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French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) coined the terms mechanical and organic solidarity to describe types of social organization, that is, ways in which individuals are connected to each other and identify with the groups and societies in which they live. For Durkheim, social solidarity is a state of unity or cohesion that exists when people are integrated by strong social ties and shared beliefs, and also are regulated by well-developed guidelines for action (i.e., values and norms that suggest worthy goals and how people should attain them).
The central question Durkheim poses in his first book, The Division of Labor in Society (1893), is what is the basis of social solidarity in modern societies, where there is a great diversity of people living in vastly different settings? How do the parts of modern society (individuals, groups, institutions) become more interdependent while at the same time becoming more distinct from each other? Durkheim argues that social solidarity takes different forms in different historical periods, and varies in strength among groups in the same society. However, reflecting the popularity of social evolutionary thought in the late nineteenth century, Durkheim summarizes all historical forms of solidarity into a traditional-modern dichotomy. Mechanical solidarity is a simple, pre-industrial form of social cohesion, and organic solidarity is a more complex form of cohesion that evolves in modern societies (by which he means the western capitalist democracies).
Specifically, mechanical solidarity occurs in small, simple societies such as settlements of small kinship groups scattered across territories. Each kinship group is organized similarly. Within each group, members perform all functions needed to survive (e.g., familial, economic, political, and religious); there is no specialization or differentiation of function across groups living in the same area. Each member feels connected to group life in a manner similar to other members because everyone has an experience of the world that comes from a religiously-based common culture, which reproduces in each person the same ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. By mechanical, Durkheim does not mean machine-like or artificial. He means that the conditions of life are the same for everyone so there is little diversity in people’s experiences and ideas. Individuals do not have a sense of identity separate from being a member of a family, clan, or a warrior caste. Consequently, the ideas and tendencies common to all the members of the society are greater in number and intensity than those which pertain personally to each member” (Durkheim 1964 : 129).
Over time these simpler societies disappear, urban areas emerge, and complex divisions of functions appear within cities, among institutions, and within nation-states. Organic solidarity is found in societies where there is a complex division of labor and diversity of ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. No one household, neighborhood, town, or economy can produce everything its members need to survive. Economies depend not only on the family but on educational institutions to produce dependable workers with a range of needed skills. There is a great diversity of occupations, racial and ethnic backgrounds, religious beliefs, and political views. Such diversity of people, groups, and institutions is organized into distinct yet interdependent roles and functions.
Durkheim’s argument about the distinction between mechanical and organic solidarity identifies two key variables that continue to be important in sociology today. ”Social life comes from a double source, the likeness of consciences and the division of labor” (Durkheim 1964 : 226):
- Extent (degree of complexity) of the division of labor, which refers to level of differentiation of an activity into distinct functions or roles. For example, the one-room schoolhouse developed into a complex system of kindergartens, elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools.
- Extent of the collective consciousness, which refers to the number of values, beliefs, norms, emotions, and ways of acting that are shared within a group or society, and the intensity with which members share/experience these practices.
With mechanical solidarity, the division of labor is absent or weak, while the collective consciousness is strong because a large number of beliefs, values, and traditional practices are shared intensely by members. Durkheim argues that when the division of labor becomes more complex, the collective conscience changes. With organic solidarity, there is a complex division of labor yet a weakened collective consciousness because practices and beliefs shared by everyone are far fewer and are more abstract and ambiguous (thus less constraining). Thus, in modern societies, people are more interdependent due to the division of labor, yet are more distinct. Durkheim observes that perhaps the only value widely shared and strongly-held in modern western societies is the abstract notion of individualism – the inherent dignity, worth, and freedom of the individual.
- Alexander, J. & Smith. P. (eds.) (2005) The Cambridge Companion to Durkheim. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- Bellah, R. N. (ed.) (1983) Emile Durkheim on Morality and Society. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
- Durkheim, E. (1964)  The Division of Labor in Society, trans. G. Simpson. Free Press, New York.
- Lukes, S. (1973) Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work. Penguin, Harmondsworth.