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Social change of Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 2645 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In this short essay I will be introducing the various approaches to social change as described by Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim. This will comprise of a brief introduction of their lives and familiarize you with a few of their major works. Next I will attempt to compare and contrast Marx’s and Durkheim’s theories regarding the structure of modern society. Followed by several criticisms of both theorists, and ending with a small conclusion to this essay.

Emile Durkheim 1858 – 1917

Durkheim was born in the eastern French province of Lorraine. He is considered the ‘Father’ of modern sociology. He was educated in France and Germany, and taught social science at the University of Bordeaux (the first offered in a French University) and the famous French University the Sorbonne. Durkheim believed that the collective conscience of society was the source of religion and morality and that the most basic values developed in society, especially in primitive societies, are the strong bonds of social order. In more involved societies, he suggests, the division of labour makes for adhesion, but the loss of values leads to social instability and distraction of the people. Durkheim studied suicide to find the importance of anomie, the loss of morale that accompanies decline in an individuals identity. To give reason to his theories, he relied extensively on anthropological and statistical materials. His important works include: The Division of Labor in Society, (1893), The Rules of Sociological Method (1895), Suicide (1897), and The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912).

Karl Marx 1818 – 1883

Marx was born in Trier, Prussia. And is one of the founders of economic history and sociology. Marx achieved his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Berlin. Karl Marx studied philosophy and law, and was influenced by the works of Hegel. Marx rejected Hegel’s idealism and developed his own materialistic theory of history as science, essentially predicting that the accomplishment of the working class was inevitable. With his associate Engels, Marx published the Manifesto of the Communist Party in (Marx & Engels 1848). Exiled from Europe, Marx moved to London, England and sustained a meagre living through contributions to various newspapers. Although Marx could see the importance of communism would have within society, he had little time in portraying what the future would hold if in fact communism came into being. Marx devoted the last years of his life to working the three volumes of Das Kapital, (Marx 1867, 1885, 1894)

Even though Marx and Durkheim differ towards their view of what the essential elements of modern society are, they were both concerned with the emergence of modern society and capitalism, particularly the rise of the division of labour combined with the beginning of modern society.

Karl Marx’s view of modern society.

Marx was especially concerned with how people relate to the most fundamental resource of all, their own power of labour and the problems of alienation. Marx theorised that the possibility of giving up ownership of their own labour and also their own beliefs and ideas no longer transformed them and therefore are alienated from their own true nature, which in turn causes conflict between the ruling and the working classes. For Marx the division of labour and class t brought about social stratification, which developed a form of alienation. These for Marx were the crucial elements of modern society. Marx (cited in Giddens, A & held, D) said:

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“He does not fulfil himself in his work but denies himself, has a feeling of misery rather than well-being, does not develop freely his mental and physical energies but is physically exhausted and mentally debased. The worker, therefore, feels himself at home only during his leisure time, whereas at work he feels homeless. His work is not voluntary but imposed, forced labour. It is not the satisfaction of a need, but only a means for satisfying other needs.”

With modernity, inevitably arrived industrialization and capitalism. Social stratification quickly emerged in this assumed society of equal opportunity. Marx argued that this alienation of human work is precisely the defining feature of capitalism. According to Marx, a capitalist mode of production occurs when labour itself becomes a commodity. The working class needed to sell their own labour due to the fact that they no longer were able to possess their own land or tools necessary to produce for their own needs. In return for selling their labour they received an income which allowed them to survive. Those who must sell their labour to live are the proletarians. The individual/s who purchases their labour is the land and factory owners, or in other words the capitalists or bourgeois. The proletarians inevitably outnumbered the capitalists. Hence the division of labour. The division of labour and the specialization that it brought made each individual dependant on the work of each other. At the same time increasing the division among the working class as they began to see things differently and value other necesseties. This division presents another of Marx’s main features of modern society, alienation.

According to Marx, the workers would compete against each other which would cause alienation to each other. They were also alienated from the means of production as their input was not needed by the land or factory owners. Workers quite often remained in a state of oppression. A state in which happiness and fulfilment were beyond their reach. After the bias in the labour market, (stratification) workers were even alienated from enjoying life or finding personal achievements and perhaps forming their own ideas. Religion for Marx was seen as another state of hardship. The people could not see that their distress and hardship was ministered by the capitalists, therefore their distress and hardship were given a religious method. Marx (cited in Ritzer) speaks of religion as the opiate of the people. His entire quotation relays;

“Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people”.

For Marx, the division of labour and conflict and indeed religion between capitalists and workers were crucial problems of modern society. Marx believed that the long-term consequence of the conflict between the classes was the empowerment of the capitalist class and the impoverishment of the proletariat. He believed that if the proletariat were to gain the means of production, they could and would encourage social relations that could and would greatly benefit the people equally. Marx thought that peaceful negotiation of this situation was unrealistic, and that a revolution of great proportion would be required as the ruling class would not give up power easily. He theorized that to establish the socialist system, a period where the needs of the working class and not the capitalists must be created.

Karl Marx predicted a society that would have complete equality. A society that viewed that the ownership of production would be equal and that all members of society would divide the wealth in equal distribution. The bourgeois would not take advantage of the proletarians. This was called communism. Interestingly, despite the importance of communism to Marx, he would not contribute to the future of communism as he was intellectually against providing a utopian insight into the future.

Emile Durkeim’s views of modern society

For Durkheim, the necessary elements of modern society and the hardship it caused are conflicting to Marx’s in many ways yet very much alike in others. He’s emphasis of modern society was on norms, values and belief systems that controlled it. After determining results from modernization, Durkheim unlike Marx was interested in improving not removing the modern society.

One of Durkheim’s greatest concerns was how societies could maintain their personal principles and beliefs in the modern era. In order to study social life in this new modern society, Durkheim created one of the first scientific approaches to social facts. He among other theorists was one of the first to give reason for the existence and quality of different components of society by referring to what function they served in helping to keep society healthy and balanced. This would come to be known as functionalism. Durkheim claimed that society was much more than just independent fragments. He focused not on what motivates the actions of individual people but on social facts, Durkheim used this term to describe phenomena which have an existence in and of themselves that are not bound to the actions of individuals. He theorized that social facts had an independent existence greater than the actions of the individuals that society comprised of and could only be explained by other social facts. Durkheim (cited in Ritzer) explains social facts as;

“A social fact is every way of acting, fixed or not, capable of exercising on the individual an external constraint; or again, every way of acting which is general throughout a given society, while at the same time existing in its own right independent of its individual manifestations”

With the introduction of modernization and industrialization, labour became increasingly specific. In pre modern societies, all workers did very nearly the same work as each other in order to maintain themselves and their families. The workers shared social compatibility based on similarity amongst them. This mechanic solidarity would be replaced by organic solidarity. With organic solidarity social compatibility would be based on each individual’s dependence on the other in society for survival.

Capitalism caused a different set of norms and values which one needed to live by, far from what the classes were used to. The transition from old to modern society was not an easy one being complex and relatively quick. Due to this transition being very difficult, many lost their way and became confused. The peoples’ state of confusion according to Durkheim (as cited in Giddens) terms anomie as.

“…The state of anomie is impossible whenever interdependent organs are sufficiently in contact and sufficiently extensive. If they are close to each other, they are readily aware, in every situation, of the need which they have of one-another, and consequently they have an active and permanent feeling of mutual dependence.”

In order to oppose anomie Durkheim suggested that the people turn to religion. Religion for Durkheim was not divinely inspired but a set of collective beliefs that shaped norms and values, norms and values that defined collective beliefs. Religion acted then as a source of solidarity or collective reality for people in their societies. Durkheim’s (as cited in Thompson) finding that religion was social may be described by this excerpt from The Elementary Forms:

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“The general conclusion of the book which the reader has before him is that religion is something eminently social. Religious representations are collective representations which express collective realities; the rites are a manner of acting which take rise in the midst of assembled groups and which are destined to excite, maintain, or recreate certain mental states in these groups. So if the categories are of religious origin, they ought to participate in this nature common to all religious facts; they should be social affairs and the product of collective thought. At least for in the actual condition of our knowledge of these matters, one should be careful to avoid all radical and exclusive statements it is allowable to suppose that they are rich in social elements.”

To Durkheim the norms and values that the classes collected, keep them in harmony with each other. Rich and poor alike, and find common identity in norms and values, which help to minimize conflict or contrast between them. These are to Durkheim the essential elements of modern society focusing on how society adapts to these values and norms. If perhaps a society member breaks this solidarity then conflict will arise. This conflict is caused by not adhering to the norms, values and collective beliefs expected of the society, and can result in many hardships, the two most important being suicide and crime.

Marx viewed conflict in a society as a downfall, something that caused dysfunction in a society. Durkheim on the other hand saw conflict as favourable. If the consequence of conflict was clearly made known to all, then solidarity between those who oppose conflict will be reinforced. Although the two theories differ in this aspect, there is similarity in the theorists concepts of alienation and anomie. The difference though, between these concepts lies in exploitation. In Marx’s alienation there is exploitation of the working class by the capitalists, which causes dysfunction. In Durkheim’s anomie, the dysfunction of the working class is not caused by exploitation by the capitalists but by the complexity of the society.

I have attempted to compare and to show contrast in both Marx and Durkheim’s theories, but there are other criticisms that I am unable to present due to the limitations of this essay. I will try to introduce but a few in short explanations.

Some of Marx’s criticism involved:

Karl Marx never completed his social theories, instead using his time to study journalism, law, politics and morals. Thus, possibly leaving his theory of social economy open to interpretation.

Marx placed the proletariat as the focal point leading to communism, when in fact the proletariat never assumed this leading position and the majority were against communism.

Marxism does not seem to recognise gender as a major part of society, but when he does, he shows that the effect of labour affects men more than women.

Marx doesn’t acknowledge the role of consumption, instead focusing on the production of commodities in society.

To refer to some criticisms of Durkheim:

There is question as to whether Durkheim was a functionalist or not, depending upon the definition of functionalism. Functionalism can be defined in two different ways; One trying to relate to society as one, and the other to separate society.

As for social facts, are they based on an accumulation of interpretations or can they be approached in an objective manner?

Was Durkheim honest in his view of the individual? He had many assumptions but denied them all, saying that it was through sociology that he sought the need to understand human nature.

Durkheim assumed that people are enslaved by their passions and they will always need and want more, therefore becoming a threat to themselves and society. He provided no evidence of this.

Where in all of Durkheim’s theory do we see the active role that consciousness played? He apparently treated them as secondary factors.

To conclude, Marx and Durkheim were two of the great thinkers and theorists of their time. They have both demonstrated ways in which we can view and examine our societies and the critical aspects included within them. Marx and Durkheim excite us with their comparisons, leaving us to ponder the outcomes of their studies and their personal outlooks on the structure of society in their lifetime; and in fact ours.


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