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  • Mayank Sehrawat


Mayank Sehrawat,

O.P. Jindal Global University

Emile Durkheim was a French Sociologist who considered sociology to be a new science that could answer traditional philosophical questions by examination on an empirical basis. He is remembered for his first principle of sociology (‘Study social facts as things’) and a major work ‘The Division of Labour in Society’.[i] He wanted to examine social facts as independent beings outside the perceptions of individuals. One point on which we can wholeheartedly agree with Durkheim is how social facts constrain us without looking as coercive in reality. Like the societal notion that girls are not supposed to party late, this thinking has been so deeply imbibed into the society today that it is taken as a normal course of action. But in reality, these facts constrain my timings and freedom. Durkheim also forwarded the concept of anomie, which will be elaborated further. 

Anomie was a concept introduced by Emile Durkheim to decipher the feelings of individuals in the constantly changing world. The ever-changing world has disrupted our age-old values and traditional morals making us feel aimless and lonely. This phenomenon was called ‘anomie’ by Durkheim. It right to assume that these feelings are more like a man drifting in the ocean in despair and no clue of what’s happening and how did it happen.

The condition of anomie was preceded by a lack of social norms in the society.[ii] Rapid changes gave rise to major social difficulties which had in turn disrupted our traditional beliefs and patterns. The older values substantiated by religion were broken down by modern social developments, leaving many human beings in dread and despair. The main issue was that even while changing older systems there was no clarity on the new values that would take over. The term was used to explain the emotions of despair and vagueness that individuals felt while losing their hold on their established norms. The social conditions of anomie render people “normless”, a situation where people are left clinging to their old beliefs which seem to be fast fading.[iii] There remains no fixed point of reference for people to refer and understand the direction and aim of their lives.

Durkheim further explained this concept of anomie and how it came about with an even greater force with specialization of labour.[iv] The anomic society did not bind individuals within established social constraints and refrained from guiding them on how to act or behave. Despite being considered a source of cohesion, the division of labour could not be the binding thread of society that common beliefs and morality were. Specialization of society had made individuals more isolated and denied them of opportunities to develop a common bond with other individuals. In crisis times the feelings of anomie increased further.

The 21st century also known as the era of technology often leaves non tech savvy people lonely and in despair as they are not able to grasp what all is going on and where is this all going on. Online banking services or cashless shops leave most senior citizens who are not updated on these developments in a predicament. They find money, the established mode of transactions for them being upturned by cards and QR codes. Not being able to keep pace with this rapidly technologically advancing world, they feel anomic feelings of dread and despair.

Emily Durkheim was not a critique of capitalism but was more concerned with the selfish notions it produced and the formation of an alienated society that it created. However, unlike Marx, Durkheim did not see socialism as the solution to capitalism.

Capitalism inevitably leads to specialization and division of labour, which generated feelings of alienation. Societies before industrialization were held together by collective consciousness and common beliefs, which Durkheim classified as mechanical solidarity. This society is believed to have had strong ties of kinship and shared values which provided them a common threshold to connect to. The post-industrialization society has specialized labour to the extent of there being no common social or economic to adhere. This capitalistic society was not bound by common consciousness and mechanical solidarity seemed to be replaced by organic solidarity. The new capitalist society has individuals performing different tasks and differing values to coexist together. Organic Solidarity was what Durkheim dubbed the new capitalistic society that capitalism would have bought about. Durkheim’s views to a large extent are valid. Today we as individuals are quite concerned about the choices we make and regard them as our own decisions, however, there are new values and beliefs that have come up to bind us again. The take of Durkheim that the society would lose its binding thread in a capitalistic world is not completely right. As the pandemic has rightly portrayed that despite being different and far, our everyday fears and feelings of loneliness, respect for those who are fighting Covid-19 have kept us together. It often another side of academic writing that feels that Durkheim was wrong in thinking that individual differences would succeed man’s desire for company and society.

Emily Durkheim was not critical of this attitude inspired by capitalism as its inculcated feelings of dependence among other members of the society. This belief is demonstrated in the current day world; the post-capitalism society has compelled us to cooperate because we are unable to exist on our own. Daily examples might be how a housewife depends on the vegetable vendor for her supply of vegetables, at the same time the vendor depends for his income on the housewife. From the perspective of a reader, Durkheim had ignored the harsh realities of capitalism like exploitation and profit greed, which might have made his points a little difficult to be substantiated. 

Durkheim however was critical of abolishing the division of labour, he considered it another novel and effective source of solidarity. He thought going back to a primitive form of society again would be a temporary escape from reality rather than a permanent change. He did not regard private property as an inherent evil but condemned any sort of discord and inequality of industrial society. Durkheim was more concerned with the psychological impact of capitalism rather than its economic impact. He was sceptical of the huge gap between individuals and society, the peak at which capitalism would take individualism. Durkheim also stated that while capitalism had opened up infinite choices for human beings but it had also broadened the scope of failures. Indeed, the present-day world has plenty of space for failure and success both. If we have books on successful people, we have plenty of examples of those who have failed.

Navigating the complicated interplay between Durkheim's sociological ideas and the reality of current society reveals that, while immensely revealing, his discoveries require a sophisticated appraisal in the context of the twenty-first century. Durkheim's focus on the influence of capitalism, the growth of communal solidarity, and the consequences of anomie has definitely shed light on long-lasting societal dynamics. While admitting capitalism's disruptive character and its tendency to undermine traditional links, it is critical to recognise societal connections' resilience in the face of fast change. Durkheim's fears about the loss of common consciousness may not completely capture human societies' endurance and adaptability, as seen by recent worldwide pandemics. While the observation that capitalism creates individual dependence is correct, it coexists with a more complex narrative that includes not just dependency but also interdependence. The complicated network of mutual reliance witnessed in numerous aspects of everyday life highlights a type of solidarity that Durkheim, who was preoccupied with the emergence of individualism, may not have completely anticipated. Furthermore, while Durkheim's emphasis on the psychological influence of capitalism is still relevant, the economic components, notably concerns of exploitation and inequality, require greater examination. Recognising capitalism's proclivity for both success and failure, the modern landscape is a complicated tapestry in which individual autonomy and society relationships intertwine.

As a result, Durkheim's discoveries, while essential, urge ongoing revaluation and augmentation in light of modern society's varied reality. The debate he started on anomie, division of labour, and societal solidarity serves as a guidepost for our understanding of the complicated dance between individual autonomy and community cohesiveness in an ever-changing environment. Finally, while Durkheim's ideas provide vital lenses for comprehending societal processes, they serve as a platform rather than a final conclusion for studying the complexities of contemporary social life and capitalism's varied influence on the human experience.

[i] 6th Edition, Anthony Giddens, Sociology, 14 (Polity Press 2009).

[ii] 6th Edition, Anthony Giddens, Sociology, Glossary (Polity Press 2009).

[iii] 6th Edition, Anthony Giddens, Sociology, 17 (Polity Press 2009).

[iv] 8th Edition, George Ritzer, Sociological Theory, 90 (Mc Graw Hill 2011).

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