This is Chapter 5 of the web-publication, European Proponents of Sociology Prior To World War I. 
Copyright © 1993 Hans L Zetterberg. 
Swedish version available in  Sociologins följeslagare, (Ratio, Stockholm 1993).

Hans L Zetterberg 

Social differentiation and anomie: 

 Émile Durkheim



What characterizes our society more than anything else?  Industrialization, said Saint-Simon.  The class struggle, said Marx.  Rationalization, said Weber.  Organizations, said Michels.  Residues in the elite, said Pareto. The answer given by France's great sociologist, Émile Durkheim, was differentiation. He gave this answer for this first time in a book published in 1893, De la division du travail social (The Division of Labor in Society), but it recurs in various forms throughout his life's work.



Two predecessors: Maine and Tönnies


Durkheim was not the first person to point out the link between differentiation and modernization.  But he carried out an investigation of the connection that shows far greater originality and depth of thought than the work of his predecessors.


       The English lawyer Henry Summer Maine (1822-88) took up the subject when, in his book Ancient Law, he described the trend from a patriarchal social order based on status to a modern order based on contract.  In previous and simpler societies, a human being's experience and destiny were predetermined by the social position, given from outside, that came with one's birth and other events outside the individual's control.  Early Rome, like feudal Europe, tribal Africa and the India of the caste system, is an example of a society in which predetermined social position is the governing factor.  Social position, thus conferred, decides most of a human being's doings and relations, both religious and worldly: occupation, business connections, marriage partner, home, lifestyle, power and influence in society as a whole.  According to Sir Henry, society is modernized through an ever larger number of human activities and destinies being allowed to be determined by freely agreed contracts, rather than by predetermined social position.  In a developed society, individuals themselves can decide and negotiate on their admission to a religious assembly, a business connection, a marriage or a political association, and themselves choose their occupations or places of residence. Accordingly, modernization consists in the removal of restrictions determined by social position, and the opening of opportunities for contracts.  The Roman Empire and the French and American Revolutions were major steps forward in this process.


       In a similar spirit, the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies (1855-1936) formulated a renowned typology that is given in the title of his book Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft ("Community and Society", 1887).


       The period of community starts with social relations founded on family life and self-subsistent households.  With the emergence of farming and villages, a shift then takes place to more co-operative patterns determined by geographical proximity.  Then follows the emergence of large communities with religious groupings and guilds.  Nevertheless, values are still tied to loyalty to the family and guild, to the imperative struggle for the family's daily bread and winter stores.  Actions correspond to the inner nature of human beings (Wesenwille).


       The period of society in history starts when urban life emerges on the basis of trade and contractual relationships between employer and employee, supplier and customer, creditor and borrower.  Industrialization and the rational handling of capital and labor are accompanied by the growth of government and national identity.  Values linked to production, to the establishment of profitability and to efficiency then come to prevail. Actions are based on choices between the various external objectives of the world (Kürville).


       The cosmopolitan life towards which Tönnies thought society was developing was to be based on well-informed public opinion and governed by statesmen of documented wisdom.


       From Maine, Durkheim took the notion of using legislation as an indicator of social change.  Durkheim wrote an appreciative review of Tönnies' book, and started working on his own, since his background featured many inspiring ideas on how societies can be structured.



Durkheim's life


Émile Durkheim was born in a Jewish community in Lorraine in 1858: his father and paternal grandfather and great-grandfather were all rabbis.  His mother had a haberdasher's shop.  It was an environment that was to make Émile quick-witted, fond of words, hardworking, conscientious and ambitious, but also prone to guilt if he happened to enjoy himself more than usual.  He became a fairly unhappy and lonely poor student in Paris, and it was not until the third year he tried that he passed the entrance examination for the École Normale Supérieure.  Nevertheless, this gave him the opportunity of gaining a place in the French elite.


       The teachers were impressed by his maturity, his friends called him "the metaphysician" and his school friend Henri Bergson thought he was cut out for dealing with abstractions.  The young student himself preferred science to the humanities.  He was obliged to learn rigorous historical methodology from Fustel de Coulange and appreciated it; he ended up as a social rather than natural scientist.


       During his fifteen years as professor of education in Bordeaux, Durkheim formulated his theses on how society shapes and controls human thoughts, words and deeds.  This theses encountered resistance from the many representatives of French individualism, which was well developed.  Nevertheless, he believed entirely in the sacred inviolability of every Frenchman, but not for the usual religious or patriotic reasons.  His own motivation, in turn, encountered resistance from the representatives of the Church and nationalism; but Durkheim won this intellectual war on two fronts.  During the last decade of his life, he was gratified by the fact that his sociology (with the associated secularized moral teaching) was being taught in all the écoles superieures nationwide.



The overwhelming society


Émile Durkheim treats society with the utmost seriousness.  Humankind is entirely dependent on society.  He is concerned with human beings not as biological or psychological creatures, but as social ones.  Biology and psychology may be important but so, too, is sociology: without society, humankind cannot survive.  Human notions (répresentations collectives) are about this overwhelming society.


       There are notions of family relationships; there are economic, religious, moral and scientific notions; but basically, they are all notions about society.  They exist outside the individual human being and they affect human beings.  They are what Durkheim calls "social facts".  And on closer analysis they turn out to be, in combination, what we call "society".


       It is easy to accept Durkheim's thesis that society comprises such phenomena as legal and social norms, occupational codes, agreements on standardized measurements and times, and educational systems for teaching the young what society expects.  Resistance presented itself both in Durkheim himself and in his critics, when the thesis was expanded to apply also to religion, knowledge and ethics as well.  Later in his academic life, however, he was able to introduce these areas successfully into his theory as well.  It took place in the remarkable work Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse: le systčme totémique en Australie1, which contains far more than the title indicates.


1  Durkheim, 1912.

Division of labor


Adam Smith had shown that specialization in occupations makes society richer. Durkheim found other consequences of the division of labor: it makes us, paradoxically enough, at once more individualistic and more public-spirited.


       The division of labor is "the great innovation that distinguishes contemporary societies from the societies of the past".  The direction of development is from societies with a simple division of labor, in which people are expected to behave similarly, to societies with a complex division of labor in which they are expected to behave differently, all according to each one's specialization.



A society in which everyone faces absolutely equal expectations presumably does not exist.  There is always some differentiation between older and younger people, between men and women and between insiders and outsiders.  Nevertheless, clan and sect communities are generally organised around a homogeneity of norms, beliefs and feelings.  When a member of the community deviates from these, serious disturbances arise and there is a high probability of the deviant being rejected from the group, in extreme cases by exile or capital punishment.  In these communities, with the sect's and tribe's demands for uniformity and loyalty, what Durkheim calls "mechanical solidarity" prevails.  Here, the individual must fuse with the community: individualism is not permitted, and degrees of freedom are few.


       Differentiated communities, on the other hand, are bound together by "organic solidarity" ─ mutual dependence on its members' specialised functions.  Here, the individual need not merge into the society.  Nonetheless, for Émile Durkheim the individual in this kind of community, too, is in all essentials a product of society. Through their countless combinations, the various individual roles and life histories in the differentiated society create unique individuals with many degrees of freedom.  Thus, differentiation in these complex societies gives birth to a new kind of human being: "a personality of his own, with his own opinions, his own religion, his own lifestyle, and who draws a clear line between himself and society, between private problems and public concerns".


       In a society based on the members' dissimilarity, co-operation is essential.  Co-operation must also continue to flow when someone deviates from the pattern.  Order may be restored by the imposition of penalties on the deviants that allow them to continue in their co-operative role; such penalties may be fines or, possibly, brief more symbolic prison terms.  Here, organic solidarity prevails.  This is what characterises modern society.  Thus, one manifestation of development from mechanical to organic solidarity is the shift from criminal to civil legislation.


       The differentiation process is illustrated in Durkheim's works by examples from family life, the education system, business and industry, religion and, as we have seen, law.  He refers more seldom to specific historical courses of events.  He prefers to seek general explanations for social life, and not only historically conditioned links.



Theory of anomie


In a book on suicide, Le suicide: étude de sociologie2, Durkheim develops his theory of relations between human beings and society.  The book is like a set of Chinese boxes. The outermost box is an energetic review of the statistics on suicide that were available at the end of the nineteenth century.3  Previously, Quételet had been the originator of the role of statistics in the social sciences, but his analyses are now forgotten.  Durkheim carried out his review with such skill that it is still held up as an example of how statistical material may be analysed and interpreted for sociological purposes.4


       The second box in Durkheim's book on suicide is a theory of humankind in society. By studying the extreme cases in which individual choose, through a suicidal act, to make a definite break with society, he obtains a surprisingly clear illustration of his general theory of human beings' relation to society.  It is the outstanding insights into the relationship between individual and collective that have made Suicide a great book that no sociologist or social debater can disregard.


       The types of suicide analyzed are no other than types of relationship between individual and collective.  The reader who finds this box perceives that suicide is an illustration of the subject of the book, not the book itself.


       If an individual's actions and ideas are fully congruent with those characterizing his group, Durkheim refers to "altruism" a term that, accordingly, lacks the ordinary connotation of unselfishness and, rather, means extreme conformism.  If the individual's actions and ideas are entirely unlike those of his group, Durkheim the researcher talks of "egoism", again outside the ordinary meaning of selfishness and denoting here extreme individualism.  "Altruism" and "egoism" are the limits of an important scale that Durkheim uses to classify humankind's relation to society.  It is a matter of staying


2  Durkheim, 1897.

3  There are, of course, more recent and better sources of suicide statistics than those available to Durkheim. For an overview, see Gibbs 1962, pp. 222-261.

4  See the standard work, Hyman 1955.

within a broad middle region: being pushed towards the poles is clearly problematical for both the individual and society.  And being compelled to be completely different from, or exactly the same as, others subverts society and destroys the individual.


       Within the broad intermediate category between "altruism" and "egoism", too, relations between humankind and society are problematical.  They may be normal or what he terms "anomie".  The theory of anomie is Émile Durkheim's most original contribution to sociology.


       Durkheim first finds that suicides become more common at times of financial crisis and recession, and that they are more frequent among widows and widowers.  The explanation of the latter is simple enough: a person is deprived of the rewards and the support he has become accustomed to, and becomes so unhappy that he annihilates himself.  But Durkheim now also finds that suicides increase when there is a strong economic upturn and many people suddenly become richer; and that they rise among divorcé(e)s that is, among people who after a great deal of suffering finally succeed in escaping from unhappy marriages.  It is this paradox that leads Durkheim to his theory of anomie.


       We eat and become sated: a purely biological process means that we no longer feel hungry.  (We may recall  in Adam Smith, the springboard for his idea that everything over and above saturation point may be distributed relatively equally by an invisible hand.)  But human social needs are different, thinks Durkheim.  Our needs of happiness, social rewards or, for example, status have no natural saturation point.  This point is therefore determined not by our biological nature but by society. Our fellow human beings can thwart or encourage ambition; they may tell us not to get above our station, or exhort us to seek the good life.


       Events outside our control and that of our social leaders thus affect our level of claims, since when things go better for us our aspirations rise, and when we do badly we lower our demands.  Our rate of adjustment depends largely on how rapidly things get better or worse.  But our claims may vary faster than our resources for satisfying them, and vice versa.  Whenever our claims exceed our actual rewards, we are dissatisfied.


       Society's control over the saturation points in the prevailing reward system may be shaken by two kinds of crisis.  One, which Durkheim calls the "crisis of poverty": this consists of a sudden loss of resources.  The other is the "crisis of wealth" and amounts to an inflation in claims.  Both result in discontent and dissatisfaction in extreme cases to suicide, of the type he calls "anomic".  But here again he seeks to elucidate not suicide but the relation between humankind and society.  In the "normal" situation, society's rewards accrue to the individual within an ingrained range that changes only gradually: society keeps its promises.


       In the "anomic" situation, there is a discrepancy between the ambitions fostered by society and the resources for fulfilling them: one does not get what one has been promised.  The form of anomie characterizing the crisis of wealth is the most interesting. In times of success, our resources have increased, but our expectations have risen still more.  Here, the paradox lies wide open: the Swedish worker, for example, has never had it so good, and yet is disappointed; the immigrant has never had it so good, and yet feels bitter about the society he has newly joined; the developing countries are perhaps neither better nor worse off than before the second world war, but their situation is perceived as more intolerable than ever, to take but a few examples.  This, as well as the unhappiness of the newly rich and newly divorced, is explained by Durkheim's theory.



The third box in his book contains advice to society's leaders.  He argues for measures that reduce the risk of anomie.  The value of recommendations such as more stringent regulations on divorce and strengthened corporations is debatable.  But transcending all discussion is the message of sociology on what the nature of social norms should be in order to prevent extreme "egoism", extreme "altruism" and, above all, to control anomie, especially when there is galloping inflation of expectations at times of material affluence.


       Society may well be extremely differentiated and open to all kinds of different life patterns under the umbrella of organic solidarity.  But this also means that a radical, anarchic worship of freedom ultimately must not be the sole victor, but must be balanced by a guarantee of organic solidarity, for example some form of conservatism or socialism. Otherwise, the existence of society is threatened and so, by the same token, is the survival of humankind.


The innermost box holds a message about Durkheim himself, a secularized intellectual from a family of rabbis.  It is a message about the temptation to being sufficient unto oneself (French individualism); about the temptation of identifying oneself entirely with a group (French nationalism); and about the temptation of not setting limits to one's ambition at times of success, of turning a deaf ear at the moment of triumph to the slave's words, "Remember that you are mortal".  Émile Durkheim fell for at least two of these temptations.  In his heyday he was a high-handed professor whose criticism of students was merciless.  He was also an arrogant protagonist in by far the biggest contemporary miscarriage of justice: with his worldly, rational morality that was intensely distrusted by the Church and the Establishment, when he worked to secure justice for Dreyfus.  But when the first world war broke out, he served the French war-propaganda machine without turning a hair, devoting himself entirely to the nation's cause.


       Leaving his professorship in education at Bordeaux, Durkheim became Europe's first professor of sociology, at the Sorbonne in Paris.  His inauguration took place in 1902. His ideas soon dominated the whole of French sociology, at least up until the first world war.  Since then, they have won recognition wherever sociology and cultural anthropology are practiced.  Durkheim has been given the honorary title of "the sociologist of sociologists".  He died in 1917.



When I began reading sociology at Uppsala in 1948, the year after Torgny Segerstedt had left his professorship in philosophy and been given the first Swedish professorship of sociology, my first impression was that sociology was an easy subject with a trivial body of knowledge.  But a book by Durkheim was on the reading list for the second term's course.  After I had worked my way through it, I realized that the subject of sociology was anything but trivial.  Indeed, it was a worthy object of my main efforts thenceforward.


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