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Classical Social Theory: Marx & Durkheim on Modernity

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  • 00:00 Durkheim & Marx on Modernity
  • 00:49 Durkheim & the…
  • 3:45 Karl Marx & Capitalism
  • 5:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Nowaczyk
The following lesson will compare the views of sociologists Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim and how they view a modern society. A short quiz will follow the lesson to check your understanding.

Durkheim & Marx on Modernity

Isn't it amazing that you're learning about something through a computer or mobile device screen right now? You're getting the information that was once reserved for the educated elite. In a more modern sense, you would have gotten this information by someone that needed to teach you in person by plopping a large textbook in front of you.

With the advent of technology, the society we currently live in is a modern one. It allows us to do things and improve upon a way of life that existed prior to these advancements. Two sociologists in particular see the move towards modernity, or the social patterns of society that resulted from large-scale industrialization, as a good thing.

However, they put their own unique twists of what exactly a move towards modernity enables a society to do. The two sociologists we will cover in this lesson are Emile Durkheim and Karl Marx.

Durkheim & the Division of Labor

Another great thing about living in a modern society is grocery shopping. At first, that probably doesn't sound like something great, but really, isn't it nice to go to the grocery store and pick up whatever you need to make dinner for that night? Or better yet, you can also go to your nearest fast food joint and order something to eat that's already made for you!

Imagine instead that if you wanted to make dinner, you had to raise the livestock and plants needed to feed yourself. This would be inconceivable to have to do every time you wanted a meal; and as a result, our society would look a lot different.

Luckily, with the advent of industrialization also came an increased division of labor, or specialized economic activity. This is the central point of sociologist Emile Durkheim's analysis of modernity. Durkheim viewed pre-modern societies as a time when everyone performed the same daily routines; whereas modern societies function by having people perform highly specific jobs.

Durkheim claimed that pre-modern societies were held together by mechanical solidarity, or shared sentiments and likeness, because everyone was pretty much doing the same thing. However, modern societies are held together by organic solidarity, or mutual dependency between people engaged in specialized work.

In modern societies, you could get more work done if you didn't have to do everything yourself, but rather had a system where people specialized in certain things and helped one another. For example, if you were to own a restaurant, you may be the best cook, but you wouldn't want to have to grow and raise your own food. Instead, chefs are able to buy meat and produce from farmers; and farmers, in turn, are able to go to restaurants to get a great meal.

Some people however felt that a move towards modernity, or a more 'natural'/'organic' system of social organization, would lead to a loss of meaningful bonds with people, which were largely characteristic of small villages. However, Durkheim instead saw organic modernization not as the loss of community, but rather a change from a community based on bonds of likeness, to a community based on economic interdependence. Durkheim viewed the mechanical solidarity of pre-modernity not as some whimsical value, but rather as something that kept society stagnant and too regimented.

That's not to say that Durkheim viewed modernity as perfect. While Durkheim was pretty optimistic about the effects of modernity, he did still fear anomie, a condition in which society provides little moral guidance to individuals. With society becoming so diverse and specialized, Durkheim felt that things might begin working too well and at the cost of our humanity. Durkheim did warn for modern societies to keep their strong moral norms and values, and not to become egocentric in placing their own needs above those of others. This, he believed, would lead to finding little purpose in life.

Karl Marx & Capitalism

Another sociologist, Karl Marx, agreed that modernity sharpened the division of labor within society. However, Marx took it one step further in seeing that a division of labor is part of a larger system. The system that Marx felt existed was an economic system that relied on free-market trade, called capitalism. For Marx, modernity was synonymous with capitalism. He felt that the Industrial Revolution was responsible for the movement towards modernity, and displaced the traditional ruling class of kings and barons to one controlled by the expansion of commerce and the middle class.

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