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.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Reading :: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
By Max Weber

I regret having taken so long to get to this fascinating book, which introduced the notion of the Protestant work ethic. Weber is recognized as one of the three founders of sociology (alongside Marx and Durkheim), and in this influential book, we can see why.

Weber wrote the book after visiting, and becoming fascinated with, the United States. In fact, in Chapter 2, he quotes several of Benjamin Franklin's aphorisms—along the lines of "time is money" (p.48) and "The good paymaster is lord of another man's purse" (p.49)—and warns us not to simply interpret these statements as avarice. Rather, he says, through Franklin speaks "the spirit of capitalism," and his words describe not astuteness but an ethos (p.51):
The peculiarity of this philosophy of avarice appears to be the ideal of the honest man of recognized credit, and above all the idea of a duty of the individual toward the increase of his capital, which is assumed as an end in itself. Truly what is preached here is not simply a means of making one's way in the world, but a particular ethic. The infraction of its rules is treated not as foolishness but as forgetfulness of duty. This is the essence of the matter. It is not mere business astuteness, that sort of thing is common enough, it is an ethos. This is the quality that interests us. (p.51)
Weber sees this particular ethic as uniquely Western European and North American (p.52). This ethic is summed up in this way: "the earning of more and more money, combined with the strict avoidance of any spontaneous enjoyment of life" (53). When pressed, even that "colorless deist" Franklin justifies the ethic with Scripture (p.53); making money, to Franklin, is the result and expression of virtue and proficiency in a calling (p.54). And it is this ethic, Weber says, that is a condition of capitalism, shaping the system and its conditions for success (p.54).

To those who have not become capitalist, it seems like mere avarice (p.56), and Weber claims that capitalism's development is retarded in countries where workers pursue money unscrupulously, without this ethic (p.57). In part, that's because labor must be performed as a calling if wage incentives are to work (p.62). And that characteristic of a calling shows up elsewhere: for instance, "The ideal type of the capitalistic entrepreneur" is "distinguished by a certain ascetic tendency"; "He gets nothing out of his wealth for himself, except the irrational sense of having done his job well" (p.71).

Where does this "irrational sense" come from? Weber traces the concept of the calling back to Martin Luther (Ch.3), defining the calling as "a life-task, a definite field in which to work"—a concept, he says, that was foreign to both Catholic peoples and those of classical antiquity (p.79). In Protestantism, everyday activity took on a religious significance (p.80). For Luther, the monks' renunciation of worldly obligations seemed selfish; "In contrast, labor in a calling appears to him as the outward expression of brotherly love" (p.81).

Weber traces the history of the Protestant church forward to see how this concept of the calling led to the Protestant ethic. He fingers the doctrine of predestination as a key moment, since it imparted "a feeling of unprecedented inner loneliness of the single individual" (p.104). Priests, sacraments, the church, and even God could not help the individual (p.104). Hence the individual was torn away from his closed ties; everything, even social activity, was pursued solely for God's glory—and that included labor, conceived as "a calling which serves the mundane life of the community" (p.108). In the Calvinist reading,
The community of the elect with their God could only take place and be perceptible to them in that God worked (operatur) through them and that they were conscious of it. That is, their action originated from the faith caused by God's grace, and this faith in turn justified itself by the quality of that action. (p.113). 
To put it more colloquially, people wanted to be assured of whether they were the elect. They did not believe that their works would save them, but they did believe that works were the result and evidence of a saving faith. "Thus the Calvinist, as it is sometimes put, himself creates his own salvation, or, as would be more correct, the conviction of it. But this creation cannot, as in Catholicism, consist in a gradual accumulation of individual good works to one's credit, but rather in a systematic self-control which at every moment stands before the inexorable alternative, chosen or damned" (p.115).

So Calvinism demanded, "not single good works, but a life of good works combined into a unified system" (p.117). The average man's moral conduct couldn't be planless and unsystematic (p.117). This systematization developed through the Puritans, who saw God as sort of a shopkeeper who constantly took measures (p.124); then the Methodists; then the Baptists, whose anti-state and anti-aristrocacy leanings pushed them into economic occupations (p.150).

Other developments suited the Protestant ethic for capitalism. For instance, "the emphasis on the ascetic importance of a fixed calling provided an ethical justification of the modern specialized division of labor. In a similar way the providential interpretation of profit-making justified the activities of the business man" (p.163).

Weber concludes by lamenting,
The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter's view the care for external goods should only lie on the "saint like a light cloak which can be thrown aside at any moment." But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage. (p.181)
In all, a fascinating book. Don't wait as long as I did before reading it.