Durkheim's Mechanical & Organic Solidarity Research Paper Starter

Durkheim's Mechanical & Organic Solidarity

(Research Starters)

Émile Durkheim, known as one of the founding fathers of sociology, was instrumental in establishing sociology as an academic discipline distinct from psychology and philosophy. As the society in which he lived became increasingly modern, Durkheim devoted himself to two fundamental questions: the relationship between the individual and society, or more specifically, the nature of social bonds; and the moral health of society in general. In addressing these questions, he identified two different types of societies, mechanical and organic, and differentiated them in terms of their shared beliefs, governing laws, level of individualism, and social ills. Durkheim also attempted to show how seemingly individual acts—such as crime and suicide—are social in nature.

Keywords Collective Conscience; Division of Labor; Mechanical Solidarity; Occupational Groups; Organic Solidarity; Repressive Laws; Restitutive Laws; Social Facts

Sociological Theory: Durkheim's Mechanical


When Émile Durkheim began his university teaching career in France in the mid-nineteenth century, sociology did not yet exist as a separate academic discipline. Known as one of its founding fathers, Durkheim spent much of his early career establishing sociology as a field of study that would offer a different perspective on society than that already offered by psychology and philosophy (Ritzer, 2008; McIntosh, 1997). First and foremost, Durkheim believed social life should be studied empirically—in much the same way one might study the natural sciences—by observing and measuring what he called social facts (Ritzer, 2008). Secondly, Durkheim believed society could be understood only by observing individuals in interaction with one another; "society," he wrote, "is not a mere sum of individuals" (as cited in Ritzer, 2008, p.78). Although Durkheim was met with opposition, particularly from psychologists and philosophers, he was successful in creating a "separate and identifiable niche" for sociology (Ritzer, 2008, p. 75).

In order to understand Durkheim's contribution to sociology, it is important to first understand the cultural and political landscape in which he lived and worked. His academic interests were largely informed by the changes he saw taking place around him. As McIntosh (1997) wrote, "It is now part of the familiar history of sociology to state that it 'came of age' during two great transformations: the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution" (p. 3). The French Revolution challenged traditional forms of authority, emphasizing instead the ideals of liberty, equality, and democracy. The individual, and his or her inherent rights, were at the forefront of revolutionaries' minds. At the same time, society was becoming increasingly industrialized. Workers were moving from farms to factories, becoming more specialized in their jobs and skills, thereby creating an economic and urban landscape never before seen.

The changes that accompanied the shift from a traditional society to a modern one became the central concern of sociologists, and for Durkheim as well. Specifically, Durkheim turned his attention to two fundamental questions: the relationship between the individual and society, and the moral health of society as a whole (Marske, 1987). Given the increasing division of labor and accompanying specialization, Durkheim wondered how society would continue to be "held together." Would individualism weaken or strengthen social bonds? Secondly, Durkheim was worried about how the shift from traditionalism to modernity would impact society's moral fabric. A colleague of Durkheim's wrote, "one will fail to understand his works if one does not take account of the fact that morality was their center and object" (cited in Ritzer, 2008, p. 78).


Durkheim characterized societies according to the types of bonds that brought people together, and the ways in which individuals perceived themselves as part of a larger whole—in other words, according to the nature of its solidarity. According to Durkheim, there are just two fundamental types of solidarity:mechanical and organic. What differentiates one from the other, he argued, is the role of the individual in relation to the larger group, as well as the nature of a society's shared beliefs, or collective conscience. As societies became increasingly modern, they changed along both these dimensions.

The Collective Conscience

In traditional, primitive societies, families are largely self-sufficient. People grow their own food, make their own clothes, and raise and educate their own children. The bond among individuals is strengthened by their shared experience. In addition to their shared experience, however, people in primitive societies also have a common belief system. The collective conscience of primitive societies, Durkheim observed, is typically religious in nature, rigid, and pervasive (Ritzer, 2008). In primitive societies with mechanical solidarity, it is the strength of the collective conscience that provides the moral foundation for the community.

In modern, organic societies, the role of the individual begins to shift. As people move from the farm to the factory, their skills and jobs become more specialized. No longer self-sufficient, the modern family must depend on other people in the community for their survival: someone else to grow their food, make their clothes, and teach their children. The maxim in such societies, Durkheim wrote, is to "equip yourself to fulfill usefully a specific function" (as cited in McIntosh, 1997, p. 183). Importantly, Durkheim recognized that the division of labor that characterizes economic life also characterizes other facets of social life: politics, education, law, and even academics. Such societies are more complex than primitive societies, and as a result, the collective conscience diminishes. The belief system is shared by fewer people, becomes less religious in content, and is less rigidly imposed.

Division of Labor

According to Durkheim, the increasing division of labor in modern societies of his time fulfilled an important function. Communities were becoming more heavily populated, leading to increased competition for scarce resources and therefore a more intense struggle for survival (Ritzer, 2008). The division of labor allowed individuals to complement rather than conflict with one another. Specialization also led to increased efficiency and made resources more abundant. As Ritzer (2008) wrote, "In societies with organic solidarity, less competition and more differentiation allow people to cooperate more and to all be supported by the same resource base. Individuality, then, is not the opposite of close social bonds but a requirement for them" (p. 87).

By emphasizing the relationship between increasing specialization and interdependence, Durkheim was able to show how solidarity and individualism could go hand in hand. "The evolution from traditionalism to modernity, according to Durkheim, paradoxically expands the role of the state while simultaneously increasing the level of individualism in society" (Marske, 1987, p. 1). But Durkheim had another agenda—to prove that modernity does not necessitate, as many of his colleagues believed, moral decline. As Giddens (1971) wrote, "The main proposition developed in the Division of Labor is that modern complex society is not, in spite of the declining significance of traditional moral beliefs, inevitably tending toward [moral] disintegration" (Giddens, 1971, p. 72). If the collective conscience or moral fabric of society diminishes with increasing modernity, as Durkheim acknowledged it did, how could society maintain its moral health?

Durkheim acknowledged that along with modernity comes increasing complexity and diversity of thought. He argued, however, that the collective conscience survives with respect to one belief—the importance of the individual. Marske (1987) wrote, "The individual is eventually seen by Durkheim as the sole surviving form of mechanical solidarity in modern society. In advanced societies where organic solidarity predominates, the deepest most significant [shared] value…focuses on the rights and dignity of the individual" (p. 2). Durkheim even suggested that societies' shared belief in the dignity of the individual would become a secular religion, and replace more traditional religions like Christianity (Marske, 1987). Importantly, however, Durkheim's individual refers to humankind in the abstract, rather than a specific person per se, and moral individualism promotes respect for humanity, rather than self-interest or egoism.

Durkheim believed the shift from traditionalism to modernity was a natural progression that produced a "higher" type of social order, but he recognized that problems could arise during transition (Marske, 1987). In other words, he believed division of labor would produce stability and solidarity, but only under the right conditions. If the structure of a society changed too rapidly, Durkheim argued, the accompanying moral code might not have time to develop. Indeed, the changes he observed in his own time were...

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