Durkheim Disappoints

Upon rereading the main body of Durkheim’s Division of Labor in Society I was struck at how subtle and sophisticated he is. I thought I had remembered—from my previous experience with this material—that he used a superficial freedom/constraint binary. However, as I was rereading I was pleasantly surprised to see throughout the text that he actually argues at length how we are all constrained—whether in a society with mechanical solidarity or organic solidarity—by social and moral norms fundamentally determined by the division of labor. At several points he demonstrates that non-contractual obligations and moral norms actually increase rather than decrease in a society with a high division of labor. In addition, he takes quite a few swipes at the liberal rhetoric of “negative” (as opposed to “positive”) regulations. We are, despite our rhetoric to the otherwise, highly constrained in capitalist liberal democracies.

But in the conclusion he sneaks back in liberalism’s freedom/constraint binary. Despite the fact that the body of the text completely undermines his final conclusions, he surprisingly comes around to suggesting that we are now fundamentally more free than those in other types of societies.

In the main body of the book Durkheim suggests that once we choose a profession in a society with a high division of labor, “[t]he rules of occupational morality and justice … force the individual to act in view of ends which are not strictly his own,” that “we are tied down” by “[d]uties … imposed upon us that we have not expressly desired,” and that individuals are much more a product of common life than they are determinants of it.” But he concludes by contrasting “lower peoples” to “European peoples,” suggesting that the latter are “autonomous,” “more … independent,” “in part freed from collective action,” have “more opportunity for free play,” and for whom “rules … do not have a constraining force.”

One wonders why he came to conclusions so fundamentally at odds with the more subtle and sophisticated arguments in the body of the text. My suspicion is that, in the end, European ethnocentrism drove him to want to characterize liberal capitalist societies as better than other societies, and that the positive connotations affiliated with the liberal rhetoric of “freedom” and “liberty” provided a convenient way to do so. I was disheartened to see something like Weber’s “iron cage” give way to liberal triumphalism.

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