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What are the differences between Emile Durkheim and Karl Marx's views on the structure of society, the maintenance of society order and the nature of society change?

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Emile Durkheim's and Karl Marx's respective nineteenth-century theoretical frameworks form the two major strands of sociology. Durkheim's schematic of society inspired structural functionalism, which holds that social order arises spontaneously and that a well-functioning society maintains homeostasis. Marx instead argued that contradictions within the social structure condition conflicts between groups which drive historical change. Mid–twentieth-century sociologist Talcott Parsons fashioned a novel synthesis between Durkheim and Max Weber that is used to explain the social order that arose in the post–World War Two United States but also the social pathologies that led to the specter of fascist movements before this order was well entrenched. The breakdown of this social order in the 1960s, however, inspired sociologists to draw from Marx to explain this period of social turbulence.

For Durkheim, society functions like an organism, its different parts mutually supporting one...

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One useful way to think about the difference between Marx and Durkheim is to look at the philosophical background of each sociologist’s ideas. There is nothing neutral about sociology – or about any other social science. The schools of thought that Marx and Durkheim established each have specific assumptions about the ways that the world works – assumptions that cannot be scientifically proven, since these assumptions actually lie behind different ways of doing science, itself.

Let’s start with Durkheim. He drew on a philosophy called positivism, which was developed by August Compte at the beginning of the nineteenth century. This philosophy stresses empirical observation – things that can be drawn on graphs and charts and, particularly, things that can be calculated mathematically. Positivism is the philosophy behind most of the natural sciences (physics, astronomy, chemistry, etc.), so its not surprising that Durkheim’s model of societies – what they are, how they are structured, how they change over time – looks a lot like a biologist’s model of a living organism or an astrophysicist’s model of the life cycle of stars. Sociologists who work with Durkheim’s method use a model called structural functionalism, which basically assumes that you can draw a diagram of a society the same way that you can draw a diagram of the solar system. Everything fits in place and works together as a whole – a whole which can be drawn, which moves according to rules that you can discover and calculate. Just like an astronomer could predict that an asteroid will start moving faster once it falls into the earth’s gravitational field, Durkheim claimed that he could predict that, say, suicide rates would move up or down based on whether more members of a community belonged to one religious tradition or another (see Durkheim’s Suicide, published 1897). Also like an astronomer’s model of the solar system, Durkheim’s way of drawing models of society focuses on naming large structures that remain over time, even as individual events and phenomena change. So, for example, just like an astronomer might talk about the way an asteroid moves using concepts like “orbit” and “gravity,” Durkheim, in a book published in 1812 called The Elementary Forms of Religious Life talked about something called “totemism” - a way of talking about different the way different religions all organize themselves around a symbol-system, even though the particular religion people adhere to might change (e.g. for protestants, everything is organized around the bible; for Catholics, everything is organized around Holy Communion, also called the Eucharist).

From all of this, it is possible to say a few things about Durkheim’s way of modeling societies: 1) he used the detailed collection of empirical data to measure specific phenomena; 2) he then extrapolated from that data to form big concepts that could help explain the way that societies work together as a whole; and 3) he used those big structures, which remained constant, to help explain smaller changes over time that took place within them. Durkheim’s method privileges big things that stay the same to help talk about little things that change; it uses the empirical study (through things like survey data) of those little things that change to develop a vocabulary to talk about the big things that stay the same.

In many ways, Marx’s way of doing sociology was exactly the opposite of Durkheim’s. This is because he drew on a different philosopher to get his basic ideas about how the world works, namely GWF Hegel. One of the most important ideas that Marx got from Hegel was called the dialectic. You can tell how important this concept was to Marx because he sometimes called his philosophy dialectical materialism. Dialectic is a way of talking about change over time. For Hegel, dialectics were mostly philosophical. They had to do with ideas. He proposed that intellectual change happened when a thesis was opposed by its antithesis, leading to a synthesis. Notice that conflict is the driving force here. One thing leads to something else that opposes it. That opposition leads to something new, something more than either of the two opposing things that came before it. Where Hegel used dialectics to explain the evolution of ideas and spirituality, Marx used them to explain how societies change. For him, the things that opposed each other weren’t ideas, but, rather, social classes. This can be a difficult concept to grasp. For Marx, what class you were part of didn’t necessary say much about how much money you had (though some classes definitely have more money than others). Rather, what class you were in had to do with your relationship to the means of production – that is, the way that you make things and use them to live. To give a simple example: in an agrarian society, the means of production is farmland. In a lot of agrarian societies, like feudal Europe, some people own the farmland. These were landlords or, in Europe, the nobility or aristocracy. Others actually did the farming. These were the serfs or peasants. But, late in the middle ages, the feudal lords came into conflict with another class, people who lived in the cities and lived by things like trade, banking, handicrafts, etc. Since cities are sometimes called boroughs, these people were called the bourgeoisie. Eventually, the bourgeoisie overthrew the feudal lords. Marx thought that this conflict was what had created all the important features of modern society – politically it had led to the creation of nation-states, technologically it led to the industrial revolution, and, economically, it led to capitalism, a system where the bourgeoisie owned the means of production – factories, mills, mines, etc. - and a new class, the workers, worked for them. Marx thought that the conflict between these two classes would lead to a revolution that would overthrow capitalism and create a socialist society. See how the dialectic works here. One thing (the feudal lords) comes into conflict with another (the bourgeoisie) and that conflict creates something new (capitalism) which wasn’t there before.

In many ways, Marx is the opposite of Durkheim. Where Durkheim thought that big things (like totemism) remain the same and small things (like which religion people belong to and what effect that has on suicide rates) change, Marx thought that big things change (a society run by kings and princes becomes a society run by governments and corporations) and that that was the only reason that anything small (like where you go to work, how you get paid, etc.) ever changed. He thought that, if you want to understand the way that society works, you have to understand those really big changes and the way that they happen over time. Again, this is largely because Marx and Durkheim have different philosophical points of reference in Hegel and Compte, respectively.