Wednesday 16 October 2013

Durkheim and the Division of Labour

Poor old Durkheim. Picture the scenes in FE colleges, lecture rooms and tutorials across the land. For the best part of a century, generations of sociology students have been introduced to the discipline's canonical 'founding fathers'; Karl Marx, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim. Unfortunately for Durkers, as programmes march on through a succession of modules chances are Marx will continue to get a look-in. Weber might as well. But Durkheim? He's left to bother classical social theory modules, or the opening sessions of methods and religion lessons. For all intents and purposes, he's a dead duck miscast as the conservative father of Functionalism, or worse - a hopeless naïf. For instance, writing of Durkheim's The Division of Labour in Society in his classic study of the deskilling process, Harry Braverman suggested that Durkheim was "determinedly avoiding the specific social conditions under which the division of labour develops in our epoch, celebrating throughout his proposition that "the ideal of human fraternity can be realised only in proportion to the progress of the division of labour", until in the last tenth of his work he discovers the division of labour in the factories and offices of modern capitalism, and dubs them "abnormal forms"." (Labor and Monopoly Capital, 1974, p.74). There you go, Durkheim can have his theoretical contributions filed away next to Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer, only to be retrieved for bits and bobs on the history of ideas. 

Durkheim, however, is a far more interesting figure than Braverman and his various caricatures suggest.

The Division of Labour, which I'll be focusing on, is a cornerstone work and is concerned with the problem of social order. i.e. How a society integrates people into the established way of doing things and ensures these practices are reproduced over lengthy time scales. Hence why his focus on social order is erroneously contrasted with Marx and, to a lesser extent, Weber, who talked more about the constitutive role occupied by social conflict. Durkheim was especially interested in how complex and increasingly variegated societies like the advanced industrial nations of his day were able to hold themselves together when the pace of social change was so rapid. The root of the integrative impulse lay in the division of labour, which, depending on the character of the society, gave rise to two forms of solidarity: the mechanical and the organic.

Mechanical solidarity, Durkheim suggested, was a property of pre-industrial societies. He argued that societies ranging from primitive hunter/gatherer bands to the sophisticated slave empires of antiquity and the feudal social formations that preceded the rise of capitalism all rested on comparatively simple social divisions of labour. The tribes that ran around European forests millennia ago allotted tasks to different members of the band - child rearing, gathering berries, hunting game, clearing and cleaning living spaces, making clothes and weapons, etc. The Roman Empire, with its great cities, its citizen-farmers, its artisans, and its slaves was much more advanced. The division of labour saw to the basic material needs of a thriving civilisation, as well as the production of luxuries, prestige buildings and a vast military. Feudalism was more complex still. Semi-permanent conflict between squabbling barons and petty states rested upon a groaning mass of peasants tied by land and legal obligation to the tiny, warring landlord class. However, what characterised them all was a relatively undifferentiated division of labour. Hunter/gatherer groups barely differed from one another in their fundamentals. The bulk of Romans knew life as agrarian labourers or slaves. And the great mass of the mediaeval peasantry tilled their land, laboured in the landlord's fields, and generally paid little attention to events taking place further than the end of their nose. Because the bulk of humanity hold in common very similar immediate social conditions, it follows that the individual personality - as we understand it - does not develop. Individual peasants remain biological, social beings with a sense of self and a biography, but from the Durkheimian perspective any sense of individuality is stunted by their circumstance. The same is true for galley slaves and berry gatherers. As Durkheim puts it:
The individual consciousness ... is simply a dependency of the collective type, and follows all its motions, just as the object possessed follows those which the owner imposes upon it. In societies where this solidarity is highly developed the individual ... does not belong to himself; he is literally a thing at the disposal of society. (Durkheim 1893/1984, p.85)
Therefore Durkheim here treats individuals as molecules of a society. They have little scope for autonomous activity. Because of the underdeveloped sense of individuality, they are almost entirely animated by the collective consciousness. Through tradition, obligation, compulsion and necessity they grind out their daily bread and reproduce the social structures that animate them in the first place. They are unthinking, unreflective parts of the great, clunking social machinery. Theirs is a mechanical solidarity defined and driven by the comparatively unremarkable, mundane position they occupy in the division of labour.

The other kind of solidarity, organic solidarity, is very different. Again, the starting point is the division of labour. Time to get a bit Hegelian. Durkheim argues that the rise of industrial society had the effect of increasing social complexity. As old trades disappeared new jobs, sometimes based around a single repetitive task, took their place. The modern firm, the modern state, the expansion of institutions, the progress in scientific knowledge; the internal variation of the division of labour underpinning all this expanded and differentiated like no other preceding society. And out of this quantitative extension came a significant qualitative change to how the social order and social integration was achieved. Mechanical solidarity didn't so much as seize up as fall apart, and what replaced it was an order much less angular, more fluid.

Every place in the division of labour has a limited arena for autonomous action, which varies from occupation to occupation. This, of course, was true of pre-industrial societies too. But the greater variation of tasks defined by the division of labour, and their increasing specialisation means that, at the aggregate level, there is a greater range of possible autonomies in industrial societies. Each segment, each nook and cranny of the division of labour demands it is filled by people with particular aptitudes, motivations, and levels of culture and education. Hence whereas mechanical solidarity rested on similarity, organic solidarity, the different kind of collective consciousness it gives rise to, is founded on difference.
On the one hand each one of us depends more intimately upon society the more labour is divided up, and on the other, the activity of each one of us is correspondingly more specialised, the more personal it is (ibid.)
It therefore follows that the growth and spread of individuality is congruent with the unceasing division, subdivisions and specialisations of the division of labour. But if individuation is the new cultural dominant driven by the subterranean processes churning and splitting beneath the surface, how is it that it can give rise to any form of solidarity at all? Durkheim says,
... viewing from the outside the variety of occupations that the individual embarks upon, it may seem that the personality then develops more freely and completely. But in reality what he displays is not his own. It is society, it is the race, which act in and through him; he is only the intermediary through which they are realised. His liberty is only apparent, his personality is borrowed. (ibid, p.335)
It might be tempting to read this in a heavily determinist way, but all it means is that the autonomy our place in the division of labour grants us is functional for the whole. We carry out our tasks as a microscopic aspect of the social organism and, as such, we contribute to the health of the whole. We are bearers and engineers of social relations, we each carry a particulate of social matter at the same time we play our part in the division of labour as sentient, autonomous individuals. Individuation is the precondition for the mutual interdependence that glues complex societies together.

So far, so abstract, but generally uncontroversial. However, Durkheim goes on to argue that the division of labour gives rise to a different form of collective consciousness that points toward a 'universal humanity'. The functional mutuality "spontaneously" performed everyday as we go to work or see to our domestic responsibilities is suggestive of a potential commonality that may emerge. Our simultaneous individuality and dependence on one another can lead to the mutual recognition of our similarities. Whereas mechanical solidarity ordered the social estate "unconsciously", organic solidarity resting on and upholding an increasingly complicated division of labour opens the possibility for its conscious regulation. For those of a Marxish bent, does that sound familiar?

Where Durkheim falls down is perhaps taking his highly abstract rendering as too literal a reading of what is actually happening in the capitalist work place, as Braverman helpfully pointed out. But in his rush to rubbish Durkheim he did not consider the position with enough nuance. His dialectical fortitude was found wanting. Marx wasn't the only founding father to have eaten at Hegel's table. Because of the level of abstraction the theory operates at, it lacks an obvious political economy and notions of conflicts between different classes and social groups. Despite that obvious disadvantage, what Durkheim manages to do with his concept of organic solidarity is tease out the imminent potentiality of a different way of organising society existing within the contemporary division of labour, just as Marx discerned the growing possibility of socialism because of the spadework done by capitalism. As he stands, Durkheim's organic solidarity offers the basis for an abstract critical theory. The "abnormal forms" mocked by Braverman, for example, are not a case of the facts refusing to fit the theory, but rather a challenge to be criticised, deconstructed, and then reconstructed on the basis of deepening the actual, existing tendency toward organic solidarity. This is hardly a conservative position. Perhaps, instead, Durkheim should be considered the first Fabian.


Dawn Robinson-Walsh said...

Totally agree. Durkheim's focus is on social order, and that (to me) remains a huge mystery! I can, to some degree, understand 'deviance' but what actually does make so many individuals subsume their individuality for the collective whole? That question surely persists.

Phil said...

The answer is people do not *consciously* submit themselves to the social whole, we all do it as a matter of course. For instance, during the course of my day I've interacted with the bloke who sold me a train ticket this morning, and the conductor who stamped it. I spoke to the driver who punched my ten-trip bus ticket, my office mate, the students who came to see me, the bloke down at the uni shop, and then the bus driver back to the station. Each one of them went to work or fulfilled their role as keen, productive students. In so doing all of us maintain and reproduce not just the division of labour, but our little sectors of the social whole.

Anonymous said...

Are you really paid from the public purse to write twaddle like this?

Phil said...

No. I don't get paid to write anything. I just get a sense of self-satisfaction knowing that an anonymous oaf somewhere is left scratching their simian-like forehead in a confused daze.

Unknown said...

See my papers on Durkheimian theory at: