In this post I will discuss some of the ways in which early sociologists have suggested that social structures impact on how we feel.

In a previous post in this series I have addressed how the enlightenment, the industrial revolution and the French and American revolutions helped people to develop a sense of society as a really existing object which can be observed and studied. Later I explored how some early sociologists identified how we can “see” society in social structures.

One of the most important social structures for many of the early sociologists was the division of labour. The way in which production is distributed amongst different members of society changed radically over the 18th and 19th centuries. For more on this see my post on the Enlightenment.


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Émile Durkheim believed that the division of labour in society could have a profound affect on how people feel through its impact on social solidarity or the way in which people feel connected to one another and part of a whole. In his book The Division of Labour in Society Durkheim proposed that social solidarity could be divided into two essential types; mechanical solidarity and organic solidarity.

Mechanical solidarity is characteristic of pre-industrial societies or small communities. This sense of togetherness is based on a simple division of labour in which people tend to perform quite similar tasks to one another. Most production is conducted in small workshops (think of a blacksmith or carpenter). People feel connected to one another through their similarity.

This is in contrast to organic solidarity which is a sense of connection to other people based on interdependence. Organic solidarity tends to be found in industrialised societies or large cities. The complex division of labour in such situations is such that people perform very different tasks to one another. In this situation people are have connections to lots of different people most of whom they will never know. For instance, I am highly dependent on people who make clothes, grow food and drive trains as I cannot do these things. In this context people are connected to one another through mutual dependence.

Durkheim thought there were benefits to this newer kind of society as solidarity based on mutual interdependence is more accepting of difference. However, he was concerned about potential downsides the most significant of which is anomie. This is a sense of social derangement where people do not know what is expected of them due to a break down in social and moral regulation.

Anomie tends to be most prominent during times of significant social change such as during an economic crisis when people become dislodged from their established social positions and don’t know how to deal with their new situation. Due to the constantly changing character of capitalist societies, however, change is now a constant. Karl Marx also noticed the impact of the structures of production but proposed that their main impact was the creation of isolation.


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Changes in the division of labour were also central to Karl Marx’s analysis of capitalism. In particular he believed that the particular ways in which we work in contemporary societies produce alienation or a kind of disconnection and estrangement (see his essay “Estranged Labour“).

The types of working practices he saw in the factories of the nineteenth century were very different to those that preceded them. While mechanised production is highly efficient all control is taken away from the worker and is given over to the management and the machinery itself.

Rather than an individual or small team of people producing a product in a workshop in the factory the individual works in an isolated fashion on their own task and can’t fulfil their creative potential or exercise their skills. Instead they must simply ensure the smooth running of the machine. They become almost like a part of the machinery themselves.

This is so important for Marx because he believed that our ability to produce things (physical objects as well as culture) is what makes us human beings. If we are not able to do this then we are not quite human any more. This point is mirrored in the work of Max Weber but he identified the problem as resting specifically in rationality.


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One of the most celebrated elements of Enlightenment thought was the central importance it gave to rationality. A logical approach to understanding the world and behaving in it led to many incredible technological and political advances.

However, Max Weber identified a potential problem with the increasing use of rational thinking or what he called rationalization. He was concerned that if a rational approach was applied to too many areas of life then the world would become “disenchanted” or devoid of meaning. (see his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism).

When rational methods are applied to things they can tell us about their properties or their economic value but not their spiritual or emotional worth. More importantly, increasingly human beings have rational principles applied to them through the functions of bureaucracy.

It is possible, thought Weber, that the bureaucratic structures which tell us how to behave could become like an iron cage which encases us leaving us little freedom until we become passive followers of rules like robots.

In the next post I will discuss how social structures impact on how we think.