Thursday, June 20, 2013

Reading :: The Division of Labor in Society

The Division of Labor in Society
By Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim's dissertation became a classic work and a founding text of sociology. It's easy to see why. The book has a vast sweep and grapples with basic questions of how societies divide labor and responsibility. Although in retrospect it has its limitations, the book provides some compelling distinctions that have deeply influenced how we understand labor division and organization.

Durkheim sets out three tasks for the book:

  • to "investigate the function of the division of labour, that is, the social need to which it corresponds";
  • to "determine the causes and conditions upon which it depends"; and
  • to "classify the principal abnormal forms that it assumes" (pp.6-7)
Durkheim is investigating the division of labor at a societal scale, not the scale of organizations or specific groups. Much of his work focuses on social solidarity (p.26 et passim), which he divides into two general types: mechanical solidarity, or solidarity by similarities (Ch.2), and organic solidarity, or solidarity arising from the division of labor (Ch.3). 

Mechanical solidarity is solidarity based on identity or resemblance (p.60). This form of social solidarity  "arises because a certain number of states of consciousness are common to all members of the same society" (p.64). Such societies include those of "more primitive peoples," societies that "are made up of elementary aggregates, almost of a family nature, which may be designated clans" (p.48). And "it is this solidarity that repressive law materially embodies" (p.64). Mechanical solidarity is the original type of solidarity.

Organic solidarity arises from the nascent division of labor. Its biological metaphor, the organs of the body, is meant to evoke this kind of interdependence among specialized divisions: 
Whereas the other [mechanical] solidarity implies that individuals resemble each other, the latter [organic solidarity] assumes that they are different from each other. The former type is only possible in so far as the individual personality is absorbed into the collective personality; the latter is only possible if each one of us has a sphere of action that is peculiarly our own, and consequently a personality. (p.85). 
 Organic solidarity is increasingly prevalent, Durkheim argues, based partially on his examination of legal codes (Ch.5). Indeed, the more that labor is divided, the harder it is to separate (p.103). He adds: "Not only does mechanical solidarity generally bind men together less strongly than does organic solidarity, but, as we mount the scale of social evolution, it becomes increasingly looser" (p.105). The strength of social bonds in mechanical solidarity vary based on:

  • common vs. individual consciousness
  • intensity of collective consciousness
  • the "determinativeness" of the above states: how clear-cut they are (p.105)
As mechanical solidarity wanes, Durkheim argues, either social life must diminish or a new form of solidarity must replace it. This new form of solidarity, organic solidarity is based on the division of labor (p.122) and is "increasingly fulfilling the role that once fell to the common consciousness" in "the higher types of society" (p.123). 

Consequently, we see new social forms (Ch.6). In particular, in a society that is held together solely through mechanical solidarity, 
we would have to conceive of it as consisting of an absolutely homogeneous mass whose parts would not be distinguishable from one another and consequently not be arranged in any order or relation to each other. This would be the real social protoplasm, the germ from which all social types would have emerged. The aggregate we have characterised in this way we propose to call a horde. (p.126)
Durkheim concedes that we have not yet observed a pure society of this type (p.126), but cites some close examples, including the Iroquois (p.127):
We shall give the term 'clan' to a horde that has ceased to be independent and has become an element in a more extensive group, and that of segmentary societies based on clans to those peoples that have been constituted from an association of clans. We term such societies 'segmentary' to denote that they are formed of the replication of aggregates that are like one another, analogous to the rings of annelida worms. We also term this elementary aggregate a clan because this word aptly expresses its mixed nature, relating both to the family and the body politic. It is a family in the sense that all the members who go to make it up consider themselves kin to one another, and indeed it is true that for the most part they share a blood relationship. The affinities produced by sharing a blood kinship are mainly what keeps them united. What is more, they sustain mutual relationships that might be termed domestic, since these are to be found elsewhere in societies whose family character is undisputed: I mean collective revenge, collective responsibility and, as soon as individual property makes an appearance, mutual heredity. Yet on the other hand it is not a family in the true sense of the word, for in order to form part of it, there is no need to have a clear-cut blood relationship with the other clan members. It is enough to exhibit some external criterion, which usually consists in bearing the same name. (pp.127-128)
The fact that the clan's kinship can be fictive (cf. Sahlins) means that it can scale much larger than an actual family, allowing it to function as a basic political unit (p.128).

But, Durkheim argues, the clan, like the horde, "plainly does not possess any other solidarity save that which derives from similarities. This is because the society is made up of similar segments and these in turn comprise only homogeneous elements. ... For a segmentary organisation to be possible, the segments must resemble each other (or else they would not be united) and yet be different from one another" (p.128).

Mechanical solidarity, Durkheim concludes, is a system of homogeneous segments (p.131). In contrast, organic solidarity is like a set of differentiated organs. Rather than a group of segments linked by affinities, we find organs that perform different, interdependent functions (p.132-133; cf. I Cor. 12:12). The transformation from one to the other is gradual: for instance, the clan's blood divisions give way to territorial divisions (p.135). Organic solidarity first took root in self-sufficient towns, then (around the 14th Century in Europe) across regions (p.137).

Interestingly, Durkheim makes an argument reminiscent to Vygotskians: in segmented societies, he says, individual personality did not exist (p.142); it is, he believed, a product of the private sphere that emerged with the rise of organic solidarity (cf. p.220, 235, 239, 242).

Durkheim sees societies evolving from decentralized tribes to centralized ones to cities, feudal societies, and finally the present day (p.168; see also pp.201-202). In fact, his biological metaphor becomes rather too controlling in places.

A few thoughts. Those who have been following TIMN will recognize much that is familiar here, particularly the evolution of societies and the characterization of early societies as segmented. Those who have been reading Heckscher and Adler will find the discussion of solidarity familiar too. And as one of the founders of sociology, Durkheim had a deep impact on how we understood societies throughout the 20th century.

Yes, this book certainly has its limitations. It sometimes overgeneralizes and speculates based on fairly limited data, it overrelies on the biological metaphor, and sometimes that metaphor seems to reject Mendelian inheritance (e.g., p.264). But overall, it's a rewarding and fascinating read. In fact, after reading this book and Weber, I may have to revisit a lot of my earlier readings in this new light. Definitely, definitely pick it up.


David Ronfeldt said...

a useful helpful review, clay. esp cuz it's been so long since i last read durkheim. and also cuz i often get mechanical and organkic solidarity mixed up. many thanks and much appreciation from here, including for nod to timn. i'll get to your subsequent durkheim review next.

Clay Spinuzzi said...

Great! I recently finished Durkheim's books on suicide and on the sociological method, and will write them up when I have time. Really a pleasure. (On Morality and Society will have to wait a bit—I have to read Latour's two new books first.)