Reading The Elementary Forms of Religious Life for the Religion Department graduate Theories and Methods seminar, I am now concluding that you cannot understand this foundational text without having read The Division of Labor in Society. In other words, “religious life” cannot be understood apart from the “division of labor.” Perhaps the most important contribution of this text is the light it sheds on how Durkheim conceived two points of interest, being the place of the individual in society and what he thought would be the future evolution of religion.
The main substantive argument in The Division of Labor in Society is familiar enough. It makes the distinction between pre-modern societies founded upon “mechanical solidarity” versus modern ones that depend upon “organic solidarity.”
Durkheim defines “mechanical solidarity” in terms of the automatic solidarity allegedly established between people who bear the exact same characteristics in common. By this, Durkheim means not just what we today call cultural characteristics or constructs. By “resemblance,” Durkheim means biological and even physiological features. Individually in the “horde,” everyone physically (literally) resembles everyone else. “They all look alike” is pretty much the claim about men and women in “less developed” societies (i.e. less developed by the difference and then social threading introduced by the division of labor). Mechanical solidarity rests on shared norms enforced by the repressive law founded on vengeance, a prime example being biblical law. In the discussion of mechanical solidarity in The Division of Labor in Society, a liberal expression of anti-Judaism sits cheek by jowl with racism and sexism (see especially chapter 4).
What Durkheim calls “organic solidarity” is a weaker form of solidarity than mechanical solidarity in that it is not based on automatic recognition of identity and the positing of common ends. With his eye on private property and contract law, Durkheim understands organic society not as a direct relation between persons and persons, but between persons and things (pp.91ff). Organic solidarity is that which brings about the division of labor in society, based as it is on the assumption of individual human difference.
Durkheim’s thesis is not as straightforward as it seems. Basic is the argument that society actually becomes more effective “in moving in concert at the same time as each of its elements have more movements that are peculiarly its own” (p.102). This is not a one-off claim. A liberal, Durkheim is committed to the value of individual liberty, which he posits not in opposition to group life but as a product of it (p.330, cf. p.218). This is because he insists that the true moral function of the division of labor is to create between individuals a feeling of solidarity based on complementary differences (p.46) The division of labor is that which makes society possible by connecting up individuals who would otherwise be independent (p.49). Perhaps most surprisingly, Durkheim maintains that, as a moral phenomenon, social solidarity is a nonmaterial datum not amenable to direct, empirical observation, but which “shows its presence through perceptible effects,” chiefly through law (p.52). Against laissez faire capitalism, it is law, economic regulation, and the state that secure individual liberty and intra-group solidarity (see especially the argument against Spencer in chapter 7).
But nor is the individual free. “Organic” societies are said to be “organic” insofar as they consist of a “system of different organs, each one of which has a special role and which themselves are formed from differentiated parts” (143). In such a society, precisely because the relations are “organic,” the individual is not free to break away from the group without doing damage to itself and to the social organism. Again ironically, mechanical solidarity constitutes a tie which can be easly broken and forged even while it absorbs the individual segment (theorized as such) into the community. Traditional society is in one sense a loose social form. Whoever does not “deviate unduly” from the group is incorporated without much resistance into the group. In contrast, an organic society composed of differentiated but complementary parts cannot be grafted onto older ones without undergoing disruptive change. Mechanical solidary binds people together less strongly than does organic solidarity even as organic solidarity becomes loose as we scale up the social evolution (pp.118-19).
For Durkheim, the trick is to track out and develop new forms of social solidarity that are not based on similarity and on blood relations, but which promote “common faith” in which the dignity of the individual human person is the “object” of worship. “[L]ike all strong acts of worship,” this common faith has already acquired its “superstitions” in what turns out to be a “sort of religion” impelling the will to a non-social end. Durkheim maintains that it is the division of labor itself that fulfills the role once performed by common consciousness, holding together the social entity that emerges and evolves out of the “social protoplasm” now that religion no longer pervades the whole of social life swallowing up the individual as it is claimed it once did (pp.134-5, 138, 141, 143). Durkheim outlines the evolution of religious representations (i.e. theological ideas) from the so-called primitive religions in which the sacred beings are integrated into the world, to Greco-Roman paganism, and then finally in Christianity in which the gods and God are supposed to be separated out to the point of hostility. About the modern religion, Durkheim concedes, “The God of humanity has necessarily a less defined meaning.” And yet it is also his claim that the more general the common consciousness and the more remote God is from “things and men,” the more “scope” is left for individual variations (pp.227-8).