Type: History
Pages: 10 | Words: 2718
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Sociological study was developed as a science after French Revolution, in early 1800s. French thinker and philosopher, Auguste Comte, is usually considered as a “Father of Sociology”. He created positivism theory and was a founder of scientific sociology. Comte’s compatriot, Emile Durkheim, relied on the works of Comte, developed and revised them, presenting his own vision of social reality in the end of 19th century. Durkheim is often referred to as a realist due to his theory that society is a reality itself, unique in its characteristics and should not be viewed just as a group of individuals. Max Weber, German philosopher and sociologist of the 19th – early 20th century, unlike Durkheim, was not influenced by the sociological tradition of French positivism. He is often contrasted with Durkheim due to his theory of methodological antipositivism, which studies social processes from a subjective perspective as opposed to Durkheim’s social realism, concentrated on studying of an empirical object.

Despite that Comte, Durkheim and Weber are considered to be the classical sociological theorists, their understanding of social reality differs from one another. Each of them saw social reality from his own perspective; thus, each was able to describe facts and notions that others considered insignificant. All of them developed unique theories which created the fundamentals of the sociology as a science. Besides, they did not considered themselves as just sociologists and relied in their works on the philosophy, psychology and economics, as well.

Auguste Comte’s Positivist Approach

As it was mentioned above, positivist approach to studying social reality was presented by French philosopher, Auguste Comte. He expressed an idea that human behavior can be studied with the help of observation. Moreover, true knowledge, which is based on the experience of senses, comes from observation and experiment.

Comte’s sociological positivism was created in a response to the “anarchic force of purely revolutionary principles” (Comte 1856). He aimed to create a naturalistic science of society that would explain the previous experience of human society and predict its development in the future. Comte compared methods of studying the society to the methods of studying the world of nature. He went as far as comparing a society with the human organism, where families, social and political structures played a role of the cells and organs of a human body. Neither Durkheim, nor Weber shared this naturalistic approach of the early positivists.

Comte and other positivists believed that it is the external environment that controls and determines human behavior, which was presented as the passive outcome of the environmental processes. This approach was criticized by Weber, who argued that free will, individualism and humanity should be considered in the analysis of the social reality.

According to Comte, the external environment can be transformed for the human benefit, if one knows and obeys the laws of nature: “For it is only by knowing the laws of phenomena, and thus being able to foresee them, that we can . . . set them to modify one another for our advantage. . . . Whenever we affect anything great it is through knowledge of natural laws. . . From Science comes Prevision; from Prevision comes Action.”.

Comte also supported an idea of the evolutionary development of the humankind, characterized by the successive stages, each of which appeared out of a previous one: “The constitution of the new system cannot take place before the destruction of the old”.

Despite that the methods of natural science that Comte attempted to apply for studying social reality are successful in describing and controlling nature processes and phenomena, they do not take into account constant changes that are inherent to human society. Positivists tended to disregard that human nature is not static as scientific rules and laws are; consequently, the naturalistic approach to studying the society was doomed to failure.

Weber’s Antipositivism Theory

Positivism theory also disregards an individual, his mind and behavior as a main subject of sociological science. Such approach was criticized in terms of attempting to hide the subject from studying and examination, both by realists, represented by Durkheim, and even more by adherents of the antipositivism theory, represented by Weber.

In addition, another reason for the critique of positivism was the fact that it did not recognize the human being a part of the examined society.

On the contrast with positivists, Weber believed that sociology should study and examine social actions of an individual within a society. According to him, the study should progress from analyzing the actions of individual to developing general conclusions and laws of the whole society on this basis.

Emile Durkheim and Social Realism

Unlike Weber and Comte, Emile Durkheim considered society as not something compared to the human organism, neither he saw society as something just created by individuals. As a representative of the social realism, he stressed out the significance to treat society in its integrity and as a real, not just a theoretical formation.

On the other hand, Durkheim’s works were still substantially influenced by positivism of Comte. According to Comte, religion and language are two key factors, significant in terms of establishing and functioning of the society.

Similar to Comte, Durkheim expressed the opinion that the basic knowledge of the fundamental reality of society was a religion and scientific knowledge appeared afterwards: “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 into a single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.”.

Theory of Labor Division

A third essential factor in terms of the social study, mentioned by Comte and deeply analyzed by Durkheim, was the division of labor.

The basic principle of the division of labor can be described by the fact that everyone cannot entirely own all goods, services and means of production that he or she needs. Durkheim wrote: “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”. This statement implies that work relations between people are based on a mutually beneficial exchange of goods and services. This exchange, in its turn, is stipulated by the division of labor.

Durkheim’s theory of labor division is relevant not only in economical, but also in the social sphere. He believed that major benefit of division of labor is creating and maintaining solidarity between people. Therefore, his analysis has much wider meaning than simply defining the degree of specialization in the economic institution. According to Durkheim, “solidarity is cohesion of human groups into a social unity” (Durkheim 1982). He specified two types of solidarity: the organic solidarity and the mechanical one.

Mechanical and Organic Solidarity

Mechanical solidarity creates bonds between people with similar background, views, and interests. In these social unions, possibilities for development of one’s individuality are extremely limited, and division of labor is almost absent. In such society, not only actions, but even thoughts and feelings of its members are similar to a considerable degree. In this case, “solidarity can grow only in inverse ratio to personality, because personality is what distinguishes one person from another”.

Unlike mechanical solidarity, organic solidarity is caused by division of labor. In other words, if one person performs some operations in a process of creating goods or services, while another person performs other operations, together they collaborate in order to achieve their common goal. On the other hand, organic solidarity, caused by the division of labor, has an impact on individuality of society members and increases social differentiation.

Durkheim defined this social factor related to mechanical solidarity as the “conscience collective – the totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average citizens of the same society”. In the modern society, which can be characterized by organic solidarity, collective conscience is weak, and members are dependable on each other due to their specialization on particular parts of the production process.

If collective conscience in a society is strong, members of such society have less individuality. They are self-sufficient in the production process, and they take after each other. According to Durkheim, groups of people with mechanical solidarity are called “hordes”. Members of horde are dependable on each other and connected through their common life style and beliefs. Unions of hordes are called clans.

As it was mentioned above, when Comte in his works described the components of a social system, he did not see an individual as a significant and essential part of society: ‘The scientific spirit forbids us to regard society as composes of individuals. The true social unit is the family-reduced, if necessary, to the elementary couple which forms its basis… Families become tribes and tribes become nations”.

Comte saw family as a basic social unit: “The collective organism is essentially composed of families which are its true elements, of classes and castes which form its true tissue, and finally of cities and townships which are its true organs”.

Going back to the Durkheim’s social reality, with evolution of a society, mechanical solidarity is replaced by organic solidarity. However, if thinking logically, the following question arises: if members of a society are strong individuals, should not solidarity between them be weaker? The sociologist argues otherwise. According to Durkheim, in a society with organic solidarity, its members are forced to rely on each other because in case everyone is responsible for a part of the whole job, they become dependent on the overall result in order to satisfy their needs. Thus, such situation leads to strengthening of organic solidarity between members of a society, when each individual acts as an organic part of the whole system.

Increase in specialization occurs due to an increase in moral or social density of society. The process depends on division of labor in direct ratio. Moral density for Durkheim is a “function of a number of social relations in a society, which are formed through a process involving mental representations”. Durkheim believed that there are two factors that have an influence on the increase of moral density. These factors are social volume and material density. Social volume refers to the number of members in a society, while material density is a reduction of material distance between them.

Members of a more primitive society are set apart from each other. They are self-sufficient and do not need to collaborate. However, as material density and social volume grow, these parts of society start to collaborate and contact each other, which results in competition between them. Consequently, this causes an increasing division of labor.

Practical Meaning of Durkheim’s Theory

Practical meaning of Durkheim’s theory of division of labor can be explored with the help of the law that evolved together with a society. In simpler societies with mechanical solidarity, penal law and rules with repressive sanctions prevailed. On the other hand, in modern societies, which are based on organic solidarity, rules with restitutive sanctions and different forms of cooperative law are used. These include constitutional, administrative, civil and commercial law, which are aimed at ensuring compliance with regulations and standards in society.

According to Durkheim, evolution from repressive to restitutive law characterizes the progress of a society from mechanical to organic solidarity.

The negative side of the increase of division of labor is that although it makes people more dependent on each other, it does not guarantee a high degree of consensus in a society. In fact, when each member of a society is an individual with his own way of thinking and acting, he does not become completely devoted to the common corporate union. One more consequence of labor division is the growth of contractual and more formal relations between people, as well as the increase of individual heterogeneity.

Further, Durkheim expressed an opinion that in some circumstances division of labor can result in pathological forms, which are opposite to social solidarity. Strikes, protests, riots and even commercial crises and depressions are examples of downsides of labor division in the modern society.

Thus, the very division of labor that creates harmony up to a point contains the seeds of social disharmony, if it is pushed beyond a certain point. Durkheim called such state of disharmony “anomie”. Anomie is pathology of a social organism that occurs when division of labor becomes elaborated to a point where individuals are not capable to effectively relate themselves to others.

In other words, as society becomes increasingly complex, and its members become preoccupied to a large extent with their own individual pursuits and development, they lose the ability to identify with and feel themselves as a part of their community. Eventually, they become collectivity or psychologically isolated individuals, who interact with one another, but are oriented inward and bound together primarily by contractual ties. Similar situation can be observed in a modern society nowadays.

Three Abnormal Forms of Division of Labor

Durkheim focused on three abnormal forms of division of labor, considering them to be the most significant. The first one, anomie, was already described above. Thesecond one is so called forced division of labor, when lower social classes are dissatisfied with their economic and social situation, as well as with a position granted to them by a custom or law that can potentially lead to a civil war. The third one is the uneven distribution of functional activity, where one employee performs greater number of more complicated tasks than his colleagues.

Both Durkheim and Weber are considered as two the most comparative analysts in the sociological science.

Analysis of the social reality as of the complex of internal and external events led Weber to a 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 investigation”.

Weber believed that an individual selects only those parts of reality that “are interesting and significant to us, because they are related to the cultural values with which we approach reality”. According to him, social reality is “a finite segment of the meaningless infinity of the world process, a segment on which human beings confer meaning and significance”.

Thus, all attempts to analyze cultural or social reality is doomed to failure, without the confidence of the researcher in terms of the significance of facts and events that he/she investigates. Only personal beliefs and values of the investigator make it possible to create a successful work.

Weber’s explanation of the behavior of an individual varied essentially from those of Durkheim and Comte. Weber supposed that the main factor that influences the behavior is the subjective meaning, individuals’ own definition of the situation. Instead of simply observing and describing social events, as did Comte and Durkheim, Weber called for the “empathetic understanding” of the social reality. He took a different position and claimed that social reality could not be obtained from general social laws.

In order to explain his concept, Weber introduced the so called “ideal individual actor”: “In particular this involves grasping the motive of an individual actor, or understanding what makes him do at precisely this moment and in these circumstances”. Behavioral motives of each society member are different and cannot be reduced only to the particular case, but should be examined as a part of a more complex combination of social relationships.


Summarizing and expanding on the above, one can conclude that Max Weber in his studying of social reality concentrated mostly on an individual as the elementary part of society and developed his theory from the particular to the general.

Emile Durkheim, in his turn, saw the society as a real formation with its laws and processes. He claimed that the reality of society is a primary subject for sociological study.

Durkheim attempted to explain the division of labor in society by the influence of such factors as dynamic density and suicide rate – by the degree of integration and regulation of the social groups.

As for the positivism theory of Auguste Comte, his approach lacks reasonable methodology, and what is more significant, it encounters an ethical problem due to downgrading the role of an individual in society.

Consequently, various aspects of the social reality, presented by all three thinkers in their combination formed a concept of a society and created a basis for the development of sociology as a science. However, Max Weber was the one who recognized an individual and his significant role in functioning of society. On the other hand, Emile Durkheim created theoretical basis for sociology by his theory of the division of labor, social behavior and religious life.

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