.

The developments in the division of labor associated with industrialization facilitated anomie. As work became routinized, broken down into dull, repetitive tasks, workers lose the sense of their role in production, and are less committed to the process and the organization. As a result, the norms of the workplace exert less influence on their activity.

Not all asocial behavior is anomic, however. Durkheim identified another form, which he called egoism. When the coercive influence of the social values and norms is lessened, excessive individualism can be the result. When individuals disregard norms in favor of their own interests, cohesion is impossible. The individuals themselves, Durkheim noted, often suffer too. Such self-centeredness is highly destructive to the individual's well being.

III. Anomic Division of Labor

Whereas Marx saw social conflict as inherent in the manner in which labor was organized in capitalist societies, Durkheim believed that diminished solidarity was a pathological condition. He believed that modern societies would need to develop new means of reinforcing social norms and a shared sense of affiliation. Drawing on Alexis de Tocqueville's analysis of American society2, Durkheim suggested that social cohesion could result from action of occupations groups.

Occupational groups could replace the normative functions that were once exercised by institutions such as religion, local community, and the family. Relations between occupational groups would be economic, in the sense that they would have to work together to reach agreements about the conditions of labor, wages, etc. Relations would also be political. These groups would function like political parties. Durkheim distrusted mass democracy and worried about increasingly bureaucratized state. He felt that occupational groups ought to participate in government, thereby checking the excesses of individual passions, on the one hand, and oppressive bureaucracy on the other.

Occupational groups would also function as social organizations. Since they are based on the similarity of labor, Durkheim thought that individuals within them would naturally have shared interests and a sense of collective identity. Flowing from this, they could organize leisure activities and other social interactions, giving individuals a sense of belonging in the ways that primary affiliations, such as kin and religion used to.

1. German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies used the terms Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft to refer to the distinction between societies organized on the basis of kinship and tradition, on the one hand, and by specialization and self-interest, on the other. As modern societies become more urban and industrial, the former is replaced by the latter.

2. Tocqueville's Democracy in America.