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Durkheim’s Analysis of Social Solidarity

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“Man cannot become attached to higher aims and submit to a rule if he sees nothing above him to which he belongs. To free him from all social pressure is to abandon him to himself and demoralize him.” (Durkheim E. , 1897)

Durkheim’s analysis of social solidarity has held enormous sway in the sphere of sociology since his publication of The Division of Labour in Society in 1893. The central premise underlying Durkheim’s work is that individuals are inherently egoistic, yet the collective values and beliefs of society bind them together, resulting in social integration (Durkheim É. , 1893).

In this way, the psychologies of individuals are constrained by values, norms and relationships they share within society. This essay will explore this idea throughout. Firstly Durkheim’s analysis of social integration will be discussed. Secondly this essay will look at the social structures and conditions which form the mainstays of social solidarity. Thirdly and finally this essay will examine the relevance of social solidarity in modern society, contrasting integration today with that of traditional societies.

Social integration, as Berkman et al put it, is a measure of social embeddedness and connectedness (Berkman, Glass, Brissette, & Seeman, 2000). Durkheim posits that all societies are governed to some extent by common values and beliefs, though the extent to which these influence individuals differs from society to society. He calls this common conception of morality “collective consciousness.” He then furthers this, stating how integrated people feel within their societies is a reflection on the strength of those common norms, beliefs and values (Durkheim É. , 1893). The more interconnected with others an individual is, the more likely they are to hold views in line with their society’s moral code (Thorlindsson & Bernburg, 2004).

Durkheim posits it is difficult to explore the concept of social integration within normally integrated societies, and so looks to extremes to demonstrate his theory. Most notably, Durkheim explores ‘the act of suicide’ and seeks to prove suicide is socially patterned. He theorises that suicide rates within societies tend to correspond to other measures of social embeddedness (1897). As marriage and family tend to be a clear sign that a person is socially embedded and interconnected (Kyung-Sook, SangSoo, Sangjin, & Young-Jeon, 2018), Durkheim chooses to examine the marriage rate alongside the suicide rate. Durkheim finds that married men were significantly less likely to commit suicide than unmarried men. Additionally, he finds that immunity to suicide seemed to increase with family size. He found these correlations to be constant across a broad range of societies, and concluded thus that suicide is affected by the level of interdependence within society, as indicated by opt-in socially integrative institutions such as marriage and family. This social pattern, he says, has more impact than the pathology of individuals (Durkheim E. , 1897).

Recent studies of anomie would seem to confirm Durkheim’s theory (Thorlindsson & Bernburg, 2004). Durkheim defined anomie as an individual’s sense of isolation from society, perhaps resulting from a lack of social rules in the individual’s life (Durkheim É. , 1893). Writers such as Thorlindsson and Bernburg write further on this, expressing it as “characterized by unrealistic aspirations and expectations that often cause conflict between means and ends and leave individuals with feelings of meaninglessness and hopelessness and a sense of injustice.” Thorlindsson and Bernburg study adolescent delinquents in Iceland and using hierarchical linear regression, show that individuals who are less engaged with education and other predictors of solidarity are more likely to engage in socially deviant behaviour (2004). Additional studies demonstrate that adolescents with strong social ties to conventional institutions are less likely to associate with delinquent friends and develop such behaviours (Thornberry, 1987).

Studies relating to the effects of social integration on health would also seem to confirm Durkheim’s theory of social integration. Social integration, alongside socio-economic status, has long been considered a determinant of health (Laporte, Nauenberg, & Shen, 2008). Having strong ties to family and friends, being married, and associating with social and religious institutions has been reversely associated with mortality (Syme & Berkman, 1979). Though interestingly there seems to be a moderate difference in how likely a very socially integrated person or unintegrated person are to get liver disease (perhaps as alcoholism, a deviant act, can act as a factor in this), generally the more psychological an illness is, the likelier it is to vary based on integratedness (Gove, 1973). Criticism of this idea offers that it is not simply anomie that causes illnesses, but rather that anomie affects how likely people are to access resources and supports relating to their health (Berkman, Glass, Brissette, & Seeman, 2000). A person with fewer interpersonal ties is less likely to have supports in the form of other people to prevent them from engaging in deviant behaviour such as drinking (Hughes & Gove, 1981), and less likely to find people encourage them to seek out health care when they need it, where married people with families might. Thus it is not necessarily an individual’s devotion to “collective consciousness” which mediates such behaviour, but rather mechanical processes too. That being said, plausibly the people who intervene to offer such supports may themselves be acting out of solidarity, in line with the social norm or belief that people ought not drink, or ought to seek medical aid when sick. Thus this criticism is merely mitigatory, and not wholly incompatible with Durkheim’s theory.

Another criticism of Durkheim’s mediations on health is that the kinds of groups within which individuals become integrated affect the likeliness of that integration positively affecting their health. That is to say, due to homophily, people find it easier to form ties to people with whom they share characteristics such as race, gender, or religion (Louch, 2000). Thus it is these shared values and beliefs to which they conform. Durkheim would argue, and others would agree (Ibarra, 1993) (Gallo, 1982), that such ties are good for health. However, given minorities can often be isolated from the dominant group, they may struggle to integrate into the group at large, negatively impacting health, as Kim posits (Kim, 2001).

Important to examine next are the social structures and conditions conducive to social integration. Durkheim conceptualises what normal integration looks like by pointing to its converse, the abnormal within society (Durkheim E. , 1897). Turner (1981) extrapolates from Durkheim’s work the principles which are underlying within normal social integration. Turner posits four conditions: firstly that individual passions are constrained by the sharing of cultural symbols, secondly that individuals opt into rituals and mutually reinforcing gestures, thirdly that both norms and political structures regulate behaviour, and fourthly that inequalities within society are accepted and seen to correspond to talents of individuals. These conditions, and the structures they entail must be considered next.

Firstly, shared cultural symbols must be considered. Durkheim writes of religious dogma in particular. He notes that amongst Jews and Catholics, the suicide rate is considerably lower than amongst Protestants (Durkheim E. , 1897). Durkheim attributes this to the fact that Protestantism has fewer shared values and beliefs than Judaism and Catholicism. Indeed he notes, the freer inquiry within Protestantism is “the only essential difference between Protestantism and Catholicism.” For Durkheim then, it is not the religious dogma itself which makes suicide more or less likely, but rather that Judaism and Catholicism are richer in dogma, and particularly amongst Jews who faced hostility from other faiths, that this dogma is held to be true. As Turner writes (1981), this essentially proves that the number of shared cultural symbols an individual believes in, and the strength of their connection to them affects how likely they are to be socially integrated.

Secondly, this essay must examine rituals and gestures. Social rituals and institutions are a method by which individuals opt into society, causing increased interdependence upon one another. The converse is egoism, in which people are unattached to collectives through such rituals and gestures (Turner, 1981). Religion provides an example again, this time in terms of community. Religion provides collective goals for individuals to strive towards (Thorlindsson & Bernburg, 2004). Such goals can prevent feelings of hopelessness and isolation. Furthering this, Durkheim considers different religious communities and the levels of social integration within them. Durkheim posits that another reason for the disparity in suicide rates between Protestants and Jews and Catholics is that unlike Judaism and Catholicism, Protestantism has an individualistic focus rather than a collective one (1897). Notably this argument can also be applied in the case of other institutions such as family or country (Umberson, 1987). Through such shared activities as prayer rituals and services, individuals seem to become more bound to the rules of society.

Thirdly, this essay must look at norms and political structures used to regulate behaviour. As Thorlindsson and Bernburg write (2004), “the school is a central institution in the life of contemporary adolescents.” Through educational institutions, a sense of obligation and conformity is fostered. Students obey rules about attendance, clothing and homework and are taught to value these. The rituals carried out within schools, and the sentiments disseminated within them, have a significant controlling effect on adolescents. In this way, such institutions as school promote a sense of shared obedience and conformity to social rules.

Fourthly, this essay will explore acceptance of inequality. Durkheim posits that as people strive and seek betterment within their lives, they may be deflected from the role most suitable to them. In this way, a forced division of labour occurs. He writes “the attention of each individual is distracted in too many directions” (Durkheim É. , 1893). Durkheim posits that integration was stronger in pre-industrial times, where people had more in common and less opportunity to be distracted by the potential for social mobility. This, however, Durkheim accepts as natural.

Through contrasting modern and traditional society, we see most clearly the impact of these factors. As Durkheim says, the more modern society becomes, the weaker and more generalised integration becomes accordingly (Durkheim É. , 1893). Likely the rise of capitalism has played a large role in this, through which individuals strive for betterment more than before. As workers grow further apart, they relate less and less to shared cultural symbols, and participate less in rituals. Perhaps an example of this is the anomie which occurs among businessmen during booms and depressions of the economy, contributing to a rise in suicide rates (Johnson, 1965). Additionally, through capitalism the preferences of the individual are often held above the welfare of the collective, as the economy begins to have more import than social institutions such as religion (Thorlindsson & Bernburg, 2004).

Durkheim is extremely noteworthy as a theorist, and his work still holds extraordinary weight since its first publication. This essay has sought to give a broad discussion of Durkheim’s theory of social integration. It has explored Durkheim’s method of using suicide rates to measure solidarity, given a comprehensive overview of the factors necessary for integration, and given a contrast between the integration of industrial and pre-industrial times. Without doubt, Durkheim’s thoughts on social integration will be discussed for many decades to come.


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