Émile Durkheim – The Division of Labor in Society

I don’t remember when I first heard about Emile Durkheim, but it was always alongside the great names of sociology like Max Weber and to a lesser extent Karl Marx. It is interesting how there is no clear line between sociology and political science. It’s easy to reinterpret political science as simply a subfield of sociology especially as the behaviorist revolution permanently shifted political science from a form of philosophy into a social science. Of course, Weber influenced the direction of political science long before the behaviorists changed its tone. But Durkheim never seemed relevant for the study of politics. He is a giant in the field of sociology, yet his name does not come up often among political theorists. In contrast, Weber is omnipresent. Nonetheless, it is Durkheim who may be the most relevant for political theorists of today.

The term Division of Labor is a reference to Adam Smith. But it is also a reference to Karl Marx. Because Durkheim views this phenomenon within a social context, he is likely influenced more from Marx than Smith. Durkheim recognizes the division of labor is fundamentally economic, but it has profound impact on the organization of society. People become defined by their differences rather than their similarities as labor becomes specialized. He refers to this social organization as organic solidarity. Society is held together by their interdependence rather than their cultural similarities. Earlier historical periods establish social organization through mechanical solidarity. This refers to the convergence of individual behavior along cultural norms.

Durkheim sees modernization as a transition toward greater organic solidarity which allows the previous strict mechanical solidarity to relax. There is no abolition of mechanical solidarity nor is there an absence of organic solidarity in earlier historical periods. But there is a distinct difference in their degrees as societies expand and evolve. The division of labor ties societies together through economic interdependence while subsistence economies rely exclusively on kinship bonds and cultural identity.

The work has enormous implications for political theory because Durkheim uses the phenomenon of mechanical solidarity to distinguish between the law and the state. Too often political theorists see the law as a tool of the state. The political philosophers Rawls and Nozik use a series of thought experiments to study the notion of justice through an abstract origin of the state. But neither philosopher fathoms the possibility of positive law without the strength of the state. Nozik toys with the idea of natural law but it never transforms into positive law except as an artificial boundary where the state cannot cross. Durkheim sees mechanical solidarity as a form of law which predates the formation of the state.

The early Social Contract philosophers viewed the law through a different lens than contemporary political theorists. The social contract symbolized the origin of law. The state emerges as a secondary institution to the law. Even Hobbes valued the state for its ability to impose a law. But it was Locke who felt the law and the state had the potential to conflict with each other. Absolute monarchy had the power to both create the law and enforce it. So, they were never truly bound by the law. This was the real origin of tyranny.

It helps to place this work within a study of political philosophy. It helps readers understand some of the complexities of the work of Locke and Rousseau. Durkheim helps divide the notions of the state and the law. And he helps explain the origins of individualism and liberalism. There are echoes of Marx but far fewer of the intellectual dead ends. Durkheim allows students to begin to recognize institutions within political systems. The problem with Marx has always been his desire to tear down institutions but he fails to provide alternatives for relationships within a functional society. I recommend pairing this work with Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. It will illuminate some of the passages within Locke which most readers simply gloss over. A mature reader will find Locke is a much more sophisticated theorist than he has been portrayed. There is much more to Locke than simply natural rights. Durkheim will help put these ideas into context and resolve some of the contradictions which remain in Locke’s theories. Of course, the goal is not to accept the ideas of Locke or Durkheim but to begin to understand governance and recognize the roles of political institutions.

jmk, carmel, indiana, democracyparadoxblog@gmail.com

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