Durkheim’s Theory of Anomie and Marx’s Theory of Alienation

Topics: Sociology Pages: 8 (2772 words) Published: October 23, 2008
Durkheim’s theory of anomie and Marx’s theory of alienation have had a very strong influence on the sociological understandings of modern life. Critically compare these two concepts.

The purpose of this paper is to analyse the two concepts of anomie and alienation and evaluate their merits. The analysis will cover various aspects of modern life under the two theories and seek to establish which provides a more convincing account. In order to critique the concepts against each other, it would be helpful to define them in terms of a common ground, that being labour, as well as looking at the concepts’ similarities, differences and origins. The present-day solutions in use such as trade unions, nihilism and religion also warrant exploration.

Both of these theories are put forward by the authors as the central problem of modernity which arose from the move to a capitalist state in Marx’s view and the move to an industrial state in Durkheim’s view. It is worth noting that these notions are fundamentally opposed when trying to address the same issue, which brings up the central argument of this paper – Which account of modern society, anomie or alienation, is the most convincing?

To elaborate on the similarity between the two theories, both arose when analysing the nature of labour in the 19th century – Marx formulated his based on the labour process and Durkheim wrote his with the division of labour in mind. From these topics, the authors set out to explain a variety of changes taking place in society.

Under Marx, the definition of alienation in the labour process entails four aspects, the first two being: alienation of the wage labourer from his own creation involving the transformation of this creation into a commodity and ensuing separation from the product which has now become an alien force; following on from which is alienation from his special “essence”, as it is expressed in labour (defined as free productive activity) – this has reduced man to an animal and made him a human where he should be an animal. (Andersen and Kaspersen, 2000: 21)

As an aside, the above 2nd definition is echoed by Hannah Arendt’s work on the polis where she argued something very similar referring to the transformation of public political freedom into a private faculty of the will in terms of the oikia (household), the world of necessity becoming the dominant sphere where economic matters such as food, housing became public concerns. In contrast to Marx, however, Arendt refers to this phenomenon as the “rise of the social” instead of the breaking down of it. (d’Entreves, 2006)

The other two definitions of alienation in the labour process are: the alienation from man’s own “species being” as a result of labour becoming a means to survival rather than an end in itself as previously; and finally the alienation of man from society or the alienation of the worker from other workers. As a confluence of the first three definitions, …man ultimately becomes alienated from that which is a product of his actions: society. …society becomes estranged from the individual and directed against him. “Society” then becomes a force that lives its own life over which no one has control. (Andersen and Kaspersen, 2000: 22)

In greater detail, although there are some components in the modern world which are in theory apt to change, since their creation stems from society itself (for example, governments, health care systems, economic frameworks and educational institutions), it is true that in reality this is not the case. This is due to the fact that as time progresses and social interactions become increasingly complex, the majority of individuals forget that they have created these institutions in the first place. As a result, these are perceived as being immutable facts of life which must be observed and obeyed. (Macionis: Chapter 4)

Resulting from this alienation is the fact that workers do not realise how valuable their contribution...

References: • Andersen & Kaspersen (eds), Classical and Modern Social Theory, Blackwell, 2000.
• d 'Entreves, Maurizio Passerin, "Hannah Arendt", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2006 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), (http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2006/entries/arendt/)
• Freydis, The Anomie Anomaly: Death to This!, counterorder.com, 2008.
• Giddens, A. Sociology: A brief but critical introduction, Macmillan London. Chapter 2: ‘Competing Interpretations: Industrial Society or Capitalist Society?’, 1986.
• Little, Daniel, UnderstandingSociety: Alienation and Anomie, blogspot.com, 2008. (http://understandingsociety.blogspot.com/2008/01/alienation-and-anomie.html)
• Macionis, John J., Sociology, Chapter 4, Pearson Education Canada.
• Orcutt, James D., The Anomie Tradition: Explaining Rates of Deviant Behaviour, 2002. (http://deviance.socprobs.net/Unit_3/Theory/Anomie)
• Swifty, Long Sunday: Abstract: Marx and Individualism, 2008 (http://www.long-sunday.net/long_sunday/2008/02/abstract-marx-a.html)
• Unknown Author, Individualism: Individualism and Modern Society, 2007. (http://science.jrank.org/pages/9786/Individualism-Individualism-Modern-Society.html)
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