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Sociology and Alienation

By hirrazafar Jan 05, 2014 1409 Words
Alienation - Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim

Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim are two of the founding fathers of sociology. They have both had a profound influence on the development of sociology. This essay will examine two of their theories - Marx’s theory of alienation and Durkheim’s theory of anomie, and will look at the similarities and differences in their thinking. Marx (1818-1883) wrote the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts in 1844, and one of these manuscripts, entitled ’Estranged Labour’, contains his discussion of alienation - the experience of isolation resulting from powerlessness. Marx’s basic concern was with the structures of capitalism that cause this alienation. He offered a theory of alienation rooted in social structure. He wanted his theory to convey two central and dominant ideas. First, the idea that human beings make society, and at some point society is a natural extension of their nature and their being, and second, the idea that, as modern society develops, human beings begin to feels that society is not of their making, and no longer reflects their being or their nature, but instead appears to be alien. Marx believed that labouring was the primary means by which human beings realised themselves in nature and history. Alienation, according to Marx, breaks this fundamental connection humans have to the self-defining aspect of labouring activity. He went on to identify four components of alienation: (I) alienation from the product of labour; (ii) alienation from productive activity; (iii) alienation from the human species; and, (iv) alienation from fellow human beings. The first type of alienation, product alienation, occurs when workers become estranged from the objects they produce. The product of their labour does not belong to the workers, but instead belongs to the capitalists, who may use it in any they wish, usually selling the product for profit. Also, workers often lack detailed knowledge of the aspects of production they are not involved in, and have little sense of their role in the total production process. For example, automobile assembly line workers who tighten a few bolts on an engine may have little feel for their role in the production of the whole car. Playing such small roles in the process often makes workers feel that the assembly line - rather than the individuals who work on it - are responsible for the final product. The second type of alienation, alienation from productive activity means that workers do not work for themselves in order to satisfy their own needs but capitalism converts the workers activity into nothing more than a means of satisfying their material needs. They receive a poor wage in exchange for giving the capitalists the right to use the workers in any way they see fit. Productive activity belongs to the capitalists, who decide what to do with it. This turns productive activity into an often boring and stultifying process, the only fulfilment being the only end that really matters in capitalism - earning enough money to survive. The third type of alienation is alienation from the human species. Individuals perform less and less like humans as they are reduced to working like animals, or inhuman machines. Species alienation breaks the connection humans have with their consciousness, as it is numbed, and ultimately destroyed as relations with other humans and with nature are progressively severed. Life begins to appear not as affirmation and power but only as a means. Marx said this is evident in capitalism, which reverses the species advantage by transforming human conscious life into a mere physical existence. The result is a mass of people who are unable to express their essential human qualities, a mass of alienated workers. The final type of alienation is alienation from fellow humans, and from the human social community. Marx’s assumption was that people basically need and want to work cooperatively, to acquire what they need to survive. Capitalism disrupts this cooperation. People, often strangers, are forced to work side by side for the capitalist, often in direct competition to produce more, or to work more quickly. Hostility is generated among the workers towards their peers. As universal competition becomes the norm, isolation and interpersonal hostility tend to make workers in capitalism alienated from fellow workers. Durkheim (1858-1917), first used the concept of anomie in Division of Labour in 1893, but it was not until 1897 that he began to use the term in a more narrow sense to describe the overall deterioration of moral restraint in society. He believed that the primary function of society was to set limits to social wants by providing a moral framework of restraint. Anomie refers to the state which results in society when there is a decline of the social regulatory mechanisms and individuals do not have a clear concept of what is not proper and acceptable behaviour. Durkheim believed that the causes of deregulation can to traced to two basic sources: (I) the development of industrial society, and (ii) the dominance of the economy over other institutions. He believed economic progress can only be made at the expense of social regulation and moral discipline. This happens because the dominance of economic life displaces the regulatory functions of other social institutions, for example, religion. Religion creates a framework of restraint, and exerts a moral influence. Religion teaches that worldly economic success is not the primary goal in life. But with the development of advanced economies, technologies, and world markets, the social thresholds become redirected. As a result, needs and wants are raised to ‘feverish pitch’. The economic focus of society freed desires from previous moral limits and replaced moral restraints. Eventually, the extension and activity of markets acted to extend and expand desire. The stress on economic activity increases individual desires to such an extent that discomfort and restraint become less tolerable than they were in society in which restraint was the norm. When the primary focus in society is economic, there is increased risk of and greater possibility for crisis. According to Durkheim, it is the economically related functions which create the largest category of suicide. In Durkheim’s view, society sets desires at a level that only a few could achieve. The main differences between the concepts of alienation and anomie rest upon the views of man in a ‘state of nature’. Marx’s concept of alienation is founded upon the belief that man is ‘naturally’ good, but has been corrupted by society. Durkheim’s theory of anomie, by contrast, stems from the assumption that man is ‘naturally’ a uncontrolled being, who must be rigidly restrained by society. He makes it clear that egoism is a product of society. However, the impulse to economic self-advancement is as much a creation of modern society for Durkheim as it is for Marx. Another difference in the views of Marx and Durkheim is that Durkheim strongly believes that an individuals personality is overwhelming influenced by the characteristics of the society in which he lives and is socialised into, but that in every man there is a struggle between egoistic impulses and those with a ’moral’ leaning. Marx doesn’t adopt such a psychological model; he believed there is no asocial basis for such conflict between the individual and society. For Marx, ’The individual is the social being’. There is quite a close similarity between the ’constants’ lying behind the concepts of alienation and anomie. Both Marx and Durkheim emphasis the fact that human qualities, needs and motives, are in large part the product of social development. Both perceive a flaw in the theory of political economy, which treats egoism as the foundation of a theory of social order. Alienation then, is the structurally imposed breakdown of the interconnectedness that is, to Marx, an essential part of life, at least in an ideal sense. Anomie can be defined as the state which society brought about by unchecked economic progress. While there are similarities and differences between the theories of Marx and Durkheim, there is one thing that is undisputed about these sometimes controversial sociologists - they have both had a great impact on the way the world’s people approach sociology today.  Bibliography

Giddens, A (2000) Capitalism, socialism, and social theory. Cambridge: University Press Macionis, J & Plummer, K (2002) Sociology, A Global Introduction, 2nd ed. Harlow: Prentice Hall Morrison, K (1995) Marx, Durkheim, Weber: formations of modern social thought. London: Sage Ritzer, G (2000) Classical Sociological Theory. USA: McGraw-Hill

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ALIENATION – Marx vs. Durkheim

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