Durkheim V Marx: Society V Individual

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As a cause and as a symptom of social hierarchies, division of labor is an integral part of the structuring of society. Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim both give very different interpretations to the effects causing, evolving, and caused by this division of labor. On one hand, Marx typically vilifies the process, finding it in large part responsible for the oppression of one group by another. On the other hand, Durkheim treats it as a unifying social force, one necessarily maintained for the betterment of all. With such contrasting viewpoints, it is difficult to decide whether this process is necessarily good or bad. In effect, the argument is how far must individual needs be sacrificed for the benefit of society, or how much society must be diminished for optimal individual equity. However, as with many things in life, Marx and Durkheim are actually just looking at opposite ends of the same spectrum and as such, they are neither right, nor wrong, and their interpretations are not nearly so irreconcilable as they would appear.

Marx believes that division of labor is a natural process, one that arises near spontaneously. Marx believes that as a nation develops its labor inevitably also becomes more divided. “How far the productive forces of a nation are developed is shown most manifestly by the degree to which division of labor has been carried. Each new productive force…causes a further development of the division of labor” (Tucker, 150). This division is what he finds to be problematic because it separates man from doing what he truly desires to do. In a highly specialized society, every individual must contribute to a facet of the society’s collective production; however, this input may be very minimal (depending on the degree of specialization). To whit, “As soon as the distribution of labor comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity” (160). Every man has his place and he is forced into it by the demands of society. However, Marx is not saying that every man’s niche is inviolate and his alone. Rather, he also acknowledges that as the work becomes more specialized less skill is required for many positions, making each work more interchangeable and therefore replaceable. Therein lie the two major problems with division of labor in Marx’s view.

Marx believes that the product of the workers’ labor is a physical manifestation of the workers’ actual labor. “The product of labor is labor which has been congealed in an object” (71). As such, the worker has a vested interest in the final product as it is of himself. However, in a highly specialized system the worker does not, for example, build a complete car, but only fixes the door to the frame. The car is finally completely far down the assembly line without the worker’s knowledge or input into the rest of the process. As such, at such a distance from the product of his labor, the worker, according to Marx, must feel a distinct sense of alienation from his labor. He can gain little satisfaction from the contributing such a small part to the overall completed product and this lack is mirrored in every other individual along the assembly line. The other problem is that not only is the worker separated from his labor, he cannot freely choose where to invest his labor. He describes this division of labor as being “forced upon [us] and from which [we] cannot escape” (160). This lack of choice further separates the worker from his labor (which is of the worker’s own ‘self’) thus alienating the worker from himself. Combined, these two effects result in a society that oppresses the laborer, forces him into occupation beyond his own choosing and forced to labor with little compensation and with even less personal gratification because he no longer owns the product of his labors.

Durkheim on the other hand, disagrees completely. He feels that the worker and society cooperate for each other’s mutual benefit; that together, the two...
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