Friday, July 8, 2011

4. Sociological Thinkers I

(b) Emile Durkheim- Division of labour, social fact, suicide, religion and society.

Division of labour

‘Division of labour’ we mean the splitting up of an activity into a number of parts or smaller processes. These smaller processes are undertaken by different persons or groups of persons, thereby speeding up the performance of the activity. Let us take an example. You want to make a shirt. It will take you quite some time to do the entire job yourself. If, however, some friends decide to join you, the job can be simplified. One person may do the cutting, another may do the machine-stitching, a third may do the finishing stitches by hand. This will save you a great deal of time and energy. You and your friends can probably make many more shirts in the same time it would take you alone to make a single shirt. You

have divided labour and hence saved time and increased productivity. Division of labour implies specialisation, (i.e., each person becoming an expert in his or her task) saving time and saving costs and at the same time increasing productivity.

Functions of Division of Labour

Durkheim classifies human societies into

i) those based on ‘mechanical solidarity’ and

ii) those based on ‘organic solidarity’

Mechanical Solidarity refers to a solidarity of resemblance or likeness. There exists a great deal of homogeneity and tightly-knit social bonds which serve to make the individual members one with their society. The collective conscience is extremely strong.

is viewed very seriously.

By collective conscience we mean the system of beliefs and sentiments held in common by members of a society which defines what their mutual relations ought to be. The strength of the collective conscience integrates such societies, binding together individual members through strong beliefs and values. Violation of or deviation from these values

Organic Solidarity - Durkheim means a solidarity based on difference and complementarity of differences. Take factory, for example. There is a great deal of difference in the work, social status, income, etc. Of a worker and a manager. Yet, the two complement each other. Being a

manager is meaningless without the cooperation of workers and workers need to be organised by managers. Thus they are vital for each other’s survival.

Does this mean that modern society has nothing to integrate it? Division of labour, says Durkheim, is the process that will help keep society integrated. How? Well, as we have already seen, division of labour implies working together at certain tasks, in other words, it implies cooperation. As work becomes more and more divided, two consequences can be seen. On the one hand, each individual becomes specialised in his field. He can

exercise his initiative and creativity in his special field. On the other hand, each individual grows to depend more intimately on society. Cooperation and complementarity are the watchwords of such a society. The kind of solidarity produced, namely organic solidarity, is of a higher order than mechanical solidarity. It allows individuals to exercise their freedom and initiative even while binding them to each other and to society. Thus, the process, which helps the growth of both, individualism and social integration, is division of labour

Causes of Division of Labour

The growth in material and moral density results in a struggle for existence. If, as in societies characterised by mechanical solidarity, individuals tend to be very similar, doing the same things, they would also struggle or compete for the same resources and rewards. Growth of population and shrinking of natural resources would make competition more bitter. But

division of labour ensures that individuals specialise in different fields and areas.

Abnormal Forms of Division of Labour

1) Anomie

This term means a state of normlessness. Material life changes rapidly, but rules norms and values do not keep pace with it. There seems to be a total breakdown of rules and norms. In the work sphere, this reflects in conflicts between labour and management, degrading and

meaningless work and growing class conflict.

2) Inequality

Division of labour based on inequality of opportunity, according to Durkheim, fails to produce long-lasting solidarity. Such an abnormal form results in individuals becoming frustrated and unhappy with their society. Thus tensions, rivalries and antagonism result. One may cite the Indian caste system as an example of division of labour based on

inequality. People have to do certain kinds of work not because of their capacity but because of their birth. This can be very frustrating to those who want to do more satisfying or rewarding jobs, but cannot have access to proper opportunities.

3) Inadequate organisation

In this abnormal form the very purpose of division of labour is destroyed. Work is not well organised and coordinated. Workers are often engaged in doing meaningless tasks. There is no unity of action. Thus solidarity breaks down and disorder results. You may have

observed that in many offices, a lot of people are sitting around idly doing little or nothing. Many are unaware of their responsibilities. Collective action becomes difficult when most people are not very sure of what they have to do.


1) Social division of labour: This exists in all societies. It is a process that is bound to exist in order that members of a society may successfully undertake the tasks that are necessary to maintain social and economic life. It is a complex system of dividing all the useful forms of labour in a society. For instance, some individuals produce food, some produce handicrafts, weapons and so on. Social division of labour promotes the process of exchange of goods between groups, e.g., the earthenware pots produced by a potter may be exchanged for

a farmer’s rice or a weaver’s cloth.

2) Division of labour in industry or manufacture: This is a process, which is prevalent in industrial societies where capitalism and the factory system exist. In this process, manufacture of a commodity is broken into a number of processes. Each worker is limited to

performing or engaging in a small process like work in an assembly line This is usually boring, monotonous and repetitive work. The purpose of this division of labour is simple; it is to increase productivity. The greater the productivity the greater the surplus value generated. It is generation of surplus value that motivates capitalists to organise manufacture in a manner that maximises output and minimises costs. It is division of labour, which makes mass production of goods possible in modern, industrial societies. Unlike social division of labour where independent producers create products and exchange them with other independent producers, division of labour in manufacture completely divorces the worker from his product.

The existence of division of labour in manufacture has the following implications, namely,

1) Profits accrue to the capitalist.

2) Workers lose control over what they produce.

3) Dehumanisation of the working class takes place.

4) Alienation takes place at all levels.

In order to handle these problems, Marx preaches the ‘revolution of the proletariat’, which will do away with private property and transfer the ownership of the means of production in the hands of the workers. This will result in the production process being designed and operated by the workers themselves, enabling workers to give scope to their creativity, and

excell at a variety of tasks. They will not be forced into a boring exploitative routine.


Causes of Division of Labour

Durkheim says the causes of division of labour lie in the fact that individuals need to cooperate and do a variety of tasks in order that industrial society may survive. According to Marx, division of labour is imposed on workers so that the capitalists may benefit. Durkheim stresses cooperation, whilst Marx stresses exploitation and conflict.

Consequences of Division of Labour

Durkheim sees division of labour as a process that can be the basis of integration. Marx sees it as a process bringing about dehumanisation and alienation, separating the creators from their creation. The workers become slaves of the system of which they should have been

the masters.

Solutions to the Problems Related to Division of Labour

Durkheim sees society as a system held together by the integrative contributions of its various institutions. Marx sees history as a series of struggles between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. This leads to conflict and change. This is the main difference in their approaches.

Social facts

Durkhiem defines Social fact is that way of acting, thinking or feeling etc., which is more or less general in a given society. Durkheim treated social facts as things. They are real and exist independent of the individual’s will or desire. They are external to individuals and are capable of exerting constraint upon them. In other words they are coercive in nature.

Legal codes and customs, moral rules, religious beliefs and practices, language etc. are all social facts.

Types of Social Facts

Structural or morphological social facts

In this category of social facts are included the distribution of population over the surface of the territory, the forms of dwellings, nature of communication system etc.

Secondly, there are institutionalised forms of social facts.

They are more or less general and widely spread in society. They represent the collective

nature of the society as a whole. Under this category fall legal and moral rules, religious dogma and established beliefs and practices prevalent in a society.

Thirdly, there are social facts, which are not institutionalised.

Such social facts have not yet acquired crystallised forms. They lie beyond the institutionalised norms of society. Also this category of social facts have not attained a total objective and independent existence comparable to the institutionalised ones. Also their externality to and ascendancy over and above individuals is not yet complete. These social facts have been termed as social currents. For example, sporadic currents of opinion generated in specific situations; enthusiasm generated in a crowd; transitory outbreaks in an assembly of people; sense of indignity or pity aroused by specific incidents, etc.

Normal and Pathological social facts

A social fact is normal when it is generally encountered in a society of a certain type at a certain phase in its evolution. Every deviation from this standard is a pathological fact. For example, some degree of crime is inevitable in any society. Hence according to Durkheim crime to that extent is a normal fact. However, an extraordinary increase in the rate of crime is pathological. A general weakening in the moral condemnation of crime and certain type of economic crisis leading to anarchy in society are other examples of pathological facts.

Main Characteristics of Social Facts

The main characteristics of social facts are (i) externality, (ii) constraint, (iii) independence, and (iv) generality.


Social facts, according to Durkheim, exist outside individual consciences. Their existence is external to the individuals. An individual takes birth in a society and leaves it after birth death, however social facts are already given in society and remain in existence irrespective of birth or death of an individual. For example language continues to function independently of any single individual.


The other characteristic of social fact is that it exercises a constraint on individuals. Social fact is recognized because it forces itself on the individual. For example, the institutions of law, education, beliefs etc. Are already given to everyone from without.

General and Independant

A social fact is that which has more or less a general occurrence in a society. Also it is independent of the personal features of individuals or universal attributes of human nature. Examples are the beliefs, feelings and practices of the group taken collectively.


One of the classical sociological studies to explore the relationship between the individual and society is Emile Durkhiem,s analysis of suicide. Durkhiem study showed that even a highly personal act like suicide is influenced by the social world.

According to Durkheim, however, suicide was a social fact that could only be explained by other social facts. Suicide was more than simply the aggregate of individual acts- it was a phenomena that bore patterned properties.

In examining official suicide records in france, Durkheim found that certain category of people were more likely to commit suicide than others, he discovered for example that there were more suicides among men than women, among protestants as opposed to catholics, among single over married couple. Durkheim also noted that suicide rates tended to be lower during tomes of war and higher during times of economic change and instability.

According to Durkhiem there are four type of suicides.

Egoistic Suicides

Egoistic suicides are marked by low integration in society and occur when an individual is isolated, or when his or her ties to a group are weakened or broken.

Anomic Suicides

Anomic suicide is caused by a lack social regulation. By this Durkhiem referred to the social conditions of anomie when people are rendered ‘normless’ due to rapid change and instability in society. The loss of a fixed point of reference for norms and desires – such as times of economic upheaval or in personal struggles like divorce can upset the balance between people’s and circumstances and their desires.

Altiruistic Suicide occurs when an individual is `over-integrated ‘- social bonds are too strong and values society more than himself or herself. In such cases suicide becomes a sacrifice for the `greater good’, Japanese kamikaze pilots or Islamic suicide bombers are the example of Altruistic suicides. Durkhiem saw these as characteristics of traditional societies where mechanical solidarity prevails.

The final type of suicide is fatalistic suicide Although Durkhiem saw this as of little contemporary relevance, he believed that its result when an individual is over regulated by society. The oppression of the individual results in a feeling of powerlessness before fate or society.

Suicide rates vary between societies but show regular pattern within societies over time. Durkhiem took this as evidence that there are consistent social forces that influence suicide rates reveals how general social patterns can be detected with in individual actions.

Religion and Society

Durkhiem points out that religion is as concerned with the ordinary as the extraordinary aspects of life. The rising and setting of the sun, the regular patterns of the seasons, the growth of plants and crops, the birth of new life are as much as a part of religious ideas as miracles and spectacular happenings. To define religion, he says, the various religious systems of the world must be examined in order to derive those elements, or characteristics, which they have in common. As Durkheim (1912: 38) puts it, “religion cannot be defined except by the characters which are found wherever religion itself is found”.

According to Durkheim, all religions comprise two basic components, namely, beliefs and rites. Beliefs are the collective representations1 Durkheim presuppose the classification of all things into ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’. There is an opposition between these two spheres which has to be carefully regulated through rites and ceremonies. The sacred is that which is set apart, considered holy and venerated or dreaded and avoided. The sacred is usually in a higher position, valued more than profane things, and its identity and power are protected by social rules. The profane, on the other hand, refers to the mundane, ordinary aspects of day-to-day existence. The sacred and profane are kept apart, says Durkheim, because they are heterogeneous (different), antagonistic (in conflict) and isolated (separated). Rites therefore exist to mediate between the two worlds. Let us take an example. Why are believers not allowed to wear their shoes inside a temple? Wearing shoes or chappals for walking is a routine, practical or profane act. The temple is considered a holy, pure place; it is sacred. The floor of the temple must therefore be protected from the polluting dirt of our shoes. The sacred and profane are kept apart.

Beliefs and rites, says Durkheim, unite to form religion. Beliefs are the moral ideas, the rules, the teachings and myths. They are the collective representations which exist outside of the individual, yet integrate the individual into the religious system. Through beliefs, human beings understand the sacred and their relationship to it. They can lead their lives accordingly.

Rites are the rules of conduct that follow from beliefs, which prescribe how human beings must behave With regard to sacred things. They can be positive, where the sacred is sought to be brought closer to the world of men, for example, through ‘havan’ or sacrifice. Rites can be negative, which means the sacred and profane are sought to be kept apart, e.g. purification rites, fasts, penance or suffering. In Durkheim’s view rites serve to sustain the intensity of religious-beliefs. They bring individuals together, strengthening their social natures. They are modes of expression of the collective conscience, which, as you have studied, refers to the commonly held values, beliefs and ideas of the community

Defining religion in terms of beliefs and rites poses one problem. This definition would also include magic. Is there no difference between magic and religion? Following the ideas of the anthropologist Robertson-Smith, Durkheim holds that magic and religion are indeed different. Magic is a private, selfish practice, performed at the individual level. For example, if one wants to do better than one’s neighbour, so one goes to the magician and by paying his/her fee, one asks him to cast a spell or perform ‘jadoo tona’ to kill your neighbour’s cows or spoil his crops. Magic thus involves a bond only between the magician and his clients based on a selfish motive, in order to manipulate nature to suit individual purposes. Religion, on the other hand, is public and social. There are social bonds between followers,

which unite them into a group leading a common life. Durkheim’s (1912: 62) definition of religion taking into account these factors is as follows.

“A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden — beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.”

(It must be clarified that by the term ‘Church’, Durkheim does not refer to the Christian Church alone. He uses it in the sense of a moral community or an organised group of followers of all faiths.)

Durkheim’s Study of Totemism

Durkheim maintains that totemism is the most simple form of religion. He chose to study totemism as practised by the aborigines of Central Australia. Ethnographic information on these groups was available in plenty. Their social organisation was the simplest known to sociologists and anthropologists. Totemism is linked with the social organisation of clans.

The members of the clan believe themselves to have descended from some common ancestor — an animal, a plant or even some non-living object. The “common ancestor” is the “totemic object”. It is the totemic object that gives the clan its name and identity. But it is more than just a name, it is an emblem. It is often carved, engraved or designed on other objects belonging to the clan, even on the bodies of the clan members. This makes otherwise ordinary or common objects special. They are endowed with sacredness. Many taboos or ‘don’ts’ are attached to the totemic object. It cannot be killed or eaten, it must be treated with reverence. All things arranged in the clan are connected with and extensions of the totemic object. The clan members may not be related by blood, but they have a common name, a common emblem. Clan exogamy is thus an important rule.

Religion and social organisation are thus intimately connected in such simple societies.

The totemic object and all that is concerned with it is considered sacred. Why? Durkheim maintains that it is not actually the animal or plant itself that is worshipped or held sacred, but a nameless and impersonal force which exists throughout the world and is diffused amongst all the material objects of the world. This force is described by various names “mana” by the Samoans, “wakan” by the Melanesians, “orenda” by some North

American tribes. The totemic object is merely a symbol of the ‘totemic principle’ which is nothing but the clan itself. The clan is given a reality of its own. It is personalised and represented through the totemic object. In Durkheim’s view, ‘god’ is nothing but society apotheosised or glorified and given a different shape and form. Why is society worshipped?

Durkheim says that it is physically and morally superior to individuals. It is ‘sui-generis’, with a reality of its own. Its power is feared, its authority is respected. When a soldier gives up his life to defend the flag of the country, he is not worshipping the flag itself, but what the flag stands for, namely, the nation.

Society exists in and through individual conscience. It demands our sacrifices, it strengthens and elevates the divine or sacred within each one of us. This is particularly evident during important religious ceremonies and festivals, which require the participation of the whole clan. Rituals such as festivals help to produce “collective effervescence” or a feeling of collective enthusiasm and involvement which strengthens social bonds and promotes social solidarity.

Briefly, members of a clan venerate a certain totemic object from which they claim descent. This object gives them their identity. But according to Durkheim, it is not the object itself that is being worshipped, but the clan itself. Religion is nothing but giving society itself a divine form because it stands outside of individuals, exerting physical and moral constraints on them. Worshipping society produces in its members a feeling of oneness, solidarity and enthusiasm, helping them to participate in the collective life and expressions of the society.

Religion and Science

Durkheim maintains that scientific thought has its origins in religious thought. Both religion and science reflect on nature, human beings and society. Both attempt to classify things, relate them to one another and explain them. Scientific thought is a more developed and refined form of religious thought. The terms used in modern science like force and power

have a religious origin.

Durkheim writes that religious thought will ultimately give way to the advance of scientific thought. He points out that social sciences are in fact undertaking a scientific study of religion itself! Both religious and scientific thought contribute to the collective representations of society. There cannot be any conflict between the two because both are directed towards seeking universal principles. Thus the goal of both systems of thought is to help human beings rise above the limitations of private, individual nature and lead a life which is both, individual and social. Individuals need society in order to be truly human,

and religion and science both contribute to unifying individuals with society.

1.Collective representations Durkheim uses this term to denote the ideas, thoughts and concepts of a group which result from shared perceptions, e.g., ideas of

beauty, truth, right, wrong etc.


  1. very nicely compiled !! Thank You somuch !!

  2. Very nicely compiled !! Thank you somuch !!

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  4. Tusharanshu's notes are available , just a small gist of overal topic

  5. Thank you for your effort.....

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