A Comparison of Marx and Durkheim's Theories of the Structure of Modern Society
Introductory Essay: Marx and Durkheim
There was once a time when the societies of the world were nothing more than a ruling class and a class that was ruled. In these feudal societies classes were set. There was little chance for a member of the ruling bourgeoisie class to cross over to the oppressed proletariat class or from the proletariat class to the bourgeoisie class. Every individual within each class had the routine for each day set out for him or her. There was little change in the lives of individuals of these societies. There was monotony in their work and their work did little more for them than keeping them alive. In those societies, in those times, there was scarce chance of bettering oneself.
Then there came an era, a time of drastic change. The concept of industrialization and Capitalism was introduced to societies all over the world. Some societies accepted it while others condemned it. Those that accepted it became what was known as modern societies or simply put Capitalist societies.
Capitalist or modern societies are very complex in structure. Many theorists have tried to explain or simplify the complexities of these societies, among the greatest of them Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim.
In this short analysis, I will attempt to compare and contrast Marx’s and Durkheim’s theories on the structure of modern society.
Firstly, each theorist has a somewhat different view as to what the essential elements of modern society are. For Marx the division of labour and class conflict brought about social stratification, which resulted in alienation. These for Marx were the crucial elements of modern society.
With Capitalism and modernity came industrialization and factories and in Capitalism this requires owners and workers. Stratification quickly emerged in this supposed society of equal opportunity. Marx expresses in his writings that class conflict was and is very much alive in every society from before feudal times until present.
"...The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has
not done away with class antagonisms it has but established new classes, new conditions
of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones..." – Social theory, pg37
The ruling classes in the modern societies were the owners of capital. The working class had to sell their services to the Capitalists for feeble wages. With mechanization came mass unemployment, which allowed for much competition among workers for jobs in factories and such. There was also a need for workers to do different types of jobs and to do it as quickly and efficiently as possible. This required specialization. Work was divided by a system in which every man did the job for which he was best suited in order to make a profit for the owners. This Marx termed the division of labour. The division of labour and the specialization that it brought made each individual dependant on the work of every other. It at the same time increased division among the working class as people began to see things in different ways and value different things. This division represents another of Marx’s key elements of modern society namely, alienation.
According to Marx competition between workers alienated them for each other. They were also alienated from the means of production because they had no say in it’s running. Workers often remained in this state of oppression, a state in which happiness or even fulfillment was hard to find. After all the inequality in the labour market, (stratification) workers were even alienated from enjoying life or finding personal fulfillment in it! Once again for Marx, the division of labour and conflict between capitalists and workers were crucial problems of modern society. Social stratification also played a key role.
For Durkheim, the essential elements of modern society and the ills of it are contrasting to Marx’s in some ways yet similar in others. Durkheim’s emphasis of modern society was on the norms, values and belief systems that governed it. After determining what resulted from modernization, Durkheim unlike Marx was interested in reforming not eliminating modern society. In analyzing Durkheim’s theory of modern society, I will begin with the focal point of it, namely solidarity.
With modernization and industrialization, labour became increasingly specialized. Before this in the pre- modern societies, all workers did almost the same work in order to sustain themselves. These workers shared social cohesion base on similarity and commonality among themselves. This ‘mechanical solidarity’ was soon replaced by ‘organic solidarity’. With organic solidarity social cohesion was based on each individual’s dependence on every other in the society for survival. (The Emile Durkheim Archive, Solidarity)
With the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism came a different set of norms and values by which to live. The transition from old to modern society was a very complex and relatively quick one. The people had to adapt to this quick and unclear change of the society. Because the transition was very difficult to make, many people lost their way in between. They became confused. The peoples’ state of confusion according to Durkheim is termed anomie.
In order to combat anomie Durkheim asserts that people turn to religion. Religion for Durkheim was not divinely inspired but was simply a set of collective beliefs that shaped norms and values, norms and values that shaped collective beliefs. Religion acted then as a source of solidarity or collective reality for people in their societies. (Durkheim Archives, religion)
If a member of the society brakes this solidarity, conflict arises. This conflict is caused by in-adherence to the norms, values and collective beliefs of the society and can result in many ills, two of the most important being suicide and crime.
The norms and values that a people hold collective are to keep them in solidarity with each other. Rich and poor find common identity in norms and values, which help to minimize conflict or contrast between them. These are to Durkheim the essential elements of modern society with a strong focus on how society regulates values and norms.
Karl Marx saw conflict in a society as a bad thing, something that caused dysfunction in a society. Durkheim on the other hand saw conflict as a possible good. If the consequence of conflict was clearly made known to all, then solidarity between all who oppose conflict will be reinforced. Although the two theories differ in this aspect, there is striking similarity in the theories’ concepts of alienation and anomie. The difference though, between these concepts lies in exploitation. In Marx’s alienation there is exploitation of the working class by the Capitalists, which causes dysfunction. In Durkheim’s anomie, the dysfunction of the working class is not caused by exploitation by the Capitalists but by the complexity of the society.
In closing, both Marx and Durkheim were extraordinary thinkers and theorists. They have both presented ways in which we can view and analyze our societies and the crucial elements of them. Whether we focus our theories of society on conflict or integration, class stratification or solidarity, exploitation of labour or norms and values, we have much to compare and contrast to. Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim have presented much thought, two views to think about and work around. Today’s modern societies owe much to them!