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UNIVERSITY OF LONDON - International Programmes


Bachelor of Laws (LL. B.)









– International Programmes - NATIONS UNIVERSITY

Prepared by Facilitator Ms. K.T.H. Stephenson- Attorney-at-Law

LL. B. (Credit)(UG), L.E.C. (H.W.L.S), Pg Cld (ComSec/UG),
UNODC Cert. IL & Terrorism, Diplofoundation (Malta) Adv. Cert. in Internet Governance
2015- 2016


Studyguide 12
Prepared by Ms. Kayreen Stephenson
LL. B. (Credit), L.E.C. (H.W.L.S.), Pg CLD.
Adv. Cert in Internet Governance

Introduction. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

What this module is about?

This handout introduces you to the wonderful world of writing sociology. Before you
can write a clear and coherent sociology paper, you need a firm understanding of the
assumptions and expectations of the discipline. You need to know your audience, the
way they view the world and how they order and evaluate information. So, without
further ado, let’s figure out just what sociology is, and how one goes about writing it.

What is sociology?

What is sociology, and what do sociologists write about?

Unlike many of the other subjects, such as history or English, sociology is a new subject
for many students. Therefore, it may be helpful to give a quick introduction to what
sociologists do. Sociologists are interested in all sorts of topics. For example, some
sociologists focus on the family, addressing issues such as marriage, divorce, child-
rearing, and domestic abuse, the ways these things are defined in different cultures and
times, and their effect on both individuals and institutions. Others examine larger social
organizations such as businesses and governments, looking at their structure and
hierarchies. Still others focus on social movements and political protest, such as the
American civil rights movement. Finally, sociologists may look at divisions and inequality
within society, examining phenomena such as race, gender, and class, and their effect
on people’s choices and opportunities. As you can see, sociologists study just about
everything. Thus, it is not the subject matter that makes a paper sociological, but rather
the perspective used in writing it.

So, just what is a sociological perspective? At its most basic, sociology is an attempt to
understand and explain the way that individuals and groups interact within a society.
How exactly does one approach this goal? C. Wright Mills, in his book The Sociological
Imagination (1959), writes that “neither the life of an individual nor the history of a
society can be understood without understanding both.” Why? Well, as Karl Marx
observes at the beginning of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852),
humans “make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do
not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances
directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.” Thus, a good sociological

argument needs to balance both individual agency and structural constraints. That is
certainly a tall order, but it is the basis of all effective sociological writing. Keep it in
mind as you think about your own writing.

Key assumptions and characteristics of sociological writing

What are the most important things to keep in mind as you write in sociology? Pay
special attention to the following issues:


The first thing to remember in writing a sociological argument is to be as clear as

possible in stating your thesis. Of course, that is true in all papers, but there are a
couple of pitfalls common to sociology that you should be aware of and avoid at all
cost. As previously defined, sociology is the study of the interaction between individuals
and larger social forces. Different traditions within sociology tend to favor one side of
the equation over the other, with some focusing on the agency of individual actors and
others on structural factors. The danger is that you may go too far in either of these
directions and thus lose the complexity of sociological thinking. Although this mistake
can manifest itself in any number of ways, three types of flawed arguments are
particularly common: the “individual argument,” the “human nature argument,” and the
“society argument.”

• The “individual argument” generally takes this form: “The individual is free to
make choices, and any outcomes can be explained exclusively through the study
of his or her ideas and decisions.” While it is of course true that we all make our
own choices, we must also keep in mind that, to paraphrase Marx, we make
these choices under circumstances given to us by the structures of society.
Therefore, it is important to investigate what conditions made these choices
possible in the first place, as well as what allows some individuals to successfully
act on their choices while others cannot.
• The “human nature argument” seeks to explain social behavior through a quasi-
biological argument about humans, and often takes a form such as: “Humans are
by nature X, therefore it is not surprising that Y.” While sociologists disagree over
whether a universal human nature even exists, they all agree that it is not an
acceptable basis of explanation. Instead, sociology demands that you question
why we call some behavior natural, and to look into the social factors which have
constructed this “natural” state.
• The “society argument” often arises in response to critiques of the above styles
of argumentation, and tends to appear in a form such as: “Society made me do
it.” Students often think that this is a good sociological argument, since it uses
society as the basis for explanation. However, the problem is that the use of the
broad concept “society” masks the real workings of the situation, making it next
to impossible to build a strong case. This is an example of reification, which is

when we turn processes into things. Society is really a process, made up of
ongoing interactions at multiple levels of size and complexity, and to turn it into
a monolithic thing is to lose all that complexity. People make decisions and
choices. Some groups and individuals benefit, while others do not. Identifying
these intermediate levels is the basis of sociological analysis.

Although each of these three arguments seems quite different, they all share one
common feature: they assume exactly what they need to be explaining. They are
excellent starting points, but lousy conclusions.


Once you have developed a working argument, you will next need to find evidence to
support your claim. What counts as evidence in a sociology paper? First and foremost,
sociology is an empirical discipline. Empiricism in sociology means basing your
conclusions on evidence that is documented and collected with as much rigor as
possible. This evidence usually draws upon observed patterns and information from
collected cases and experiences, not just from isolated, anecdotal reports. Just because
your second cousin was able to climb the ladder from poverty to the executive
boardroom does not prove that the American class system is open. You will need more
systematic evidence to make your claim convincing. Above all else, remember that your
opinion alone is not sufficient support for a sociological argument. Even if you are
making a theoretical argument, you must be able to point to documented instances of
social phenomena that fit your argument. Logic is necessary for making the argument,
but is not sufficient support by itself.

Sociological evidence falls into two main groups: quantitative and qualitative.

• Quantitative data are based on surveys, censuses, and statistics. These provide
large numbers of data points, which is particularly useful for studying large-scale
social processes, such as income inequality, population changes, changes in
social attitudes, etc.
• Qualitative data, on the other hand, comes from participant observation, in-
depth interviews, data and texts, as well as from the researcher’s own
impressions and reactions. Qualitative research gives insight into the way people
actively construct and find meaning in their world.

Quantitative data produces a measurement of subjects’ characteristics and behavior,

while qualitative research generates information on their meanings and practices. Thus,
the methods you choose will reflect the type of evidence most appropriate to the
questions you ask. If you wanted to look at the importance of race in an organization, a
quantitative study might use information on the percentage of different races in the
organization, what positions they hold, as well as survey results on people’s attitudes on
race. This would measure the distribution of race and racial beliefs in the organization.

A qualitative study would go about this differently, perhaps hanging around the office
studying people’s interactions, or doing in-depth interviews with some of the subjects.
The qualitative researcher would see how people act out their beliefs, and how these
beliefs interact with the beliefs of others as well as the constraints of the organization.

Some sociologists favor qualitative over quantitative data, or vice versa, and it is
perfectly reasonable to rely on only one method in your own work. However, since each
method has its own strengths and weaknesses, combining methods can be a
particularly effective way to bolster your argument. But these distinctions are not just
important if you have to collect your own data for your paper. You also need to be
aware of them even when you are relying on secondary sources for your research. In
order to critically evaluate the research and data you are reading, you should have a
good understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the different methods.

Units of analysis

Given that social life is so complex, you need to have a point of entry into studying this
world. In sociological jargon, you need a unit of analysis. The unit of analysis is exactly
that: it is the unit that you have chosen to analyze in your study. Again, this is only a
question of emphasis and focus, and not of precedence and importance. You will find a
variety of units of analysis in sociological writing, ranging from the individual up to
groups or organizations. You should choose yours based on the interests and
theoretical assumptions driving your research. The unit of analysis will determine much
of what will qualify as relevant evidence in your work. Thus you must not only clearly
identify that unit, but also consistently use it throughout your paper.

Let’s look at an example to see just how changing the units of analysis will change the
face of research. What if you wanted to study globalization? That’s a big topic, so you
will need to focus your attention. Where would you start?

You might focus on individual human actors, studying the way that people are affected
by the globalizing world. This approach could possibly include a study of Asian
sweatshop workers’ experiences, or perhaps how consumers’ decisions shape the
overall system.

Or you might choose to focus on social structures or organizations. This approach might
involve looking at the decisions being made at the national or international level, such
as the free-trade agreements that change the relationships between governments and
corporations. Or you might look into the organizational structures of corporations and
measure how they are changing under globalization. Another structural approach would
be to focus on the social networks linking subjects together. That could lead you to look
at how migrants rely on social contacts to make their way to other countries, as well as
to help them find work upon their arrival.

Finally, you might want to focus on cultural objects or social artifacts as your unit of
analysis. One fine example would be to look at the production of those tennis shoes the
kids seem to like so much. You could look at either the material production of the shoe
(tracing it from its sweatshop origins to its arrival on the showroom floor of malls across
America) or its cultural production (attempting to understand how advertising and
celebrities have turned such shoes into necessities and cultural icons).

Whichever unit of analysis you choose, be careful not to commit the dreaded ecological
fallacy. An ecological fallacy is when you assume that something that you learned about
the group level of analysis also applies to the individuals that make up that group. So,
to continue the globalization example, if you were to compare its effects on the poorest
20% and the richest 20% of countries, you would need to be careful not to apply your
results to the poorest and richest individuals.

These are just general examples of how sociological study of a single topic can vary.
Because you can approach a subject from several different perspectives, it is important
to decide early how you plan to focus your analysis and then stick with that perspective
throughout your paper. Avoid mixing units of analysis without strong justification.
Different units of analysis generally demand different kinds of evidence for building your
argument. You can reconcile the varying levels of analysis, but doing so may require a
complex, sophisticated theory, no small feat within the confines of a short paper. Check
with your instructor if you are concerned about this happening in your paper

Typical writing assignments in sociology

So how does all of this apply to an actual writing assignment? Undergraduate writing
assignments in sociology may take a number of forms, but they typically involve
reviewing sociological literature on a subject; applying or testing a particular concept,
theory, or perspective; or producing a small-scale research report, which usually
involves a synthesis of both the literature review and application.

The critical review

The review involves investigating the research that has been done on a particular topic
and then summarizing and evaluating what you have found. The important task in this
kind of assignment is to organize your material clearly and synthesize it for your reader.
A good review does not just summarize the literature, but looks for patterns and
connections in the literature and discusses the strengths and weaknesses of what
others have written on your topic. You want to help your reader see how the
information you have gathered fits together, what information can be most trusted (and
why), what implications you can derive from it, and what further research may need to
be done to fill in gaps. Doing so requires considerable thought and organization on your
part, as well as thinking of yourself as an expert on the topic. You need to assume that,

even though you are new to the material, you can judge the merits of the arguments
you have read and offer an informed opinion of which evidence is strongest and why.

Application or testing of a theory or concept

The application assignment asks you to apply a concept or theoretical perspective to a

specific example. In other words, it tests your practical understanding of theories and
ideas by asking you to explain how well they apply to actual social phenomena. In order
to successfully apply a theory to a new case, you must include the following steps:

1. First you need to have a very clear understanding of the theory itself: not only
what the theorist argues, but also why he or she argues that point, and how he
or she justifies it. That is, you have to understand how the world works
according to this theory and how one thing leads to another.
2. Next you should choose an appropriate case study. This is a crucial step, one
that can make or break your paper. If you choose a case that is too similar to the
one used in constructing the theory in the first place, then your paper will be
uninteresting as an application, since it will not give you the opportunity to show
off your theoretical brilliance. On the other hand, do not choose a case that is so
far out in left field that the applicability is only superficial and trivial. In some
ways theory application is like making an analogy. The last thing you want is a
weak analogy, or one that is so obvious that it does not give any added insight.
Instead, you will want to choose a happy medium, one that is not obvious but
that allows you to give a developed analysis of the case using the theory you
3. This leads to the last point, which is the analysis. A strong analysis will go
beyond the surface and explore the processes at work, both in the theory and in
the case you have chosen. Just like making an analogy, you are arguing that
these two things (the theory and the example) are similar. Be specific and
detailed in telling the reader how they are similar. In the course of looking for
similarities, however, you are likely to find points at which the theory does not
seem to be a good fit. Do not sweep this discovery under the rug, since the
differences can be just as important as the similarities, supplying insight into
both the applicability of the theory and the uniqueness of the case you are using.

You may also be asked to test a theory. Whereas the application paper assumes that
the theory you are using is true, the testing paper does not makes this assumption, but
rather asks you to try out the theory to determine whether it works. Here you need to
think about what initial conditions inform the theory and what sort of hypothesis or
prediction the theory would make based on those conditions. This is another way of
saying that you need to determine which cases the theory could be applied to (see
above) and what sort of evidence would be needed to either confirm or disconfirm the
theory’s hypothesis. In many ways, this is similar to the application paper, with added
emphasis on the veracity of the theory being used.

The research paper

Finally, we reach the mighty research paper. Although the thought of doing a research
paper can be intimidating, it is actually little more than the combination of many of the
parts of the papers we have already discussed. You will begin with a critical review of
the literature and use this review as a basis for forming your research question. The
question will often take the form of an application (“These ideas will help us to explain
Z.”) or of hypothesis testing (“If these ideas are correct, we should find X when we
investigate Y.”). The skills you have already used in writing the other types of papers
will help you immensely as you write your research papers.

And so we reach the end of this all-too-brief glimpse into the world of sociological
writing. Sociologists can be an idiosyncratic bunch, so paper guidelines and
expectations will no doubt vary from class to class, from instructor to instructor.
However, these basic guidelines will help you get started.

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing the original version of this handout. This is not
a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do
your own research to find the latest publications on this topic. Please do not use this list
as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation
style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries
citation tutorial.

Anson, Chris M. and Robert A. Schwegler. The Longman Handbook for Writers. 2nd ed.
New York: Longman, 2000.

Hairston, Maxine and John J. Ruszkiewicz. The Scott, Foresman Handbook for Writers.
4th ed. New York: HarperCollins College Publishers, 1996.

Lee, Cuba. A Short Guide to Writing about Social Science. 4th ed. New York: Longman,

Lunsford, Andrea and Robert Connors. The St. Martin’s Handbook. 3rd ed. New York:
St. Martin’s, 1995.

Rosen, Leonard J. and Laurence Behrens. The Allyn & Bacon Handbook. 3rd ed. Boston:
Allyn & Bacon, 1997.

Required reading:
• Concepts of law: The social context of Law by Sheryl J. Grana and Jane C.
Ollenburger, pages 14 to 17.
• Sociology of Law. Types and functions of Law: Law and Society by Steven Vago
and Adie Nelson, pages 1 to 23.
• Defining Law: Alex Wellington and Allan Greenbaun, pages 8 to 9.
• Max Weber: The Sociology of Law by Brian Burtch pages 36 to 41

12.1 Thinking of law and society: encountering a case . . . . . . . . .


Thus we should not talk – in the terms of the sociological canon – of law and society,
but of law in society.

Most jurisprudential scholars (Austin and Kelsen would be good examples) were only
too aware of the need to analyse and understand the role and effects of law in society;
only their particular programme of work was restricted to a analytical analysis or, in
Kelsen’s case, a normative reconstruction of laws essence.

Is a coherent sociology of law possible?

There is no dominant paradigm undergirding this field, as these three
quotations demonstrate:
The sociology of law has as its task not only to register, formulate and verify
the general interrelations existing between the law and other social factors
(law could then be regarded as an independent or dependent variable), but
also to try and build a general theory to explain social processes in which the
law is involved and in this way link this discipline with the bulk of
sociological knowledge. (Podgorecki, 1974, p. 33)

The purpose of the sociology of law is nothing more nor less than the study
of how actors achieve in concerted social action those activities which
pertain to law. Law in the context of social action is the proper object of
attention, not law generically defined and identifiable independently of
routine social activity. (Grace and Wilkinson, 1978, p. 291)

The sociology of law seeks to explain the nature of law in terms of the
empirical conditions within which legal doctrine and institutions exist in
particular societies or social conditions. As a study aimed at the explanation
of social, phenomena through analysis of systematically organised empirical
data it must concern itself centrally with understanding law as it is, rather
than as it might or should be. (Cotterrell, 1984, p. 303)

12.2 Internal and external accounts, insiders and outsiders . . . . . .


12.3 Durkheim and the consensus theory of law . . . . . . . . . . .
Who was Durkheim?

Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work (1858-1917)

[Excerpt from Robert Alun Jones. Emile Durkheim: An Introduction to Four Major
Works. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 1986. Pp. 12-23.]

David Emile Durkheim was born on April 15, 1858 in Epinal, capital town of the
department of Vosges, in Lorraine. His mother, Mélanie, was a merchant's daughter,
and his father, Moïse, had been rabbi of Epinal since the 1830s, and was also Chief
Rabbi of the Vosges and Haute-Marne. Emile, whose grandfather and great-grandfather
had also been rabbis, thus appeared destined for the rabbinate, and a part of his early
education was spent in a rabbinical school. This early ambition was dismissed while he
was still a schoolboy, and soon after his arrival in Paris, Durkheim would break with
Judaism altogether. But he always remained the product of close-knit, orthodox Jewish
family, as well as that long-established Jewish community of Alsace-Lorraine that had
been occupied by Prussian troops in 1870, and suffered the consequent anti-Semitism
of the French citizenry. Later, Durkheim would argue that the hostility of Christianity
toward Judaism had created an unusual sense of solidarity among the Jews.

An outstanding student at the Collège d'Epinal, Durkheim skipped two years, easily
obtaining his baccalauréats in Letters (1874) and Sciences (1875), and distinguishing
himself in the Concours Général. Intent now on becoming a teacher, Durkheim left
Epinal for Paris to prepare for admission to the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure.
Installed at a pension for non-resident students, however, he became utterly miserable:
his father's illness left him anxious over his family's financial security; he was an utter
provincial alone in Paris; and his intellectual predilections, already scientific rather than
literary, were ill-fitted to the study of Latin and rhetoric essential for admission to the
Ecole. After failing in his first two attempts at the entrance examination (in 1877 and
1878), Durkheim was at last admitted near the end of 1879.

Durkheim's generation at the Ecole was a particularly brilliant one, including not only
the socialist Jean Jaurès, who became Durkheim's life-long friend, but also the
philosophers Henri Bergson, Bustave Belot, Edmond Goblot, Felix Rauh, and Maurice
Blondel, the psychologist Pierre Janet, the linguist Ferdinand Brunot, the historians
Henri Berr and Camille Jullian, and the geographer Lucien Gallois. Despite constant
fears of failure, which plagued him throughout his life, Durkheim became an active
participant in the high-minded political and philosophical debates that characterized the
Ecole; and, like Jaurès, he was soon a staunch advocate of the republican cause, with
special admiration for Léon Gambetta, the brilliant orator and "spiritual embodiment" of
the Third Republic, and the more moderate Jules Ferry, whose anti-clerical educational
reforms would soon lead to a national system of free, compulsory, secular education.

Durkheim's concerns were less political than academic, however, and while he
continued to criticise the literary rather than scientific emphasis of the Ecole, he
discovered three scholars of a more congenial spirit - the philosophers Charles
Renouvier and Emile Boutroux, and the historian Numas-Denis Fustel de Coulanges.

Though ill through much of 1881-82, Durkheim successfully passed his agrégation (the
competitive examination required for admission to the teaching staff of state secondary
schools, or lycées), and began teaching philosophy in 1882.

In 1882, the Faculty of Letters at Bordeaux had established France's first course in
pedagogy for prospective school teachers, and in 1884 the state had begun to support
it as part of its drive for a new system of secular, republican education. The course was
first taught by Alfred Espinas, whose Les Sociétés animales(1877) Durkheim greatly
admired, but who was soon elevated to Dean of the Faculty. Durkheim's articles on
Germany philosophy and social science had by now caught the attention of Louis Liard,
then Director of Higher Education in France. A devoted republican and Renouvierist,
Liard both resented the German pre-eminence in social science and was intrigued by
Durkheim's suggestions for the reconstruction of a secular, scientific French morality. At
the instigation of Espinas and Liard, therefore, Durkheim was appointed in 1887 as
"Chargéd'un Cours de Science Sociale et de Pédagogie" at Bordeaux. The "Science
Sociale" was a concession to Durkheim, and it was under this guise that sociology now
officially entered the French university system.

This appointment of a young social scientist to the predominantly humanist Faculty of

Letters at Bordeaux was not without opposition, and Durkheim exacerbated this by
emphasizing the value of sociology to the more traditional humanist disciplines of
philosophy, history and law. He thus aroused (justifiable) fears of "sociological
imperialism" and unjustifiable (though understandable) fears that his particular
explanations of legal and moral institutions through reference to purely social causes
undermined free will and individual moral agency. These fears long excluded Durkheim
from the powerful Paris professorship to which he aspired. Nonetheless, he gained the
support and even allegiance of at least some of his Bordeaux colleagues - the legal

scholar Léon Duguit; the Roman historian Camille Jullian; the rationalist, neo-Kantian
philosopher Octave Hamelin; and Georges Rodier, an expert on Aristotle. With Hamelin
and Rodier, in particular, Durkheim formed a celebrated "trio" of rationalist opposition
to those forms of mysticism and intuitionism which were increasingly denounced under
the epithet "bergsonisme."

Throughout this Bordeaux period (1887-1902), Durkheim primary responsibility was to

lecture on the theory, history, and practice of education. Each Saturday morning,
however, he also taught a public lecture course on social science, devoted to specialized
studies of particular social phenomena, including social solidarity, family and kinship,
incest, totemism, suicide, crime, religion, socialism, and law.

In 1898, Durkheim founded the Année sociologique, the first social science journal in
France. In fact, Durkheim's intellectual virtuosity up to 1900 had implicitly contradicted
one of his central arguments, namely that in modern societies, work (including
intellectual work) should become more specialized, though remaining part of an organic
whole. In 1896, therefore, putting aside his work on the history of socialism, Durkheim
devoted himself to establishing a massive program of journalistic collaboration based
upon a complex division of intellectual labor. Supported by a brilliant group of young
scholars (mostly philosophers), the Année was to provide an annual survey of the
strictly sociological literature, to provide additional information on studies in other
specialized fields, and to publish original monographs in sociology.

As Director of Primary Education at the Ministry of Public Instruction from 1879 to 1896,
Ferdinand Buisson had been the man most responsible for implementing Jules Ferry's
educational reforms. Subsequently appointed to the chair in the Science of Education at
the Sorbonne, Buisson was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1902, and the chair
became vacant. The successful resolution of the Dreyfus Affair had left both sociology
and socialism with a more respectable public image; and Durkheim, while arguing that
his competence in education was limited, and that his candidacy would thus give the
appearance of using any expedient to insinuate himself in Paris, nonetheless allowed his
name to go forward. After seeking letters from Boutroux, Buisson, and Victor Brochard,
the Council of the Faculty of Letters at the Sorbonne appointed Durkheim chargéd'un
course by a large majority. Four years later Durkheim was made professeur by a
unanimous vote and assumed Buisson's chair, which was to be renamed "Science of
Education and Sociology" in 1913.

Durkheim arrived in Paris with a reputation as a powerful intellect pursuing an

aggressively scientific approach to all problems (everything else was mysticism,
dilettantism, and irrationalism). His "science of morality" offended philosophers, his
"science of religion" offended Catholics, and his appointment to the Sorbonne (which, in
the wake of the Dreyfus Affair, appeared not above extra-academic considerations)
offended those on the political Right. The appointment also gave Durkheim enormous
power. His lecture courses were the only required courses at the Sorbonne, obligatory

for all students seeking degrees in philosophy, history, literature, and languages; in
addition, he was responsible for the education of successive generations of French
school teachers, in whom he instilled all the ferbour of his secular, rationalist morality.
As an administrator, he sat on the Council of the University as well as on many other
councils and committees throughout the University and the Ministry of Public
Instruction, and though largely averse to politics, he numbered many powerful
politicians among his personal friends. Not surprisingly, Durkheim's enemies complained
of his power, accusing him of "managing" appointments and creating chairs of sociology
in provincial universities in order to extend his influence. Frequently described as a
"secular pope," Durkheim was viewed by critics as an agent of government anti-
clericalism, and charged with seeking "a unique and pernicious domination over the
minds of the young."

On August 3, 1914, Germany launched its invasion of Belgium and northern France. All
went as in the summer of 1870 until the surprising Russians attacked East Prussia,
forcing Moltke to withdraw troops for use on the eastern front. The French Army under
Joffre regrouped with support from the British, and at the battle of the Marne, fought
from September 5 to 12, forced the Germans to retreat, and thus altered the entire
character of the war.

Durkheim's response was one of optimism and enthusiasm. Despite poor health already
induced by overwork, he devoted himself to the cause of national defense, organizing a
committee for the publication of studies and documents on the war, to be sent to
neutral countries in the effort to undermine German propaganda. Several patriotic
pamphlets were written by Durkheim himself, and sent to his fellow-countrymen in the
effort to maintain the national pride. But for the most part, Durkheim was unaffected by
the war hysteria, and, though always a patriot, was never a nationalist. Indeed, by
1916, he was concerned lest a German military defeat be turned to the advantage of
the conservative, "clerical" party in France; and on at least two occasions, as a native of
Alsace-Lorraine and as a Jew with a German name, Durkheim suffered aspersions of
disloyalty motivated by the most vulgar kind of anti-Semitism.

The greatest blow, however, was yet to come, Durkheim was utterly devoted to his son
André, a linguist who had gained his agrégation just before the War, and was among
the most brilliant of the younger Année circle. Sent to the Bulgarian front late in 1915,
André was declared missing in January, and in April, 1916, was confirmed dead.

Durkheim was devastated by his son's death, withdrawing into a "ferocious silence" and
forbidding friends to even mention his son's name in his presence. Burying himself all
the more in the war effort, he collapsed from a stroke after speaking passionately at
one of his innumerable committee meetings. After resting for several months, relieved
by America's entry into the war, he recovered sufficiently to again take up his work on
La Morale; but on November 15, 1917, he died at the age of 59.

What were Durkheim’s theories?
Durkheim's four major works, including:

• The Division of Labor in Society (1893)

• The Rules of Sociological Method (1895)
• Suicide (1897)
• The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912)

To Durkheim, men were creatures whose desires were unlimited. Unlike other animals,
they are not satiated when their biological needs are fulfilled. "The more one has, the
more one wants, since satisfactions received only stimulate instead of filling needs." It
follows from this natural insatiability of the human animal that his desires can only be
held in check by external controls, that is, by societal control. Society imposes limits on
human desires and constitutes "a regulative force [which] must play the same role for
moral needs which the organism plays for physical needs." In well-regulated societies,
social controls set limits on individual propensities so that "each in his sphere vaguely
realizes the extreme limits on individual propensities so that "each in his sphere vaguely
realizes the extreme limits set to his ambitions and aspires to nothing beyond. . . .
Thus, an end or a goal [is] set to the passions."

When social regulations break down, the controlling influence of society on individual
propensities is no longer effective and individuals are left to their own devices. Such a
state of affairs Durkheim calls anomie, a tern that refers to a condition of relative
normlessness in a whole society or in some of its component groups. Anomie does not
refer to a state of mind, but to a property of the social structure. It characterizes a
condition in which individual desires are no longer regulated by common norms and
where, as a consequence, individuals are left without moral guidance in the pursuit of
their goals.

Although complete anomie, or total normlessness, is empirically impossible, societies

may be characterized by greater or lesser degrees of normative regulations. Moreover,
within any particular society, groups may differ in the degree of anomie that besets
them. Social change may create anomie either in the whole society or in some parts of
it. Business crises, for example, may have a far greater impact on those on the higher
reaches of the social pyramid than on the underlying population. When depression
leads to a sudden downward mobility, the men affected experience a de-regulation in
their lives--a loss of moral certainty and customary expectations that are no longer
sustained by the group to which these men once belonged. Similarly, the rapid onset of
prosperity may lead some people to a quick upward mobility and hence deprive them of
the social support needed in their new styles of life. Any rapid movement in the social
structure that upsets previous networks in which life styles are embedded carries with it
a chance of anomie.

Durkheim argued that economic affluence, by stimulating human desires, carries with it
dangers of anomic conditions because it "deceives us into believing that we depend on
ourselves only," while "poverty protects against suicide because it is a restraint in
itself." Since the realization of human desires depends upon the resources at hand, the
poor are restrained, and hence less prone to suffer from anomie by virtue of the fact
that they possess but limited resources. "The less one has the less he is tempted to
extend the range of his needs indefinitely."

By accounting for the different susceptibility to anomie in terms of the social process--
that is, the relations between individuals rather than the biological propensities of
individuals-- Durkheim in effect proposed a specifically sociological theory of deviant
behavior even though he failed to point to the general implications of this crucial
insight. In the words of Robert K. Merton, who was the first to ferret out in this respect
the overall implications of Durkheim's thought and to develop them methodically,
"Social structures exert a definite pressure upon certain persons in the society to
engage in nonconforming rather than conforming conduct."

Durkheim's program of study, the overriding problems in all his work, concerns the
sources of social order and disorder, the forces that make for regulation or de-
regulation in the body social. His work on suicide, of which the discussion and analysis
of anomie forms a part, must be read in this light. Once he discovered that certain
types of suicide could be accounted for by anomie, he could then use anomic suicide as
an index for the otherwise unmeasurable degree of social integration. This was not
circular reasoning, as could be argued, but a further application of his method of
analysis. He reasoned as follows: There are no societies in which suicide does not
occur, and many societies show roughly the same rates of suicide over long periods of
time. This indicates that suicides may be considered a "normal," that is, a regular,
occurrence. However, sudden spurts in the suicide rates of certain groups or total
societies are "abnormal" and point to some perturbations not previously present.
Hence. "abnormally" high rates in specific groups or social categories, or in total
societies, can be taken as an index of disintegrating forces at work in a social structure.

Durkheim distinguished between types of suicide according to the relation of the actor
to his society. When men become "detached from society," when they are thrown upon
their own devices and loosen the bonds that previously had tied them to their fellow,
they are prone to egoistic, or individualistic, suicide. When the normative regulations
surrounding individual conduct are relaxed and hence fail to curb and guide human
propensities, men are susceptible to succumbing to anomic suicide. To put the matter
differently, when the restraints of structural integration, as exemplified in the operation
of organic solidarity, fail to operate, men become prone to egoistic suicide; when the
collective conscience weakens, men fall victim to anomic suicide.

In addition to egoistic and anomic types of suicide, Durkheim refers to altruistic and
fatalistic suicide. The latter is touched upon only briefly in his work, but the former is of

great importance for an understanding of Durkheim's general approach. Altruistic
suicide refers to cases in which suicide can be accounted for by overly strong regulation
of individuals, as opposed to lack of regulation. Durkheim argues in effect that the
relation of suicide rates to social regulation is curvilinear--high rates being associated
with both excessive individuation and excessive regulation. In the case of excessive
regulation, the demands of society are so great that suicide varies directly rather than
inversely with the degree of integration. For example, in the instance of the Hindu
normative requirement that widows commit ritual suicide upon the funeral pyre of their
husbands, or in the case of harikiri, the individual is so strongly attuned to the demands
of his society that he is willing to take his own life when the norms so demand. Arguing
from statistical data, Durkheim shows that in modern societies the high rates of suicide
among the military cannot be explained by the deprivations of military life suffered by
the lower ranks, since the suicide rate happens to be higher for officers than for
enlisted men. Rather, the high rate for officers can be accounted for by a military code
of honor that enjoins a passive habit of obedience leading officers to undervalue their
own lives. In such cases, Durkheim is led to refer to too feeble degrees of individuation
and to counterpose these to the excesses of individuation or de-regulation, which
account, in his view, for the other major forms of suicide.

Durkheim's discussion of altruistic suicide allows privileged access to some of the

intricacies of his approach. He has often been accused of having an overly anti-
individualistic philosophy, one that is mainly concerned with the taming of individual
impulse and the harnessing of the energies of individuals for the purposes of society.
Although it cannot be denied that there are such tendencies in his work, Durkheim's
treatment of altruistic suicide indicates that he was trying to establish a balance
between the claims of individuals and those of society, rather than to suppress
individual strivings. Acutely aware of the dangers of the breakdown of social order, he
also realized that total control of component social actors by society would be as
detrimental as anomie and de-regulation. Throughout his life he attempted to establish
a balance between societal and individual claims.

Durkheim was indeed a thinker in the conservative tradition to the extent that he
reacted against the atomistic drift of most Enlightenment philosophy and grounded his
sociology in a concern for the maintenance of social order. As Robert Nisbet has shown
convincingly, such key terms as cohesion, solidarity, integration, authority, ritual, and
regulation indicate that his sociology is anchored upon an anti-atomistic set of
premises. In this respect he was like his traditionalist forebears, yet it would be a
mistake to classify Durkheim as a traditionalist social thinker. Politically he was a liberal-
-indeed, a defender of the rights of individuals against the state. He also was moved to
warn against excesses of regulation over persons even though the major thrusts of his
argument were against those who, by failing to recognize the requirements of the social
order, were likely to foster anomic states of affairs. Anomie, he argued, was as
detrimental to individuals as it was to the social order at large.

Durkheim meant to show that a Spencerian approach to the social realm, an approach
in which the social dimension is ultimately derived from the desire of individuals to
increase the sum of their happiness, did not stand up before the court of evidence or
the court of reason. Arguing against Spencer and the utilitarians, he maintained that
society cannot be derived from the propensity of individuals to trade and barter in order
to maximize their own happiness. This view fails to account for the fact that people do
not trade and barter at random but follow a pattern that is normative. For men to make
a contract and live up to it, they must have a prior commitment to the meaning of a
contract in its own right. Such prior collective commitment, that is, such a non-
contractual element of contracts, constitutes the framework of normative control. No
trade or barter can take place without social regulation and some system of positive
and negative sanctions.

Durkheim's main shafts against individualistic social theories notwithstanding, he was by

no means oblivious of the dangers of overregulation to which Spencer's social
philosophy had been especially sensitive. Durkheim saw man as Homo duplex--as body,
desire, and appetite and also as socialized personality. But man was specifically human
only in the latter capacity, and he became fully human only in and through society.
Hence, true moral action lies in the sacrifice of certain individual desires for the service
of groups and society. But such sacrifices redound in the last analysis to the benefit of
individuals, as well as society, since unbridled desires lead to frustration and
unhappiness rather than to bliss and fulfillment. Modern society seems to contain, for
Durkheim, the potentialities for individualism within social regulation. In contrast to
earlier types of social organization based on mechanical solidarity that demanded a high
degree of regimentation, modern types of organization rest on organic solidarity
obtained through the functional interdependence of autonomous individuals. In modern
societies, social solidarity is dependent upon, rather than repressive of, individual
autonomy of conduct.

Though Durkheim stressed that in modern societies a measure of integration was

achieved through the intermeshing and mutual dependence of differentiated roles, he
came to see that these societies nevertheless could not do without some common
integration by a system of common beliefs. In earlier social formations built on
mechanical solidarity, such common beliefs are not clearly distinct from the norms
through which they are implemented in communal action; in the case of organic
solidarity, the detailed norms have become relatively independent from overall beliefs,
responding as they do to the exigencies of differentiated role requirements, but a
general system of overall beliefs must still exist. Hence Durkheim turned, in the last
period of his scholarly life, to the study of religious phenomena as core elements of
systems of common beliefs.

From Coser, 1977:132-136.

Durkheim’s works

The Sociology of Emile Durkheim

by Frank W. Elwell
Rogers State University

I have often thought of Durkheim's reputation as being somewhat over inflated in

sociology. I have had many arguments with colleagues on this score. They point out
several contributions he has made to the field:

• Distinguishing and elaborating the field of sociology from the other social
• His emphasis on empirical data to lend support to his theoretical speculations.
• Functionalism
• His focus on the division of labor and its consequences for social life.
• The collective conscience or the need for a common core of values and beliefs.
• His sociology of religion is still considered seminal.

Some of these accomplishments I find in earlier theorists. August Comte, for example,
writes of the division of labor and how its development leads to a shift in social bonds
from similarity to interdependence. Karl Marx, it seems to me, has a far better grip on
how destructive of social solidarity the detailed division of labor can be. T. Robert
Malthus writes of the effect of population (and other components of the social system)
on various parts of the social system and on the whole in a distinctly functionalist
manner. Malthus also uses available government data on birth and death rates almost
100 years before Durkheim. While Durkheim is the first to be accorded academic
status as a sociologist, I just don't believe his contributions and insights rank him in the
same league as such titans as Marx and Weber.

Still, the influence of Durkheim on sociology is formidable. For this reason alone he
must be included in any work on classical sociology. A basic understanding of
Durkheim is essential for understanding sociology today.


According to Durkheim, social facts (or social phenomena or forces) are the subject
matter of sociology. Social facts are sui generis, and must be studied distinct from
biological and psychological phenomenon. They can be defined as patterns of behavior
that are capable of exercising some coercive power upon individuals. They are guides
and controls of conduct that are external to the individual in the form of group norms,
mores and folkways. Through socialization and education these rules become
internalized in the consciousness of the individual. These social constraints and guides
become moral obligations to obey social rules.

The central issue in Durkheim's work concerns the source of social order and disorder.
According to Durkheim, the desires and self-interests of human beings can only be held
in check by forces that originate outside of the individual. "The more one has, the
more one wants, since satisfactions received only stimulate instead of filling needs."
Durkheim characterizes this external force as a collective conscience, a common social
bond that is expressed by the ideas, values, norms, beliefs and ideologies of the
culture, institutionalized in the social structure, and internalized by individual members
of the culture. He elaborated the cause and effects of weakening group ties on the
individual in his two works, The Division of Labor in Society (1893) and Suicide (1897).

In The Division of Labor, Durkheim identifies two forms or types of solidarity which are
based on different sources. Mechanical solidarity is "solidarity which comes from
likeness," Durkheim writes, and "is at its maximum when the collective conscience
completely envelops our whole conscience and coincides in all points with it." This
occurs, Durkheim claims, in early societies in which there is not much division of labor.
Such societies are relatively homogenous, men and women engage in similar tasks and
daily activities, people have similar experiences. In such societies the few distinct
institutions express similar values and norms that tend to reinforce one another.

Mechanical solidarity, Durkheim adds, means that "ideas and tendencies common to all
members of the society are greater in number and intensity than those which pertain
personally to each member." The norms, values and beliefs of the society (or the
collective conscience) are so homogenous and confront the individual with such
overwhelming and consistent force, that there is little opportunity in such societies for
individuality or deviance from this collective conscience. The collective conscience and
individual consciences are virtually identical.

According to Durkheim, traditional cultures experienced a high level of social and moral
integration, there was little individuation, and most behaviors were governed by social
norms, which were usually embodied in religion. By engaging in the same activities and
rituals, people in traditional societies shared common moral values, which Durkheim
called a collective conscience (modern sociologists would refer to them as the norms
and values of society, which are internalized by individuals). In traditional societies,
people tend to regard themselves as members of a group; the collective conscience
embraces individual awareness, and there is little sense of personal options.

The second form of solidarity Durkheim terms "organic." Organic solidarity develops as
a by-product of the division of labor. As a society becomes more complex, individuals
play more specialized roles and become ever more dissimilar in their social experiences,

material interests, values, and beliefs. Individuals within such a sociocultural system
have less in common; however, they must become more dependent upon each other
for their very survival. The growth of individualism is an inevitable result of the
increasing division of labor, and this individualism can develop only at the expense of
the common values, beliefs and normative rules of society--the sentiments and beliefs
that are held by all. With the loosening of these common rules and values we also lose
our sense of community, or identity with the group. The social bond is thereby
weakened and social values and beliefs no longer provide us with coherent, consistent,
or insistent moral guidance.

Although the diversity of norms and values has the potential to liberate the individual
from tradition and the hierarchies of family, church, and community, the diversity also
creates problems. According to Durkheim, if an individual lacks any source of social
restraint she will tend to satisfy her own appetites with little thought of the possible
effect her actions will have on others. Instead of asking "is this moral?" or "does my
family approve?" the individual is more likely to ask "does this action meet my needs?"
The individual is left to find her own way in the world--a world in which personal
options for behavior have multiplied as strong and insistent norms have weakened.


Durkheim insisted that the study of society must not rely on psychological factors alone
(reductionism). Rather, social phenomenon must be considered as a different class or
level of fact. To demonstrate the power of these social facts in determining human
behavior, Durkheim studied suicide. Suicide was an action that was widely perceived as
one of the most intensely individual acts, one that is purely determined by psychological
and biographical factors.

For example, we believe we can understand why Bryan Cadwallader committed suicide
by examining the poor fellow's biography and psychology. After all, Bryan was the
youngest of eight and the baby of his family. He was improperly toilet trained. His
father and he never properly bonded. He was prone to athletes foot and bad breath.
His children hated him. His wife ran off with a traveling balloonist. And his dog had
bitten him the day he killed himself.

But facts like these cannot explain variations in suicide rates among different racial,
ethnic, religious, and occupational groups. Durkheim reasoned that while suicide occurs
in all societies, the suicide rate for various groups are often both different than other
groups within the same society and stable over time. These differences and stability in
group rates indicated that there was something other than psychology involved in the
decision to commit suicide. Why is it that Protestants are more prone to suicide than
Catholics? Why are there stable rates of suicide, year after year, within the same
groups and societies? Why do rates differ between age groups within the same
society? It is simply impossible, Durkheim insisted, to explain or interpret the

characteristics and behaviors of human groups on a psychological or biological basis.
Much of who and what we are, of how we behave and what we believe, is due to social

In order to explain differential rates of suicide in various religious and occupational

groups, Durkheim studied the ways these groups brought about social cohesion and
solidarity among their members. He hypothesized that a significantly higher rate of
suicide in a particular group was an indication that the social cohesion of that group
was weak, and that its members were no longer protected during personal crises.
Through an examination of government data, Durkheim demonstrated that suicide
varies with the degree of social integration.

Durkheim described two types of suicide based on the source of this perceived lack of
cohesion. Egoistic suicide occurs among some men and women who are not sufficiently
integrated into social groups. Because they do not belong, or belonging, they do not
interact and participate, when they are confronted with personal crisis they must face it
alone. They have not internalized the regulation and guidance, nor do they have the
social support needed to handle the stress.

The second type of suicide based on the lack of group cohesion Durkheim labels anomic
suicide. Anomic suicide is likely to occur when the group fails to give the individual
enough regulation and guidance. Protestantism, for example, "concedes a greater
freedom of individual thought than has fewer common beliefs and
practices." Because of this, Durkheim reasoned, we should see higher rates of suicide
among Protestants as a response to these weaker rules of conduct and emphasis upon
autonomy and individualism. Because of the increasing division of labor, as well as
social trends that weaken the traditional ties of community and family, this type of
suicide is associated with modernity.

A third major type Durkheim labeled altruistic suicide. This type of suicide occurs when
the individual is tightly integrated into a group, and the group requires that individual to
give up her life. It occurs among soldiers for their friends, nationalists for their
countries, true believers for their cause. While he was aware of the dangers of the
breakdown of social order, he also realized that too much social control of individual
behavior could be dangerous as well (Coser, 1977).


Durkheim characterized the modern individual as suffering from social norms that are
weak or often contradictory. Durkheim defines anomie as a condition of relative
normlessness in a whole society or in one of its component groups. When these social
regulations break down the controlling influence on individual desires and interests is
ineffective; individuals are left to their own devices. Without normative regulation and
moral guidance, deviance and stress are the result.

Durkheim identifies two major causes of anomie: the division of labor, and rapid social
change. Both of these are, of course, associated with modernity. In the literature the
focus tends to be on rapid change experienced by individuals either up or down the
social structure. Here let us focus again on the division of labor. The individual in
modern society is confronted with a variety of groups that have different values and
goals, each of which competes for the individual's allegiance.

Compare the norms on premarital sexuality for females in more traditional societies (say
America in 1900) with those of contemporary American society. (The double-standard
on sexual behavior for males and females is part of our traditional morality; that is,
boys have always been given mixed messages.) In a traditional setting, the strength of
the bond is more intense between a young woman and the relatively few groups she
belongs to. The message from all groups, family, church, school, and peers is virtually
the same: "Don't do it." Compare this uniformity of message with the conflicting
messages received by girls in modern American society. In most families, the message
from the parent(s) is: "Don't do it"; although the message may be mixed if a teenager
has older siblings. If she belongs to a traditional church, the message is the same.
Movies, television, and music video messages, however, amount to "Everybody's doing
it" (and are more beautiful and happier as a result). Media ads are encouraging: "Just
do it!", connecting the product they are trying to sell with promises of sexual
fulfillment. The school she attends as well as "Dear Abby" are telling her: "Don't do it;
but if you do, use a condom." And finally, her peer group, particularly if she has a
boyfriend, is encouraging her to: "Do it." Consequently, the young woman is left to her
own devices; her personal desires and natural curiosity are not disciplined by consistent
or strong group norms. Durkheim refers to this social condition as anomie--a condition
in which individuals are given weak, inconsistent, or incoherent normative rules to

A key point of Durkheim's concept of anomie is this: An increasing division of labor

weakens the sense of identification within the wider community and weakens social
constraints on human behavior. These conditions lead to social "dis-integration" --high
rates of egocentric behavior, norm violation, and consequent delegitimation and distrust
of authority. In the final analysis Durkheim's whole sociology revolves around this

His is not a straight-line evolutionary theory, however. In his conception, anomie and
unrestrained egoism are as harmful to the individual as they are to the sociocultural
system, and institutions (and individuals) react to the social disorder that result.
Durkheim believed that the functional needs of society necessitate the emergence of
new forms of social integration. Even modern sociocultural systems with a high degree
of a division of labor still need a common faith, a common collective conscience to
integrate people into the society.


There are two legitimate aims of social investigation, to identify the historical causes or
origins of a social phenomenon, and to identify its functions for the social system as a
whole. "The determination of function is . . . necessary for the complete explanation of
the phenomena. . . .To explain a social fact it is not enough to show the cause on which
it depends; we must also, at least in most cases, show its function in the establishment
of social order" (1950, 97).

Determining the functions of social institutions and patterns of social facts played a key
role in all of Durkheim's sociology. For example, Durkheim saw crime as a normal
occurrence in any social system and as serving some positive functions for the society
as a whole. First, crime and the reaction to crime, he asserts, provides society with a
point of normative consensus. By condemning the crime we are reaffirming bonds
among the non criminal population, asserting that the group condemns and punishes
the criminal action. A second function of crime is the drawing of boundaries for human
behavior. By defining such boundaries, and punishing those who cross them, we are
strengthening the collective conscience. A third function of crime is to provide a certain
amount of flexibility within the society. "Where crime exists, collective sentiments are
sufficiently flexible to take on a new form, and crime sometimes helps to determine the
form they will take. How many times, indeed, it is only an anticipation of future
morality--a step toward what will be" (1950, p. 71).


To discover the essence of religion and the functions it served, Durkheim studied
animism, totemism (religious beliefs based on the worship of sacred objects which are
often thought to possess supernatural powers) and other "primitive" beliefs. "Now
when primitive religious beliefs are systematically analyzed, the principal categories are
naturally found. They are born in religion and of religion; they are a product of religious
thought" (1954, p. 9). All religions divide social life into two spheres, he concluded, the
sacred and the profane.

There is nothing intrinsic about a particular object which makes it sacred, he says. An
object becomes sacred only when the community invests it with that meaning. Religion
is "an eminently collective thing" (1954, p.47). Religion is not only a social creation; it
is the power of the community that is being worshiped. The power of the community
or society over the individual so transcends individual existence that people collectively
give it sacred significance. By worshiping God people are worshiping the power of the
collective over all, they are worshiping society.

It was religion, according to Durkheim, which is one of the main forces that make up
the collective conscience, religion which allows the individual to transcend self and act
for the social good. But traditional religion was weakening under the onslaught of the
division of labor; what could replace religion as the common bond?

The great things of the past which filled our fathers with enthusiasm do not excite the
same ardor in us...In a word, the old gods are growing old or already dead, and others
are not yet born...But this state of incertitude and confused agitation cannot last for
ever. A day will come when our societies will know again those hours of creative
effervescence, in the course of which new formulae are found which serve for a while
as a guide to humanity; and when these hours shall have been passed through once,
men will spontaneously feel the need of reliving them from time to time in thought, that
is to say, of keeping alive their memory by means of celebrations which regularly
reproduce their fruits. We have already seen how the French Revolution established a
whole cycle of holidays to keep the principles with which it was inspired in a state of
perpetual youth....There are no gospels which are immortal, but neither is there any
reason for believing that humanity is incapable of inventing new ones. As to the
question of what symbols this new faith will express itself with, whether they will
resemble the past or not, and whether or not they will be more adequate for the reality
which they seek to translate, that is something which surpasses the human faculty of
foresight and which does not appertain to the principal question" (1954, pp. 475-476).
While men are losing faith in the old religions, new religions will be born. For all
societies feel the need to express their collective sentiments, ideas and ideologies in
regular ceremony. While the forms and particular symbols may change, religion is

© 2003 Frank Elwell

In His Own Words:

On Social Facts:

"The determining cause of a social fact should be sought among the social facts
preceding it and not among the states of individual consciousness" (1950, p. 110).

[My] "principal objective [is] . . .to extend scientific rationalism to human behavior"
(1951, p. xxxix).

On Anomie:

"The more one has, the more one wants, since satisfactions received only stimulate
instead of filling needs" (1951, p. 248).

On Religion:

A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to
say, things set apart and forbidden--beliefs and practices which unite in one single
community called a Church, all those who adhere to them" (1954, p. 47).

"The believer who has communicated with his god is not merely a man who sees new
truths of which the unbeliever is ignorant; he is a man who is stronger. He feels within
him more force, wither to endure the trials of existence, or to conquer them" (1954, p.

"At the roots of all our judgments there are a certain number of essential ideas which
dominate all our intellectual life; they are what the philosophers since Aristotle have
called the categories of the understanding: ideas of time, space, class, numbers, cause,
substance, personality, etc. They correspond to the most universal properties of things.
They are like the solid frame which encloses all thought; . . .They are like the
framework of intelligence. Now when primitive religious beliefs are systematically
analyzed, the principal categories are naturally found. They are born in religion and of
religion; they are a product of religious thought" (1954, p. 9).

"Thus there is something eternal in religion which is destined to survive all the
particular symbols in which religious thought has successively enveloped itself. There
can be no society which does not feel the need of upholding and reaffirming at regular
intervals the collective sentiments and the collective ideas which make its unity and its
personality. Now this moral remaking cannot be achieved except by the means of
reunions, assemblies, and meetings where the individuals, being closely united to one
another, reaffirm in common their common sentiments; hence come ceremonies which
do not differ from regular religious ceremonies, either in their object, the results which
they produce, or the processes employed to attain these results. What essential
difference is there between an assembly of Christians celebrating the principal dates in
the life of Christ, or of Jews remembering the exodus from Egypt or the promulgation of
the Decalogue, and a reunion of citizens commemorating the promulgation of a new
moral or legal system or some great event in the national life?" (1954, p. 427).

[Religion is] "an eminently collective thing" (1954, p.47).

"We must discover the rational substitutes for these religious notions that for a long
time have served as the vehicle for the most essential moral ideas" (1961, p. 9).

"Society is not at all the illogical or a-logical, inherent and fantastic being which has too
often been considered. Quite on the contrary, the collective consciousness is the
highest form of psychic life, since it is the consciousness of consciousness. Being
placed outside of and above individual and local contingencies, it sees things only in
their permanent and essential aspects, which it crystallizes into communicable ideas. At
the same time that it sees from above, it sees farther; at every moment of time it
embraces all known reality; that is why it alone can furnish the minds with the moulds

which are applicable to the totality of things and which make it possible to think of
them" (1954, p.444).

On Social Structure:

"But if there is one fact that history has irrefutably demonstrated it is that the morality
of each people is directly related to the social structure of the people practicing it. The
connection is so intimate that, given the general character of the morality observed in a
given society and barring abnormal and pathological cases, one can infer the nature of
that society, the elements of its structure and the way it is organized. Tell me the
marriage patterns, the morals dominating family life, and I will tell you the principal
characteristics of its organization" (1961, p. 87).

On Crime:

"Where crime exists, collective sentiments are sufficiently flexible to take on a new
form, and crime sometimes helps to determine the form they will take. How many
times, indeed, it is only an anticipation of future morality--a step toward what will be"
(1950, p. 71).

"Crime brings together upright consciences and concentrates them" (1960, 103).

On Mechanical and Organic Solidarity:

"Social life comes from a double source, the likeness of consciences and the division of
labor. The individual is socialized in the first case, because, not having any real
individuality, he becomes, with those whom he resembles, part of the same collective
type; in the second case, because, while having a physiognomy and a personal activity
which distinguishes him from others, he depends upon them in the same measure that
he is distinguished from them, and consequently upon the society which results from
their union" (1960, p. 226).

"The other (mechanical solidarity) is strong only if the individual is not. Made up of rules
which are practiced by all indistinctly, it receives fromthis universal, uniform practice an
authority which bestows something superhuman upon it, and which puts it beyond the
pale of discussion. The co-operative society, on the contrary, develops in the measure
that individual personality becomes stronger. As regulated as a function may be, there
is a large place always left for personal initiative" (1960, pp. 228-229).

On the Division of Labor:

"Even where society relies most completely upon the division of labor, it does not
become a jumble of juxtaposed atoms, between which it can establish only external,
transient contacts. Rather the members are united by ties which extend deeper and
far beyond the short moments during which the exchange in made. Each of the
functions they exercise is, in a fixed way, dependent upon others, and with them forms
a solitary system. Accordingly, from the nature of chosen task permanent duties arise.
Because we fill some certain domestic or social function, we are involved in a complex
of obligations from which we have no right to free ourselves. There is, above all, an
organ upon which we are tending to depend more and more; this is the State. The
points at which we are in contact with it multiply as do the occasions when it is
entrusted with the duty of reminding us of the sentiment of common solidarity" (1960,
p. 227).

"Because the individual is not sufficient unto himself, it is for society that he works.
Thus is formed a very strong sentiment of the state of dependence in which he finds
himself. He becomes accustomed to estimating it at its just value, that is to say, in
regarding himself as part of a whole, the organ of an organism. Such sentiments
naturally inspire not only mundane sacrifices which assure the regular development of
daily social life, but even, on occasion, acts of complete self-renunciation and wholesale
abnegation" (1960, p. 228).

On Functionalism:

"When . . . the explanation of a social phenomenon is undertaken, we must seek

separately the efficient cause which produces it and the function it fulfills. We use the
word "function," in preference to "end" or "purpose," precisely because social
phenomena do not generally exist for the useful results they produce. We must
determine whether there is a correspondence between the fact under consideration and
the general needs of the social organism, and in what this correspondence consists,
without occupying ourselves with whether it has been intentional or not" (1950, 95).

"The determination of function is . . . necessary for the complete explanation of the

phenomena. . . .To explain a social fact it is not enough to show the cause on which it
depends; we must also, at least in most cases, show its function in the establishment of
social order" (1950, 97).


Durkheim, Emile. 1960 [1893] The Division of Labor in Society. Translated by George
Simpson. New York: The Free Press.

Durkheim, Emile. 1950 [1895] The Rules of Sociological Method. Translated by S. A.

Solovay and J. H. Mueller. New York: The Free Press.

Durkheim, Emile. 1951 [1897] Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Translated by J. A.

Spaulding and G. Simpson. New York: The Free Press.

Durkheim, Emile. 1954 [1912] The Elementary forms of the Religious Life. Translated
by J. W. Swain. New York: The Free Press.

Durkheim, Emile. 1953 Sociology and Philosophy. New York: The Free Press.

Durkheim, Emile. 1956 Education and Sociology. Translated by S.D. Fox. New York:
The Free Press.

Durkheim, Emile. 1961 Moral Education: A Study in the Theory and Application of the
Sociology of Education. Translated by E. K. Wilson and H. Schnurer. New York: The
Free Press.

The Division of Labor in Society (1893)

[Excerpt from Robert Alun Jones. Emile Durkheim: An Introduction to Four Major
Works. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 1986. Pp. 24-59.]

Outline of Topics

1. Durkheim's Problem
2. The Function of the Division of Labor
3. The Causes of the Division of Labor
4. Abnormal Forms of the Division of Labor
5. Critical Remarks

Durkheim's Problem

In 1776, Adam Smith opened The Wealth of Nations with the observation that "the
greatest improvements in the productive powers of labour, and the greatest part of the
skill, dexterity, and judgement with which it is anywhere directed, or applied, seem to
have been the effects of the division of labour."1 Despite the numerous economic
advantages thus derived, however, Smith insisted that the division of labor was not
itself the effect of any human wisdom or foresight; rather, it was the necessary, albeit
very slow and gradual, consequence of a certain propensity in human nature -- "the
propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another."2 Common to all men,
this propensity could be found in no other animals; and, subsequently encouraged by
the recognition of individual self-interest, it gave rise to differences among men more
extensive, more important, and ultimately more useful than those implied by their
natural endowments.
More than a century later, Durkheim could observe, apparently without exaggeration,
that economists upheld the division of labor not only as necessary, but as "the supreme
law of human societies and the condition of their progress.3 Greater concentrations of
productive forces and capital investment seemed to lead modern industry, business,
and agriculture toward greater separation and specialization of occupations, and even a
greater interdependence among the products themselves. And like Smith, Durkheim
recognized that this extended beyond the economic world, embracing not only political,
administrative, and judicial activities, but aesthetic and scientific activities as well. Even
philosophy had been broken into a multitude of special disciplines, each of which had its
own object, method, and ideas.

Unlike Smith, however, Durkheim viewed this "law" of the division of labor as applying
not only to human societies, but to biological organisms generally. Citing recent
speculation in the "philosophy of biology" (see the works of C.F. Wolff, K.E. von Baer,
and H. Milne-Edwards), Durkheim noted the apparent correlation between the
functional specialization of the parts of an organism and the extent of that organism's
evolutionary development, suggesting that this extended the scope of the division of
labor so as to make its origins contemporaneous with the origins of life itself. This, of
course, eliminated any "propensity in human nature" as its possible cause, and implied
that its conditions must be found in the essential properties of all organized matter. The
division of labor in society was thus no more than a particular form of a process of
extreme generality.

But if the division of labor was thus a natural law, then (like all natural laws) it raised
certain moral questions. Are we to yield to it or resist it? Is it our duty to become
thorough, complete, self-sufficient human beings? Or are we to be but parts of a whole,
organs of an organism? In other words, is this natural law also a moral rule ? If so,
why, and in what degree? In Durkheim's opinion, the answers of modern societies to
these and similar questions had been deeply ambivalent -- i.e., on the one hand, the
division of labor seemed to be increasingly viewed as a moral rule, so that, in at least
one of its aspects, the categorical imperative" of the modern conscience had become:
Make yourself usefully fulfill a determinate function"4; on the other hand, quite aside
from such maxims endorsing specialization, there were other maxims, no less prevalent
which called attention to the dangers of over -specialization, and encouraged all men to
realize similar ideals. The situation was thus one of moral conflict or antagonism, and it
was this which Durkheim sought first to explain and then to resolve.

This in turn calls for two final observations. First, the method of this explanation and
resolution was to be that of the so-called "science of ethics"; for Durkheim was
convinced that moral facts like the division of labor were themselves natural
phenomena -- they consisted of certain rules of action imperatively imposed upon
conduct, which could be recognized, observed, described, classified, and explained.
Second, this explanation itself was but a preliminary step to the solution of practical
social problems; for Durkheim always conceived of societies as subject to conditions of

moral "health" or "illness," and the sociologist as a kind of "physician" who scientifically
determined the particular condition of a particular society at a particular time, and then
prescribed the social "medicine" necessary to the maintenance or recovery of well-

Durkheim's problem thus defined, his solution fell quite naturally into three principal

1. the determination of the function of the division of labor;

2. the determination of the causes on which it depended; and
3. the determination of those forms of "illness" which it exhibited.

The Function of the Division of Labor

The word "function," Durkheim observed, can be used in two, quite different, senses:

1. to refer to a system of vital movements (e.g., digestion, respiration, etc.)

without reference to the consequences of these movements; or
2. to refer to the relationship between these movements and the
corresponding needs of the organism (e.g., digestion incorporates food
essential to replenish nutritional resources of the body, while respiration
introduces the necessary gases into the body's tissues; etc.).

Durkheim insisted on the second usage; thus, to ask "what is the 'function' of the
division of labor?" was simply to ask for the organic need which the division of labor

But at first sight, the answer to this question seemed all too clear; for, as Smith had
already observed, the division of labor improves both the skill of the worker and the
productive power of society, and thus its "function" would simply be to produce and
secure those economic, artistic. and scientific advantages subsumed under the word
"civilization." Against this, Durkheim presented two arguments. The first, which reveals
Durkheim's deep, if ambivalent, debt to Rousseau, was that, if the division of labor has
no other role than to render "civilization" possible, then there would be no reason to
grant it the status of a "moral" fact -- of rules of action imperatively imposed upon
conduct. On the contrary, if the average number of crimes and suicides is employed as
the "standard of morality," Durkheim argued, we must conclude that immorality
increases as the economy arts, and sciences progress. At its very best, therefore,
civilization would be morally indifferent; and if its productions were the sole function of
the division of labor, then it, too, would participate in this moral neutrality.

Durkheim's second argument was that, if the division of labor has no other role than to
make civilization possible, then it would have no reason for existence whatsoever; for
civilization, by itself, has no intrinsic value; rather, its value is derived entirely from its
correspondence to certain needs. But these needs, Durkheim argued, are themselves
the product of the division of labor. If the division of labor existed only to satisfy them,
its only function would be to diminish needs which it itself had created. And this made
little sense to Durkheim, for, while it might explain why we have to endure the division
of labor, it would hardly be consistent with the fact that we desire occupational
specialization and push it forward relentlessly. For the last to be intelligible, we must
assume that the division of labor satisfies needs which the division of labor has not
itself produced.

What, then, are these "needs" satisfied by the division of labor? As a first step toward
an answer, Durkheim posed a paradox as old as Aristotle -- that, while we like those
who resemble us, we are also drawn toward those who are different, precisely because
they are different. In other words, difference can be as much a source of mutual
attraction as likeness. The key to resolving the paradox, Durkheim suggested, lies in
recognizing that only certain kinds of differences attract -- specifically, those which,
instead of excluding one another, complement one another: "If one of two people has
what the other has not, but desires, in that fact lies the point of departure for a positive
attraction."5 In other words, we seek in others what we lack in ourselves, and
associations are formed wherever there is such a true exchange of services -- in short,
wherever there is a division of labor.

But if this is the case, we are led to see the division of labor in a new light6 -- the
economic services it renders are trivial by comparison with the moral effect it produces.
Its true function, the real need to which it corresponds, is that feeling of solidarity in
two or more persons which it creates. Thus, the role of the division of labor is not
simply to embellish already existing societies, but to render possible societies which,
without it, would not even exist; and the societies thus created, Durkheim added,
cannot resemble those determined by the attraction of like for like. Rather, they must
bear the mark of their special origin.

The last point laid the immediate foundations for the next step in Durkheim's argument.
Thus far, he had shown only that, in advanced societies, there is a social solidarity
derived from the division of labor, something already obvious from two facts: that the
division of labor does produce a kind of solidarity, and that the division of labor is highly
developed in advanced societies. The question which remained was both more
important and more difficult to answer: To what degree does the solidarity produced by
the division of labor contribute to the general integration of society? This question was
important because only by answering it could Durkheim determine whether this form of
solidarity was essential to the stability of advanced societies, or was merely an
accessory and secondary condition of that stability; and it was difficult because an
answer required the systematic comparison of this form of solidarity with others, in
order to determine how much credit, in the total effect, was due to each. Such a
comparison in turn required a classification of the various types of solidarity to be

compared, and here Durkheim faced one of the most formidable obstacles to his
science of ethics: the fact that, as a "completely moral phenomenon," social solidarity
did not lend itself to exact observation or measurement.

Durkheim's way of surmounting this obstacle was to substitute for this internal, moral
fact an "external index" which symbolized it, and then to study the fact in light of the
symbol. This external symbol was law -- i.e., where social life exists, it tends to assume
a definite, organized form, and law is simply the most stable and precise expression of
this organization. Law reproduces the principal forms of solidarity; and thus we have
only to classify the different types of law in order to discover the different types of
solidarity corresponding to them.

This proposal encountered two immediate difficulties. The first was that some social
relations are regulated not by law, but by custom; moreover, custom is frequently at
odds with law, and thus may express an altogether different form of social solidarity.
Here Durkheim resorted to one of his favorite (and least convincing) defenses -- i.e.,
the distinction between the normal and the pathological. The conflict between law and
custom arises where the former no longer corresponds to existing social relations, but
maintains itself by habit, while the latter corresponds to these new relations, but is
denied juridical expression. But such conflict, Durkheim insisted, is both rare and
pathological; the normal condition is one in which custom is the very basis of law, in
which custom alone can manifest only secondary forms of social solidarity, and thus in
which law alone tells us which forms of social solidarity are essential. This purely
arbitrary distinction, incidentally, reveals not only a profound discomfort with the
ethnographic study of primitive societies, but a concerted effort to rationalize this
discomfort as well.

The second objection was that social solidarity does not completely manifest itself in
any perceptible form whatsoever, for law (and even custom) are but the partial,
imperfect manifestations of internal psychological states which are thus the more
appropriate focus for our investigations. Durkheim's response contained three
interrelated arguments; first, that we can determine the nature of social solidarity
scientifically only by studying its most objective and easily measurable effects (such as
law); second, that, while solidarity "depends on" such internal states, these are not
equivalent to social solidarity itself; and, finally, that these states themselves depend on
social conditions for their explanation, a fact which explains why at least some
sociological propositions find their way into the purest analyses of psychological facts.7

How, then, do we classify the different types of law? If the classification is to be

scientific, Durkheim argued, we must do so according to some characteristic which both
is essential to laws and varies as they vary. This characteristic is the sanction -- i.e.,
"Every precept of law can be defined as a rule of sanctioned conduct. Moreover, it is
evident that sanctions change with the gravity attributed to precepts, the place they
hold in the public conscience the role they play in society."8 These sanctions, Durkheim

then observed, fall into two classes: repressive sanctions (characteristic of penal laws),
which consist in some loss or suffering inflicted on the agent, making "demands on his
fortune, or on his honor, or on his life, or on his liberty, and deprive him of something
he enjoys."9; and restitutive sanctions (characteristic of civil, commercial, procedural,
administrative, and constitutional laws), which consist "only of the return of things as
they were, in the re-establishment of troubled relations to their normal state."10

The two types of law thus classified according to their characteristic sanctions,
Durkheim was now in a position to determine the types of solidarity corresponding to
each. The first of these Durkheim called mechanical solidarity -- that type of solidarity
characterized by repressive sanctions. And since acts calling forth such sanctions are
(by definition) "crimes," then the inquiry into the nature of mechanical solidarity
became an inquiry into the nature of crime.

What, then, is "crime"? While acknowledging that there are many kinds of crime,
Durkheim was convinced that they all contained a common element; for otherwise the
universally identical reaction to crimes (repressive sanctions) would itself be
unintelligible. Nonetheless, the enormous variety of crimes suggested that this common
element could not be found among the intrinsic properties of criminal acts themselves;
rather, it had to be found in the relations which these acts sustain with certain external
conditions. But which relations? After some characteristic annihilations of competing
proposals, Durkheim concluded that the only common element in all crimes is that they
shock sentiments which, "for a given social system, are found in all healthy
consciences."11 And this also explains why penal (as opposed to civil) law is "diffused"
throughout the whole society rather than centralized in a special magistrate -- the
sentiments to which penal law corresponds are immanent in all consciousnesses.12

But what about acts like incest -- acts which provoke widespread aversion, but are
merely "immoral" rather than "criminal"? Durkheim replied that "crimes" properly so-
called have an additional distinctive property not shared by simply "immoral" acts: the
sentiments they offend must have a certain average intensity. And again, this greater
intensity of sentiments responsive to crime as opposed to immoral acts is reflected in
the fixity of penal law over time, by contrast with the great plasticity of moral rules.
Finally, the sentiments responsive to criminal acts are also more well-defined than those
nebulous sentiments evoked by immorality.

Durkheim's definition of crime thus led directly to his notion of the conscience collective
-- "the totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average citizens of the same
society"13 -- which Durkheim then endowed with quite distinctive characteristics: it
forms a determinate system with its own life; it is "diffuse" in each society and lacks a
"specific organ"; it is independent of the particular conditions in which individuals find
themselves; it is the same in different locations, classes, and occupations; it connects
successive generations rather than changing from one to another; and it is different
from individual consciences, despite the fact that it can be realized only through them.

A "crime," therefore, is simply an act which offends intense and well-defined states of
this conscience collective, a proposition which describes not simply the "consequences"
of crime, but its essential property: "We do not reprove it because it is a crime, but it is
a crime because we reprove it."14

But aren't there acts which do not offend the conscience collective, but which are
nonetheless severely sanctioned by the state? And are there then two distinct types of
crime? Durkheim insisted there are not, for the effects called forth by criminal acts are
the same in either case, and the same effect must have the same cause. Durkheim was
thus led to argue that the state derives its authority from the conscience collective, and
becomes its directive organ and its symbol but, while the state never completely frees
itself from this source of its authority, it does become an autonomous, spontaneous
power in social life. The extent of the state's power over the number and nature of
criminal acts depends on the authority it receives from the conscience collective; and
this authority can be measured either by the power the state exerts over its citizens, or
by the gravity attached to crime against the state. As Durkheim would show, this power
was greatest and this gravity most pronounced in the lowest, most primitive societies;
and it was in these societies that the conscience collective enjoyed the greatest

In effect, therefore, Durkheim argued that crime is characterized its capacity to provoke
punishment. But if this was the case, crime ought to explain the various characteristics
of punishment, and any, demonstration that it did so would augment the plausibility of
Durkheim's initial argument. What, then, are the characteristics of punishment?
Disregarding the conscious intentions of those applying it, Durkheim insisted that the
characteristics of punishment are what they have always been -- its mood is passionate;
its function is vengeance, even expiation; its intensity is variable or "graduated"; its
source is society rather than the individual; its cause is the violation of a moral rule;
and its form is "organized" (unlike the "diffuse" repression of merely immoral acts, its
implementation is the act of a definitely constituted body or tribunal). In short,
punishment is "a passionate reaction of graduated intensity that society exercises
through the medium of a body acting upon those of its members who have violated
certain rules of conduct."15

How are these characteristics to be explained? Durkheim first observed that every state
of conscience is an essential source of life, and everything that weakens such a state
"wastes and corrupts" us; thus we react energetically against those ideas and
sentiments which contradict our own. But the ideas and sentiments offended by crime,
Durkheim argued, have particular features which in turn explain the special
characteristics of punishment: i.e., because these sentiments are held with particular
strength, the reaction is passionate; because these sentiments transcend individual
mental states, mere restitution is unacceptable, and revenge and even expiation are
called for; because the vivacity of such sentiments will nonetheless vary, the intensity of
the reaction will also be variable; because such sentiments are held collectively, the

source of the reaction will be society rather than the individual; and because these
sentiments are well-defined, the reaction to their violation will be organized.

Having begun by establishing inductively that "crime" is an act contrary to strong and
well-defined states of the conscience collective, therefore, Durkheim confirmed this
definition by showing that crime thus defined accounts for all the characteristic features
of punishment; and since the whole point of Durkheim's inquiry into the nature of crime
was its promise to reveal the nature of mechanical solidarity, we might reasonably ask
what has been thus revealed. Durkheim's answer was that the cause of mechanical
solidarity lies in the conformity of all individual consciences to a common type, not only
because individuals are attracted to one another through resemblance but because
each is joined to the society that they form by their union; inversely, the society is
bound to those ideas and sentiments whereby its members resemble one another
because that is a condition of its cohesion.

Durkheim thus introduced an idea which would assume increasing importance in his
later work: the duality of human nature. Briefly, in each of us there are two consciences
-- one containing states personal to each of us, representing and constituting our
individual personality; the other containing states common to all, representing society,
and without which society would not exist. When our conduct is determined by the first,
we act out of self-interest; but when it is determined by the second, we act morally, in
the interest of society. Thus the individual, by virtue of his resemblance to.other
individuals, is linked to the social order. This is mechanical solidarity, which, as we have
seen, is manifested through repressive law; and the greater the number of repressive
laws, the greater the number of social relations regulated by this type of solidarity.

The very nature of restitutive sanctions, however, indicates that there is a totally
different type of social solidarity which corresponds to civil law; for the restitutive
sanction is not punitive, vengeful, or expiatory at all, but consists only in a return of
things to their previous, normal state. Neither do violations of civil laws evoke the
milder, more diffuse disapproval of merely moral transgressions, in fact, we can imagine
that the laws themselves might be quite different than they are without any feeling of
moral repugnance being aroused. Durkheim thus concluded that such laws, manifested
in restitutive sanctions, could not derive from any strong state of the conscience
collective, but must have some other source.

An indication of this source was afforded by an examination of the conditions under

which such rules are established. Briefly, there are some relationships (typically, those
involving contractual obligations) which the consent of the interested parties is not
sufficient to create or to change; on the contrary, it is necessary to establish or modify
such relationships juridically, by means of law. While contracts are entered and
abrogated through the efforts of individuals, therefore, they have a binding, obligatory
power only because they are supported and enforced by society. Most important, the
contractual relations thus regulated are not "diffused" throughout the society; they do

not bind the individual to society, but rather bind special parties in the society to one

The cooperative relations thus formed create what Durkheim called organic solidarity,
which is derived not from the conscience collective, but from the division of labor. For,
where mechanical solidarity presumes that individuals resemble one another, organic
solidarity presumes their difference; and again, where mechanical solidarity is possible
only in so far as the individual personality is submerged in the collectivity, organic
solidarity becomes possible only in so far as each individual has a sphere of action
peculiar to him. For organic solidarity to emerge, therefore, the conscience collective
must leave untouched a part of the individual conscience so that special functions,
which the conscience collective itself cannot tolerate, may be established there; and the
more this region of the individual conscience is extended, the stronger is the cohesion
which results from this particular kind of solidarity.

Durkheim had thus postulated two distinct types of social solidarity (mechanical and
organic), each with its distinctive form of juridical rules (repressive and restitutive). In
order to determine their relative importance in any given societal type, therefore, it
seemed reasonable to compare the respective extent of the two kinds of rules which
express or symbolize them. The preponderance of repressive rules over their restitutive
counterparts, for example, ought to be just as great as the preponderance of the
conscience collective over the division of labor; inversely, in so far as the individual
personality and the specialization of tasks is developed, then the relative proportion of
the two types of law ought to be reversed.

In fact, Durkheim argued, this is precisely the case. Despite the flimsy ethnographic
evidence supporting such generalizations, Durkheim argued that the more primitive
societies are, the more resemblances (particularly as reflected in primitive religion)
there are among the individuals who compose them16; inversely, the more civilized a
people, the more easily distinguishable its individual members.17 Durkheim's discomfort
with the ethnographic literature was still more evident when he turned to the nature of
primitive law. Relying on Sir John Lubbock's Origin of Civilization (1870) and Herbert
Spencer's Principles of Sociology (1876-85), he suggested that such law "appears to be
entirely repressive"18, but insisting that such observations necessarily lack precision,
Durkheim instead pointed to the evidence of written law. Moving from the Pentateuch
to the "Twelve Tables" (451-450 B.C.) of the Romans to the laws of early Christian
Europe, therefore, Durkheim argued that the relative proportions of repressive to
restitutive laws are precisely those which his theory would lead us to expect.19

When we reach the present, therefore, we find that the number of relationships which
come under repressive laws represents only a small fraction of social life; thus, we may
assume that the social bonds derived from the conscience collective are now much less
numerous than those derived from the division of labor. But one might still argue that,
regardless of their number, the bonds which tie us directly to our societies through

shared beliefs and sentiments have greater strength than those resulting from
cooperation; and to this hypothetical objection, Durkheim had two independent

First, he felt that, regardless of their undeniable rigidity the bonds created by
mechanical solidarity, even in lower societies, were inferior to those created by organic
solidarity in their more advanced counterparts. Here, again, Durkheim's ethnographic
resources were limited to a few passages cited from Spencer, Fustel de Coulanges, and
Theodor Waitz's Anthropologie der Naturvölker (1859); but the source of this
conviction, in any case, was less empirical than theoretical. Where, as in lower societies,
the conscience collective is virtually coextensive with the individual conscience, each
individual "contains within himself all that social life consists of," and thus can carry
"society" wherever he wishes to go; inversely, the society, given its rudimentary division
of labor, can lose any number of its members without its internal economy being
disturbed. Thus, from both standpoints the bonds connecting the individual to society
based upon the conscience collective are less resistant to disseveration than those
based upon the division of labor.

Durkheim's second answer was that, as society evolves from a lower to a higher type,
the bonds created by mechanical solidarity become still weaker. The strength of
mechanical solidarity, Durkheim argued, depends on three conditions:

1. the relation between the volume of the conscience collective relative to

the individual conscience;
2. the average intensity of the states of the conscience collective; and
3. the degree of definition of the states of the conscience collective.

As we have seen, intense and well-defined states of the conscience collective are the
basis of repressive laws; and, since we have also seen that the proportion of such laws
has declined, it seems reasonable to assume that the average intensity and degree of
definition of the conscience collective have also declined. The same, Durkheim
admitted, cannot be said about the relative volume of the conscience collective; for,
while that "region" of the conscience collective manifested by repressive laws has no
doubt contracted, that region of the same conscience expressed through less intense
and more vague sentiments of custom and public opinion may in fact have expanded.
But meanwhile, Durkheim argued, the volume of the individual conscience has grown in
at least equal proportions; for, "if there are more things common to all, there are many
more that are personal to each."20 The most we can say of the relative volume of the
conscience collective, therefore, is that it has remained the same; for it certainly has
not gained, and it may have lost. And if we could prove what we already have good
reason to assume -- that the conscience collective has become both less intense and
more vague over time -- then we could be sure that mechanical solidarity has become
weaker over the same period.

How could such proof be provided? Not by comparing the number of repressive rules in
different societal types, Durkheim emphasized, for this number alone does not vary
exactly with the sentiments thus represented. Instead, Durkheim simply grouped the
rules into classes corresponding to the types of sentiments aroused by their violation.
The result was a list of "criminological types," whose number would necessarily
correspond to the number of intense, well-defined states of the conscience collective:
"The more numerous the latter are, the more criminal types there ought to be, and
consequently, the variations of one would exactly reflect the variations of the other."21

The conclusion of Durkheim's investigation, of course, was that a large number of

criminological types -- those expressed by repressive laws governing sexual relations,
domestic, and, most dramatically, religious life -- had progressively disappeared over
the centuries; and this in turn suggested that the states of the conscience collective had
indeed become less intense and more vague, and that mechanical solidarity was
commensurately weakened. The notable exception here, as Durkheim was careful to
point out, were those states of the conscience collective which have the individual as
their object, as in the protection of the individual's person and rights. And this
Durkheim (in effect) suggested, is indeed an exception which proves the rule; for it
could become possible only if the individual personality had become far more important
in the society, and thus only if the personal conscience of each individual had grown
considerably more than the conscience collective itself. To this other proofs were
added: the decline of religion (which, at this time Durkheim literally defined as strong,
commonly held beliefs) and the disappearance of those proverbs and adages whereby
"collective thought condenses itself."22 All conspired to make the same point: that the
conscience collective had progressed less than the individual conscience, becoming less
intense and distinct, and more abstract and indecisive.

Will the conscience collective then disappear? Durkheim thought not, at least in part
because of the "notable exception" mentioned above -- it not only survives, but
becomes more intense and well-defined, in so far as its object is the individual: "As all
the other beliefs and all the other practices take on a character less and less religious,
the individual becomes the object of a sort of religion. We erect a cult on behalf of
personal dignity which, as every strong cult already has its superstitions."23 But while it
is from society that this cult gathers its force, it is not to society, but to ourselves, that
it attaches us; thus Durkheim denied that it was a true social link, and repeated his
argument that all such links derived from likeness have progressively weakened. If
society itself is to survive, therefore, there must be some other "true social link" which
replaces it, and this, of course, is organic solidarity, the product of the division of labor.

But if the way in which men are linked together has thus evolved from mechanical to
organic solidarity, there should be parallel changes in the structural features of the
societies themselves. What kind of social structure, therefore, might we expect to find
in a society whose cohesiveness is based primarily on resemblances? Briefly, we would
expect what Durkheim called the horde -- an absolutely homogeneous mass of

indistinguishable parts, devoid of all form. arrangement, or organization. Durkheim
admitted that no societies fitting this description had ever been observed; but among
both the Iroquois24 and Australian25 tribes, he found societies made up of a number of
groups of this kind. Durkheim thus gave the name clan to the horde which had become
an element of a more extensive group, and used the term segmental societies with a
clan base to refer to peoples thus constituted through an association of clans.

Durkheim chose the term "clan" because these groups are both familial (i.e., all
members are regarded as "kin," most are consanguineous, and they practice collective
punishment, collective responsibility, and, once private property appears, mutual
inheritance) and political (i.e., not all members are consanguineous, some merely bear
the same name; it attains dimensions much larger than any "family," and the heads of
clans are the sole political authorities). Most important, however, the clan is internally
homogeneous, and its solidarity is thus based on resemblances.26 Even the clans
themselves must bear certain resemblances if segmental organization is to be possible,
although their differences must also be sufficient to prevent them from "losing
themselves" in one another. This, then, is the social structure of mechanically solidary

But there is also a social structure to which organic solidarity corresponds. Typically,
such societies are constituted not by homogeneous segments, but by a system of
different organs, each of which has a special role, and which themselves are formed of
differentiated parts. These parts are also arranged differently: rather than being merely
juxtaposed or mingled, they are coordinated and subordinated to one another around a
central organ, which exercises a regulative action on the entire organism. Finally, the
place of each individual in such societies is determined not by his name or kin-group,
but by the particular occupation or social function to which he is committed.

This is what Durkheim called the organized societal type which, because of its sharp
differences from the segmental type, can advance only in so far as the latter is
gradually effaced. But Durkheim was also aware of the considerable complexity of the
transition from one to the other, and provided a particularly subtle account of the
almost parasitical manner in which the new occupational "organs" at first utilize the old
familial system (as when Levites became priests), the subsequent process whereby
consanguineous ties give way to less resistant bonds based upon territorial allegiances,
and, finally, the complete triumph of the fully "organized" societal type over the
structural constraints of its earlier, "segmental," counterpart. As with the primitive
horde, Durkheim admitted that this organized type was nowhere presently observable
in its purest form; but he added that "a day will come when our whole social and
political organization will have a base exclusively, or almost exclusively, occupational."27

Thus far, Durkheim's argument would have appeared relatively familiar to his
contemporaries, for it bore an unmistakable similarity to that found in Spencer's
Principles of Sociology (1876-1885), particularly in its emphasis on the growth of

individuality with the advance of civilization. This similarity was sufficiently upsetting to
Durkheim to provoke a more detailed account of his differences with Spencer. For the
latter, for example, the submersion of the individual in lower societies was the result of
force, an artificial suppression required by the essentially despotic, "military" type of
organization appropriate to an early stage of social evolution. For Durkheim, by
contrast, the effacement of the individual was the product of a societal type
characterized by the complete absence of all centralized authority; military personality
in lower societies was a consequence not of suppression, but of the fact that, in those
societies, the "individual," as such, did not exist. Reversing Spencer's argument,
therefore, Durkheim saw the emergence of despotic authority not as a step toward the
effacement of the individual, but as the first step toward individualism itself, the chief
being the first personality to emerge from the previously homogeneous social mass.

But there was more to this than a typical Durkheimian annihilation of an intellectually
inferior opponent; for Durkheim sought to establish two important propositions. The
first of these was hinted at in our earlier discussion of Durkheim's view of the state --
that when we find a governmental system of great authority. we must seek its cause
not in the particular situation of the governing, but in the nature of the societies
governed. The second was that altruism, far from being a recent advance over man's
selfish, egoistic tendencies, is found in the earliest societies; for, as we have seen,
Durkheim had a dualistic conception of human nature, and thus both egoism and
altruism were natural expressions of the human conscience at all stages of social

What, then, is the essential difference between lower societies and our own?
Durkheim's answer was again worked out in opposition to Spencer, whose own answer
again appeared quite similar. Spencer had observed, like Durkheim, that in industrial
societies a cooperative form of solidarity is produced automatically as a consequence of
the division of labor. But if Spencer thus recognized the true cause of social solidarity in
advanced societies, Durkheim argued, he had not understood the way in which it
produced its effect; and, misunderstanding this, Spencer had misunderstood the nature
of the effect (i.e., social solidarity) itself.

Consider only two features of Spencer's conception of social solidarity: because

industrial solidarity is produced automatically, it does not require the regulation or
intervention of the state in order to produce or maintain it; and because the sphere of
societal action is thus drastically reduced, the only surviving link between men is the
relationship of contracts, freely entered and freely abrogated, according to the self-
interest of the parties involved. Durkheim's initial response was that, if this is truly the
character of societies whose solidarity is produced by the division of labor, we might
with justice doubt their stability; for "self-interest" creates only the most ephemeral,
superficial sort of social bond, and in fact disguises a more fundamental, albeit latent
and deferred, conflict. The large and increasing volume of restitutive law, moreover,
hardly suggested to Durkheim that the regulative intervention of the state in contractual

relations was decreasing; on the contrary, it suggested that unregulated contracts alone
were insufficient to secure equal justice for their contending parties -- particularly the
worker in contractual relations between labor and management. While Spencer was
right to point to the increase in the number of social relationships governed by contract,
he ignored the parallel increase in the number of non -contractual relations; but most
important, he ignored the fact that, even within the contract, "everything is not
contractual" -- i.e., a contract assumes the predetermination of the rights and
obligations of the contracting parties, a function performed not only by state-regulated
contract law, but also through the less formal but nonetheless imperative structures of

In short, Spencer did not understand the nature of social solidarity nor did he
understand the function of the division of labor. Whatever its economic advantages, the
function of the division of labor was pre-eminently moral. In fact, contrasting the
solidarity created by occupational specialization with the "inferior" bonds forged by its
mechanical counterpart, Durkheim insisted that the moral character of society is more
pronounced in the "organized" type. Precisely because the modern individual is not
sufficient unto himself, for example, it is from society that he receives all that is
necessary to life; thus is created his strong sentiment of personal dependence which
inspires those mundane sacrifices we call "moral acts" and, in occasional, extreme
cases, those acts of complete self-renunciation which Durkheim would take up in
Suicide (1897). On its side, society learns to regard its members not as
indistinguishable units that could be lost without serious disruption to its internal
economy, but as irreplaceable organic parts which it cannot neglect, and towards which
it has important obligations. It was the perfection of this moral function toward which
all social evolution tended.

The Causes of the Division of Labor

Durkheim was always concerned to distinguish the causes of a social fact from its
functions, and the division of labor was no exception. Indeed, he insisted, the causes of
the division of labor could not possibly consist in some anticipation of its moral effects;
for, as we have seen, those effects became evident only after a lengthy process of
social evolution, and could hardly be foreseen. In a different sense, however,
Durkheim's inquiry into causes rehearsed his earlier analysis of functions; for, just as
the earlier discussion began with Durkheim's rejection of Adam Smith's argument that
the function of the division of labor was the advancement of civilization, so the later
discussion began with a negative assessment of that "classic" explanation, attributed to
political economy in general, whereby the cause of the division of labor would be
"man's unceasing desire to increase his happiness."28

Against this explanation, which would reduce the division of labor to purely individual
and psychological causes, Durkheim launched a three-pronged attack. First, he
challenged the axiom on which the explanation rests -- namely, the assumption that
man's desire to increase his happiness is indeed unceasing. Here Durkheim's early
experience in Wundt's psychological laboratory served him well, for he was able to cite
the famous law of the German experimental psychologist E.H. Weber (later quantified
by Gustav Fechner) to the effect that the smallest increment in a stimulus required to
produce a, difference in the sensation experienced is not an absolute amount, but is
rather relative to the magnitude of the stimulus in question. As a corollary to this law,
Durkheim insisted that the intensity of any agreeable stimulus can increase usefully
(i.e., contribute to increased pleasure) only between two extremes. An increase in
monetary wealth, for example, must be of a certain size if pleasure is to be its result;
inversely, a person thoroughly accustomed to large increases in wealth estimates the
value of such increases accordingly, and is equally denied pleasure proportionate to the
stimulus received. The increase in income experienced by the man of average wealth is
thus the one most apt to produce a degree of pleasure proportionate to its cause. If the
cause of the division of labor were the desire for happiness, therefore, social evolution
would surely have come to a stop long ago; for the maximum happiness of which men
are capable would have been achieved through a relatively moderate development of
social differentiation and its resulting stimuli.29 This insistence that the human capacity
for happiness is very limited, a kind of Aristotelian ethics augmented by Wundt's
Grunzuge der physiologische Psychologie (1874), remained one of Durkheim's most
constant and characteristic ideas.

Second, Durkheim regarded it as very doubtful that the advance of civilization increases
human happiness in any case. Here Durkheim initially sounds like Rousseau: while he
admitted that we enjoy pleasures unknown to earlier societies, he observed also that
we experience forms of suffering that they were spared, and added that it is not at all
certain that the balance is in our favor. But it soon becomes clear that, again.
Durkheim's more fundamental source was Aristotle. Even if social progress did produce
more pleasure than pain, Durkheim thus insisted, this would not necessarily bring more
happiness; for "pleasure" describes the local, limited, momentary state of a particular
function, while "happiness" describes the health of the physical and moral species in its
entirety, the extent to which that species has realized its true nature. Thus, the normal
savage is just as happy as the normal civilized man, an argument supported not only by
Waitz's Anthropologie der Naturvölker (1859), but also by the rapid rise in the suicide
rate commensurate with the advance in civilization, a phenomenon in which Durkheim
already had a powerful interest.

Durkheim's third argument dealt with a revised version of the "happiness hypothesis"
which might have met the objections of his first two -- that pleasure (which is at least
an element in happiness) loses its intensity with repetition, and can be recaptured only
through new stimuli, meaning more productive work (and hence, through the division of
labor). Progress would thus be, quite literally, an effect of boredom. But to this

Durkheim had several objections. First, such a "law" would apply to all societies, and
thus it could provide no account of why the division of labor advances in some societies
and not in others. Second, Durkheim denied the assumption on which the argument is
based: namely, that repetition alone reduces the intensity of pleasure. So long as our
pleasures have a certain variety, he argued, they can be repeated endlessly; only if the
pleasure is continuous and uninterrupted does its intensity wane. But even if continuity
thus does what repetition cannot, Durkheim continued, it could not inspire us with a
need for new stimuli; for if continuity eliminates our consciousness of the agreeable
state, we could hardly perceive that the pleasure attached to it has also vanished. Even
novelty itself is but a secondary, accessory quality of pleasure, without which our
ordinary pleasures, if sufficiently varied, can survive very well. In short, boredom is an
insufficient cause to so painful and laborious an effect as the development of the
division of labor.

Having thus dismissed individualistic, psychologistic causes, Durkheim argued that we

must seek the explanation of the division of labor in some variation within the social
context, and added that his earlier discussion of its function already pointed in the
direction of an answer. Durkheim had shown how the organized structure (and thus the
division of labor) had developed as the segmental structure had disappeared; thus,
either the disappearance of the segmental structure is the cause of the division of labor,
or vice versa. Since, as we have seen, the segmental structure is an insurmountable
obstacle to the division of labor, the latter hypothesis is clearly false; the division of
labor can thus appear only in proportion as the segmental structure has already begun
to disappear.

How does this occur? Briefly, Durkheim suggested that, instead of social life being
concentrated in a number of small, identical individual segments, these parts begin to
extend beyond their limits, exchange movements, and act and react upon one another.
Durkheim called this dynamic or moral density, and suggested that it increases in direct
ratio to the progress of the division of labor. But what produces this "moral density"?
Durkheim pointed to two causes. First, the real, material distance between members of
a society must be reduced both spatially (e.g., the growth of cities) and technologically
(e.g., advances in communications and transportation), for such "material density"
multiplies the number of intra-societal relations. Second, this effect is reinforced by the
sheer "social volume" of a society (the total number of its members). Thus, Durkheim
argued that the division of labor varies in direct ratio to the dynamic or moral density of
society, which is itself an effect of both material density and social volume.30

But how does this double cause (material density and social volume) produce its
ultimate effect (the division of labor)? Here again, Durkheim had to confront the
competing explanation of Herbert Spencer. In First Principles (1862), Spencer had
argued that all homogeneous masses are inherently unstable and thus tend toward
differentiation, and that they differentiate more rapidly and completely as their
extension is greater. But in Spencer's theory, such extension produces differentiation,

not by itself, but only in so far as it exposes parts of the social mass to diverse physical
environments, thus encouraging diverse aptitudes and institutional specialization.
Durkheim in fact agreed that a diversity of external circumstances has this
differentiating effect; but he denied that this diversity was sufficient to cause (rather
than merely accelerate ) an effect so dramatic as the division of labor.

For his own explanation, Durkheim turned to Darwin's Origin of Species (1859), arguing
that an increased material density and social volume cause the division of labor, not
because they increase exposure to diverse external circumstances, but because they
render the struggle for existence more acute. According to Darwin, so long as resources
are plentiful and population size is limited, similar organisms can live side by side in
relative peace; but where population increases and resources become scarce, conflict
and competition ensue, and this conflict is just as active as the organisms are similar
and pursue similar needs. Where organisms are different and pursue different needs,
on the other hand, what is useful to one organism will be of no value to another, and
conflict will diminish.

Human populations, Durkheim argued, adhere to the same law. In so far as a social
structure is "segmental" in character, each segment has its own organs, kept apart
from like organs by the divisions between segments. With the growth in the "material
density" and "social volume" of the society, these divisions disappear, the similar organs
are put into contact with one another, and competition between them ensues. Those
groups which triumph then have a larger task, which can be discharged only through a
greater internal division of labor; those organs which are vanquished can henceforth
maintain themselves only by specializing on a fraction of the social function they
previously performed; but in either case, the division of labor is advanced.

Thus, the conflict and competition resulting from an increase in social volume and
density produces advances in the division of labor just as the latter mitigates against
the negative consequences of the former. In the modern city, for example, large and
highly condensed populations can coexist peacefully as a consequence of occupational
differentiation: "The soldier seeks military glory, the priest moral authority, the
statesman power, the businessman riches, the scholar scientific renown. Each of them
can attain his end without preventing the others from obtaining theirs."31 Nothing in this
process, Durkheim added, implies an increase in happiness, or that the pursuit of
happiness might be its goal: on the contrary, "everything takes place mechanically" as
the result of an inexorable law of social progress.

Finally, Durkheim argued, it is a corollary of this law that the division of labor can be
established only among the members of an already constituted society. For the effect of
these same forces (e.g., opposition, conflict, competition, etc.) upon a number of
independent individuals could only be further diversification without the development of
compensatory social bonds32, while Durkheim had already shown that the division of
labor creates moral linkages even as it differentiates. Durkheim thus argued that the

individuals among whom the struggle for existence is waged must already belong to the
same, mechanically solidary society. In opposition to Spencer's view that a society is
the product of cooperation, therefore, Durkheim supported Comte's argument that
cooperation already presupposes the spontaneous existence of society.33 This, in turn,
became the basis for Durkheim's reply to Brunetière at the height of the Dreyfus Affair.
Far from being destructive of the social order, individualism is itself the product of
society, and expresses a particular stage in its ongoing, structural evolution.

Durkheim had thus argued forcefully that the division of labor is caused by changes in
the volume and density of societies. But this was not yet a complete explanation, for
Durkheim recognized that such specialization was not the only possible solution to the
struggle for existence which then ensued. Others included emigration, colonization,
resignation to a precarious existence, and even suicide. The division of labor was thus a
contingent rather than a necessary consequence of changes in the social environment,
and for it rather than its alternatives to result, it was essential that the influence of at
least two secondary factors -- the conscience collective and heredity -- be significantly

Durkheim's argument concerning the "progressive indetermination" of the conscience

collective has already been described; but now Durkheim attempted to explain it,
focusing equally on the growth of rationality and the decline of tradition. In early
societies, Durkheim began, everyone is related to specific objects of their environment
(e.g., animals, trees, plants, etc.) in roughly the same way, and the states of
conscience representing this environment take on a parallel similarity; the fusion of
these individual consciences thus results in a conscience collective which is sharp,
decisive, and well-defined. As these societies become more voluminous and their
populations more diversely situated, however, common objects can no longer create
common experiences and representations; in so far as it is to remain "common,"
therefore, the conscience collective must necessarily become less concrete and well-
defined, and more general and abstract. The "animal" becomes the "species," the "tree"
becomes "trees in general and in abstracto," the "Greek" and the "Roman" become the
concept of "man"; and a similar process of progressive abstraction up to the level of
universalizable concepts persists in law, religion. and morality. This explains the
difficulty we have in understanding primitive societies. Our own minds, dominated by
the logic and rationality this evolutionary process has produced, see in earlier societies
only bizarre, fortuitous combinations of heterogeneous elements; but in fact, these are
simply societies dominated by concrete sensations and representations rather than
abstract concepts.34

But in so far as the conscience collective thus becomes less concrete and decisive, it
necessarily has less of an impact on individual thought and behavior. Precise states of
conscience act in a manner analogous to instinctive reflexes; more general principles
affect behavior only through the intervening reflections of intelligence. Thus,
"deliberated movements have not the spontaneity of involuntary movements. Because it

becomes more rational, the [ conscience collective ] becomes less imperative, and for
this very reason, it wields less restraint over the free development of individuals."35 But
the cause of this growth of rationality, again, is the increase in the volume of the
society's population and the environmental diversity thus implied.

Still more important than the "progressive indetermination" of the conscience collective,
however, is the decline of tradition; for the strength of the conscience is due to the fact
not only that its states are shared, but also that they are the legacy of previous
generations. This authority of tradition is well supported in societies of the segmental
type, which, as we have seen, have a familial as well as a political base; but as the
segmental organization is undermined, individuals no longer feel bound to their kin-
group or even their place of origin; migration ensues, and the authority of tradition
weakens commensurately. But here, again, the decline of tradition is the consequence
of those factors -- social volume and density -- which gradually dissipate the segmental
form of social organization. In other words, just as it is purely mechanical causes which
lead to the individual's submersion in the conscience collective, it is similarly mechanical
causes ( not the "utility" of emancipation) which subvert that conscience and lead to
individual freedom.

But don't the occupational specialities of more organized societies simply reproduce the
conscience of the primitive segment, and exercise the same regulative function. For at
least three reasons, Durkheim's answer was an emphatic no: first, the occupational
conscience affects only the occupational life, beyond which the individual enjoys much
greater freedom; second, the occupational conscience is shared by fewer individual
minds, has commensurately less authority, and thus offers less resistance to individual
transgressions than its collective counterpart; and third, the same causes (i.e.,
increased volume and density) which progressively undermine the conscience collective
have a similar, if less dramatic, effect within the occupational group. Thus, "not only
does occupational regulation, because of its very nature, hinder less than any other the
play of individual variation, but it also tends to do so less and less."36

The other "secondary factor" whose influence had to be reduced in order for the
division of labor to emerge was the role of heredity. Durkheim was particularly
concerned with this because, according to John Stuart Mill's Principles of Political
Economy (1848), the first condition of the division of labor was that "diversity of
natures" whose principal function was to classify individuals according to their
capacities. If this were the case, Durkheim argued, heredity would, constitute an even
more insurmountable obstacle to individual variability than the conscience collective;
for, where the latter chained us only to the moral authority of our familial group, the
former would bind us to our race, and thus to an utterly impersonal, congenital past,
totally oblivious to our individual interests and aspirations. Thus, the greater the role of
heredity in a society's distribution of tasks (as, for example, in the caste system, or in
rigidly stratified societies), the more invariable that distribution, and the more difficult it
is for the division of labor to make headway. It was Durkheim's goal, however, to show

that, for at least two reasons, the role played by heredity in the distribution of tasks has
declined in the course of social evolution.

First, Durkheim observed, aptitudes appear to be less transmissible by heredity

precisely to the degree that they are more specialized; in so far as a society has a more
complex division of labor, therefore, the relative role played by heredity in determining
individual capacities will have been reduced. In short, social evolution produces new
modes of activity requiring capacities that heredity simply cannot transmit. Second,
Durkheim insisted, even those capacities that heredity can transmit (e.g., instincts)
decline both in number and strength with social evolution.37 Whether conceived
relatively or absolutely, therefore. the contribution of heredity to the determination of
individual tasks has been progressively reduced, and has thus presented few obstacles
to the continuing growth of the division of labor.

This led Durkheim to some general conclusions about the distinction between the
division of physiological labor and its social counterpart. Precisely because it is imposed
by birth, Durkheim argued, the function of the biological cell is immutably fixed; but in
society, hereditary dispositions are not predestinary, and the individual's specialized
function is largely self-determined. Durkheim thus denied the view of Comte and
Spencer that "substitution" (i.e., one part of an aggregate exchanging function with
another) was a characteristic of lower rather than higher evolutionary forms38; on the
contrary, in social evolution, function becomes independent of structure in direct
proportion to the increasing complexity of society. This in turn explains the origin and
development of "civilization"; for as social volume and density increase, men can
maintain themselves only through harder work and the intensification of their faculties,
which inevitably produces a higher state of culture.

But Durkheim's theory of social evolution was not quite so mechanistic as the account
above implies; for, while he urged that civilization was thus the effect of necessary
causes, and denied that it was the result of the desire for happiness, he nonetheless
argued that it was also "an end, an object of desire, in short, an ideal."39 This
paradoxical quality of civilization was based, once again, on Durkheim's distinction
between the normal and the pathological. At each stage in the history of a given
society, he suggested, there is a "certain intensity" of the collective life which is
"normal"; and if everything in the society happens "normally," this state is realized
automatically. But, in fact, everything does not happen normally; societies, like
individual organisms. are subject to disease, and this prevents them from realizing their
natural, ideal condition. Under these circumstances, Durkheim argued, it is not only
legitimate but also essential that the sociologist intervene, ascertain the degree of
collective activity appropriate to existing conditions, and attempt to realize this ideal
state of health (or "golden mean") by the proper means.40 And precisely because the
"conditions" here referred to would constantly change, the social ideal would always be
definite without ever becoming definitive: "Thus, not only does a mechanistic theory of

progress not deprive us of an ideal, but it permits us to believe that we shall never lack
for one."41

Finally, these observations led Durkheim to a sociological reformulation of the mind-

body problem posed in Descartes' Meditations (1641). The progress of the individual
conscience, as we have seen, is in inverse ratio to that of instinct, not because that
conscience "breaks up" instinct, but because it "invades" the territory that instinct has
ceased to occupy. Instinct, of course, has regressed because of the increasing
importance of sociability; thus, the rational superiority of human beings over lower
animals is a consequence of their superior sociability. Durkheim thus agreed with the
observation of the "spiritualist" philosophers42 that modern "psycho-physiology" would
never be able to explain more than a small fraction of psychic phenomena through
reference to organic causes; for psychic life, in its highest manifestations, is simply
much too free and complex to be understood as a mere extension of physical life. But
this is not to say that psychic life cannot be explained by natural causes; for society, no
less than organic processes, is a part of nature. There is thus a vast region of the
individual conscience which is both unintelligible to "psycho-physiology" and yet
perfectly amenable to scientific investigation. Durkheim thus called for a "socio-
psychology" which would investigate those psychic facts which have social causes. Far
from deriving social facts from the essential features of human nature, such a positive
science, pace Spencer, would derive human nature from society.

Abnormal Forms of the Division of Labor

The normal function of the division of labor, as we have seen, is to produce a form of
social solidarity; but, like all social (as well as biological) facts, the division of labor may
present "pathological" forms which produce different and even contrary results.
Durkheim was especially concerned to study these forms for two reasons: first, if it
could not be proved that they were deviant and exceptional, the division of labor might
be accused of "logically implying" them; and second, the study of such deviant forms
might help us better to understand those conditions supportive of the normal state.
Eventually Durkheim focused on three types of such pathological forms, not because
they exhausted the range of deviant cases, but because they seemed the most general
and most serious.

The first type, already identified by Comte43, is found where individuals, increasingly
isolated by their more specialized tasks, lose any sense of being integral parts of some
larger whole. This reflects a lack of mutual adjustment among the parts of the social
organism which Durkheim called the anomic division of labor, citing certain commercial
and industrial crises, the conflict between capital and labor, and the "scholastic"
specialization of scientific investigation among its examples. And what was particularly
alarming, again, was that this form of social disintegration increased with the growth of

the division of labor, and thus appeared to be its natural rather than pathological

How was such a consequence to be avoided? Comte's answer, based on his acceptance
of the view that social integration is not a spontaneous product of the division of labor,
was that an independent, governmental organ (i.e., the state, as informed by the
positive philosophy) was necessary to realize and maintain social unity. Durkheim, by
contrast, was extremely skeptical of the efficacy of government regulation of the
economy; for the problems afflicting economic institutions arose from a multiplicity of
particular circumstances of which only those closest to those problems have any
knowledge. And, in any case, he rejected Comte's premise as well; as with all
organisms the unity of society was to be obtained by the "spontaneous consensus of

To overcome the anomic division of labor. therefore, we must first determine the
conditions essential to the normal state of organic solidarity. These conditions include
not only a system of organs necessary to one another, but also the predetermination of
the way in which these mutually necessary organs and their functions are to be related.
This predetermination is the critical role of rules of conduct, which are themselves the
product of habit and tradition. Very briefly, certain groups of people (organs) engage in
definite forms of action (functions) which are repeated because they cling to the
constant conditions of social life; when the division of labor brings these different
organs and their functions together, the relations thus formed partake of the same
degree of fixity and regularity; and these relations, being repeated, become habitual,
and, when collective force is added, are transformed into rules of conduct.

The difficulty with the anomic division of labor, of course, is that such rules either do
not exist or are not in accord with the degree of development of the division of labor.
How can such a situation arise? Typically, something is interposed between otherwise
contiguous organs so that the mutual stimulation created by their functions becomes
less frequent, less intense, and less determined; the organs lose the sense of mutual
dependence that mutual stimulation would normally create, and, as a consequence, the
rules reflecting those relations remain vague, ill-defined, and fail to perform their proper
integrative function. In commercial and industrial crises, for example, the growth and
separation of producers and their markets has proceeded to the extent that the former
cannot rationally predict the behavior of the latter; in the conflict between labor and
capital, the development of large-scale industry and the factory system has separated
the worker both from his family and from his employer; and in the specialization of
scientific investigation, the moral and social sciences in particular have not yet
understood their relationship to one another and to the older sciences, and have thus
ignored the collaborative nature of the work in which they are engaged. But in each
case, anomie is the consequence not of the division of labor itself, but of those
exceptional and abnormal circumstances under which otherwise contiguous organs
become separated, thus preventing the adequate development of rules of conduct.

But it is not sufficient simply that there be rules, for sometimes the rules themselves
are the source of the problems. Where the lower classes become dissatisfied with the
position granted them by custom or law, for example, we find a strictly regulated form
of organization which Durkheim called the forced division of labor, which is nonetheless
a potential source of dissension and civil war. The causes of this pathological form are
clear. In society, as we have seen, there is a great distance between the hereditary
dispositions of the individual and the social function he will fill; and the "space" thus left
open to striving and deliberation is also vulnerable to influences which deflect the
individual from the role most consistent with his tastes, aptitudes, and capacities. But
for the division of labor to produce solidarity, it is not sufficient that each individual
have his specialized task; it is still necessary that this task be appropriate to him. The
"forced division of labor" is thus the consequence of that structural condition in which
the distribution of social functions does not correspond to the distribution of natural

Again, Durkheim insisted that this condition was not a necessary consequence of the
division of labor, but rather the product of particular circumstances. "Normally" the
division of labor arises spontaneously, and the harmony between individual natures and
social functions is the inevitable consequence of each individual's unimpeded pursuit of
those tasks for which he is best suited. But here the difficulty arises. For social
inequalities thus to express no more than natural inequalities requires a social context
in which the latter can be neither increased nor decreased by any external cause; in
other words, it requires absolute equality of external conditions, and Durkheim was well
aware that no such society had ever existed.

Durkheim was thus in the seemingly awkward position of defining as "normal" a feature
which the division of labor had never presented in its pure state. Nonetheless, as
always, he was optimistic. Pointing to the progressive decline of the caste system, the
increasing accessibility of public office to the average citizen, and the growth of social
assistance whereby the disadvantages of birth could b overcome, Durkheim argued not
simply that progress toward social justice had been made or that it was a good to be
pursued, but that the elimination of external inequalities and realization of the ideal of
structural spontaneity was essential -- indeed, indispensable -- to that form of solidarity
upon which "organized" societies themselves depend. Social justice would emerge,
quite literally, because it had to if advanced societies were to exist at all.

Equality of external conditions was thus necessary if each individual was to find his
proper function in society; but it was also necessary if these functions were to be linked
to one another. This was particularly evident in contractual relations, which are the
juridical expression of those exchanges necessary to the division of labor. Precisely
because such exchanges between functions in advanced societies are necessary,
contracts must be kept; but unless contractual relations were to remain precarious, they
must be kept not just through fear of force, but spontaneously. And it is to fulfill this
condition of spontaneity that we say contracts must involve "free consent."

But what does "free consent" mean? In order to answer this question, Durkheim first
had to define his notion of the "social value" of an object of exchange. Such a value,
Durkheim insisted, is equivalent not ( pace Ricardo) to the labor the object might have
cost, but to the amount of energy capable of producing "useful social effects" which the
object contains; this, in turn, varies according to the sum of efforts necessary to
produce the object, the intensity of the needs which it satisfies, and the extent of the
satisfaction it brings. The price of an object deviates from this value, Durkheim argued,
only under "abnormal" conditions; thus, the public finds "unjust" every exchange where
the price of the object bears no relation to the trouble it cost and the social service it
renders. According to Durkheim, therefore, a contract is "freely consented to" only if
the services exchanged have an equivalent social value, expressing an equilibrium of
wills which is consecrated by a contract; and because this equilibrium is produced and
maintained by itself, and expresses the nature of things, it is truly spontaneous.

For the obligatory force of a contract to be complete, therefore, expressed consent

alone is not sufficient; the contract must also be just. Social value, however, cannot be
determined a priori, but only in the process of exchange itself; thus, for justice to be
the rule of contracts, it is necessary, once again, for the entreating parties (labor and
management) to be placed in conditions that are externally equal. And here again,
Durkheim revealed his evolutionary optimism: the emphasis on "consent" (and
especially "free" consent) appears as a very recent development, and contractual law
increasingly detracts value from those contracts entered under unequal conditions. If a
strong conscience collective was the preemptive need of all lower societies, the
requirement and ideal goal of modern societies is social justice.

Durkheim's third pathological form of the division of labor arose from his observation
that the functions of an organism can become more active only on the condition that
they also become more continuous one organ can do more only if the other organs do
more, and vice versa. Where this continuity is lacking, the functional activity of the
specialized parts decreases, resulting in wasted effort and loss of productive capacity;
but, as always, Durkheim was less concerned with the economic than with the moral
consequences of such an abnormal condition. Where the functional activity of the parts
languishes, Durkheim thus warned, the solidarity of the whole is undermined.

For precisely this reason, the first concern of intelligent, scientific management will be
to suppress useless tasks, to distribute work so that each worker is sufficiently
occupied, and thus to maximize the functional activity of each social organ. Increased
activity in turn produces greater continuity, an augmented sense of the mutual
dependence of the parts on one another, and a stronger bond of solidarity. But where
mismanagement prevails, the activity of each worker is reduced, functions become
discontinuous, and solidarity is undermined.

But again, Durkheim insisted that such mismanagement and inactivity is the exception
rather than the rule, a judgment for which he gave at least four reasons. First, the

same factors that cause us to specialize (the increase in social volume and density) also
cause us to work harder, for the competition within each speciality increases as the
specialities themselves become more numerous and divided. Second, the division of
labor itself, by saving time otherwise wasted in passing from one function to another,
increases the efficiency of the individual worker. Third, functional activity grows with
the talent and competence of the individual worker, and both are naturally increased by
the repetition of similar tasks. And finally, as labor becomes divided, work becomes a
permanent occupation, then a habit, and ultimately a need -- a progression which
increases the functional activity of all workers subject to it.

What, then, is the "first principle" of ethics? And what is the relation of ethics to
society? Among the most incontestable of moral rules, Durkheim observed, is that
which orders us to internalize the conscience collective of the groups to which we
belong; and the "moral" quality of this rule is derived from the essential function it
serves in preventing social disintegration. But the contrary rule, which orders us to
specialize, is no less imperative; and it too is "moral" because obedience to it, after a
certain stage in social evolution, is essential to social cohesion. An initial answer to both
questions above, therefore, is that moral rules render "society" possible: "Everything
which is a source of solidarity is moral, everything which forces man to take account of
other men is moral, everything which forces him to regulate his conduct through
something other than the striving of his ego is moral, and morality is as solid as these
ties are numerous and strong."45

Durkheim thus opposed the more Kantian tradition which removed moral consciousness
from its societal context and defined it through freedom of the will. On the contrary,
morality consists in a state of social dependence, and thus deprives the individual of
some freedom of movement; and society, far from consisting of external threats to the
autonomy of the will, provides the sole foundation upon which that will can act: "Let all
social life disappear," Durkheim argued, "and moral life will disappear with it, since it
would no longer have any objective."46 Even Kant's "duties of the individual towards
himself" are properly understood as duties toward society, for they are the product of
collective sentiments which the individual must not offend. The "categorical imperative"
of modern society, therefore, is to concentrate and specialize our activities, contract our
horizons, choose a definite task, and immerse ourselves in it completely.

The predictable objection to this injunction, of course, was that such specialization
implies a narrowing of the individual personality, rendering each of us an "incomplete"
human being. But why, Durkheim asked, is it more natural to develop superficially
rather than profoundly? Why is there more dignity in being "complete" and mediocre
rather than in living a more specialized, but intense, existence? Durkheim, in other
words, was re-invoking the Aristotelian principle that man ought to realize his nature as
man, though with the added caveat that this nature is not historically constant, but
rather varies according to the needs of the societal type in question. Moreover, to be a
"person" means to be an autonomous source of action, to possess something empirical

and concrete which is ours and ours alone; and this condition, by sharp contrast with
the "apparent" liberty and "borrowed" personality of individuals in lower societies, is the
product of the division of labor.

While Durkheim thus shared the sense of some contemporaries that theirs was an age
of profound crisis, he denied that the crisis was intellectual or spiritual" in its causes. On
the contrary, it was the consequence of far-reaching structural changes undergone by
society in a very short time; thus, while the morality corresponding to the segmental
societal type had regressed, the "new" morality of the organized type had not advanced
rapidly enough to fill the void thereby left in our consciences. The corrective for this
crisis, therefore, was not to resuscitate the outworn dogmas of the past, but to reduce
external inequality and increase justice, and thus to render the new, still discordant
organs and functions harmonious. This was an enterprise, Durkheim concluded, in
which social structure set the terms, while social theory set the goals:

In short, our first duty is to make a moral code for ourselves. Such a work cannot be
improvised in the silence of the study; it can arise only through itself, little by little,
under the pressure of internal causes which make it necessary. But the service that
thought can and must render is in fixing the goal that we must attain.47

Critical Remarks

The Division of Labor in Society was a seminal contribution to the sociology of law and
morality, and remains a sociological "classic" by any standards. By the same standards,
however, it also contains undeniable shortcomings which have limited its appeal to
modern sociologists. An immediate difficulty, for example, is Durkheim's insistence that
social solidarity is an exclusively "moral" phenomenon, of which law is the "externally
visible symbol," an insistence which ignores the frequent conflict of some moral
principles with others, some laws with other laws, and morality with legality generally.
Durkheim, of course, did not deny the existence of such conflict; but he did suggest
that it was "pathological," not a part of the "normal" functioning of society, and thus
placed it beyond the central focus of his sociological vision. Similarly, Durkheim implied
that the state is merely an instrument whose authority reflects the disposition of the
conscience collective, an implication which excludes most of the concerns explored so
brilliantly by Max Weber -- the means by which one group in a society achieves
asymmetrical control over another; the personal, subjective standards by which the first
judges the behavior of the second and renders it consequential; and so on. The point
here is not simply that Durkheim did not choose to discuss these issues; rather, the
point is that he could not, given the reasons why he chose to study law in the first place
-- as an external index" of the more fundamental moral conditions of the social order.48

Second, Durkheim clearly overstated the role of repressive law relative to the
institutions of interdependence and reciprocity (e.g., kinship, religious ritual, economic
and political alliance, etc.) in primitive societies. Malinowski's Argonauts of the Western
Pacific (1922), for example, has provided ample evidence of the significance and
complexity of relations of exchange among the Trobriand Islanders. In part, this may be
attributed to Durkheim's ignorance (or rather dismissal) of the ethnographic literature
on primitive peoples, for his pronouncements on "primitive" legal systems in The
Division of Labor are largely based on inferences drawn from the Hebrew Torah, the
Twelve Tables of the ancient Romans, and the laws of early Christian Europe; but he
seems to have got these wrong as well. The religious and moral exhortations of the
Torah, for example, are largely devoid of "penal" sanctions, and coexisted with a
predominantly secular legal system maintained by their "restitutive" counterparts; the
sanctions attached to the Twelve Tables were almost equally restitutive; and the
gradual emergence of the state as the preemptive legal institution of early modern
Europe witnessed an increase in the relative proportion of repressive laws. Indeed,
Durkheim understated the role of repressive law even in advanced industrial societies,
in part because he ignored the fact that the nineteenth-century system of penal
incarceration replaced the custom of compensating the victims of some crimes
financially, and in part because he disregarded the punitive, stigmatizing aspect of
many civil laws.49

Finally, it is difficult to share Durkheim's confidence in the self-regulating quality of

organic solidarity. Durkheim's account of the "anomic" division of labor alone, for
example, exposed all the evils of unregulated capitalism--commercial and industrial
crises, class conflict, meaningless, alienated labor, etc.50 But his analysis of these evils
was notoriously uncritical; because organic solidarity has evolved more slowly than its
mechanical counterpart has passed away, the Third Republic endures a "pathological,
disintegrative void" -- an analysis which simultaneously implies that these evils are not
endemic to modern societies (and thus eviscerates any criticism of them), and
conveniently locates the conditions for the successful functioning of "organized"
societies in some unspecified, Utopian future. As his work developed, however,
Durkheim gradually relinquished the evolutionary optimism which underlay this
mechanical, self-regulating" conception of the division of labor, became increasingly
attracted to socialism and the potentially regulatory function of occupational groups51,
and granted greater emphasis to the independent role of collective beliefs in social life.


1. Smith, 1776: 3
2. Smith, 1776: 13.
3. 1893: 39.
4. 1893: 43.

5. 1893: 68-9.
6. Durkheim acknowledged that Comte was "the first to have recognized in
the division of labor something other than a purely economic
phenomenon" (1893: 62).
7. Durkheim's particular reference here was to Alexander Bain's The
Emotions and the Will (1859) and Herbert Spencer's Principles of
Psychology (1855).
8. 1893: 68-9.
9. 1893: 69.
10. 1893: 69.
11. 1893: 73.
12. Though Durkheim admits that penal law is often "administered" through
particular magistrates.
13. 1893: 79. The French word conscience embraces both the English words
"conscience" and "consciousness"; thus it embraces moral and religious
beliefs and sentiments on the one hand, and cognitive beliefs and
sentiments, on the other. Since translation into either English usage might
create confusion, I have henceforth left this term in the original French.
14. 1893: 81. Durkheim acknowledged the reversion of psychology to Spinoza
here, as in "things are good because we like them, as against our liking
them because they are good."
15. 1893: 96.
16. This introduced one of several disagreements between Durkheim and
Gabriel Tarde. In Les Lois de l'imitation (1890). Tarde had suggested that
civilization produces social similarities. Durkheim acknowledged the
growth of similarities between societies and even between occupational
types. but insisted that the individuals within such societies and
occupations had. in fact. become progressively differentiated (cf. 1893:
17. Here Durkheim was not above citing phrenological data provided by
Gustave LeBon.
18. 1893: 138.
19. Durkheim acknowledged that this predominance of repressive law in
ancient societies might have alternative explanations, including that
presented in Henry Sumner Maine's Ancient Law (1861) -- that reduction
of law to the written word took place during a period of violence and
barbarism, so that the laws were a reaction against customary behavior.
Again, however, Durkheim's view of law, like his view of the state,
emphasized that it expresses and symbolizes customs, reacting against
them only with a force it has borrowed from them; cf. Durkheim
20. 1893: 153.
21. 1893: 154.
22. 1893: 171.

23. 1893: 172.
24. Cf. Lewis Henry Morgan, Ancient Society (1877).
25. Cf. Lorimer Fison and A.W. Howitt, Kamilaroi and Kurnai (1880)
26. This led Durkheim into an extended criticism of Spencer, who agreed that
social evolution begins from a state of homogeneity, but who also argued
that such homogeneity was "inherently unstable." Durkheim, by contrast,
emphasized the strong, coherent social life of such groups, based upon an
abundance of common beliefs and practices (cf. 1893: 179).
27. 1893: 190.
28. 1893: 233.
29. Durkheim also argued that even these limited pleasures follow their
causes by considerable periods of time; thus, those generations
inaugurating such advances experience not pleasure but pain, and thus
the expectation of pleasure could hardly have been their motive.
30. Durkheim acknowledged that Comte had already come to much the same
conclusion, citing Cours de philosophie positive, IV, 455.
31. 1893: 267.
32. Here Durkheim cited the support of Darwin's "law of the divergence of
characters" (cf. 1893: 276).
33. Durkheim's citations are to Spencer, Principles of Sociology, 111, 331; and
Comte, Cours de philosophie positive, IV, 421.
34. This was the source of Durkheim's later, extended disagreement with
Lucien Levy-Bruhl.
35. 1893: 290-1.
36. 1893: 303.
37. Durkheim corroborated this argument with the observation that even that
degree of physiological conformity required to speak meaningfully of a
"race" at all seems rapidly to be disappearing, and added an extended
commentary on Sir Francis Galton's Natural inheritance (1889) both to
confirm and explain it (cf. 1893: 323-327).
38. Durkheim here cites Comte, Cours de philosophie positive, Vl, 505; and
Spencer, Principles of Sociology, 11, 57.
39. 1893: 339.
40. For Durkheim of course, these means included, above all else, moral
education, and excluded, without qualification, revolutionary political
activity (cf. 1893: 340-341).
41. 1893: 344. This was Durkheim's answer to Spencer's argument, presented
first in Social Statics (1850) and extended in First Principles (1862), that
social evolution has a limit, beyond which it cannot pass, in the perfect
adaptation of the individual to the natural environment.
42. In French philosophy, the term "spiritualism" is typically reserved for
Maine de Biran 11766 1824), Felix Ravaisson-Mollien (1813-1900), and
Henri Bergson (1859-1941).

43. Durkheim cites Cours de philosophie positive, IV, 429; and Espinas, Les
Sociétés animaux (1877).
44. 1893: 360.
45. 1893: 398.
46. 1893: 399.
47. 1893: 409.
48. Cf. Lukes and Scull, 1983: 10-15.
49. Cf. Lukes and Scull, 1983: 115.
50. Lukes, 1972: 174.
51. Cf the preface to the second edition of The Division of Labor in Society

Concepts of Functionalism
Citation: C N Trueman "Concepts of Functionalism" The History Learning Site, 25 May 2015. 17 Dec 2015.

A number of key concepts underpin Functionalism. The primary concepts within

Functionalism are collective conscience, value consensus, social order, education,
family, crime and deviance and the media.

The concept of function:

Functionalist sociologists like Parsons and Durkheim have
been concerned with the search for functions that institutions may have in society.
However, another functionalist sociologist R. Merton has adopted a concept of
dysfunction – this refers to the effects of any institution which detracts from the
conservation of society. An example of a function which helps maintain society is that of
the family, its function is to ensure the continuity of society by reproducing and
socialising new members. Another institution which performs an important function is
religion functionalist sociologists believe that it helps achieve social solidarity and
shared norms and values, however it could be argued that it fails to do this as a result
of increasing secularisation in recent years and therefore it creates a divide between
members of society rather than binding them together (moral glue).

Collective conscience and value consensus:

Functionalists believe that without collective conscience/ shared values and beliefs,
achieving social order is impossible and social order is crucial for the well-being of
society. They believe that value consensus forms the basic integrating principle in
society. And if members of society have shared values they therefore also have similar
identities, this helps cooperation and avoids conflict. Value consensus also ensures that
people have shared: – Goals, Roles and Norms. Norms can be described as specific
guidelines of appropriate behaviour; for example, queuing when buying things.

Functional alternatives:

R. Merton suggested that institutions like religion and the family can be replaced with
alternatives such as ideologies like communism and he argued that they would still be
able to perform the same functions in society.

Social Order:

Functionalists believe that there are four main basic needs that an individual requires in
order to exist in society. They also believe that these four basic needs are essential for
maintaining social order. They are: food, shelter, money and clothing.

Functionalism and Education: Durkheim believes that education transmits society’s

norms and values. Education brings together a mass, and changes them into a united
whole which leads to social solidarity. Parsons (1961) believes that education leads to
universalistic values and that education performs a link between family and the wider
society which in turn leads to secondary socialization. Education also allows people to
train for their future roles in society.

Schools instil the value of achievement and the value of equality of opportunity.

Education helps match people with jobs suited to them.

Functionalism and Family: George Peter Murdock believes that the family provides
four vital functions for society: sexual, reproductive, economic and educational.

The family is the primary point of socialization in that it provides children with values
and norms. Family also stabilizes adult personalities. A family unit provides emotional
security for each person in the relationship.

Functionalism and Media: The media operate in the public interest by reflecting the
interests of the audience. It portrays public opinion. The media understands that society
has a wide diversity of culture and this is shown by the different amounts of stories it

Functionalism and Crime and Deviance: Durkheim shows us that there is such a
thing as society, and that it is this entity called society that creates crime and deviance.
Crime and deviance are socially constructed – they are not natural, obvious, or
theologically inspired categories. They are concepts that were brought into the world
solely by humankind. Moreover, Durkheim goes beyond this and shows us how socially
constructed definitions of crime and deviance are linked into a wider social structure.

Functionalism and Religion: Religion contributes to the social structure and well-
being of society. It does this by teaching values and consensus. Emile Durkheim argued
that all society’s divide into the sacred and the profane (non-religious). Durkheim found
that totenism was the most basic form of religion with small groups using symbols such
as plants or animals. Durkheim saw social life as impossible to achieve without the
shared values and norms achieved through collective conscience. Religion comes with
values and norms that are shared between groups. This helps strengthen the
integration of society. Parsons argued that religious beliefs provide guidelines and that
these guidelines establish general principles and moral beliefs which provide stability
and order for society.

Functionalism and Politics: Talcott Parsons believed in value consensus. Power is

used to achieve collective goals, e.g. material prosperity. Everybody benefits from
power (a variable sum of power). Authority is usually accepted as legitimate by the
majority as it helps to achieve collective goals.

12.4 The rationalisation of the world: the analysis of Max Weber . . . .


Max Weber

1. Importance and Influence

Weber is often regarded as the most important classical sociological theorist since he
investigated many areas and since his approach and methods guide much later
sociological analysis. Like Marx, Weber had a wide ranging set of interests: politics,
history, language, religion, law, economics, and administration, in addition to sociology.
His historical and economic analysis does not provide as elaborate or as systematic a
model of capitalism and capitalist development as does that of Marx. But the scope of
his analysis ranges more widely than that of Marx; it examines broad historical changes,
the origins of capitalism, the development of capitalism, political issues, the nature of a
future society, and concepts and approaches that Marx downplayed – religion, ideas,
values, meaning, and social action.

In the view of some, Weber may have "spent his life having a posthumous dialogue
with the ghost of Karl Marx." (Cuff, p. 97). This dialogue concerned (i) economic
determinism or the extent to which developments are rooted in the material base, and
(ii) the extent to which economic factors alone can be considered at the root of social
structure. At the same time, the differences between Weber and Marx should not be
overstated. Weber's analysis had similar scope to that of Marx, and he came from a
similar historical, German tradition of thought, examining many of the same topics as
Marx. Many contemporary sociologists think of Weber as complementing Marx,
examining issues that Marx thought less important, providing a way of thinking about
the individual within a structural approach, and laying out a sociological methodology.
Weber's writing had an influence on structural functionalism, critical theory, some of the
social interaction approaches, and much contemporary sociological theory, including
some Marxist approaches that use ideas from Weber.

2. Structure, History and Sociology

The historical, economic, and political analyses of Marx and Weber is largely
structuralist. That is, they attempted to understand the large structures and institutions
that affect the lives of people, and how these changed over time and space. For Marx,
these were primarily economic structures – involving factors such as the development
of the productive forces and ownership or non-ownership of the means of production.
For Weber, "the economic order was of paramount importance in determining the
precise position of different communities" but other important structures such as
religion, ideas, status, and bureaucracy "could influence people's actions in ways not
directly derivative from purely 'economic' interests (Hadden, p. 126). In particular, for
Weber "rational bureaucracy, rather than class struggle, was the most significant factor"
(Hadden, pp. 126-7).

Marx had little concern over the division of knowledge into different academic
disciplines and developed a social theory with widespread applications in the political
realm. In contrast, Weber adopted a more academic approach, helping to establish
sociology as an academic discipline. Weber realized that the structures of society are

both historical and sociological, and described the distinction between these Weber as

Sociology seeks to formulate type concepts and generalized uniformities

of empirical processes. This distinguishes it from history, which is oriented
to the causal analysis and explanation of the individual actions, structures,
and personalities possessing cultural significance. ... [The ideal procedure
is to make] the sure imputation of individual concrete events occurring in
historical reality to concrete, historically given causes through the study of
precise empirical data which have been selected from specific points of
view." (Ritzer, 3rd edition, pp. 112-114)

In adopting this method, Weber was an historical sociologist. Weber considered the
study and examination of empirical data necessary and these data must be carefully
selected and interpreted. Out of this, a sociologist develops concepts and "generalized
uniformities of empirical processes." Sociology is more than description of events and as
Ritzer (p. 114) notes

history is composed of unique empirical events; there can be no

generalizations at the empirical level. Sociologists must, therefore,
separate the empirical world from the conceptual universe that they
construct. The concepts can never completely capture the empirical world,
but they can be used as heuristic tools for gaining a better understanding
of reality.

One example of how Weber does this is contained in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit
of Capitalism. Compared with Marx, Weber was less attracted to the idea of "laws" by
which society can be described, and was less concerned with constructing an overall
theoretical model of society and its development. Rather, Weber was impressed by the
complexity of society, and the difficulty of understanding society as a whole. He uses
many more concepts than did Marx and does not develop these into a single,
theoretical model. As a result, Weber's concepts and methods are usually more specific
and less general than those of Marx but are applicable to a broad range of social issues.

3. The Individual, Understanding, and Social Action

In addition to the large structural features and observed regularities, both Marx and
Weber considered human action to be an important feature of social structure and
social change. For Marx, this was more likely to be group rather than individual action,
with classes, trade unions, workplace organizations, political parties, and lobby groups
providing the setting within which human action took place. Marxian analysis is not
particularly concerned with individual human action within these structures and
provides few guidelines concerning methods of analysis of social action and interaction.

Weber's analysis helps bridge the gap between the large structures of society and
individual social action and interaction. Weber argued that sociologists can develop an
understanding of actions of individuals and groups, and thereby of historical processes.
Weber described this as verstehen or understanding, whereby the sociologist becomes
empathetic with the individual, developing an understanding of the meaning that
individuals attach to various courses of action. Understanding and meaning are key
elements of Weber's approach – these are not just intuition or sympathy with the
individual, but the product of "systematic and rigorous research" (Ritzer, p. 116). This
approach is

a method aiming at identifying a human design, a "meaning" behind

observable events, we shall have no difficulty in accepting that it can be
just as well applied to human interaction as to individual actors. From this
point of view all history is interactions, which has to be interpreted in
terms of the rival plans of various actors. (Ritzer, p. 116).

At both the individual level, and at the larger group or structural level, individual and
group interpretations of situations, the meaning attached to these, the motivation for
action, all must be understood. Meaning also includes constraints and limitations on
action, as a result of institutions and structures. Weber attempts to do this, and develop
a methodology so that others can also do this.

Note that Weber argued that this gives the sociologist an advantage over the natural
scientist – an ability to understand social phenomenon. In Weber's words,

We can accomplish something which is never attainable in the natural

sciences, namely the subjective understanding of the action of the
component individuals. (Weber, Economy and Society, p. 15).

Often the study of human society is thought to be too difficult because of the
complexity of human thought an action. Weber attempts to turn this into an advantage
rather than a disadvantage.

Hadden emphasizes the method of ideal types developed by Weber as a way of

"comparing the grounds and consequences of action in different historical contexts"
(Hadden, pp. 127-8). These ideal types are concepts developed by the social scientist to
isolate key features of interest to the analyst, permitting comparison of various aspects
of social action in different societies and over time. For Weber, these help to "achieve a
causal explanation of results by isolating the key feature in two or more cases"
(Hadden, p. 128). Among ideal types are the protestant ethic, the spirit of capitalism,
rationality, bureaucracy – concepts that are constructed by the social scientist through
careful study, observation, and thought. While all social scientists develop concepts that
crystallize particular aspects of society in a way that a theoretical model can be built,
Weber outlined his methodology in more detail than most writers. His method of ideal

types has been widely adopted by sociologists and Weber's methodological writings
constitute an important basis for sociological methodology.

4. Max Weber's Life

Max Weber (1864-1920) was a German writer, academic (historian and sociologist),
who was sometimes involved in the field of politics. He was born near Erfurt, Saxony (in
central Germany) part of Prussia at that time. His family background was not all that
dissimilar from that of Marx – both were born into middle class professional families,
although Marx was Jewish and Weber's family was better off than Marx's.

Politics played an important role in Weber's life and intellectual activity. Prussia was
dominated by the Junkers, aristocratic landowners who were opposed to free trade in
grain and to liberal, capitalistic reforms. Germany was still divided into separate
principalities at the time of Weber's birth, at was at war with Austria and France. By
1871, Count Bismarck had unified Germany and Prussia "attained complete control over
most of German-speaking Europe" (Ashley and Orenstein, p. 264). Bismarck was able to
balance the interests of the Junkers and the western German industrialists, and was
able to push through some progressive reforms, such as social security or pension
plans. The unification of Germany helped encourage the expansion of industry, German
capitalism and the German working class. The latter supported various socialist parties,
and Marxist influences were strong in the working class. The German political system
was not liberal and democratic, but "administered by monarchists, militarists, and
industrialists." (Ashley and Orenstein, p. 266). Weber also lived during the first world
war, and the Versailles settlement that was imposed on Germany. After this, politics
was dominated by the fights between the governing Social Democratic Party and the
power of the nationalist and right-wing elements. This ultimately led to the Nazi triumph
in 1933. Hadden notes that Germany was generally in a chaotic political situation during
much of Weber's lifetime, and as a result Weber was pessimistic about achieving
national unity and cohesion, political aims that he valued highly (p. 126).

Weber's father (Max Weber, Sr.) was a bureaucrat, part of the German establishment,
and a member of the National Liberal Party who sat in the Prussian House and the

Within the political debates of this period, Weber's father was a supporter of the
"conservative, reactionary policies of the German Kaiser and Chancellor ... Bismarck."
(Grabb, p. 44). Bismarck opposed constitutional rule and was a representative of the
Junkers, the aristocratic, eastern German landowners, and practised power politics.
While Weber's father supported compromise and pragmatism (as did Bismarck) Weber
later had disputes with his father, partly because Weber was a liberal, who supported
"democracy and human freedom." (Grabb, p. 44).

Weber's mother, Helene Weber, was a Protestant and a Calvinist, with strong moral
absolutist ideas. Weber was strongly influenced by her views and approach to life.
Although Weber did not claim to be religious himself, religion was an important to huim
which can be seen through much of his thought and writings. Weber studied religion
extensively, and The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, his most famous
work, is a model of Weber's historical and sociological method. In this work, his main
contribution was to show the connection of Calvinism with the emergence of capitalism.

Weber studied at Heidelberg and Berlin (earning a Ph. D.) and, unlike Marx, was not
prevented from taking up an academic career because of his politics, but became an
important German professor. As Marx had done, he studied law and became a lawyer.
He began studying the conditions of agricultural workers in east Prussia in 1892 and by
1894 became a professor of economics. His studies branched out into the study of
history, economics, sociology, religion and languages. Like Marx, he tackled practically
any subject which interested him, and both were products of a broad intellectual
tradition. "Max Weber belonged to a generation of universal scholars ... ." (Gerth and
Mills, p. 23).

Weber married in 1893, although the relationship with his wife Marianne was more
intellectual than physical. Marianne Weber provided important support to her husband
and later wrote a biography of him. Marianne Weber later became a prominent leader
of German feminism, and lived until 1953. Much of Weber's life was preoccupied with
his personal relationships with his parents. According to Ritzer, "There was a tension in
Weber's life and, more important, in his work, between the bureaucratic mind, as
represented by his father, and his mother's religiosity. This unresolved tension
permeates Weber's work as it permeated his personal life." (Ritzer, p. 101). In 1896,
Weber criticized his father severely concerning his father's treatment of his mother. His
father died soon after, and Weber had a nervous breakdown. Weber was not able to
teach regularly again, although most of his writings were undertaken after this.

After his psychological depression, Weber traveled to the United States in 1904. This
visit influenced Weber greatly, Weber being impressed with mass political parties,
voluntary citizens' organizations and other institutions which he felt helped promote
freedom and democracy (Grabb, p. 46). He also became aware of machine politics and
the necessary role of bureaucracy in 'mass democracy.' His attempt to promote
liberalism in Germany was guided partly by his observations concerning American
democracy, in particular, his view that the German president's power should be
strengthened to counteract the power of the Reichstag. (Gerth and Mills, p. 18).

After his return to Germany, Weber completed The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of
Capitalism (1905). In the next years, he published some methodological essays The
Methodology of the Social Sciences, and continued his studies of major world religions
in "world-historical perspective" (Ritzer, p. 101). He also did extensive writing on

economics and history and began his major work Economy and Society in 1909,
although this work was never finished.

Weber lived in Heidelberg and his home became a meeting place for intellectuals. The
first world war broke out in 1914, and this interrupted Weber's work. He worked as a
reserve officer in military hospitals. Later, he became disillusioned with the war,
questioning the competence of the military and political regime. Weber tried to convince
the generals to stop fighting, but this had no effect. After the war, Weber served as an
advisor to the German delegation at Versailles, helped draft a German constitution and
became an important political figure. He opposed the Kaiser's conservative government,
but was also opposed to the socialist parties. Given that there was not a middle
grouping in Germany at the time, this left him little opportunity to make much positive

Weber took up teaching again late in his life, this time at Munich. He debated Marxists
concerning the nature of capitalism, and seemed ready to resume an active role again.
In 1920 he caught pneumonia, and he died at age 56.

5. Intellectual Influences

Weber was familiar with, and part of, the major German intellectual debates of his time,
first in his parents' household, and then in his own and through his professional,
academic contacts. As Ritzer notes (pp. 113-114), Weber was concerned with the
debate concerning science and history, and attempted to establish a foundation for
sociology. Weber felt that historical sociology should be "concerned with individuality
and generality." (Ritzer, p. 114). The philosopher who dominated German philosophical
thought during Weber's time was Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant argued that "the
methods of the natural sciences give us true knowledge about the external phenomenal
world – the world we experience through our senses." (Ashley and Orenstein, p. 268).
At the same time, Kant argued that moral philosophy or a system of morality, is also
important and "involves reflection on moral axioms that appear to be innate and are
understandable without reference to human experience." (Ashley and Orenstein, p.
268). That is, empirical analysis and moral judgment are two separate systems –
sociology could not set out moral values, but could discuss the effects of these. While
sociology must be concerned with empirical analysis of society and history, the method
of sociology would have to be different from that of the natural sciences. Sociological
analysis would have to examine social action within a context of social interaction, and
would have to be interpretive, not viewing people as object just driven by impersonal
forces. Marianne Weber's biography argued that Max Weber believed that the purpose
of political and social institutions is the development of autonomous, free personality.
These influences can be seen in Weber's approach to methodology, understanding and
social action. (Paragraph based on Ashley and Orenstein, pp. 267-271).

One of Marx's major influences and struggles was with Hegelian idealism. While Weber
never seemed to have a similar set of problems with philosophical views, the political
situation of Germany occupies a similar position in Weber's thought. That is, a large
part of Weber's writing and analysis was an attempt to make sense of political features
in Germany, and an attempt to promote a liberal economic system in a country torn
between reaction and socialism.

Germany was backward economically, compared with France and Britain. Landowners
still held political power, but wanted free trade so they could export food to Britain, the
liberal Friedrich List advocated protective tariffs, and it was Bismarck and the aristocrats
who unified Germany, not the emerging bourgeoisie. The liberal intellectuals were
detached from the entrepreneurial middle class. Thus Weber could not find an easy
model from France, Britain or the United States, from which he could draw practical
political lessons. (from Gerth and Mills, p. 45). This may have been part of what led
Weber to look on the political sphere as disconnected from the strictly economic, at
least in the Marxian manner.

For example, Weber considered European political history as a struggle by different

rulers "to appropriate the financial and military means that in feudal society were
relatively dispersed." (Gerth and Mills, p. 48). That is, economic factors affected politics,
but not through the direct route from the bourgeoisie to the ruling class of Marx.
Military factors, the control of territory, and political power in itself all played important
roles in affecting politics and history.

Weber also looked toward the national units as the "historical ultimates that can never
be integrated into more comprehensive and harmonious whole." (Gerth and Mills, p.
48). This is part of what made Weber antagonistic to socialism, especially the
international socialism of this period. In addition, Weber viewed the rationality of
capitalism within a national unit as the most that could be hoped for in terms of
achieving human freedom. To integrate the state with control of the economy, as
socialist doctrine urged, would mean an even further centralization, with a consequent
loss of freedom. According to Weber, "the state had 'nationalized' the possession of
arms and of administrative means [from the feudal estates]. Socialization of the means
of production would merely subject an as yet relatively autonomous economic life to the
bureaucratic management of the state. The state would indeed become total, and
Weber, hating bureaucracy as a shackle upon the liberal individual, felt that socialism
would thus lead to a further serfdom." (Gerth and Mills, p. 50). While Weber
sympathized with the struggle of the proletariat, he was too individualistic to join this

6. Example - Nationalism and Independence

As an example of the Weberian approach, consider the power of ideas such as

nationalism and independence. While Weber himself did not analyze these in great

detail, these have become extremely important today, and have developed as guiding
notions and political programs for large groupings of people. Examples include
independence or separatist movements in Québec, Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe, and
many other parts of the world as well as aboriginal movements with demands for self
determination or self government. The power of these ideas show the contemporary
relevance of Weber's approach.

Ideas of independence and the demands for autonomy may be promoted by economic
considerations. A group may be economically oppressed or exploited, and out of this
can come demands for more political and economic autonomy and a felt need for
economic and political independence. The struggle for independence could then be
interpreted in a fairly straightforward Marxist fashion. People band together to
overthrow their oppressors, and gain more control over their economic and political
situation. For Marxists the solution may be to oust the oppressors (capitalist and
imperialist exploiters) and develop the movement for independence in the direction of
socialism. A Marxist would likely recognize that these movements carry with them a
number of other features. Considerations such as language, territory, culture, religion,
the notion of a common history and the idea of a people are often expressed through
these movements and the ideas that go along with them. For the Marxist though, it is
likely to be oppression and exploitation, and the economic factors that dominate the
discussion. The others are features that help concentrate and form opinion, but
economic considerations are central.

The Weberian approach may provide some useful insights and an alternative approach
to these issues. Ideas related to nationalism and independence may override economic
factors, or even be in opposition to the best economic interests of the population.
Struggle against groups that have exploited people may be associated with the
emergence of a new groups of exploiters and oppressors. Possible examples of this may
be Québecois nationalism, some of the declarations of independence in Eastern Europe,
and certainly the results of what is happening in Yugoslavia. Features such as culture,
language and religion may dominate some of these movements, and they may be
characterized by a situation whereby the notion of independence becomes more
important than purely economic considerations. In the case of Eastern Europe, the
desire to get rid of "communist" rule appears to have been motivated as much by ideas
as by the practical consequences of this.

If this is so, then Weber's approach may tell us as much or more about what is
happening than does a Marxian approach which concentrates mostly on economic
issues. The ideas of independence take on a real meaning to the participants in the
struggle for independence, acquiring enough meaning that some people are willing to
sacrifice their lives. Note that features such as culture and language are real – each
having a history and a real presence. While a Marxist may consider religion as an
ideological device that masks exploitation, for many people religion is a force in daily
life and a set of experiences that has real meaning in many aspects of life. Language

and culture are similar, and for Weber, these cannot be reduced to the economic
situation, but present forces that do affect people in a real sense.

A careful study of these movements would look not only at the possible economic
changes as a result of independence, but at how the ideas of independence are stated
and interpreted. Participants may view these in quite a different manner than what is at
first apparent.

In addition to the importance of ideas in themselves, Weber's approach also

demonstrates the multiple bases from which people act, and from which power is
derived. Economic factors are important for Weber, but language, culture, religion, etc.
are also important. These can all be seen in nationalist struggles. In addition, the
economic base is not the only source of power, with political power in nationalist
struggles being a result of military power, charismatic leadership, ability to express the
nationalist ideal well, and so on. While Weber did not analyze independence movements
as they have emerged in the contemporary setting, Weber's approach provides a useful
method of looking at them.

For Weber, it is the meaning that people attach to ideas, affecting how people act, that
is the proper subject of sociology. Weber is most concerned with actions that are
considered and contemplated by actors, where decisions must be made. Reflexive
actions are not of sociological interest, and as a result, Weber was not very concerned
with psychology and mental processes. Where the individual or the group contemplates
various course of action, the processes of deciding among these, within institutional and
structural constraints, is the concern of Weber.

Another example might be the independent influence of ideology on the voting patterns
of people. People do not always vote for the party which might represent them best,
but may be tied to a certain political party for ideological reasons. A Marxian might say
that working class voting Reform or Saskatchewan Party represents a false
consciousness. For Weber, such an equation would be too simple. It is necessary for
the sociologist to study such behaviour and attempt to determine what thought
processes are occurring here. The possibility of the influence of other factors --
ethnicity, sex, age, etc. -- which cannot all be reduced to the economic base, should
also be considered.

While Weber does consider ideas to have an independent influence on society and on
the course of history, history is the study of the concrete reality, how people live, the
institutions and structures people create, etc. Much of this could be considered a
materialist form of analysis. While Weber did study religion as part of his historical
work, much of Weber's writings was concerned with political and economic issues.
Thus, while ideas have more autonomy for Weber than for Marx, the difference may not
be all that large. Neither were idealists, and neither was a simple or crude materialist or
economic determinist. Note that some of Weber's later writings, where the development

of rationalism as an underlying force was decisive, would seem to make him almost
more of an economic determinist than was Marx. For Marx, there was always class

In some of the above senses, Weber may be considered as a complement to Marx, and
today we certainly have to be aware of the contributions of both. At the same time,
there are some other definite differences between the two. Weber felt the influence of
certain followers of Marx, and Weber had different political views than did these
Marxists. Weber was concerned with social justice, but was not a socialist, and debated
with the socialists. Weber considered himself a liberal and he tended to favour a
parliamentary democracy within a capitalist organization of the economy. He viewed
socialism as no solution to the problem of achieving human freedom. If anything, he
thought of socialism as an economic and social system which would result in even
greater limits on human freedom than does capitalism, even modern, bureaucratic

Because of this different vision, and since he was active in political matters, he
appeared as an opponent of socialism and Marxism in Germany, early in this century.
Some writers have taken this to mean that his sociological analysis is an attempt to
refute Marx, and stands in basic opposition to that of Marx. From today's standpoint,
we should be able to use the analysis of both Marx and Weber. Weber's analysis of
socialism comes quite close to much of what happened in large parts of Eastern Europe,
both with respect to the establishment of bureaucracies, and with respect to the
importance of "ideas of freedom and democracy" which have come to the fore in the
last few years. At the same time, the Marxian vision remains, and the Marxian analysis
still provides the most powerful method of explaining the basic inequalities in capitalist

Finally, one might also note that the analyses of both Weber and Marx are inadequate
with respect to the private sphere. Both are analyses of the economy and politics, the
public sphere, with no attempt to explain the private sphere of life, or the manner in
which the two spheres interact.

Later works

In 1903 Weber was able to resume scholarly work, and an inheritance in 1907 made
him financially independent. He did not teach again until after World War I. The nature
of his most important work after his partial recovery suggests that his prolonged agony
had led him to develop brilliant insights into the relationship of Calvinist morality and
compulsive labour, into the relationship between various religious ethics and social and
economic processes, and into many other questions of lasting importance. Indeed,
Weber produced his most important work in the 17 years between the worst part of his
illness and his death.

Weber’s intellectual breadth in the study of societies can hardly be overestimated; it
surpassed that of his predecessors, mainly Karl Marx and Émile Durkheim. Dissatisfied
with the intellectual traditions of the social sciences and law in German and Western
universities, Weber sought to develop a scientific approach that overcame their
deficiencies. Although he never fully defined a systematic research program explaining
his comparative methodology, his essays on the historical development of Eastern and
Western societies suggest what such an approach might entail. Weber demonstrated
that the comparative method was essential because the behaviour of institutions in
societies could not be understood in isolation. (Even his popular work on the connection
between Puritanism and the development of capitalism in the West cannot be fully
understood without reference to his work on comparative institutions—e.g., his studies
of Asiatic religions and ancient Judaism.)
In preparation for work that he contemplated but never completed, Weber developed
the ideal type as a methodological tool for comparative sociology. In analyzing the
history of Western societies, Weber focused on rationalism as a unique and central
force shaping all Western institutions, including economics, politics, religion, family,
stratification systems, and music. These typologies have had a decisive impact on the
development of subsequent, more specialized sociological inquiries.
A brief glance at Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus (1904–05;
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism), Weber’s best known and most
controversial work, illustrates the general trend of his thinking. Weber began by noting
the statistical correlation in Germany between interest and success in capitalist ventures
on the one hand and Protestant background on the other. He then attributed this
relationship between capitalism and Protestantism to certain accidental psychological
consequences of the notions of predestination and calling in Puritan theology.
In Calvin’s formulation the doctrine of predestination stated that sinful humanity could
know neither why nor to whom God had extended the grace of salvation. Weber
inferred that the psychological insecurity that this doctrine imposed on Calvin’s
followers, stern believers in hellfire, was such that they began to look for signs
indicating the direction of God’s will in daily life. The consequence was an ethic of
unceasing commitment to one’s worldly calling (any lapse would indicate that one’s
state of grace was in doubt) and ascetic abstinence from any enjoyment of the profit
reaped from such labours. The practical result of such beliefs and practices was, in
Weber’s estimation, the most rapid possible accumulation of capital.
Weber had published his thesis on the Protestant ethic in the journal he had just begun
to edit, Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik. From 1905 to 1910 he published
a number of exchanges between himself and critics of his thesis in the Archiv. He never
denied his critics’ claims that highly developed capitalist enterprises existed centuries
before Calvin. Weber was also aware of other preconditions, both material and
psychological, that contributed to the development of modern capitalism. He responded
to these criticisms by arguing that, before Calvinism, capitalist enterprise and wealth
accumulation were always fettered by the passive or active hostility of the prevalent
religious order. If some capitalists were, by virtue of their skepticism, able to escape the
guilt feelings that the prevailing religious ethos dictated, it was nevertheless a fact that

no other religious tradition had ever caused people to see the accumulation of capital
(saving money) as a sign of God’s everlasting grace.
The Puritans, Weber argued, had accepted the cloak of worldly asceticism voluntarily,
as a means of alleviating otherwise unbearable spiritual burdens. In so doing, however,
they helped to create the enormous structure of the modern economic institution, which
proceeded to determine the life and values of everyone born into it.
Around the time he published his work on the Protestant ethic, the middle-class German
culture in which Weber had been nurtured experienced its first spasms of disintegration.
The Protestant morality that he had come to accept as inescapable destiny came under
attack from the youth movement, from avant-garde literary circles such as the one
centred on the poet Stefan George, from Neoromantics influenced by Friedrich
Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud, and from Slavic cultural ideals, exemplified in the works
of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In this setting Weber developed his political
sociology, which makes the crucial distinction between charismatic, traditional, and
legal forms of authority.
Charismatic authority, or charisma, refers to the gift of spiritual inspiration underlying
the power of religious prophets or extraordinary political leaders. In probing charisma
Weber touched, sometimes explicitly, on themes that had first been broached by
Nietzsche. His acute interest in social phenomena such as mysticism, which are
antithetical to the modern world and its underlying process of rationalization, paralleled
a late awakening of Weber’s aesthetic and erotic faculties. In 1910, amid the crumbling
social order of European middle-class society, Weber began a series of important
discussions with George and his close disciple, the poet Friedrich Gundolf. At roughly
the same time, Weber began an extramarital affair, probably his first experience of
sexual intimacy; one of his most brilliant later essays (“Theorie der Stufen und
Richtungen religioser Weltablehnung,” 1916; “Religious Rejections of the World and
Their Directions”) contains an analysis of the conflicting relationships between
eroticism, ascetic and mystical modes of religiosity, and the general process of
During this same period Weber attempted to build respect for sociology as a discipline
by defining a value-free methodology for it and by analyzing the religious cultures of
India and China for comparison with the Western religious tradition. Also of critical
importance in his last decade was his stoic examination of the conditions and
consequences of the rationalization of political and economic life in the West in
Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (1922; Economy and Society) and journal articles.

Indeed, Weber’s most powerful impact on his contemporaries came in the last years of
his life, when, from 1916 to 1918, he argued powerfully against Germany’s
annexationist war goals and in favour of a strengthened parliament. He stood bravely
for sobriety in politics and scholarship against the apocalyptic mood of right-wing
students in the months following Germany’s defeat in World War I. After assisting in the
drafting of the new constitution and in the founding of the German Democratic Party,
Weber died of a lung infection in June 1920.


Weber’s significance during his lifetime was considerable among German social
scientists, many of whom were his friends in Heidelberg or Berlin; but because so little
of his work was published in book form during his lifetime, and because most of the
journals in which he published had restricted audiences of scholarly specialists, his
major impact was not felt until after his death. The only exceptions were his
formulation of “liberal imperialism” in 1895, his widely discussed thesis on Protestantism
and capitalism, and his extensive attack on German foreign and domestic policies during
World War I in the pages of the Frankfurter Zeitung, which stimulated liberal sentiment
against the government’s war aims and led General Erich Ludendorff to view Weber as
a traitor.
In general, Weber’s greatest merit as a thinker was that he brought the social sciences
in Germany, hitherto preoccupied largely with national problems, into direct critical
confrontation with the international giants of 19th-century European thought—Marx and
Nietzsche; and, through this confrontation, Weber helped create a methodology and a
body of literature dealing with the sociology of religion, political parties, and the
economy, as well as studies of formal organizations, small-group behaviour, and the
philosophy of history. His work continues to stimulate scholarship.


Abridged from Chapter 3 of Neil Smelser's Comparative Methods in the Social Sciences,
Prentice-Hall, 1976.

Durkheim and Weber are commonly and correctly regarded as two of the foremost
comparative analysts in the history of sociology. In their work they faced a number of
common problems that arise in comparative analysis, and attempted to overcome them
in ways that are still instructive. I shall examine the strategies of these two scholars in
action in this chapter. Both these men made their contribution to sociology in the late
19th and early 20th centuries, when the field was making significant strides toward
establishing itself as an academic and scientific discipline. Both of them, moreover, had
occasion during the course of their careers - Durkheim in 18951 and Weber in 19042 - to
produce major theoretical and methodological statements on the program for sociology.
Each statement was incomplete in many ways; for example, while both theorists
assigned comparative sociological analysis a central place in their programs for

Emile Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method, ed., George E. G. Catlin, and trans. Sarah A. Solovay and
John H. Mueller (Glencoe, III.: The Free Press, 1958).
Max Weber, " 'Objectivity' in Social Science Policy," in The Methodology of the Social Sciences, ed. and trans.
Edward A. Shils and Henry A. Finch, with a foreword by Edward A. Shils (New York: The Free Press, 1969), pp.

sociology, neither developed a detailed, explicit statement of strategies for comparative
analysis. Nevertheless, their reflections, considered together, expose the major
methodological dilemmas encountered in comparative analysis. Their methodological
writings are further instructive in that while they began with methodological
perspectives that were radically opposed to one another, each made a number of
significant modifications of these starting points in the course of his argument. As a
result, their practical programs for sociological investigation - to say nothing of their
actual empirical research - resemble one another much more than their methodological

In this chapter, then, I shall examine the methodological contributions of Durkheim and
Weber,3 with an eye to identifying certain general issues in comparative sociology which
recur, and which form a basis for discussing strategies for comparative analysis that
have been developed more recently. More particularly, I shall compare and contrast
Durkheim and Weber under the following headings:
(1) The character of scientific knowledge and its relation to other kinds of knowledge
and cultural values;
(2) The appropriate range of data to be investigated by sociologists;
(3) Classification in sociological investigation;
(4) The nature of sociological explanation; and
(5) Verification in sociology.

Scientific Knowledge in Sociology

Let me begin with Durkheim, whose program of sociological positivism was laid out
clearly and forcefully. While insisting that the subject matter of sociology is distinct from
that of other sciences, Durkheim also insisted that the sociologist should approach his
subject matter "in the same state of mind as the physicist, chemist, or physiologist
when he probes into a still unexplored region of the scientific domain."4 Regarding the
social sciences of his day as analogous to alchemy before the rise of the natural
sciences, he condemned them as having dealt "more or less exclusively with concepts
and not with things"5 By this he meant that sociologists had approached their subject
matter with some abstract notion - such as evolution in mind and attempted to
ascertain how various social arrangements suit those notions. Using such
preconceptions, Durkheim argued, instead of "observing, describing, and comparing
things, we are content to focus our consciousness upon, to analyze, and to combine our

My main focus will be on the works identified in footnotes one and two, but both Durkheim and Weber ventured
methodological observations elsewhere in their work. In particular, Weber wrote an exceptionally concise
methodological statement at the beginning of his Economy and Society; Max Weber, "The Definition of Sociology
and of Social Action," in Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, ed. Guenther Roth and Claus
Wittich (New York: Bedminister Press, 1968), 1:4-24. I shall refer to these additional methodological reflections as
Durkheim, "Author's Preface to the Second Edition," Rules, p. xlv.
Durkheim, Rules, p. 18.

ideas. Instead of a science concerned with realities, we produce no more than an
ideological analysis."6

The proper strategy for sociology, Durkheim continued, is to cast aside such
preconceptions and regard social phenomena as "distinct from the consciously formed
impressions of them in the mind".7 The most important characteristic of a "thing,"
moreover, is "the impossibility of its modification by a simple effort of the will." 8 The
investigator should free his mind of all preconceptions, take a more passive relationship
to social reality, and deal with phenomena "in terms of their inherent properties," and
their "common external characteristics"9 Classifications should not "depend on [the
sociologist] or on the cast of his individual mind but on the nature of things"10.

Durkheim's positivism is understandable as an expression of his impatience with

unfounded and unverified theories of his day, and as a strategic appeal for empirical
observation. Yet as a general methodological program, it evidently presents serious
problems. The decisive problem concerns the possibility of ridding oneself of all
preconceptions and letting the real world of empirical phenomena speak for itself.
Aside from the fact that this is psychologically impossible for anyone who has been
socialized in a language and in a way of regarding the world, Durkheim's position would
seem to involve a logical impossibility as well. Given the complexity of empirical reality,
and given the innumerable ways it may present itself, how is it possible to perceive a
single set of external characteristics without actively selecting from among all the
possibilities? And if the necessity of selection is acknowledged, does not this imply the
necessity of some preconception on the part of the investigator? Without criteria for
selecting aspects of the empirical world for observation and classification, is not the
investigator left in a position of methodological paralysis, unable to begin?

Considerations such as these led Weber to a contrasting formulation of the character of

scientific knowledge, though he did not offer his formulation as a direct polemic against
Durkheim. Weber regarded scientific knowledge of society and culture as emanating
from a number of "one-sided" (that is, selective) views of different aspects of cultural
life. It was by selecting, over-emphasizing, and simplifying certain aspects that bodies
of scientific knowledge - like formal economics - were generated. Furthermore, he
argued that "the one-sidedness is intentional".11 More important, selectivity is not
determined by the "nature of things," as Durkheim held, but by the initiative of the

Ibid., p. 14.
Ibid., p. 28.
Ibid., p. 35.
Ibid., p. 36.
Weber, "'Objectivity' in Social Science and Social Policy," p. 67.

Reality, even a single object, is so complex" it presents an infinite multiplicity of
successively and coexistently emerging and disappearing events, both 'within' and
"outside' ourselves"12 - that Weber was led to a firm conclusion: "All the analysis of
infinite reality which the finite human mind can conduct rests on the tacit assumption
that only a finite portion of this reality constitutes the object of scientific

But by what criteria is this selection - this reduction to the finite made? According to
Weber it is not made by nature, as Durkheim might argue; scientific reality is not
constructed by the regular unfolding of forces dictated by abstract "laws". In particular,
the social-scientific interest has its point of departure the real, i.e., concrete,
individually-structured configuration of our cultural life in its universal relationships
which are themselves no less individually-structured, and in its development out of
other social cultural conditions, which themselves are obviously likewise individually
structured. 14

Hypothetical laws may be helpful as a set of heuristic devices in generating

explanations of concrete configurations, but these configurations cannot be deduced
from them".15 Historical configurations interest the investigator, rather, because they
are culturally significant for him. This implies further that the investigator has a "value-
orientation" toward historical events and situations.

Accordingly, the "presuppositionless" approach to empirical reality was, for Weber, an

impossibility. Empirical description, to say nothing of explanation, is impossible without
presuppositions and is pervaded by them. "A chaos of 'existential judgments' about
countless individual events would be the only result of a serious attempt to analyze
reality 'without presuppositions'. 16 To attempt to be empirically exhaustive "is not only
practically impossible - it is simply nonsense"17. It is essential to bring order out of
chaos by selection of aspects of events, and we select only those parts of reality that
are "interesting and significant to us, because only [those parts are] ...related to the
cultural values with which we approach reality"18. Social or cultural reality is not that
which presses itself on the uncluttered mind of the investigator; it is "a finite segment
of the meaningless infinity of the world process, a segment on which human beings
confer meaning and significance."19

Ibid., p. 72.
Ibid., p. 74.
In making this point Weber was assuming his polemic against prevalent evolutionary and other mono-causal
theories of his time, which held, in one way or another, that history involved the unfolding of immutable laws. For a
discussion of Weber's posture, see Guenther Roth, "Introduction" to Weber, Economy and Society, pp. xix-xxiv.
Ibid., p. 78.
Ibid., p. 81.

Concluding this line of reasoning, Weber penned a passage that reads as if it were
aimed directly at Durkheim:

"If the notion that [the points of view governing empirical selectivity] can be
derived from the "facts themselves" continually recurs, it is due to the naive
self-deception of the specialist who is unaware that it [the notion] is due to
the evaluative ideas with which he unconsciously approaches his subject
matter, that he has selected from an absolute infinity a tiny portion with the
study of which he concerns himself. . . .

To be sure, without the investigator's evaluative ideas, there would be no

principle of selection of subject-matter and no meaningful knowledge of the
concrete reality. Just as without the investigator's conviction regarding the
significance of particular cultural facts, every attempt to analyze concrete
reality is absolutely meaningless, so the direction of his personal belief, the
refraction of values in the prism of his mind, gives direction to his Work"20

What Durkheim wished to banish Weber wished to turn into a set of active guidelines to
be used in description and explanation.

Thus Weber envisioned a more intimate connection between the investigator's value-
preoccupations and his scientific inquiry than did Durkheim. In another connection
Weber took an opposite position; I mention this here only in passing, since it is of little
concern to my central purposes. Throughout his methodological writings Weber insisted
on the strict separation of statements with empirical (scientific) validity and statements
with normative (right and wrong) validity. In particular, he held that the latter cannot
be derived from the former; consequently he was opposed to any effort to generate an
empirically-based "science of ethics". Scientific investigators can make statements
regarding the relative effectiveness and cost of alternative means to given ends; they
can also often identify and make explicit goals or values which may not be
acknowledged by the actors being studied. But they cannot go further: "empirical
science cannot tell anyone what he should do."21 Durkheim, in contrast, envisioned
arriving at assessments regarding the "normal" or "pathological" character of ethical
rules on the basis of empirical examinations of the appropriateness of the rule to its
social context.22 Regarding both the implications of cultural values for the conduct of

Ibid., p. 82.
Ibid., p. 54. General discussion of the issue of ethical neutrality is found on pp. 50-63; in Weber, "The Meaning
of 'Ethical Neutrality' in Sociology and economics," in The Methodology of the Social Sciences, pp. 1-47; and in
Weber, "Science as a Vocation," in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, ed. and trans. with an introduction by H.
H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970), pp. 129-56.
Durkheim's definition was as follows: "One considers as a normal moral fact for a given social type, at a
determinate phase of its development, every rule of conduct to which a repressive diffuse sanction is attached in the
average society of this type, considered at the same period of evolution; secondly, the same qualification applies to
every rule, which, without precisely presenting this criterion, is, however, analogous to certain of the preceding

scientific inquiry and the implications of scientific findings for value-judgments, then,
Durkheim's and Weber's formulations appear to be firmly opposed to one another.

On the Subject Matter of Sociology

Durkheim's methodological position was clear and straightforward. He regarded the
proper subject matter of sociology as "social facts." These are to be distinguished from
both biological (eating, sleeping, for instance) and psychological (reasoning, for
instance) facts. They include those aspects of society (for example, a society's religious
system, its language, and its system of currency) which have an existence independent
of the individual consciousness of society's members and exercise a constraining
influence on their behavior. The existence of social facts is (1) to be defined
independently of individual consciousness, (2) to be expected to manifest regularities
peculiar to themselves and not expressible in psychological terms.23 and (3) to be
expected to impose their influence on the individual's behavior "[a] social fact is to be
recognized by the power of external coercion which it exercises or is capable of
exercising over individuals, and the presence of this power may be recognized in its
turn either by the existence of some specific sanction or by the resistance offered
against every individual effort that tends to violate it.24

Thus Durkheim was concerned to set the social level apart from the psychological, and
to insist on their independence. In the introduction to the second edition of The Rules
of Sociological Method, he asserted that social facts differ from psychological facts in
quality, in substratum, and in milieu, and he reiterated that the substance of social life
cannot be explained by purely psychological factors".25 The same insistence permeates
the pages of Suicide. At one point he acknowledged that conditions affecting individual
suicides are "obviously quite distinct" from those affecting the social suicide rate, and
"have no social repercussions."26 He emphatically rejected explanations of the social
suicide rates based on abnormal or normal psychological states.27 He acknowledged
that individuals differ in their vulnerability to suicide, but the factors that make them so
do not "cause a definite number to kill themselves in each society in a definite period of
time"28. As we shall see, Durkheim's reference to psychological factors in his own
comparative sociology was much more complex and subtle than his methodological
observations suggest. In principle, however, he was unequivocally hostile both to the
reduction of social to psychological phenomena and to the explanation of social by
psychological phenomena.

rules; that is to say, serves the same ends, and depends upon the same causes." Emile Durkheim, "Appendix" to
Emile Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society, trans. George Simpson (Glencoe, III.: The Free Press, 1949), p.
435. See also his general discussion of the normal and pathological social facts, in Durkheim, Rules, pp. 47-75.
Ibid., p. 1.
Ibid., p. 10.
Ibid., p. xlix. See also Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society, pp. 279-80.
Emile Durkheim, Suicide, ed. with an introduction by George Simpson; trans. John A. Spaulding (Glencoe, III.:
The Free Press, 1951), p, 51.
Ibid., pp. 57-103.
Ibid., p. 324. Emphasis in original.

Weber differed significantly from Durkheim in his starting point for sociological analysis.
He incorporated a distinctively psychological level into his definition of the basic
substance of sociology and social action. Action is defined as such "insofar as the acting
individual attaches a subjective meaning to his behavior - be it overt or covert, omission
or acquiescence." Action is "social" insofar as "its subjective meaning takes account of
the behavior of others and is thereby oriented in its course". 29

Weber's concern with subjective meaning implies that he regarded the individual as
motivated, assessing his environment in terms of its significance for him, and organizing
his behavior accordingly; furthermore, social action cannot be understood, described, or
analyzed without reference to this subjective meaning. Durkheim may have agreed,
but would have insisted that such meaning is relevant for psychology but not for

Weber qualified his emphasis on subjective meaning in a variety of ways. First, not all
behavior is subjectively meaningful; some is merely reactive, though the distinction
between the two is subtle. 30 The meaning of action as rendered by the actor must be
taken into account in explaining his behavior, but it is not to be regarded as constituting
a valid scientific explanation of his behavior. Not all of his motives and perceptions may
be conscious; and, in any event, various "non-meaningful" stimuli (for example,
environmental or biological events) condition a person's behavior by acting to favor or
hinder circumstances.31 He asserted, furthermore - in reasoning akin to Durkheim's -
that the "subjective meaning-complex of action" had to stand on its own level, and
could not be decomposed without loss into bio-chemical reactions. 32 And he was
careful to avoid confusing the analysis of subjectively meaningful experience with
psychology in general, thus giving the former a distinctive conceptual independence."33

Approaches to empirical data:

These divergent starting points propelled Durkheim and Weber in different directions
with respect to their approach to empirical data. Durkheim focused upon the observable
and the measurable. A social fact such as social solidarity, he noted, "is a completely
moral phenomenon which, taken by itself, does not lend itself to exact observation nor
indeed to measurement." Therefore, he added, "we must substitute for this internal fact
which escapes us an external index which symbolizes it and study the former in the
light of the latter." 34 He was drawn to study various observable kinds of statistics,
which record "the currents of daily life" (for example, market statistics); costumes,
Weber, Economy and Society, 1:4. Emphasis supplied in both quotations.
Ibid., pp. 4-5.
Ibid., pp. 7-10.
Ibid., p. 13.
Ibid., p. 19.
Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society, p. 64.

which record fashions; and works of art, which record taste.35 Psychology suffered on
this count, Durkheim added, because psychological facts are "internal by definition,"
and therefore inaccessible; "it seems that they can be treated as external only by doing
violence to their nature. 36 Weber, because he focused on subjective meaning, was less
prepared to treat socio-cultural phenomena as "things." The phenomena of the social
sciences involve "a problem of a specifically different type from those which the
schemes of the exact natural sciences in general can or seek to solve. "37 These
phenomena are "psychological and intellectual" and call for "empathetic

Accordingly, Weber devoted a considerable proportion of his methodological statement

in Economy and Society to a discussion of different types of understanding, the ways in
which meaning can be sensitively and accurately grasped. 38 Weber was also interested
in statistical uniformities, but only in so far as they "can be regarded as manifestations
of the understandable subjective meaning of a course of social action," as in the case of
crime rates or occupational distributions.39 Furthermore, the two scholars leaned
toward a different approach to their data. For Durkheim, the preference would be to
regard statistical series as standardized expressions of definite "things" distinct from
any meaning that individuals attached to them; for Weber a statistic would be reflective
of the subjective-meaning complex of an actor, and would derive its significance from
complex rather than from any "external" or "superficial" characteristic".40

At this moment let me pause and attempt to represent formally the different paradigms
for the generation of knowledge emerging from Durkheim's and Weber's methodology.
Most of the significant contrasts between the two theorists, as reviewed up to this
point, may be understood in terms of how each conceptualized the role of the
investigator (observer) and the role of the actor (observed) in the generation of
knowledge. Durkheim assigned a passive role to both. In his insistence that facts are
"things" he held that they cannot be modified by a "simple act of the [observer's] will";
in his insistence that the observer free himself of all previous preoccupations, he called
on him not to attempt to influence empirical facts, but to let them impress themselves
upon his mind according to their inherent properties. In these ways the observer is
regarded as passive. And because facts are "social," they enjoy an existence
independent from the individual, work their influence upon him despite his efforts to
resist, and are governed by laws specific to the social level. In these senses, actors as
Durkheim, Rules, p. 30.
Weber, The Methodology of the Social Sciences, p. 74.
Weber, Economy and Society, 1:5-12.
Ibid., 1:12.
"Processes of action which seem to an observer to be the same or similar may fit into exceedingly various
complexes of motive in the case of the individual actor. Then even though the situations appear superficially to
be very similar, we must actually understand them or interpret them as very different, perhaps, in terms of meaning,
directly opposed." Ibid., p. 10.

individuals contribute little to sociological knowledge. Such are the key ingredients of
sociological positivism as presented by Durkheim. Weber contrasts with Durkheim on
both counts. By insisting on the impossibility of a "presuppositionless" sociology, he
afforded the observer a more active role in the generation of scientific knowledge. The
precise role of the observer, moreover, is guided toward empirical data and problems,
which are significant to him from a cultural point of view. And by insisting on the
centrality of subjective meaning as the basic ingredient of action, including social
action, Weber gave both the actor and the investigator a more active role. In regarding
the actor as meaningfully oriented to his environment, Weber insisted that a significant
portion of the variables that "explain" human behavior had to be found in the pattern of
meanings given to his environment and behaving in accord with these meanings. The
actor's own definition of the situation, in short, contributes to explaining his behavior.
(Durkheim might have acknowledged the importance of these meaning-complexes, but
would have argued that they have no import for sociological knowledge). Also, by
insisting on the importance of subjective meaning, Weber saw the task of the observer
- that of empathetic understanding - as calling for a more active effort than observing
and recording the phenomena that nature produces. Figure 3-1 locates the positions of
Durkheim and Weber according to the dimensions of activity and passivity of the
observer and the actor, and indicates their general opposition to one another. The
differences among them, moreover, are philosophical - or paradigmatic, if you will - in
that they deal with first assumptions about the nature and source of empirical
knowledge, assumptions that are rooted in articles of conviction or faith and are not
easily settled on empirical grounds. Furthermore, the other two "cells" of figure 3-1
indicate two other variants of paradigms for the generation of scientific sociological
knowledge. Those who regard the observer as passive in this process, and who insist
upon the importance (and the integrity) of the actor as a source of knowledge have
assumed many guises, among which phenomenology, relativism, and historicism are
the most conspicuous; each regards valid knowledge as emanating from the
experience, world-view, or way of life of the people under study. The fourth cell might
be termed "sociological nominalism" (for lack of a better term) which acknowledges the
independent role of the investigator in formulating categories, constructs, and theories,
but does not take into account the meaning-states of the actors being studied.41 The
approach of the self-conscious "model-building" of many contemporary comparative
analysts fits into this category.

Actor as Actor as
passive active

The term is not entirely satisfactory, but it is meant to convey that nominalistic concepts do not mean to reflect
"real" states in the empirical world - of which subjective-meaning states would be one - but rather are seen as
helpful devices for organizing thinking about the empirical world. See Robert Bierstedt, "Nominal and Real
Definitions in Sociological Theory," in Llewellyn Gross, ed Symposium on Sociological Theory (Evanston, III.:
Row, Peterson & Co., 1959), pp. 121-44.

Observer as passive Sociological Phenomenolo
positivism gy;
(Durkheim) relativism;
Observer as active Sociological Interpretative
nominalism Sociology

FIG. 3-1 Four Paradigms for Generating Sociological Knowledge

Because each of these four42 paradigms rests on different epistemological assumptions,

each produces a distinctive kind of knowledge. Theorists of each persuasion create
distinctive strengths and vulnerabilities for themselves in generating knowledge. For
example positivistic approaches to the analysis of dissimilar systems encourage
quantitative comparisons (a strength) but tend to become involved in comparing
incomparable data. Relativistic or phenomenological approaches on the other hand are
more likely to remain faithful to the perspectives of those who have produced the data
but have difficulty in generating categories by which those data can be compared.

Classification in Sociological Investigation

Both Durkheim and Weber were committed to the principle that sociology should be a
generalizing science, as contrasted, for example, with history.43 Because of this
commitment, they were concerned with generating statements that could deal with
many cases (many individuals, many societies). A necessary preliminary to such
statements, moreover, is to develop concepts which apply to more than one case. How
did Weber and Durkheim come to terms with the necessity of generating general
descriptive and classificatory categories, and how did their efforts square with the
paradigmatic assumptions each embraced?

One way Durkheim assessed the general significance of social facts was to relate them
to a conception of "normal" or "pathological." In characteristic manner, however, he
rejected any "premature attempt to grasp the essence" of normality and abnormality,
and attempted instead to "seek some external and perceptible characteristic which will
enable us merely to distinguish these two orders of facts.44 In this enterprise he closely
followed the reasoning of biology:

In no way do I mean to claim that this representation of different paradigm exhausts the approach to sociological
knowledge; it is the first of several distinction I shall introduce to clarify the issues and strategies of comparative
analysis in the social sciences.
For example, Durkheim, Suicide, pp. 35-39; Weber, Economy and Society, 1:19.
Durkheim, Rules, pp. 54-55.

"All sociological phenomena (as well as all biological phenomena) can
assume different forms in different cases while still conserving their essential
characteristics. We can distinguish two kinds of such forms. Some are
distributed in the entire range of species; they are to be found, if not in all
individuals, at least in the majority of them. If they are not found to be
identical in all the cases in question, but vary in different persons, these
variations do occur within narrow limits. . . . We shall call "normal" these
social conditions that are the most generally distributed, and the others
"morbid" or "pathological." 45

Traits as such cannot be generally assumed to be normal or pathological; they must be

"defined . . . only in relation to a - given species" and "only in relation to a given phase
of its development."46 What is normal for a simple, preliterate society is certainly not
normal for an advanced, complex society. For any given species it is the statistical
generality of a social fact that gives it its normality. But in addition, Durkheim wished
to explain normality in another way - not only a "normality of fact" but also a "normality
of logical necessity." He proposed to do this by referring to what we now might term
the "functional significance" of the social fact for the species:

"The normality of the phenomenon is to be explained by the mere fact that it

is bound up with the conditions of existence of the species under
consideration, either as a mechanically necessary effect of these conditions
or as a means permitting the organisms to adapt themselves."47

If a phenomenon persists, for example, throughout a long period of social change

when, in fact, the conditions for its existence are no longer present, it may be regarded
as "pathological." 48

The conception of the normal and abnormal in statistical terms, however qualified, is
open to severe criticisms. Rather than dwell on these, however, I should like to point
out how Durkheim's effort to assess the functional significance of social facts led him
directly into the comparative analysis of social systems. The significance of a social fact
- that is, whether it is normal or pathological - is to be assessed not by some intrinsic
feature of the fact but by the societal context of the fact, viz., the requirements of the
species at its level of development. Such a formulation calls immediately for a
classification of species and of levels of development, since without it the investigator
could not make the necessary assessments.

Ibid., p. 55.
Ibid., pp. 57-58.
Ibid., p. 60.
Ibid., pp. 62-63.

Durkheim was aware of this pressure to classify that arose from his formulation49. And
in proposing to classify, he tried, much like Weber, to steer a course between "the
nominalism of the historian and the extreme realism of the philosopher":

"For the historian, societies represent just so many heterogeneous

individualities, not comparable among themselves. Each people has its own
physiognomy, its special constitution, its law, its morality, its economic
organization, appropriate only to itself; and all generalizations are well-nigh
impossible. For the philosopher, on the contrary, all these individual
groupings, called tribes, city-states, and nations, are only contingent and
provisional aggregations with no exclusive and separate reality. Only
humanity is real, and it is from the general attributes of human nature that
all social evolution flows.

For the former, consequently, history is but a sequence of events which

follow without repeating one another; for the latter, these same events have
value and interest only as illustrating the general laws inherent in the
constitution of man and dominating all historical development. For the
former, what is good for one society cannot be applied to others. The
conditions of the state of health vary from one people to the next and cannot
be theoretically determined; it is a matter of practical experience and of
cautious research. For the latter, they can be calculated once and for all and
for the entire human species. It seems, then, that social reality must be
merely subject matter of an abstract and vague philosophy or for purely
descriptive monographs".50

To avoid these two extremes, Durkheim proposed to approach social reality by

classifying it into social species. Such a procedure seemed to incorporate "both the
unity that all truly scientific research demands and the diversity that is given in the
facts, since the species is the same for all the individual units that make it up, and
since, on the other hand, the species differ among themselves." 51

In proceeding, however, Durkheim departed from his general methodological position

to a certain degree. On the one hand, he argued that "science can . . . establish
classes only after having described, in their entirety, the individuals they comprise52.
But rather than proceed inductively, he felt it possible to identify certain decisive or
crucial facts - the most essential characteristics of social types" - without entering . . .
too far into the study of the facts. 53 In particular, he focused on the fact "that societies

"Since a social fact can be constructed as normal or abnormal only relatively to a given species, it is implied that
one branch of sociology must be devoted to the constitution and classification of these species" Ibid., p. 76.
Ibid., pp. 76-77.
Ibid., p. 77.
Ibid., p. 79.
Ibid., p. 80.

are composed in various parts in combination" and that they may be arrayed according
to their complexity of parts54. Accordingly, he defined a simple society as "[one] which
does not include others more simple than itself, and which not only at present contains
but a single segment but also presents no trace of previous segmentation," and applied
this definition to a "horde"55 When the horde becomes a segment of a society, rather
than a society itself, however, a more complex type of society presents itself, a "clan
society." And, as societies combine, give birth to new societies, which themselves
combine, a typology of societies based on the degree of differentiation of their parts

At one point Durkheim noted, almost in passing, that "[it] is true, perhaps, that no
historical society corresponds exactly to [the] description [of a horde]."57 Shortly
thereafter, he noted that the notion of the horde may be "conceived as a historic reality
or as a hypothesis of science".58 By venturing these observations - and, indeed, by
proceeding as he did in proposing his scheme for classification - Durkheim made several
crucial departures from his paradigmatic insistence on the passivity of the investigator
who could not produce changes in positive facts by an act of will. Not only did he
acknowledge the necessity - even desirability - of proceeding to some degree in an a
priori way in classifying societies. He also stressed the need to select decisive or crucial
facts as the basis of classification. Furthermore, he acknowledged the legitimacy of the
investigator's distorting empirical reality by creating a hypothetically pure type not
found in empirical reality for purposes of building a classificatory scheme. In making
these departures, moreover, Durkheim moved significantly in the direction of Weber's
formulation of the role of the investigator, and - as we shall see presently - in the
direction of Weber's view of the nature and purposes of classification.

Weber, too, was aware of the tension between nominalism and realism, though it took
a somewhat different form than it did for Durkheim. On the one hand, he rejected any
position that social reality could be regarded as a manifestation of general social laws;
"the reality of which . . . laws apply always remains equally individual, equally
undeducible from laws. "59. Because he focused on the concrete individual, and,
perhaps more important, because he gave the individual's subjective meaning such
salience in the definition of social action, he seemed to be flirting with an extreme
historical nominalist position. How could individuals, who vary so greatly in their
subjective assessment of social reality, be compared with one another? How is it
possible to move to the level of social institutions and social structures, which are
presumably among the main foci of interest of the sociologist? Weber rejected the idea
that the sociologist could "deduce.. institutions from psychological laws or explain them

Ibid., pp. 81-82.
Ibid., p. 82
Ibid., pp. 82-83.
Ibid., p. 83.
Ibid., p. 84.
Weber, " 'Objectivity' in Social Science and Social Policy," p. 73.

by elementary psychological phenomena"60. How then to proceed, simultaneously
holding both his view of social reality and his commitment to sociology as a generalizing

It is in the context of this tension that Weber's famous "ideal type" becomes significant.
An ideal type is a device employed by an investigator to facilitate empirical analysis. It
is not a description of reality; it is not an hypothesis. Rather, according to Weber's
somewhat cumbersome definition, it is "formed by the one-sided accentuation of one or
more points of view and by the synthesis of a great many diffuse, discrete, more or less
present and occasionally absent concrete individual phenomena, which are arranged
according to those one-sidedly emphasized viewpoints into a unified analytical
construct."61 The ideal type is not derived from empirical reality; rather, it is the
selection of the essential - indeed, one might say "decisive," as did Durkheim - features
of a complex historical situation and molding them into a simplified picture. By drawing
out type-elements from the myriad unique historical experiences of concrete acting
individuals, the investigator makes them comparable with one another. By constructing
an ideal-typical capitalistic system of pricing and marketing, the investigator
characterizes in general terms the orientation of numerous actors, who may differ in
detail in their concrete subjective orientations to the market. Description in terms of
the ideal type selects from those orientations and makes them similar.

It is apparent from Weber's illustrations of ideal-type concepts that they differ in level
of generality. In his commentary he mentioned such varying possibilities as "church"
and "sect,". "capitalistic culture," "city-economy," "handicraft," "liberalism,"
"Methodism," "socialism," and "Christianity." In addition to these "abstract concepts of
relationships which are conceived by us as stable in the flux of events62, he noted that
developmental sequences could also be represented in ideal-typical form for example,
the "typical" shift from handicraft to capitalistic economic organization, or, more
generally, the historical sweeps envisioned in
Marxian theory." 63

In Economy and Society Weber discussed and illustrated the notion of the ideal type in
terms more similar to the way we would currently describe a scientific "model" or
"theoretical framework." Constructing a type involves first hypothesizing what course
action would take if the actors in a situation were motivated consistently by a single

"For example a panic on the stock exchange can be most conveniently

analysed by attempting to determine first what the course of action would
have been if it had not been influenced by irrational affects; it is then
Ibid., p. 89.
Ibid., p. 90.
Ibid., p. 101.
Ibid., pp. 101-3.

possible to introduce the irrational components as accounting for the
observed deviations from this hypothetical course. Similarly, in analysing a
political or military campaign it is convenient to determine in the first place
what would have been a rational course, given the ends of the participants
and adequate knowledge of all the circumstances. Only in this way is it
possible to assess the causal significance of irrational factors as accounting
for deviations from this type."64

Weber regarded the laws of economic theory (including the postulate of maximization)
as a representation of "the meaning appropriate to a scientifically formulated pure type
(an ideal type) of a common phenomenon65. Most sociological laws involve building up
hypothetical constructs "on the basis of such rational assumptions".66

Weber insisted that the ideal type was a generalizing device, to be applied to a variety
of instances of action. In this way he was moving away from the historicism which he
felt could not produce general statements. In fact, he regarded the use of general types
as inevitable in any kind of historical analysis. If the historian rejects such general
theoretical constructs, "the inevitable consequence is either that he consciously or
unconsciously uses other similar concepts without formulating them verbally and
elaborating them logically or that he remains stuck in the realm of the vaguely 'felt.'"67
Nevertheless, because Weber laid down no rules for how general
an ideal type should be - ideal types could include anything from general economic
models to historical phenomena such as "Methodism" and presumably even sub-
varieties of "Methodism" - his own conception ran the risks of manifesting a kind of
theoretical indeterminacy, an endless creation of types depending on the historical
research at hand, and, indeed, a reversion to historical particularism on a slightly higher
level of abstraction." 68

What are the functions of ideal-type concepts from the standpoint of scientific inquiry?
Weber stressed several heuristic uses. They "are of great value for research and of high
systematic value for expository purposes when they are used as conceptual instruments
for comparison with and the measurement of reality." 69 This would include, as I have
mentioned, comparing otherwise different individuals with unique subjective-meaning
complexes. They permit the transition from focusing on the individual, concrete actor to
the analysis of institutional action - including the influence of one institutional complex
on another - by treating it as having a common ideal-type meaning for actors. And they
are of explanatory value, particularly those that deal with "laws" or "developmental

Weber, Economy and Society, 1:6.
Ibid., p. 9.
Ibid., p. 19.
Durkheim, The Methodology of the Social Sciences, p. 94.
This is one of the thrusts of Talcott Parsons' critique of Weber's sociology as producing a sort of "type atomism."
See Talcott Parsons, The Structure of Social Action (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1937), pp. 607, 610.
Weber, The Methodology of the Social Sciences, p.97- Emphasis in original.

sequences"; they are themselves compared with some empirical course of events to see
to what extent the factors constructed into the ideal type actually account for its
regularities. We shall examine Weber's conception of sociological explanation in more
detail in the remaining sections.

What are the criteria that guide the selection of those facets of concrete reality that
make up any given ideal type? Weber never developed a systematic methodology for
this operation - and for this he can be legitimately criticized, since vagueness on this
score means that different investigators would undoubtedly come up with different
versions of the ideal type for any given historical situation. Nevertheless, Roth has
identified a number of "rules of experience" which informed Weber's own construction
of types70. These rules mainly involved empirical claims that the chosen aspect - for
example, legitimation of authority - is a regularly recurring and an important feature of
social action.

Whatever the difficulties in Weber's conceptualization of ideal types, it is clear that by

employing this device he was attempting an escape from the "nominalism of the
historians," as Durkheim called it, and was creating an order of concepts that enabled
him to analyze phenomena at a level closer to that which Durkheim called "social facts."
In that respect Durkheim's recognition of the necessity to construct a typology of social
species and Weber's strategy of generating ideal types moved the two scholars closer to
one another than they were in their original paradigmatic statements. Certain
differences between the two remained, however. Durkheim consistently adhered to the
primary reality of the social level independent of individual actors, whereas Weber
insisted that his ideal-type constructions were inferences rooted ultimately in the
substratum of the subjectively meaningful experience of individual actors. Furthermore,
because of their different starting points, Durkheim and Weber chose to classify
different orders of phenomena. Preoccupied with assessing normality and pathology as
a product of societal context, Durkheim was driven to classify types of societies.
Preoccupied with attaining modest generalizations about typical historical constellations
and processes, Weber remained at the level of identifying typical historical clusters of
meaningful action. Their mode of classification, then, like all investigative strategies,
depended in part on their more general theoretical preoccupations.

Sociological Explanation
Durkheim saw the classification of social species as "a means of grouping facts to
facilitate their interpretation". It is "only an introduction to the truly explanatory part of
the science"71. Of what does the latter consist?. Durkheim distinguished between the

Guenther Roth, "Max Weber's Comparative Approach and Historical Typology," in Ivan Vallier, ed Comparative
Methods in Sociology: Essays on Trends and Applications (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California
Press, 1971), pp. 83-85.
Durkheim, Rules, p. 89. These statements seem odd in one respect, since Durkheim created his own classification
of social species as an integral part of the "explanation" of the normality or pathology of social facts.

function fulfilled by a phenomenon that is, its effects, its usefulness and "the efficient
cause which produces it." 72 He argued further that the former does not constitute an
explanation. 73 Causal analysis, instead, involves the search for "a correspondence
between the fact under consideration and the general needs of the social organism, and
in what this correspondence consists, without occupying ourselves with whether it has
been intentional [i.e., directed toward a given end] or not"74. While stressing this
priority, Durkheim acknowledged that knowledge of the function was "necessary for the
complete explanation of the phenomena," because "it is generally necessary that [a
fact] be useful in order that it may maintain itself"75.

Durkheim also rejected explanations of social phenomena that called on psychological

factors. His position followed from his original definition of a social fact; "[since] their
essential characteristic is their power of exerting pressure on individual consciousness,
it follows that they are not derived from the latter and, consequently, that sociology is
not a corollary of individual psychology." 76 The fact that individuals are the ultimate
elements of society is not a compelling reason to seek psychological explanations of
social phenomena, any more than it is appropriate to seek inorganic explanations for
phenomena constituted at an organic level. The whole is more than the sum of its
parts, and explanations appropriate to the whole must be sought: "The group thinks,
feels, and acts quite differently from the way in which its members would were they
isolated." 77 On the basis of such reasoning, Durkheim concluded that "every time a
social phenomenon is directly explained by a psychological phenomenon, we may be
sure that the explanation is false.78 Specifically, the falsity lies in mistaking effect for
cause, assuming that the psychological effects produced by collective life are the
determinants of that life. 79

From this follows Durkheim's principle that "[the] determining cause of a social fact
should be sought among the social facts preceding it and not among the states of the
individual consciousness. 80 The sociologist's main task is to discover features of the
social milieu that contribute to the character of social life; Durkheim himself sought to
explain the social division of labor by reference to social facts such as the size of society
and its dynamic density, and to explain variations in the social suicide rate by reference

Ibid., p. 95
For a model in which functional analysis is converted into causal analysis, see Arthur L, Stinchcombe,
Constructing Social Theories (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968), ch. 3.
Durkheim, Rules, p. 95. Again the insistence seems a bit odd, because of the clearly "functional" explanation
generated in his discussion of the normal and the pathological.
Ibid., p. 97.
Ibid p. 101.
Ibid., p. 104. The wording of this assertion is infelicitous, and probably supplied ammunition for those who
criticized Durkheim for reifying the "group mind."
Ibid., p. 107.
Ibid., p. 110.

to the ways in which groups are integrated and regulated. Hostile as his polemic toward
psychology was, he nonetheless showed some ambivalence:

"We do not mean to say . . . that the study of psychological facts is not
indispensable to the sociologist. If collective life is not derived from
individual life, the two are nevertheless closely related; if the latter cannot
explain the former, it can at least facilitate its explanation. First . . . it is
indisputable that social facts are produced by action on psychological factors.
In addition, this very action is similar to that which takes place in each
individual consciousness and by which are transformed the primary elements
(sensations, reflexes, instincts) of which it is originally constituted"81.

Psychology can thus provide "useful suggestions" as to the likely effects of the social
milieu on individuals, but in this formulation the individual remains a relatively passive
vessel. Psychological phenomena have social consequences only when "the action of
the psychological and of the social phenomena is necessarily fused," as in the case of
the decision of a public official whose behavior can exert a social influence while being
determined by psychological causes. Yet Durkheim regarded such cases as being "due
to individual accidents and, consequently, cannot affect the constitutive traits of the
social species which, alone, is the object of science." 82 In the end, sociological
explanations and sociological knowledge can be generated only if the sociologist
"[establishes] himself in the very heart of social facts, in order to observe them
directly." 83 In chapter four I shall resume discussion of this formulation, both in
connection with observations of how closely Durkheim lived up to his admonitions in his
own empirical research and in connection with my own re-formulations on the role of
social-structural and psychological variables in comparative analysis.

Weber's conception of sociological explanation is rooted in his notions of interpretation

and the ideal type. In his general discussion of how subjective meaning can be
understood, he spoke of the importance of "explanatory understanding."84 In particular
this involves grasping the motive of an individual actor, or understanding "what makes
him do [something] at precisely this moment and in these circumstances. 85" The
understanding of the act of a man hitting a log with an ax is understood if it is
understood that he is working for a wage. "Similarly we understand the motive of a
person aiming a gun if we know that he has been commanded to shoot as a member of
a firing squad, that he is fighting against an enemy, or that he is doing it for revenge."
Motives are highly diverse, and Weber did not conceive of them in a narrow
psychological sense. They might include, for example, an individual's self-interest in a

Ibid., p. 111.
Ibid., p. 112.
Weber, Economy and Society, 1:8.
Ibid., 1:9.

given situation, 87 his inclination to adhere to normative standards, 88 or his belief in the
legitimacy of a given set of social relationships. 89 In any historical situation the
investigator should expect to find not single or pure motives, but a number in complex

Weber identified two types of explanatory understanding. The first involves the
interpretative grasp of the "actually intended meaning" - that is to say, meaning for
concrete individual action, represented in its historical complexity. (Weber added a
sub-type to this, the understanding of the actually intended meaning of numbers of
individuals in sociological mass phenomena.) The second, involving a process of
abstraction on the part of the observer, is the grasp of "the meaning appropriate to a
scientifically formulated pure type (an ideal type) of a common phenomenon."90
Understanding action from the standpoint of a model of economic rationality would be a
case in point; another would be understanding action from the standpoint of being a
member of a patrimonial or a bureaucratic staff. In short, it is the identification of a
typical complex of motives in a more or less common historical situation.

Even though an ideal-type understanding of motives is an "explanation" of behavior in

some sense, Weber insisted that this operation alone, no matter how clear and certain
the interpretation, "cannot on this account claim to be the causally valid interpretation."
A further operation is necessary; in particular, "verification of subjective
interpretation by comparison with the concrete course of events is, as in the case of all
hypotheses, indispensable." 92 What is involved in the operation of verification will be
taken up in the final section of this chapter. At the moment I stress only Weber's
insistence on the distinction between explanatory interpretation and causal verification.

Weber advanced another distinction that made the same point. He referred on the one
hand to interpretation of a course of conduct that is "adequate on the level of meaning
"that is to say, a satisfactory account of the motives for the conduct from the subjective
standpoint of the actor (or that standpoint as assessed by the observer). A causally
adequate interpretation, however, involves a statement of the way in which a sequence
of events will unfold, and an effort to confirm that statement empirically. But in his

"Many of the especially notable uniformities in the course of social action are not determined by orientation to
any sort of norm which is held to be valid, nor do they rest on custom, but entirely on the fact that the corresponding
type of social action is in the nature of the case best adapted to the normal interests of the actors as they themselves
are aware of them," Ibid., 1:30.
"The meaningful content which remains relatively constant in a social relationship is capable of formulation in
terms of maxims which the parties concerned expect to be adhered to by their partners on the average and
approximately." Ibid.,1:28.
"Action, especially social action which involves a social relationship, may be
guided by the belief in the existence of a legitimate order." Ibid., 1:31.
Ibid., 1:9..
Ibid. This statement leads us to question Weber's assertion in his earlier methodological essay that the ideal type
is not an hypothesis. It seems to be precisely that, according to his later formulation.

concluding statement on causal adequacy, he insisted that a correct causal
interpretation required "that the process which is claimed to be typical is shown to be
both adequately grasped on the level of meaning and at the same time the
interpretation is to some degree causally adequate." 93 If the meaningful - that is,
motivational - connection between events is not apprehended, then no matter how
close their association, it can remain only "an incomprehensible statistical probability."
On the other hand, even if the subjective behavior has been fully grasped on the level
of meaning, there can be causal significance "only insofar as there is some kind of proof
[verification] that action in fact normally takes the course which has been held to be
meaningful" 94.

While Weber did not develop his point about the necessity for a meaningful connection
further, it seems to be worth elaborating, because it leads to a contrast with Durkheim
and points the way toward a reformulation we shall undertake in chapter seven. What
Weber seemed to be saying is that statistical regularities between, say, aggregated
rates of behavior are meaningless unless reference is made to some kind of subjective
or psychological link between them. For example, the facts that various classes in
French society were making irregular forward progress (a statistical regularity) and that
numerous members of this class showed evidence of dissatisfaction with the French
social order (a statistical regularity) bear no intelligible connection with one another
until some typical meaningful connection is made (in Tocqueville's case, a postulate
of the principle of relative deprivation). Even further, Weber appeared to suggest that
the theoretical significance of regularities is to be found in the realm of subjective

"We can accomplish something which is never attainable in the natural

sciences, namely the subjective understanding of the action of the
component individuals. The natural sciences on the other hand cannot do
this, being limited to the formulation of causal uniformities in objects and
events and the explanation of individual facts by applying them. We do not
"understand" the behavior of cells, but can only observe the relevant
functional relationships and generalize on the basis of these observations.
This additional achievement of explanation by interpretive understanding, as
distinguished from external observation, is of course attained only at a price
the more hypothetical and fragmentary character of its results. Nevertheless,
subjective understanding is the specific characteristic of sociological

This statement highlights the difference between Durkheim and Weber on the issue of
explanation. Durkheim, embracing a "natural science" model for sociology - at least in
his manifesto - envisioned the possibility in sociology of discovering causal uniformities
Ibid., 1:12.

and explaining individual facts by applying them. Sociological theory should emerge at
its own level on the basis of observation of social facts. No recourse need be made to
that separate realm of psychology except for "useful suggestions". Weber, however,
stressing the differences between sociology and what he understood to be the natural
sciences of his day, found it essential to construct idealized psychological accounts to
give theoretical meaning to social regularities"96. As we shall see presently, Durkheim
turned out to be more Weberian than Durkheimian in his own comparative empirical

Verification in Sociology
Both Durkheim and Weber addressed themselves to the empirical procedures available
in order to lend empirical support to sociological propositions, and both defined this task
in terms of linking causes and effects. Durkheim spoke of "establishing relations of
causality," whereas Weber spoke of "causal significance" and "causally adequate
interpretation." Durkheim regarded the experiment - when causes and effects "can be
artificially produced at the will of the observer" as a potent device for investigation,
but found its use limited in sociology, in which "social phenomena evidently escape the
control of the experimenter.97 Weber found experimentation applicable only in "a few
very special "98 Accordingly, each addressed the issue of attaining reliable empirical
knowledge in the absence of experimentation.

Durkheim's general answer was simple: when the experiment is not available, the only
recourse is indirect comparison, or the comparative method. Before characterizing the
particular ways in which he suggested employing it, however, he launched a brief
polemic against John Stuart Mill's observation that a given event may have different
causes under different circumstances, and enunciated the principle that "a given effect
has always a single corresponding cause," adding that, for example, "if suicide depends
on more than one cause, it is because, in reality, there are several kinds of suicide." 99

Durkheim was also skeptical about the applicability of the several strategies that Mill
had enunciated in his classic systematic exposition of methods of experimental inquiry.
He rejected Mill's "method of residues" establishing cause by removing all known causes
with the remainder constituting the cause100-- noting that it is inappropriate for
sociology because it presupposes the existence of known laws already and is, in any
case, impractical. He also found the methods of agreement and difference wanting for
similar reasons. (The method of agreement establishes cause by grouping cases which
Weber insisted, however, that in positing rational assumptions of the order incorporated into his ideal types, he
was not making "any kind of psychology . . . the ultimate foundation of the sociological interpretation of action." He
was addressing mainly those branches of psychology which modeled themselves after the procedures of the natural
sciences. Ibid., 1:19.
Durkheim, Rules, p. 125.
Weber, Economy and Society, 1:10.
Durkheim, Rules, pp. 128-29.
John Stuart Mill, A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive, 9th ed. (London: Longmans, Green, Reader,
and Dyer, 1875), 1:439-60.

agree in one circumstance and differ in all others; the method of difference establishes
cause by grouping cases which differ in one circumstance and agree in all others) 101.
The conditions for such methods can never be absolutely met even in the experimental
sciences, Durkheim argued, and in sociology their application is impossible; no
conceivable inventory of facts could permit an investigator to be certain, for example,
"that two societies agree or differ in all respects save one"102. Durkheim's chosen
method to establish cause and effect was the method of concomitant variation or

"For this method to be reliable, it is not necessary that all the variables
differing from those which we are comparing shall have been strictly
excluded. The mere parallelism of the series of values presented by the two
phenomena, provided that it has been established in a sufficient number and
variety of cases, is proof that a relationship exists between them. Its validity
is due to the fact that the concomitant variations display the causal
relationship not by coincidence . . . but intrinsically. It does not simply show
us two facts which accompany or exclude one another externally, so that
there is no direct proof that they are united by an internal bond; on the
contrary, it shows them as mutually influencing each other in a continuous
manner, at least so far as their quality is concerned. This interaction, in itself,
suffices to demonstrate that they are not foreign to one another"103

Such reasoning shows the necessity for Durkheim's postulate that a given effect has
always a single corresponding cause, which, if correct, permits stronger inference from
the correlation than might otherwise be the case. He regarded constant concomitance
of cause and effect as "a law in itself, whatever may be the condition of the phenomena
excluded from the comparison." It is a very powerful method of proof, even though in
any given case covariation might be weakened by the action of other causes that
produce "exceptions" to the laws established by covariation. Durkheim felt such
exceptions should not lead the investigator to "abandon hastily the results of a
methodically conducted demonstration104".

But how is the investigator to know, for any given correlation, which is cause and which
is effect? Durkheim acknowledged that this is not readily apparent from a correlation -
the covariation may result from the fact that both are results of the same cause, or that
"there exists between them a third phenomenon, interposed but unperceived, which is
the effect of the first and the cause of the second."105 Durkheim proposed to meet this
challenge by a combination of "deduction," or inquiry into "how one of the two terms

Ibid., pp. 449-52.
Durkheim, Rules, p. 130.
Ibid., pp. 130-31. For Mill's exposition of the method of concomitant variation, see Mill, A System of Logic, pp.
Ibid., p. 131.

has produced the other," and new comparisons. Durkheim gave an illustration of a
finding to appear subsequently in Suicide:
"We can establish in the most certain way that the tendency to suicide varies
directly with education. But it is impossible to understand how erudition can
lead to suicide; such an explanation is in contradiction to the laws of
psychology. Education, especially the elementary branches of knowledge,
reaches only the more superficial regions of consciousness; the instinct of
self-preservation is, on the contrary, one of our fundamental tendencies. It
could not, then, be appreciably affected by a phenomenon as far removed
and of so feeble an influence. Thus we come to ask if both facts are not the
consequence of an identical condition. This common cause is the weakening
of religious traditionalism, which reinforces both the need for knowledge and
the tendency toward suicide." 106

The example is revealing. In attempting to render intelligible the connection among the
three "social facts" - education, suicide, and religious traditionalism - was Durkheim not
engaging in precisely the operation that Weber described as the interpretative grasp of
ideal-typical meanings? Is it not an assessment of the different meanings of the drive
for self-preservation, increasing knowledge, and decline in religious traditions for the
typical actor exposed to these phenomena? Was not Durkheim turning to the
psychological level - much as Weber did - to seek abstracted statements of the "laws"
which dictate the direction of causality in social life?

The answers to both these questions are affirmative, and I shall attempt to confirm the
observation further in subsequent chapters.

Toward the end of his discussion of establishing sociological proofs, Durkheim ventured
a number of observations on the different types of comparisons necessary to explain
data comparatively. Some comparative analysis is possible within a single society, if
"facts are widely distributed" and statistical information is "extensive and varied." As an
example Durkheim noted the possibility of arriving at "genuine laws" by examining the
differences in suicide rates over time according to provinces, classes, age, sex, and the
like. This method cannot suffice when studying "an institution, a legal or moral
regulation, or an established custom which functions in the same manner over the
entire extent of the country and which changes only in time."107 In such a case the
available data would amount to "only a single pair of parallel curves, namely the curve
which shows the progression in history of the phenomenon considered and the curve of
the supposed cause in this single society".108 What Durkheim appeared to say is that
the latter case does not provide as much variability within the society as the former. Or
in other words, the latter case yields only an N of I because of the uniformity of the

Ibid,, p. 132.
Ibid., p. 136.
Ibid., pp. 136-37.

association within the society, whereas the former produced a larger N of groups and
categories showing variation in suicide rates throughout a society.

In the latter case, then, it is necessary to extend the field of comparison and include
"several people of the same species." If a parallelism is observed between, say, the
social milieu of Rome, Athens, and Sparta and the family systems of these city-states at
corresponding stages of their development, one has increased the number of cases in
which the concomitant variation occurs and thus increased the confidence in the
presumed causal association. Even more, it becomes essential to compare the
phenomenon (for example, family systems) in other species as well, so that the more
fundamental character of family life can be established, and so that its step by step
evolution can be traced. 109 In so doing not only is the number of societies increased
but the presumed effects (types of domestic organization) and causes (social milieu)
are permitted to vary over a wider range.

In concluding, Durkheim warned of a possible error in such extended comparisons. The

error consists in comparing "what occurs at the decline of each species with what
happens at the beginning of the succeeding species," 110 regarding them as identical
phenomena, and thereby drawing erroneous conclusions. For example, a scholar might
observe the religious traditionalism of a society in its late stage of development, and
note the religious traditionalism of the society succeeding it, and conclude that "decline
in religious traditionalism" is always transitory. This would be an error, Durkheim
argued, because the social context of the traditionalism is different. The religious life of
a young society is a function of "the special conditions in which every young society is
placed." 111 Thus the explanation of apparent "transitoriness" is superseded by another
explanation. On the basis of this reasoning, Durkheim admonished that in order to
arrive at proper comparisons, "it will suffice to consider the societies compared at the
same period of their development" 112

But in thus admonishing, is not Durkheim paying more homage to Mill's canons than he
intended? Is not the insistence that societies be "controlled" for stage of development
in order to make just comparisons an invocation of a version of Mill's method of
difference, in which cases are made to agree in circumstances (in this case youth, or
stage of development) other than the presumed causal connection to be discovered in
the concomitant variation of the suspected social facts? The control is gained not by
experimental manipulation, as Mill insisted it should be, but rather by the conceptual
manipulation of features of similarity and difference among societies in order to rule out
stage of development as a causal factor.

Ibid., pp. 137-39.
Ibid., p. 139..
Ibid., p. 140

Later in his career, Durkheim was even more forceful in enunciating the dependence of
"social facts" on social context. Such facts, he argued,

"cannot be understood when detached from [the social system of which they
form a part]. This is why two facts which come from two different societies
cannot be profitably compared merely because they seem to resemble each
other; it is necessary that these societies themselves resemble each other,
that is to say, that they be only varieties of the same species. The
comparative method would be impossible, if social types did not exist, and it
cannot be usefully applied except within a single type." 113

Lamenting the errors that have been committed by "scattering . . . researches over all
the societies possible," Durkheim called for a concentration on a clearly determined
type. If one includes "all sorts of societies and civilizations," he draws facts hastily from
different contexts, and ends up with "tumultuous and summary comparisons." 114 To
Durkheim this signaled the need to limit the number of societies studied so that greater
precision could be gained. 115 The methodological significance of this point, however, is
that if the similarity or differences among facts is a function of the similarity or
difference of social context, then social contexts must be made similar if the facts are to
be judged so. Or to put it even more directly, the operation Durkheim suggests controls
- by means of classification into types - unwanted sources of variation in the
phenomena under study.

For Weber, it will be recalled, the principal source of sociological explanation lies in the
generation of one or more ideal-type constructions of the subjective-meaning complex
of actors and the comparison of these expectations with the best available data. In
comparing such "models" with historical data, it is possible "to arrive at a causal
explanation of the observed deviations [from the course of action specified in the ideal
type] which will be attributed to such factors as misinformation, strategical errors,
logical fallacies, personal temperament, or considerations outside the realm of [the
posited course of action]"116. Weber remained skeptical about the level of scientific
generality that could be attained in sociology on several counts: first, he was suspicious
of highly generalized systems of deductive laws in general; second, he was continuously
aware of - and reminding the reader of "historical accidents and the plurality of
historical factors [that] make it impossible to predict the actual course of events"117
and third, he was aware of imperfections in the data with which sociology must deal.

Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, trans. Joseph Ward Swain (Glencoe, III.: The
Free Press, 1947), p. 94. Note Weber's identical comment regarding the context of motives in establishing the
similarity or difference between individual actions.
Ibid., pp. 94-95.
Ibid., p. 95.
Weber, Economy and Society, 1:21.
Roth, "Max Weber's Comparative Approach and Historical Typology," p. 93.

With respect to the latter Weber regarded the empirical verification of hypotheses by
experimentation to be very limited in sociology, possible "only in the very few special
cases susceptible of psychological experimentation." 118 A second mode of verification
is feasible "in the limited number of cases of mass phenomena which can be statistically
described and unambiguously interpreted," 119 no doubt because of the large number
of cases and the capacity to treat them by techniques of quantitative analysis. Third,
"[for] the rest, there remains only the possibility of comparing the largest possible
number of historical or contemporary processes which, while otherwise similar, differ in
the one decisive point of their relation to the particular motive or fact the role of which
is being investigated"120. In the end, Weber, like Durkheim, laid the heaviest burden in
sociology on the comparative analysis of empirical data generated in the historical

The second and third types - statistical and comparative analysis - evidently shade into
one another. In certain cases, such as the data that might be available to assess the
validity of a principle like Gresham's law, "the correspondence between the theoretical
interpretation of motivation and its empirical verification is entirely satisfactory and the
cases are numerous enough so that verification can be considered established.121 For
other analyses the number of historical cases are so few as to reduce confidence in the
results. As an example, Weber cited Eduard Meyer's interpretation of the causal
significance of the battles of Marathon, Salamis, and Platea in terms of typical attitudes
of the Greek oracles and prophets toward the
Persians. Because analysis had to rest only on the few cases in which the Persians were
victorious, such an interpretation, while plausible, must necessarily remain a hypothesis
because of the difficulties of verification122.

Weber did not develop even as limited a statement of the strategies of comparative
analysis as did Durkheim. Insight may be gained into his reasoning, however, by
examining what he described as the "imaginary experiment." Listing this "uncertain
procedure" after describing the experimental, statistical, and comparative methods, he
characterized it as a process of "thinking away certain elements of a chain of motivation
and working out the course of action which would then probably ensue, thus arriving at
a causal judgment"123, What sort of methodology underlies this procedure?

Weber, Economy and Society, 1:10.
Ibid. In this phrasing, Weber is enunciating Mill's method of difference, which he employed in his own empirical
comparisons. He utilized variants of the method of agreement as well.
Ibid., 1:11.
Ibid., 1:10.

In one of his methodological essays, published in 1905, 124 Weber resumed his polemic
against those who argued for a "pre-supposition-less" approach to history. Rather, he
argued, historical explanation - the attribution of effects to causes - involves a series of
abstractions. The decisive abstraction occurs when "we conceive of one or a few of the
actual causal components as modified in a certain direction and then ask ourselves
whether under the conditions which have been thus changed, the same effect . . . or
some other effect 'would be expected"125. Would the relevant chain of historical events
have been otherwise if a given battle had had a different outcome, if a political leader
had not been assassinated, and so on? To analyze these possibilities is the essence of
the mental experiment. It involves disregarding what actually happened and the
"mental construction of a course of events which is altered through modification in one
or more 'conditions'. 126

Weber further described this process in terms of a series of "isolations" and

"generalizations." The first process is to decompose the given historical situation into
components or factors, and then, by an "empirical rule," determine what effects each
of these "conditions" could be expected to have. The "generalization" aspect lies in the
"empirical rule," by which Weber meant the store of general knowledge we have about
the historical process which permits us to assess the effect of the altered conditions.
Finally, and also on the basis of our general historical knowledge, it is possible to assign
a judgment of the relative probability of different historical outcomes. "We can . . .
estimate the relative 'degree' to which [an] outcome is 'favored' by the general rule by
a comparison involving the consideration of how other conditions operating differently
'would' have 'favored' it." 127 Thus, while the general mission of social (including
historical) science is "to understand on the one hand the relationship and the cultural
significance of individual events in their contemporary manifestations and on the other
the causes of their being historically so and not otherwise," 128 much knowledge can be
gained by a systematic analysis of the "otherwise" through a series of mental

From a methodological standpoint, the "imaginary experiment" is a species of

comparative analysis. It involves increasing the number of cases under consideration,
though in this particular instance the new case or cases are invented rather than
observed. Furthermore, by decomposing the historical situation into factors and
systematically varying one and then another, Weber was in effect making a conceptual
effort to realize the conditions set forth in Mill's method of difference - that is to say,
comparing cases that are similar in all respects except one, and attempting to trace the
effects of this one difference. The reasons why Weber correctly regarded this

Max Weber, "Critical Studies in the Logic of the Cultural Sciences: A Critique of Eduard Meyer's
Methodological Views," in The Methodology of the Social Sciences, pp. 113-88.
Ibid., p. 171.
Ibid., p. 173.
Ibid. p. 131.
Ibid., p. 72. Emphasis in original.

procedure as "uncertain" are (1) because the manipulation of the factor is imaginary
(not rooted in empirical variation), no actual historical data or variations are produced;
and (2) as a result, the imagined "otherwise" data must be posited on the investigator's
general knowledge of "laws" and "principles," which are not sufficiently developed in
the social sciences to permit the assumption of particular results from certain imaginary
situations. Despite the fragile status of the imaginary experiment, however, its logical
structure and its strategic significance place it on a continuum with the other methods
of generating knowledge in the social sciences.

Durkheim's and Weber's discussion of the logic of verification and proof differ a great
deal from one another, because their general programs for sociology differ. Durkheim,
approaching social science more from a model of natural science, attempted to modify
and adapt the logic and procedures of the natural sciences to sociological inquiry;
Weber, approaching social science in a manner which allowed him to escape the pitfalls
of historicism, attempted to devise procedures to permit more generalizable inferences
than historians typically permitted themselves. Yet the two also approximated one
another in significant ways. Both settled on the centrality of comparative sociology - the
comparative analysis of similarities and differences in as many empirical instances as
could be assembled. Both were sensitive, moreover, to the problems of taking into
account controlling, if you will - sources of empirical variation that could "contaminate"
suspected causal associations, though neither produced anything like a systematic
strategy designed to overcome these problems.

Rather than reiterate in condensed form the comparisons and contrasts between
Durkheim and Weber on the methodology of the social sciences, let me instead
indicate, in summary form, the issues that emerged in the thought of each as they
turned their minds to considering fundamental principles and how they ought to guide
scientific inquiry.

1. What are the respective roles of the actor and observer in the generation of
sociological knowledge? To what extent does the outlook of the actor have to be taken
into account? In what ways does - and should - the observer influence the concepts
and data with which he deals?

2. At what level of generality should sociological explanations be pitched statements of

laws, statements of probabilistic tendencies, or the explanation of historically unique
constellations and events?

3. What kinds of data should the investigator consult in the generation of sociological
knowledge? In particular, should he seek for quantifiable indices to be standardized for
all cases studied, or should he rely on data that somehow reflect the "uniqueness" of

each case being studied? Or should he attempt some compromise between these two

4. At what conceptual level should knowledge be generated - the psychological, the

social, in some way that relates the two, or at some other level?

5. How does the investigator deal with the complexity of his subject matter, particularly
when he does not control the recording of that data? What are the major methods that
are available to isolate, control, and manipulate variables? What are the relations of
these methods to one another?

6. With respect to the comparative method as such - the comparison of limited numbers
of cases that differ from one another in some respects what are the available strategies
for isolating, controlling, and manipulating variables? What is the relative effectiveness
of these methods in terms of generating valid inferences?

7. What is the role of abstract "models" in empirical investigation?

As we have seen, Durkheim and Weber faced all these questions in one way or another,
though they occurred to them often in quite different form than I have phrased them,
and they differed from one another both in the degree to which they attempted
solutions to all and in the kind of solutions they generated. In particular, we observed
that both had the habit of proposing a definite, sometimes polemical solution that
showed them to be in extreme opposition to one another; then, as they elaborated,
qualified, or equivocated, they would gradually move toward a position on each issue
that emphasized points of agreement more than opposition.

As we shall see, these issues are far from resolved to the present day, and, in fact, they
continue - though often in different form - to dominate the concerns of those currently
engaged in comparative analysis. And despite the diversity of solutions generated in
the past decades, the same issues arise and re-arise. We shall observe this in our
reference to more contemporary developments in the last two chapters. Before
undertaking that, however, I should like to look at some of the substantive work of
Durkheim and Weber, to see what kind of comparative methodology emerged in their
own practice of sociology, as contrasted, perhaps, to how they argued the sociologist
should practice.

Verstehen: The Sociology of Max Weber

by Frank Elwell
Rogers State University

I originally created this web site on Weber (pronounced "Vay-bur") in 1996 for my
students in social theory. Most of the paper is fairly standard, it is based on information
and insights from standard texts or through other secondary sources. My intention in
summarizing this information was simply to present Weber in a fairly coherent and
comprehensive manner, using language and structure for the generalists amongst us.

I do claim some originality in regard to explaining oligarchy, the rationalization process,

and the difference between formal and substantive rationality (what I have called "the
irrationality factor"). In fact, I expand on these Weberian themes considerably in
several subsequent books. I have found Weber's ideas on rationalization, the
irrationality factor, and sociocultural evolution, to be particularly difficult to get across to
students. Yet these ideas are at the heart of Weber's sociology and, I believe, central in
understanding contemporary society.

Verstehen is a German term that means to understand, perceive, know, and

comprehend the nature and significance of a phenomenon. To grasp or comprehend
the meaning intended or expressed by another. Weber used the term to refer to the
social scientist's attempt to understand both the intention and the context of human

Social Action

According to the standard interpretation, Weber conceived of sociology as a

comprehensive science of social action (Aron, 1970; Coser, 1977). His initial theoretical
focus is on the subjective meaning that humans attach to their actions and interactions
within specific social contexts. In this connection, Weber distinguishes between four
major types of social action:

1. zweckrational
2. wertrational
3. affective action
4. traditional action

Zweckrational can be defined as action in which the means to attain a particular goal
are rationally chosen. It can be roughly translated as "technocratic thinking." It is often
exemplified in the literature by an engineer who builds a bridge as the most efficient
way to cross a river. Perhaps a more relevant example would be the modern goal of
material success sought after by many young people today. Many recognize that the
most efficient way to attain that success is through higher education, and so they flock

to the universities in order to get a good job (Elwell, 1999).

Wertrational, or value-oriented rationality, is characterized by striving for a goal which

in itself may not be rational, but which is pursued through rational means. The values
come from within an ethical, religious, philosophical or even holistic context--they are
not rationally "chosen." The traditional example in the literature is of an individual
seeking salvation through following the teachings of a prophet. A more secular
example is of a person who attends the university because they value the life of the
mind--a value that was instilled in them by parents, previous teachers, or chance
encounter (Elwell, 1999).

Affective action is based on the emotional state of the person rather than in the
rational weighing of means and ends (Coser, 1977). Sentiments are powerful forces in
motivating human behavior. Attending university for the community life of the
fraternity, or following one's boyfriend to school would be examples.

The final type Weber labels "traditional action." This is action guided by custom or
habit. People engage in this type of action often unthinkingly, because it is simply
"always done." Many students attend university because it is traditional for their social
class and family to attend--the expectation was always there, it was never questioned
(Elwell, 1999).

Weber's typology is intended to be a comprehensive list of the types of meaning men

and women give to their conduct across sociocultural systems (Aron, 1970). As an
advocate of multiple causation of human behavior, Weber was well aware that most
behavior is caused by a mix of these motivations--university students, even today, have
a variety of reasons for attending. In marketing themselves to students, university
advertising attempts to address (and encourage) all of these motivations ( though a
look at some university brochures would indicate a clear attempt to focus on the
zweckrational appeal to career aspirations).

But Weber went further than a mere classification scheme. He developed the typology
because he was primarily concerned with modern society and how it differs from
societies of the past (Aron, 1970; Coser, 1977). He proposed that the basic

distinguishing feature of modern society was a characteristic shift in the motivation of
individual behaviors. In modern society the efficient application of means to ends has
come to dominate and replace other springs of social behavior. His classification of
types of action provides a basis for his investigation of the social evolutionary process in
which behavior had come to be increasingly dominated by goal-oriented rationality
(zweckrational)--less and less by tradition, values or emotions.

Because of this focus, Weber is often thought of as an "idealist," one who believes that
ideas and beliefs mold social structure and other material conditions. But he committed
himself to no such narrow interpretation of sociocultural causation. He believed that this
shift in human motivation is one of both cause and effect occurring in interaction with
changes in the structural organization of society. The major thrust of his work attempts
to identify the factors that have brought about this "rationalization" of the West (Aron,
1970; Coser, 1977). While his sociology begins with the individual motivators of social
action, Weber does not stay exclusively focused on either the idealist or the social-
psychological level. While he proposed that the basic distinguishing feature of modern
society was best viewed in terms of this characteristic shift in motivation, he rooted that
shift in the growth of bureaucracy and industrialism.

Ideal Type

Weber's discussion of social action is an example of the use of an ideal type. An ideal
type provides the basic method for historical- comparative study. It is not meant to
refer to the "best" or to some moral ideal, but rather to typical or "logically consistent"
features of social institutions or behaviors. There can be an "ideal type" whore house
or a religious sect, ideal type dictatorship, or an ideal democracy (none of which may be
"ideal" in the colloquial sense of the term) (Gerth and Mills, 1946). An ideal type is an
analytical construct that serves as a measuring rod for social observers to determine the
extent to which concrete social institutions are similar and how they differ from some
defined measure (Aron, 1970; Coser, 1977).

The ideal type involves determining the features of a social institution that would be
present if the institution were a logically consistent whole, not affected by other
institutions, concerns and interests. "As general concepts, ideal types are tools with
which Weber prepares the descriptive materials of world history for comparative
analysis" (Gerth and Mills, 1946: 60). The ideal type never corresponds to concrete
reality but is a description to which we can compare reality. "Ideal Capitalism," for
example, is used extensively in social science literature. According to the ideal type,
capitalism consists of four basic features:

• Private Ownership of all potentially profitable activity

• Pursuit of Profit
• Competition between companies
• Laissez Faire, or government keeps its hands off the economy

In reality, all capitalist systems deviate from the theoretical construct we call "ideal
capitalism." Even the U.S., often considered the most capitalistic nation on earth, strays
measurably from the ideal. For example, federal, state and local governments do
operate some potentially profitable activities (parks, power companies, and the Post
Office come to mind). Many markets in the U.S. are not very competitive, being
dominated by large monopolies or oligopolies (and here, the list is endless). Finally,
various levels of government do, occasionally, regulate the economy. Still, the ideal
construct of capitalism allows us to compare and contrast the economic systems of
various societies to this definition, or compare the American economy to itself over


Weber's focus on the trend of rationalization led him to concern himself with the
operation and expansion of large-scale enterprises in both the public and private
sectors of modern societies (Aron, 1970; Coser, 1977). Bureaucracy can be considered
to be a particular case of rationalization, or rationalization applied to human
organization. Bureaucratic coordination of human action, Weber believed, is the
distinctive mark of modern social structures. In order to study these organizations, both
historically and in contemporary society, Weber developed the characteristics of an
ideal-type bureaucracy:

• Hierarchy of authority
• Impersonality
• Written rules of conduct
• Promotion based on achievement
• Specialized division of labor
• Efficiency

According to Weber, bureaucracies are goal-oriented organizations designed according

to rational principles in order to efficiently attain their goals. Offices are ranked in a
hierarchical order, with information flowing up the chain of command, directives flowing
down. Operations of the organizations are characterized by impersonal rules
that explicitly state duties, responsibilities, standardized procedures and conduct of
office holders. Offices are highly specialized . Appointments to these offices are made
according to specialized qualifications rather than ascribed criteria. All of these ideal

characteristics have one goal, to promote the efficient attainment of the organization's

goals (Aron, 1970; Coser, 1977).

Some have seriously misinterpreted Weber and have claimed that he liked bureaucracy,
that he believed that bureaucracy was an "ideal" organization. Others have pronounced
Weber "wrong" because bureaucracies do not live up to his list of "ideals." Others have
even claimed that Weber "invented" bureaucratic organization. But Weber described
bureaucracy as an "ideal type" in order to more accurately describe their growth in
power and scope in the modern world. His studies of bureaucracy still form the core of
organizational sociology.

The bureaucratic coordination of the action of large numbers of people has become the
dominant structural feature of modern societies. It is only through this organizational
device that large-scale planning and coordination, both for the modern state and the
modern economy, become possible. The consequences of the growth in the power and
scope of these organizations is key in understanding our world.


Weber's discussion of authority relations also provides insight into what is happening in
the modern world. On what basis do men and women claim authority over others?
Why do men and women give obedience to authority figures? Again, he uses the ideal
type to begin to address these questions. Weber distinguished three main types of

1. Traditional Authority
2. Rational-legal Authority
3. Charismatic

Rational legal authority is anchored in impersonal rules that
have been legally established. This type of authority (which parallels the growth of
zweckrational) has come to characterize social relations in modern societies (Aron,
1970; Coser, 1977). Traditional authority often dominates pre-modern societies. It is
based on the belief in the sanctity of tradition, of "the eternal yesterday" (Aron,
1970; Coser, 1977). Because of the shift in human motivation, it is often difficult for
modern students to conceive of the hold that tradition has in pre-modern
societies.Unlike rational-legal authority, traditional authority is not codified in impersonal
rules but is usually invested in a hereditary line or invested in a particular office by a
higher power (Coser, 1977). Finally, charismatic authority rests on the appeal of
leaders who claim allegiance because of the force of their extraordinary personalities.

Again, it should be kept in mind that Weber is describing an ideal type; he was aware
that in empirical reality mixtures will be found in the legitimization of authority (Coser,
1977). The appeal of Jesus Christ, for example, one of the most important charismatics
in history, was partly based on tradition as well.


Weber firmly believed in the multi-causality of social phenomenon. He expressed this

causality in terms of probabilities (Aron, 1970; Gerth and Mills, 1946; Coser, 1977).
Weber's notion of probability derives from his recognition of the system character of
human societies and therefore the impossibility of making exhaustive predictions.
Prediction becomes possible, Weber believed, only within a system of theory that focus
our concern on a few social forces out of the wealth of forces and their interactions that
make up empirical reality (Freund, 1968: 7-9). Within such constraints, causal certainty
in social research is not attainable (nor is it attainable outside the laboratory in natural

sciences). The best that can be done is to focus our
theories on the most important relationships between social forces, and to forecast
from that theory in terms of probabilities.

In this connection, it is often said that Weber was in a running dialogue with the ghost
of Karl Marx. But contrary to many interpretations, Weber was not attempting to refute
Marx, he was very respectful of Marx's contributions to understanding human societies.
But he did disagree with Marx's assertion of the absolute primacy of material conditions
in determining human behavior (Aron, 1970; Gerth and Mills, 1946; Coser, 1977).
Weber's system invokes both ideas and material factors as interactive components in
the sociocultural evolutionary process. "He was most respectful of Marx's contributions,
yet believed, in tune with his own methodology, that that Marx had unduly emphasized
one particular causal chain, the one leading from the economic infrastructure to the
cultural superstructure" (Coser, 1977: 228). This, Weber believed, could not
adequately take into account the complex web of causation linking social structures and

Weber attempted to show that the relations between ideas and social structures were
multiple and varied, and that causal connections went in both directions. While Weber
basically agreed with Marx that economic factors were key in understanding the social
system, he gave much greater emphasis to the influence and interaction of ideas and
values on sociocultural evolution (Aron, 1970; Coser, 1977).

Gerth and Mills (1946) summarize Weber's posited relationship between material
conditions and ideas in the following passage:

There is no pre-established correspondence between the content of an idea and the

interests of those who follow from the first hour. But, in time, ideas are discredited in
the face of history unless they point in the direction of conduct that various interests
promote. Ideas, selected and reinterpreted from the original doctrine, do gain an
affinity with the interests of certain members of special strata; if they do not gain such
an affinity, they are abandoned (Gerth and Mills, 1946: 63).
It is in this light that the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism must be read.

The Protestant Ethic

Weber's concern with the meaning that people give to their actions allowed him to
understand the drift of historical change. He believed that rational action within a
system of rational-legal authority is at the heart of modern society. His sociology was
first and foremost an attempt to explore and explain this shift from traditional to
rational action (Aron, 1970). What was it about the West, he asks, that is causing this
shift? In an effort to understand these causes, Weber examined the religious and
economic systems of many civilizations.

Weber came to believe that the rationalization of action can only be realized when
traditional ways of life are abandoned (Coser, 1977). Because of its erosion, modern
people may have a difficult time realizing the hold of tradition over pre-industrial
peoples. Weber's task was to uncover the forces in the West that caused people to
abandon their traditional religious value orientation and encouraged them to develop a
desire for acquiring goods and wealth (Aron, 1970; Coser, 1977).

After careful study, Weber came to the hypothesis that the protestant ethic broke the
hold of tradition while it encouraged men to apply themselves rationally to their work
(Gerth and Mills, 1946). Calvinism, he found, had developed a set of beliefs around the
concept of predestination. It was believed by followers of Calvin that one could not do
good works or perform acts of faith to assure your place in heaven. You were either
among the "elect" (in which case you were in) or you were not. However, wealth was
taken as a sign (by you and your neighbors) that you were one of the God's elect,
thereby providing encouragement for people to acquire wealth. The protestant ethic
therefore provided religious sanctions that fostered a spirit of rigorous discipline,
encouraging men to apply themselves rationally to acquire wealth (Aron, 1970; Coser,

Weber studied non-Western cultures as well. He found that several of these pre-
industrial societies had the technological infrastructure and other necessary
preconditions to begin capitalism and economic expansion, however, capitalism failed to
emerge (Gerth and Mills, 1946: 61). The only force missing were the positive sanctions
to abandon traditional ways. "By such a comparative analysis of causal sequences,

Weber tried to find not only the necessary but the sufficient conditions of capitalism"
(Gerth and Mills, 1946: 61). While Weber does not believe that the protestant ethic was
the only cause of the rise of capitalism, he believed it to be a powerful force in fostering
its emergence (Aron, 1970; Coser, 1977; Gerth and Mills, 1946).


Weber noted the dysfunctions of bureaucracy in terms of the impact that it had on
individuals. Its major advantage, efficiency in attaining goals, makes it unwieldy in
dealing with individual cases. The impersonality, so important in attaining efficiency of
the organization, is dehumanizing. But the concern over bureaucracy's threat to the
members of a particular organization has served to overshadow its effects on the larger
society. Weber was very concerned about the impact that rationalization and
bureaucratization had on sociocultural systems.

By its very nature bureaucracy generates an enormous degree of unregulated and often
unperceived social power. Because of bureaucracy's superiority over other forms of
organization, they have proliferated and now dominate modern societies. Those who
control these organizations, Weber warned, control the quality of our life, and they are
largely self-appointed leaders.

Bureaucracy tends to result in oligarchy, or rule by the few officials at the top of the
organization. In a society dominated by large formal organizations, there is a danger
that social, political and economic power will become concentrated in the hands of the
few who hold high positions in the most influential of these organizations.

The issue was first raised by Weber, but it was more fully explored by Robert Michels a
sociologist and friend of Weber's. Michels (1915) was a socialist and was disturbed to
find that the socialist parties of Europe, despite their democratic ideology and provisions
for mass participation, seemed to be dominated by their leaders, just as the traditional
conservative parties. He came to the conclusion that the problem lay in the very nature

of organizations. He formulated the 'Iron Law of Oligarchy': "Who says organization,
says oligarchy."

According to the "iron law" democracy and large scale organization are incompatible.
Any large organization,Michels pointed out, is faced with problems of coordination that
can be solved only by creating a bureaucracy. A bureaucracy, by design, is
hierarchically organized to achieve efficiency--many decisions that have to be made
every day cannot be made by large numbers of people in an efficient manner. The
effective functioning of an organization therefore requires the concentration of much
power in the hands of a few people.

The organizational characteristics that promote oligarchy are reinforced by certain

characteristics of both leaders and members of organizations. People achieve
leadership positions precisely because they have unusual political skill; they are adept
at getting their way and persuading others of the correctness of their views. Once they
hold high office, their power and prestige is further increased. Leaders have access and
control over information and facilities that are not available to the rank-and-file. They
control the information that flows down the channels of communication. Leaders are
also strongly motivated to persuade the organization of the rightness of their views, and
they use all of their skills, power and authority to do so.

By design of the organization, rank and file are less informed than their "superiors."
Finally, from birth, we are taught to obey those in positions of authority. Therefore, the
rank and file tend to look to the leaders for policy directives and are generally prepared
to allow leaders to exercise their judgment on most matters.

Leaders also have control over very powerful negative and positive sanctions to
promote the behavior that they desire. They have the power to grant or deny raises,
assign workloads, fire, demote and that most gratifying of all sanctions, the power to
promote. Most important, they tend to promote junior officials who share their
opinions, with the result that the oligarchy become a self-perpetuating one. Therefore,
the very nature of large scale organization makes oligarchy within these organizations

inevitable. Bureaucracy, by design, promotes the centralization of power in the hands of
those at the top of the organization.

Societal Oligarchy

While it is easy to see oligarchy within formal organizations, Weber's views on the
inevitability of oligarchy within whole societies are a little more subtle. The social
structure of modern society has become dominated by bureaucracy. Bureaucracies are
necessary to provide the coordination and control so desperately needed by our
complex society (and huge populations). But while modern societies are dependent on
formal organization, bureaucracy tends to undermine both human freedom and
democracy in the long-run. While government departments are theoretically
responsible to the electorate, this responsibility is almost entirely fictional. It often
happens, in fact, that the electorate (and even the congress) do not even know what
these bureaucracies are doing. Government departments have grown so numerous, so
complex, that they cannot be supervised effectively.

The modern era is one of interest-group politics, in which the degree of participation of
the ordinary citizen in the forging of political positions is strictly limited. Our impact on
political decision making depends, to a large extent, on our membership in
organizational structures. The power of these groups, in turn, depend in large part on
such organizational characteristics as size of membership; and commitment of
membership to the goals of the organization; and wealth of the organization. But it is
through organization that we lose control of the decision making process.

Those on top of bureaucratic hierarchies can command vast resources in pursuit of their
interests. This power is often unseen and unregulated, which gives the elite at the top
of these hierarchies vast social, economic, and political power. The problem is further
compounded by huge corporations, economic bureaucracies that have tremendous
impact over our lives, an impact over which we have little control. Our control over
corporations is hardly even fictional any longer. Not only do these economic
bureaucracies affect us directly, they also affect our governments--organizations
supposedly designed to regulate them.

To quote Peter Blau on this topic: "The most pervasive feature that distinguishes
contemporary life is that it is dominated by large, complex, and formal organizations.
Our ability to organize thousands and even millions of men in order to accomplish large-
scale tasks--be they economic, political, or military--is one of our greatest strengths.
The possibility that free men become mere cogs in the bureaucratic machines we set up
for this purpose is one of the greatest threats to our liberty."


The rationalization process is the practical application of knowledge to achieve a desired

end. It leads to efficiency, coordination, and control over both the physical and the
social environment. It is a product of "scientific specialization and technical
differentiation" that seems to be a characteristic of Western culture (Freund, 1968). It
is the guiding principle behind bureaucracy and the increasing division of labor. It has
led to the unprecedented increase in both the production and distribution of goods and
services. It is also associated with secularization, depersonalization, and oppressive
routine. Increasingly, human behavior is guided by observation, experiment and reason
(zweckrational) to master the natural and social environment to achieve a desired end
(Elwell, 1999).

Freund (1968: 18) defines it as "the organization of life through a division and
coordination of activities on the basis of exact study of men's relations with each other,
with their tools and their envionmnet, for the purpose of achieving greater efficiency
and productivity." Weber's general theory of rationalization (of which bureaucratization
is but a particular case) refers to increasing human mastery over the natural and social
environment. In turn, these changes in social structure have changed human character
through changing values, philosophies, and beliefs. Such superstructural norms and
values as individualism, efficiency, self-discipline, materialism, and calculability (all of
which are subsumed under Weber's concept of zweckrational) have been encouraged
by the bureaucratization process.

Bureaucracy and rationalization were rapidly replacing all other forms of organization
and thought. They formed a stranglehold on all sectors of Western society:

It is horrible to think that the world could one day be filled with nothing but those little
cogs, little men clinging to little jobs and striving toward bigger ones--a state of affairs
which is to be seen once more, as in the Egyptian records, playing an ever increasing
part in the spirit of our present administrative systems, and especially of its offspring,
the students. This passion for bureaucracy enough to drive one to despair. It is as
if in politics. . . we were to deliberately to become men who need "order" and nothing
but order, become nervous and cowardly if for one moment this order wavers, and
helpless if they are torn away from their total incorporation in it. That the world should
know no men but these: it is in such an evolution that we are already caught up, and
the great question is, therefore, not how we can promote and hasten it, but what can

we oppose to this machinery in order to keep a portion of mankind free from this
parceling-out of the soul, from this supreme mastery of the bureaucratic way of
life.(Note )
Rationalization is the most general element of Weber's theory. He identifies
rationalization with an increasing division of labor, bureaucracy and mechanization
(Gerth and Mills, 1946). He associates it with depersonalization, oppressive routine,
rising secularism, as well as being destructive of individual freedom (Gerth and Mills,
1946;Freund, 1968) .

The Irrationality Factor

Since it is clear that modern societies are so pervasively dominated by bureaucracy it is

crucial to understand why this enormous power is often used for ends that are counter
to the interests and needs of people (Elwell, 1999). Why is it that "as rationalization
increases, the irrational grows in intensity"? (Freund, 1968: 25). Again, the
rationalization process is the increasing dominance of zweckrational action over rational
action based on values, or actions motivated by traditions and emotions. Zweckrational
can best be understood as "technocratic thinking," in which the goal is simply to find
the most efficient means to whatever ends are defined as important by those in power.

Technocratic thinking can be contrasted with wertrational, which involves the

assessment of goals and means in terms of ultimate human values such as social
justice, peace, and human happiness. Weber maintained that even though a
bureaucracy is highly rational in the formal sense of technical efficiency, it does not
follow that it is also rational in the sense of the moral acceptability of its goals or the
means used to achieve them. Nor does an exclusive focus on the goals of the
organization necessarily coincide with the broader goals of society as a whole. It often
happens that the single-minded pursuit of practical goals can actually undermine the
foundations of the social order (Elwell, 1999). What is good for the bureaucracy is not
always good for the society as a whole--and often, in the long term, is not good for the

bureaucracy either.

In a chapter entitled "How Moral Men Make Immoral Decisions," John De Lorean a
former General Motors executive (and famous for many things) muses over business
morality. "It seemed to me, and still does, that the system of American business often
produces wrong, immoral and irresponsible decisions, even though the personal

morality of the people running the business is often above reproach. The system has a
different morality as a group than the people do as individuals, which permits it to
willfully produce ineffective or dangerous products, deal dictatorially and often unfairly
with suppliers, pay bribes for business, abrogate the rights of employees by demanding
blind loyalty to management or tamper with the democratic process of government
through illegal political contributions" (J. Wright, 1979: 61-62). De Lorean goes on to
speculate that this immorality is connected to the impersonal character of business
organization. Morality, John says, has to do with people. "If an action is viewed
primarily from the perspective of its effect on people, it is put into the moral realm. . .
.Never once while I was in General Motors management did I hear substantial social
concern raised about the impact of our business on America, its consumers or the
economy" (J. Wright, 1979: 62-63).

One of the most well-documented cases of the irrationality factor in business concerns
the Chevrolet Corvair (Watergate, the IRS, the Post Office, recent elections, and the
Department of Defense provide plenty of government examples). Introduced to the
American Market in 1960, several compromises between the original design and what
management ultimately approved were made for financial reasons. "Tire diameter was
cut, the aluminum engine was modified, the plush interior was downgraded and a $15
stabilizing bar was deleted from the suspension system" (R. Wright, 1996). As a result,
a couple of the prototypes rolled over on the test tracks and it quickly became apparent
that GM had a problem (J. Wright, 1979; R. Wright, 1996). De Lorean again takes up
the story.

At the very least, then, within General Motors in the late 1950s, serious
questions were raised about the Corvair's safety. At the very most, there was a
mountain of documented evidence that the car should not be built as it was then
designed. . . .The results were disastrous. I don't think any one car before or
since produced as gruesome a record on the highway as the Corvair. It was
designed and promoted to appeal to the spirit and flair of young people. It was
sold in part as a sports car. Young Corvair owners, therefore, were trying to
bend their car around curves at high speeds and were killing themselves in
alarming numbers (J. Wright, 1979: 65-66).
The denial and cover-up led the corporation to ignore the evidence, even as the
number of lawsuits mounted--even as the sons and daughters of executives of the
corporation were seriously injured or killed (J. Wright, 1979). WhenRalph Nader
(1965) published his book that detailed the Corvair's problems, Unsafe at Any Speed,
the response of GM was to assign a private detective to follow him so as to gather
information to attack him personally rather than debate his facts and assertions
(Halberstam, 1986; J. Wright, 1979; R. Wright, 1996). Internal documents were
destroyed, and pressure was put on executives and engineers alike to be team players
(J. Wright, 1979). De Lorean summarizes the irrational character of the bureaucracy's
decision making process:

There wasn't a man in top GM management who had anything to do with the
Corvair who would purposely build a car that he knew would hurt or kill people.
But, as part of a management team pushing for increased sales and profits, each
gave his individual approval in a group to decisions which produced the car in
the face of the serious doubts that were raised about its safety, and then later
sought to squelch information which might prove the car's deficiencies (J.
Wright, 1979: 65-68).
The result was that despite the existence of many moral men within the organization,
many immoral decisions were made.

An extreme case of rationalization was the extermination camps of Nazi Germany. The
goal was to kill as many people as possible in the most efficient manner, and the result
was the ultimate of dehumanization--the murder of millions of men, women and
children. The men and women who ran the extermination camps were, in large part,
ordinary human beings. They were not particularly evil people. Most went to church
on Sundays; most had children, loved animals and life. William Shirer (1960) comments
on business firms that collaborated in the building and running of the camps: "There
had been, the records show, some lively competition among German businessmen to
procure orders for building these death and disposal contraptions and for furnishing the
lethal blue crystals. The firm of I. A. Topf and Sons of Erfurt, manufacturers of heating
equipment, won out in its bid for the crematoria at Auschwitz. The story of its business
enterprise was revealed in a voluminous correspondence found in the records of the
camp. A letter from the firm dated February 12, 1943, gives the tenor:

To: The Central Construction Office of the S.S. and Police, Auschwitz
Subject: Crematoria 2 and 3 for the camp.
We acknowledge receipt of your order for five triple furnaces, including two electric
elevators for raising corpses and one emergency elevator. A practical installation for
stoking coal was also ordered and one for transporting ashes (Shirer, 1960: 971).

The “lethal blue crystals” of Zyklon-B used in the

gas chambers were supplied by two German firms which had acquired the patent from
I. G. Farben (Shirer, 1960). Their product could do the most effective job for the least
possible cost, so they got the contract. Shirer (1960) summarizes the organization of
evil. “Before the postwar trials in Germany it had been generally believed that the mass
killings were exclusively the work of a relatively few fanatical S.S. leaders. But the

records of the courts leave no doubt of the complicity of a number of German
businessmen, not only the Krupps and the directors of I.G. Farben chemical trust but
smaller entrepreneurs who outwardly must have seemed to be the most prosaic and
decent of men, pillars--like good businessmen everywhere--of their communities” (972-
973). In sum, the extermination camps and their suppliers were models of bureaucratic
efficiency using the most efficient means available at that time to accomplish the goals
of the Nazi government.

But German corporations went beyond supplying the government with the machinery of
death, some actively participated in the killing process. "This should occasion neither
surprise nor shock. I.G. Farben was one of the first great corporate conglomerates. Its
executives merely carried the logic of corporate rationality to its ultimate
conclusion...the perfect labor force for a corporation that seeks fully to minimize costs
and maximize profits is slave labor in a death camp. Among the great German
corporations who utilized slave labor were AEG (German General Electric), Wanderer-
Autounion (Audi), Krupp, Rheinmetall Borsig, Siemens-Schuckert and Telefunken"
(Rubenstein, 1975: 58).

I.G. Farben's synthetic rubber (Buna) plants at Auschwitz are a good example of the
relationship between corporate profits and Nazi goals. I.G. Farben's investment in the
plant at Auschwitz was considerable--over $1,000,000,000 in 1970s American dollars.
The construction work required 170 contractors and subcontractors, housing had to be
built for the corporate personnel, barracks for the workers. SS guards supplied by the
state would administer punishment when rules were broken. The workers at the plants
were treated as all other inmates in the camp. The only exception was one of diet,
workers in the plants would receive an extra ration of "Buna soup" to maintain "a
precisely calculated level of productivity" (Rubenstein, 1975: 58). Nor was any of this
hidden from corporate executives; they were full participants in the horror. With an
almost inexhaustible supply of workers, the corporation simply worked their slave
laborers to death.

The fact that individual officials have specialized and limited responsibility and authority
within the organization means that they are unlikely to raise basic questions regarding
the moral implications of the overall operation of the organization. Under the rule of
specialization, society becomes more and more intricate and interdependent, but with
less common purpose. The community disintegrates because it loses its common bond.
The emphasis in bureaucracies is on getting the job done in the most efficient manner
possible. Consideration of what impact organizational behavior might have on society as

a whole, on the environment, or on the consumer simply does not enter into the


The problem is further compounded by the decline of many traditional institutions such
as the family, community, and religion, which served to bind pre-industrial man to the
interests of the group. Rationalization causes the weakening of traditional and religious
moral authority (secularization); the values of efficiency and calculability predominate.
In an advanced industrial-bureaucratic society, everything becomes a component of the
expanding machine, including human beings (Elwell, 1999). C. Wright Mills, whose
social theory was strongly influenced by Weber, describes the problem:

It is not the number of victims or the degree of cruelty that is distinctive; it is the fact
that the acts committed and the acts that nobody protests are split from the
consciousness of men in an uncanny, even a schizophrenic manner. The atrocities of
our time are done by men as "functions" of social machinery--men possessed by an
abstracted view that hides from them the human beings who are their victims and, as
well, their own humanity. They are inhuman acts because they are impersonal. They
are not sadistic but merely businesslike; they are not aggressive but merely efficient;
they are not emotional at all but technically clean-cut (C. Wright Mills, 1958: 83-84).
The result is a seeming paradox-- bureaucracies, the epitome of rationalization, acting
in very irrational ways. Thus we have economic bureaucracies in pursuit of profit that
deplete and pollute the environment upon which they are based; political
bureaucracies, set up to protect our civil liberties, that violate them with impunity;
Agricultural bureaucracies (educational, government, and business) set up to help the
farmer, that end up putting millions of these same farmers out of business; Service
bureaucracies designed to care for and protect the elderly, that routinely deny service
and actually engage in abuse. The irrationality of bureaucratic institutions is a major
factor in understanding contemporary society. Weber called this formal rationalization
as opposed to substantive rationality (the ability to anchor actions in the consideration
of the whole). It can also be called the irrationality of rationalization, or more generally,
the irrationality factor (Elwell, 1999). The irrationality of bureaucratic institutions is a
major factor is understanding contemporary society.

Weber and Marx

Weber believed that Marxist theory was too simplistic, reducing all to a single economic
cause (Gerth and Mills, 1946). However, Weber does not attempt to refute Marx, rather
he can be interpreted as an attempt to round out Marx's economic determinism (Gerth
and Mills, 1946).

"Weber's views about the inescapable rationalization and bureaucratization of the world
have some obvious similarities to Marx's notion of alienation. Both men agree that
modern methods of organization have tremendously increased the effectiveness and
efficiency of production and organization and have allowed an unprecedented
domination of man over the world of nature. They also agree that the new world of
rationalized efficiency has turned into a monster that threatens to dehumanize its
creators. But Weber disagrees with Marx's claim that alienation is only a transitional
stage on the road to man's true emancipation" (Coser, 1977: 232).

Weber believed that the alienation documented by Marx had little

to do with the ownership of the mode of production, but was a consequence of
bureaucracy and the rationalization of social life. Marx asserted that capitalism has led
to the "expropriation" of the worker from the mode of production. He believed that the

modern worker is not in control of his fate, is forced to sell his labor (and thus his self)
to private capitalists. Weber countered that loss of control at work was an inescapable
result of any system of rationally coordinated production (Coser, 1977). Weber argued
that men could no longer engage in socially significant action unless they joined a large-
scale organization. In joining organizations they would have to sacrifice their personal
desires and goals to the impersonal goals and procedures of the organization itself
(Coser, 1977). By doing so, they would be cut off from a part of themselves, they
would become alienated.

Socialism and capitalism are both economic systems based on industrialization--the

rational application of science, observation, and reason to the production of goods and
services. Both capitalism and socialism are forms of a rational organization of economic
life to control and coordinate this production. Socialism is predicated on government
ownership of the economy to provide the coordination to meet the needs of people
within society. If anything, Weber maintained, socialism would be even more
rationalized, even more bureaucratic than capitalism. And thus, more alienating to
human beings as well (Gerth and Mills, 1946: 49).

Sociocultural Evolution

According to Weber, because bureaucracy is a form of organization superior to all

others, further bureaucratization and rationalization may be an inescapable fate.
"Without this form of (social) technology the industrialized countries could not have
reached the heights of extravagance and wealth that they currently enjoy. All
indications are that they will continue to grow in size and scope." Weber wrote of the
evolution of an iron cage, a technically ordered, rigid, dehumanized society:

"It is apparent that today we are proceeding towards an evolution which resembles (the
ancient kingdom of Egypt) in every detail, except that it is built on other foundations,
on technically more perfect, more rationalized, and therefore much more mechanized
foundations. The problem which besets us now is not: how can this evolution be
changed?--for that is impossible, but: what will come of it." Weber feared that our
probable future would be even more bureaucratized, an iron cage that limits individual
human potential rather than a technological utopia that sets us free (Aron, 1970; Coser,

It is perhaps fitting to close with a quote from Max engaged in speculation on the other
future possibilities of industrial systems. While Weber had a foreboding of an "iron
cage" of bureaucracy and rationality, he recognized that human beings are not mere
subjects molded by sociocultural forces. We are both creatures and creators of
sociocultural systems. And even in a sociocultural system that increasingly
institutionalizes and rewards goal oriented rational behavior in pursuit of wealth and
material symbols of status there are other possibilities:

"No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this
tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great
rebirth of old ideas and ideals or, if neither, mechanized petrification embellished with a
sort of convulsive self-importance. For of the last stage of this cultural development, it
might well be truly said: 'Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity
imagines that it has obtained a level of civilization never before achieved" (Weber,
1904/1930: 181).

© 1996 Frank Elwell

Max Weber: The Sociology of Law. Typologies of Law

12.5 The transformation of jurisprudence . . . . . . . . . . . . .

174 Reflect and review. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .