2. Compare Durkheim’s understanding of the human individual with Marx’s. In what ways do they conflict, and in what ways might they complement each other? Whose approach do you find more compelling, and why?
Durkheim and Marx are both similar in that they view the individual as part of a larger, single collective; society. Both of them adopted a structuralist approach to analyse society and its individuals. However, the similarities end there; while Durkheim saw the individual as a mere cell in an organism (mechanical or organic), Marx placed a lot of emphasis on the individual. Where Durkheim saw individuals acquiescing to social norms and society moving progressively as a collective whole, Marx saw a regression in humanity as society moves towards its inevitable class war. Thus, both sociologists came to very different conclusions despite starting off on relatively similar footing.
To understand the similarities in both thinkers, it would be easier to see what they stood against; the Cartesian self. Before the Industrial Revolution, French philosopher René Descartes saw the individual as a completely rational, transcendental figure that is not circumspect to external factors, a rhetoric he summarized in his line, “I think, therefore I am”. This was a sentiment that gained popularity in the age of Enlightenment and continued to influence people during the Industrial Revolution. On this front, both Marx and Durkheim are in complete agreement that the individual is not an autonomous figure, but rather a product of his society. Where Descartes saw introspection as a way of understanding the individual (though he would consequently conclude that self-understanding is impossible), Marx and Durkheim saw a way to understand the individual, by understanding the external environment around him. This approach is a structuralist one, and both see individuals a component of society, instead of a group of individuals bound together with little to no connection of each other’s consciousness. Durkheim saw the individual’s consciousness as part of the collective, and that social norms shape the individual’s thoughts. In fact, he saw the individual as a reflection of society’s progress. Similarly, Marx saw the individual as a “social being” in his natural state. Both studied the cumulative impact of society rather than individualistic theories to explore the individual’s role. This however, leads to their main differences.
Durkheim viewed the individual with a hint of negativity, and was pessimistic about individualistic notions. This can be seen in his book, ‘Suicide’, where he insinuates that deviance from the norm is harmful for the individual. Durkheim thinks an individual is incapable of controlling his own desires, arguing that “our capacity for feeling is in itself an insatiable and bottomless abyss” and that “the more one has, the more one wants, since satisfactions received only stimulate instead of filling needs”. Durkheim insists that such desires are unhealthy and that an external force is required to step in to regulate this individual’s desires. In this case, the external force is society, as it is “the only moral power superior to the individual”. A lack of regulation from society may lead to ‘anomie’ or deviance from the norm, and Durkheim attributed this to one of the four types of suicide in his book. Durkheim places the society before the interests of the individual, and suggests that an individual will be selfish and greedy in the absence of a regulatory figure.
On the other hand, Marx saw the positivity in an individual shaped by his desire. Marx opined that human individuals are different from animals in that they “produce their [own] means of subsistence” and “indirectly producing their actual material life”. In other words, Marx, while acknowledging that the individual is not confined to his abstract self, insists that mankind is in the process of evolving, that he is ‘human becoming’. It is important to note that Marx saw individuals in two different parts; one as the architect of his existence, and one as part of a collective. Again, this is in contrast with Durkheim, because he suggested that the individual is built by the social collective alone. Marx asserts that “the nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production”. He focuses on the tangible, material objects around the individual, instead of the ideals that Durkheim saw in the form of religion, laws and beliefs. In the language of Durkheim’s ‘Suicide’, Marx would have seen no issue in a society with little regulation or integration, as long as these are not needed for the individual to provide for his own subsistence. On the other side of the fence, Durkheim would think that an individual simply making his own material mark on the world without agreeing to collective thought was unhealthy for both the individual and the society. Marx saw the social collective as the root of the crisis in modern society, while Durkheim would argue that it’s the lack of integration or regulation, or a society with less than healthy relations that leads to general unhappiness in the modern world. To put it shortly, Marx believed that society would move towards conflict, whilst Durkheim believed that society would move towards consensus. This is why their views of the individual are polar opposites of each other despite agreeing that the individual is shaped by external factors.
Ironically, individualism has its place in Durkheim’s division of labour; as society moves towards a more complex division of labour, Durkheim is convinced that there will be increased interdependence and hence better integration within society. This would mean that more individuals are inspired to make their own mark on the world with their own products that are unique to them. The individual is hence integral to society even if he does not play a similar role to other members of society, because he is not easily replaceable. However, there exists a form of labour that is based on an individual’s economic or power status. This is an anomic division of labour, which he describes as “although very highly developed, result[s] in a very imperfect integration”, where workers are forced to do repetitive work without knowing or understanding their significance to the rest of society, thus separating them from society and reducing solidarity. This would also tie in to Marx’s concept of alienation, and Marx would also want for individuals to be able to make their own specialized products as opposed to homogenous products for multi-national corporations. When an individual is forced to do repetitive work, the “worker does not affirm himself in his work but denies himself, feels miserable and unhappy”. It can be said that Durkheim is directly referring to Marx himself on this front, and we see the marriage of both men’s ideologies briefly in anomic division of labour in relation to alienation. However, this isn’t necessarily a reconciliation, as Durkheim feels that in his ideal society, useless jobs would be abolished and if jobs still feel repetitive to the individual, the employer would simply have to tell the employee about his place in society, and why he is important. Marx would have seen this as suppression of class consciousness on the individual.
In any case, I find Marx’s view of the individual far more compelling than Durkheim’s. Marx’s interpretation of the individual transcends time and space and continues to stay relevant even in the post-modern world. This is because Marx saw the individual in relation to the material world as opposed to abstract ideals. Marx acknowledged the continued evolution of humanity through different periods, while Durkheim could only base his theories on a limited scope of historical data. Marx did not negate the consciousness of the individual, and correctly predicted the growing unhappiness and resentment in individuals as capitalism grew and supressed his desires and needs.
In contrast, Durkheim’s view of the individual was unrealistic, as seen in his assumption that “the division of labour produces solidarity only if it is spontaneous and in proportion as it is spontaneous”. His argument about individuals willing to work towards the collective good is flawed because he ignores the lack of means to subsistence on the workers’ end. In the real world, individuals have to do a job because they are forced into it and they would starve without the money. Durkheim incorrectly sees integration as a factor of social solidarity instead of economic predisposition. Durkheim’s dismissal of deviant behaviour as anomic is also tragically myopic, since ideals can change over time. Slavery and racism were seen as social norms in the past, but they are outlawed in the modern world, without necessarily tearing apart the solidarity of the country. It makes even less sense today, with the rise of the internet and social media drawing separate individuals from different countries and different time zones who may experience solidarity in their online presence. A group of homosexuals can experience this on an online chat group even if it’s deviant behaviour in their country or social setting. In comparing societies with one another, as opposed to intra-social classes as Marx did, Durkheim severely underestimates the importance of the individuals’ desires and needs and incorrectly assumes that society as a whole can bring about progress and positive change to the individual.
This is an essay I wrote for SC3101. I did this module as part of my minor in European Studies. Not too bad. Got an A- for this without much effort.