Sociology 101: When Marx Met Durkheim

Every introduction to sociology course is taught the same. You’ve got three theories: Symbolic Interactionism, Conflict Theory, and Structural Functionalism. Each of them embodies a hero of sociology, Max Weber, Karl Marx, and Emile Durkheim respectively. We’re taught that these theories are intrinsically irreconcilable, yet the further you delve down the sociology rabbit hole, the further you realize how stupid a way to teach sociology this is. First symbolic interactionism is American (created by Europeans trying to apply Weber to the US), conflict theory is also American (started in the 1970s trying to bring Marx back into criminology), with Structural Functionalism being the only field which one of these authors created (You go, Durkheim!). Yet even the premise of having three heroes and thereby three historical movements of American sociology is problematic. Rather than being stuck in some universal ethereal world, whereby one idea must therefore encompass all of society, theories can blend and form. This is how Durkheim met Marx.

The two heroes of sociology Durkheim and Marx never really met, but Durkheim had in fact read Marx, and even studied in Germany (at the time it was cool to send your kids to Germany to learn, as it was the philosophical hub). Durkheim in a way popularized and founded the field of sociology and set down some of the rules it would operate under. In his major work Suicide Durkheim posited that suicide while a personal choice was grounded in larger societal forces than just feeling negative emotions, and he devised four different types of suicide based on the level of societal integration, and societal regulation the individual had. Being poor for example was not a sufficient requirement for high levels of suicide, in fact those in countries that were poor but had strong social bonds faced less suicide than those in industrial countries.

Durkheim leaning on his cane because that's what society told him to do.

Durkheim leaning on his cane because that’s what society told him to do.

Two of the types of suicide, were formed as opposites (and we’ll only focus on these two), anomie, and fatalism. Anomie for Durkheim is what occurs when societal regulation is too low. There basically aren’t rules to guide people down the straight and narrow social pathways, like what job to pursue, how to talk to the person in the bookstore you’re really attracted to, basically, no one can prescribe your life to you. It’s also what happens when the rules of society change. “You mean men aren’t the breadwinners anymore? But my entire life was situated around getting a job at Ford and paying for my family, ahhh… anomie!” It’s what Sartre called the nausea of choice, it’s when the system allows you to realize your radical freedom, and your capacity for anything, but there are too many choices available. How do you choose?!

You know who's not alienated? Karl Marx and his beard. That's the freest beard I've ever seen.

You know who’s not alienated? Karl Marx and his beard. That’s the freest beard I’ve ever seen.

Fatalism was the one concept that Durkheim never really developed because he didn’t think it was possible. How could a society be overly regulated? Queue in hero number two, Karl Marx (our great fearless communist leader). Marx saw that workers were getting a shitty deal in the beginning of booming industrialism. Rather than having the existential capacity to actualize their choices, they were creating things they didn’t really want or like, and selling their creative capacities to other people, thereby estranging themselves from themselves, and thereby from society. For Marx, the worker experiences fatalism. They are free in a sense to choose their labour, but it’s not really freedom when there’s only the one job available, and it’s making hats, you didn’t design. Maybe you would have made some rocking new hats if you had been given the option, but you weren’t, and now these hats have your blood sweat and tears imbued in them (gross), but none of your creative capacities.

Why am I ranting at you about Marx and Durkheim? I read an interesting article today about the problem with “Positive Attitude” Bullshit: On the dangers of ‘radical self-love’“. The TL;DR is that radical self-love doesn’t deal with the systemic problems that face people, in fact it tells them that if they just smile through, even suffering can be fun (but seriously read the article)! Yet here we are with a classic case of alienation and anomie. We live in a time where religion doesn’t hold the same strength for providing us with our social regulation, but at the same time there are tonnes of people who still live in a world where their actions are heavily mediated by systems out of their control. There is no balance, and some of us are way to aware of the multitude of options available (“you can do whatever you want”), where there is a need for rules to get us out of the malaise of late modernity, through “radical self-love”, and others are told to chipper up and smile, because they’re free to do whatever they want, even though their lived experience is an embodiment of the contrary. Anomie is not necessarily just something felt by the rich and astute, nor is alienation only felt by blue collar workers. Anomie in our society will be more prevalent as the world continues to change, with arguments like self-love, filling in the gaps, trying to provide meaning when it seems to be slowly shifting away from us.

Again, there is no one way to experience disconnection with the world, society never seems to offer a great route for anyone.


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