Emile Durkheim

Sunday, August 10th, 2014

Emile Durkheim was a master diagnostician of our modern ills:

Durkheim lived through the immense, rapid transformation of France from a largely traditional agricultural society to an urban, industrial economy. He could see that his country was getting richer, that Capitalism was extraordinarily productive and, in certain ways, liberating. But what particularly struck him, and became the focus of his entire career, were the psychological costs of Capitalism. The economic system might have created an entire new middle class, but it was doing something very peculiar to people’s minds. It was — quite literally — driving them to suicide in ever increasing numbers.

He isolated five crucial factors:

1. Individualism

In traditional societies, people’s identities are closely tied to belonging to a clan or a class. Their beliefs and attitudes, their work and status follow automatically from the facts of their birth. Few choices are involved: a person might be a baker, a Lutheran, and married to their second cousin — without ever having made any self-conscious decisions for themselves. They could just step into the place created for them by their family and the existing fabric of society.

But under Capitalism, it is the individual (rather than the clan, or ‘society’ or the nation) that now chooses everything: what job to take, what religion to follow, who to marry… This ‘individualism’ forces us to be the authors of our own destinies. How our lives pan out becomes a reflection of our unique merits, skills and persistence.

If things go well, we can take all the credit. But if things go badly, it is crueller than ever before, for it means there is no one else to blame. We have to shoulder the full responsibility. We aren’t just unlucky any more, we have chosen and have messed up. Individualism ushers in a disinclination to admit to any sort of role for luck or chance in life. Failure becomes a terrible judgement upon oneself. This is the particular burden of life in modern Capitalism.

2. Excessive hope

Capitalism raises our hopes. Everyone — with enough effort — can become the boss. Everyone should think big. You are not trapped by the past — Capitalism says — you are free to remake your life. Advertising stokes ambition by showing us limitless luxury that we could (if we play our cards right) secure very soon. The opportunities grow enormous…as do the possibilities for disappointment.


3. We have too much freedom

One of the complaints against traditional societies — strongly voiced in Romantic literature — was that people needed more ‘freedom’. Rebellious types complained there were far too many social norms: telling you what to wear, what you were supposed to do on Sunday afternoons, what parts of an arm it was respectable for a woman to reveal…

Capitalism — following the earlier efforts of Romantic rebels — relentlessly undermined social norms.


4. Atheism

Durkheim was himself an atheist, but he worried that religion had become implausible just as its communal side would have been most necessary to repair the fraying social fabric. Despite its factual errors, Durkheim appreciated the sense of community that religion offered: “Religion gave men a perception of a world beyond this earth where everything would be rectified; this prospect made inequalities less noticeable, it stopped men from feeling aggrieved.”

Marx had disliked religion because he thought it made people too ready to accept inequality. It was an ‘opiate’ that dulled the pain and sapped the will. But this criticism was founded on a conviction that it would not actually be too difficult to make an equal world and therefore that the opiate could be lifted without trouble.

Durkheim took the darker view that inequality would be very hard to eradicate (perhaps impossible), so we would have to learn, somehow, to live with it.


5. Weakening of the nation and of the family

In the 19th century, it had looked, at certain moments, as if the idea of the nation might grow so powerful and intense that it could take up the sense of belonging and shared devotion that once had been supplied by religion. Admittedly there were some heroic moments. In the war against Napoleon, for instance, the Prussians had developed a dramatic all-encompassing cult of the Fatherland. But the excitement of a nation at war had, Durkheim saw, failed to translate into anything very impressive in peacetime.


  1. David Foster says:

    I’ve never actually read Durkheim, but had a sociology professor who referenced him frequently. He put a lot of emphasis of division of labor as a cause of anomie: ie, the person producing a product never sees the user of that product, and indeed is probably only performing one stage in a very long chain of activities.

    Note that items 2, 4, and 5 in the summary are not specific to capitalism and indeed were all major features of Soviet Communism.

  2. Grasspunk says:

    I’m embedded in agricultural French society, although I guess it isn’t that traditional any more.

    I was going to say that another view on this could be found in Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton, then I realized that The Philosopher’s Mail was de Botton’s creation, so it is pretty much the same thing.

  3. Faze says:

    As regards atheism, Tyler Cowen recently suggested strict religion might be a good antidote for the anomie of the inner city. He suggested that ghetto residents might want to consider Mormonism.

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