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An in-depth examination of Durheim, Weber and Marx

Since the inception of sociological enquiry common themes and leitmotifs have been expressed by a variety of thinkers forming a rich, diverse and often contrasting set of sociological 'imaginations', (Mills, 1959). 

Contrasting theoretical outlooks are now part and parcel of the sociological landscape and many modern theorists have shifted praxis significantly away from what were traditionally the core ideologies that formed the discipline of sociology through continued academic dialogue within the discipline, (Calhoun, 2002). But it can be strongly argued that to understand truly the significance of modern drives within sociology a critical understanding of the origins of these ideas either as complimentary or criticisms of previous thinkers is an essential undertaking.

Thus in other words to explore the work of Foucault or Giddens two of sociology's contemporary thinkers and fully comprehend the significance of their writings it is critical to explore the ideological context from which their thoughts spring reflected in the heritage of sociological thought which went before them, (Taylor, 1999). Indeed this is so even if we examine what might appear to be diametrically opposed concerns, contrasting for example, Foucault's seminal works on sexuality with Durkheim's works on suicide for while they represent two different human activities the context in which these activities take place namely society are explained and theorized in different ways and this feature is at the heart of sociology, (Giddens, 1987).

Indeed for many the central characteristic of this feature of contemporary sociological theory is the dichotomy between modernity and post-modernity, (Delanty, 2000). About what explanations of society's functions and interactions is the most valid one? For the thinkers discussed in this piece they were convinced to a lesser and greater degree that society was possessed of overarching rules which sociology was tasked with uncovering and explaining. A grand positivistic enquiry into the nature of human activities and their interactions with one another which today is much criticized as well as defended, (Lyon, 1999). Criticized on the part of post-modernists represented by Baumann, Derrida and Foucault who decry the end of 'grand narratives' and big explanations characteristic of this classical sociology, (Baumann, 1996). Others like Habermas and Giddens in turn decry these post-modernists and instead move in another direction reclaiming the idea of a grand narrative, in Habermas's case of an attempt to redefine Marxist thought and offer a theory of society based on linguistic shared meanings, (Habermas, 1987) or in the case of Giddens of offering a theory of post-industrial society moving sociology onwards yet with some continuity with the theorists that have gone before him, (Giddens, 1991). But what are the roots of this debate? To answer this consideration of three key thinkers is necessary namely Durkheim, Marx and Weber and an analysis of the central themes and motifs which run through their sociological writings.


Emile Durkheim stands for many as the seminal starting point of the discipline of sociology codifying its practices and legitimating it at the time in the eyes of many as valid academic discipline with its own sets of concerns and methods of inquiry, (Turner, 1993).  Durkheim's major inquiries concerned the structure and organisation of social order conducted through examining the incidence of suicide in society and theories as to its origins and causes, an investigation into religion and a classificatory typology outlining different types of societies and their major features along a developmental continuum, (Craig, 1997). It should be noted though that it would be erroneous to consider each of these elements as separate as the ideas which Durkheim generated were integrated and interrelated within each of his works. Durkheim's critical contributions to sociology whatever criticisms can be levelled against the nature and tenor of his work are undeniable and profound and indeed can be argued to mark out the boundaries of the emergence of the discipline itself, (Morrison, 1995).

It is important also to consider the historical context in which Durkheim was placed when he attempted to develop the foundling discipline of sociology. At that time science was rampant in terms of characterising the period known as the Enlightenment and scientific modes of inquiry were predominant and in particular challenging the realm of religion over the causative explanations dealing with humanity and the world and universe in which they lived in, (Munch, 1998). Such a drive gave rise to the epistemology known as positivism and Durkheim's sociology can also be characterised as being positivistic, (Benton and Craib, 2001). Positivism simply put means a reliance on the identification of hypothesis which can be tested by observable facts and repeated through experimentation thus leading to the codification of laws expressing the relationship between various elements and factors, (Halfpenny and McMylor, 1994).

Durkheim expressly drew on the ideas of the influential figure August Compte who is attributed with the coining of the term sociology. Comtpe's work bears much resemblance as well as differences with the work of Durkheim and it is proper to credit both of them with the emergence of the modern discipline of sociology, (Wernick, 2001). Compte specifically argued for the adoption of scientific principles into the study of the social, he defined also society as being holistic or that it was independently structured from the individuals that composed that society. Durkheim continued and refined this line of thinking with his conception of what he termed social facts.

For Durkheim social facts were "Not mere objective things but external, collective phenomena which were general through society…and which constrained individual action but which were not reducible to being explained in 'individual' terms' (Swingewood, 1999:52). This has critical meaning for the manner in which Durkheim constructed his sociological interpretations and the methodological basis of the analyses which comprised his life work in sociology. For Durkheim social facts could be considered to be many things in society, from suicide which he would study in-depth to the internalization of moral codes to language, to religion.

Thus what were both what we might term apparent as well as less visible currents and trends within societies and were for Durkheim treatable as being social facts. In this consideration the positivistic bent of Durkheim becomes clear as like in other scientific disciplines the division Durkheim sets up between social facts and individuals is clear and decisive in that social facts are external to the influences of individuals and thus are distinct observable laws, (Layder, 1994). This influential position within sociology has been opposed and deeply criticized by post-modernism as we discussed above but before we consider these objections let us examine Durkheim's work on a number of social facts in more detail.

For Durkheim society like any feature of human life was subject to the same laws and immutable elements which could be detected in other parts from other scientific endeavours. The task of sociology was to uncover and express those laws and factors which applied directly to human societies, (Hughes, Martin and Sharrock, 1995). While positivism in general has been m much criticized it is still a lasting influence on much sociology and of course still dominant within the other 'hard' sciences. Let us now examine some of these core laws which Durkheim proposed at being at the heart of modern as well as historical human societies.

Suicide was Durkheim's first major work and within it he set out some of his key theories concerning the organisation and formation and vital elements dealing with the roles and functions of humans in society, (Durkheim, 1952). Suicide is notable for some other reasons as well, principally we can argue that suicide was a seminal and landmark work also for the manner in which it used the emergent field of statistics as the starting point for investigating a social issue, (Alexander, 1998). This empirical outlook is and still remains a key feature currently of much sociological investigation in many areas. The social fact at the core of Durkheim's work on suicide was his observation of statistics on suicide from different European countries. What specific fact Durkheim observed was that suicide rates differed from country to country and that these differences were relatively constant over time, (Durkheim, 1952, Douglas, 1967).

Durkheim explained this through recourse to a variety of ideological and theoretical constructs. First he suggested that the level of solidarity or degree of social integration within any given society was an important precursory indicator of what the rate of suicide would be in any given country. Durkheim famously argues that the Catholic religion integrates people more than Protestantism reflected in lower suicide rates he observed within predominantly Catholic European countries, (Durkheim, 1952). Protestant ethic of independence and questioning of authority for Durkheim reduced social integration by forcing individuals to rely more on themselves in times of need rather than being embraced within the embedded social relations characteristic of the Catholic faith.

From his outline of the effects of social solidarity Durkheim classified societies into a typology based on this characteristic. Much of this line of Durkheim's thought was set out in the publication The Division of Labour in Society, (Durkheim, 1984). In this work Durkheim proposes two main forms of society dependent on the characteristic of solidarity evinced by each. The first of these he termed mechanical solidarity and organic solidarity. These were two contrasting forms of society expressing some of the central tenets of Durkheim's' sociological theorising, (Durkheim, 1984).

In this typology Durkheim also takes on a critique of the likes of Spencer who proposed his own evolutionary inspired view of society to be known as social Darwinism, (Spencer, 1967). Durkheim comes out against this typology which illustrated for him what he saw as its simplistic reductionism applied to observable social facts determining the makeup of human societies. For Durkheim mechanical solidarity could be defined as societies which were relatively homogenous and relatively undifferentiated in terms of the functions and roles of the individuals comprising that society, (Durkheim, 1984).

The predominant characteristic of such a society is Durkheim argues the emphasis placed on uniformity. Uniformity which he argues arises out of the shared commonality of experience enjoyed by the members of such a simple society. The members of such a society would for Durkheim typically be engaged in subsistence agriculture for example and characterised by there not being reliant on the other members of that society due to the shared commonalities of tasks and functions resulting due to the homogeneity of that particular society, (Swingewood, 1999). Deviations expressed away from the prevailing definition of uniformity would be in such societies be strictly punished and enforced by quite violent and public displays of punishment towards the criminals and other deviants who threatened the shared sense of commonality expressed within this form of society.

In contrast to the rather simplistic society outlined above Durkheim moved on to outline what he considered the organic society model. The primary characteristic is for such a society Durkheim argues is the complex social division of labour which exists within this society, (Durkheim, 1984). Durkheim's work here closely corresponds to the economic theories expounded by Adam Smith concerning the economic division of labour but where Smith suggested that work tasks could be subdivided and specialised in order to increase productive rates within the economy Durkheim moves above and beyond this and expands the divisional basis to include all aspects of tasks within a given society, (Fenton, 1984). Such a feature is he argues the predominant characteristic or larger more complex modern societies in contradistinction to the smaller mechanical ones which were characterised by relatively undifferentiated task assignment between members of a society.

With such a complex division into specialised tasks organic solidarity societies were also characterised in opposition to the homogeneity of mechanical solidarity societies by being diverse and lacking the same sense of commonality expressed in repressive legal structures enforcing the uniformity necessary for the optimised functioning of those types of societies. Organic societies instead and their legal structures were for Durkheim characterised more by the enforcement of contractual obligations between the members of such a society. These contractual obligations in turn reflected the need for such organic societies to be possessed of qualities of interdependence and mutual necessity between the members of such a society as a result of the specialised social division of tasks to be found in such a society, (Durkheim, 1984).

Following on from his work on suicide Durkheim's attention turned towards religion and it can be argued indeed from our discussion of suicide that it is easy to see the integral nature and basis which Durkheim gave to an understanding of society in relation to an understanding of religious forces within society. In his text The Elementary Forms of The Religious Life Durkheim sets out his arguments concerning religion, (Durkheim, 1976). For Durkheim and in correspondence to the work of Marx there is no supernatural represented by the tenets of religion for society. In other words for God to exist humans must exist first but where Marx saw religion as ideological inadequacies compounded by capitalism as humanity's potential was wasted Durkheim held that there must be some universal solvent holding all of religion's tenets together reflected in the universality both temporally and spatially that is displayed by religious beliefs, (Swingewood, 1999).

Durkheim argues that religion can be divided into concepts about the sacred and the practice of rites which lead humans to connect to the sacred. In terms of the sacred the division is between what is profane and what is sacred. For Durkheim the prevailing characteristic which bound elements of the sacred together was the manner and means in which they reflected in symbolic terms the integration and dependence of members of a society to that society and to other members of that society, (Durkheim, 1976). Totemic worship as evinced by the aborigines which Durkheim considered was not at heart about binding individuals to some supernatural elements as the totems they worshipped were mundane and singularly profane objects but was more like the function of the modern nation state flag symbolic of the group collective which in turn symbolised and reflected the shared collective upon which the solidarity of the group and society depended, (Durkheim, 1976).

It is clear then that from our discussion thus far of the work of Durkheim that the overarching thematic element of Durkheim's work was towards understanding social orders. Or in particularly how social orders within society came to be formed, enforced and what social facts could be detected out of the enforcement of the social order. The criticisms we can level against the work of Durkheim can be aptly detected in the work of Marx who in contrast to Durkheim explicitly set to task with analysing the nature of conflict, the nature of power and the nature of change within society illustrating not so much the stability of social order outlined by Durkheim but the violent means in which society changed. While evolutionary ideas are common to both there are substantive differences between the two thinkers which we now turn to elucidate.


Marx stands as probably the best known of sociologists outside of his discipline. His legacy rightly or wrongly enshrined in the rise of soviet Russia and other communist states even if the implementation of communist principles was far removed from the ideology put forward by Marx and his co-author Engels, (Antonio, 2003).  In contrast to Durkheim's overriding concern with the manner and means in which social order within human societies was constructed and his dearth in treating with concepts of power, conflict and change within society Marx's overriding concerns were in the basis within conflict of the emergence of modern what he called capitalistic society. Marx gives us a view of power, and power relationships and the effects and resistance to these power relationships within capitalist society and well as controversially offering a radical redress in terms of rectifying the inequalities present within capitalist society created by the imbalances in the power relationship codified by capitalist relationships within modern societies, (Worsley, 2002).

Against the holistic interpretations of both Compte and Durkheim for whom conflict must be seen as a 'pathological' failure in systems of social order Marx argues that the history of society is a history of conflict in particular a history of class conflicts, (Saad-Filho, 2002). For Marx modern societal structures are the expressions of interests of a particular class in society namely the capitalist class or the bourgeoisie and that the laws and rules of this society were an enforcement of their particular interests and an expression of their dominant ideology within capitalist society, (Morrison, 1995).

Marx's economic history is both materialist and relational and his society was a structured one consisting of a base and superstructure out of which the legitimisation of the capitalist ideology and the machinery of its operations and functions were constructed.  It is the base and the class which controls the base, or in other words controls the forces of production which for Marx determines the outcomes and generation of social structures evinced by the superstructure of society, (Cohen, 1988).

Marx then offers us a theory which is characterised by methodological collectivism (a point we contrast subsequently with Weber's methodological individualism) in that capitalism is a dynamic constantly changing macro force which in itself can only be changed by collective action on the part of classes that are exploited by those that control the forces of production within a given society, (Johhston, 1986). In this manner we can contrast Marx and Durkheim as Durkheim lacks such a theory of change instead as we recall for Durkheim the observable social facts within a society were beyond the control of individuals to influence even where they might have acted collectively. Marx expressly rejects this determinism and his manifesto sets out how through revolution on the part of the working class in particular and a wresting of the control of the forces of production  away from the capitalist class would allow society to develop into the higher form of society termed by Marx as socialism, (Marx and Engels, 1982).

In this sense we see a common motif between Durkheim and Marx in that both propose a developmental evolutionary basis to the nature of societies. Or in other words that structural forces within any given society in that a simpler society is replaced by a more complex one is the predominant characteristic of the organisation of societies. The primary difference however is the engine of change identified by the two theorists, for Durkheim it was the need for ever more complex social orders demanded by ever increasing task specialisation, a sort of stable growth reflected in the biological metaphor he adopts, and for Marx it was violent conflict change resultant from class conflicts and changes in the ownership of the forces of production within a society which determined the material base to such societies which gave rise to the developmental changes in society, (Hampsher-Monk, 1992).

In Marx's work Capital the allusions to the work of Weber we discuss below become clear in that Marx realises the importance of the role of religion within the determination of the characteristics of society. However for Marx religion was to be seen as a function of the ruling interests within society denying the working class the political awareness and shared consciousness to determine and become aware of the exploitative conditions under which they toiled as a result of capitalist relationships of production, (Marx, 1981). Thus while Marx's work is economically deterministic in terms of the formation of modern society there is space albeit limited for social agency and action in order to transform the structures of society in which individuals are placed and related, (Stones, 1998).

However in contrast to Marx Weber outlines a predominantly different view of society which places human action and agency at the core and centre of the determination of the structures of society. Marx's primary contribution it can be argued and the one which continues to be the most influential in terms of affecting the discipline of modern sociology is his macro elucidation of the dynamic transformative power of modern capitalist society. As others have argued it is a changing force which cuts across all levels and features of society reflected in ideas, values, institutions and relationships between individuals and classes and the composition of these classes, (Craig, 1997). Marx's work can be argued also to be seen to represent one of the quintessential grand narrative theories upon which classical sociology was grounded. It was also one of the dominant classical theories within sociology and even if Marx can be accused of subsuming other important elements within the structuring of society at the expense of an elegant overarching revolutionary science of historical materialism his legacy continues today in the sophisticated and rationalistic analyses he offered towards the structure of society and legitimated inequalities represented by such a structure, (Van Der Hoeven, 1976).


Weber though less ostensibly 'famous' than the previous two writers we have examined is nonetheless perhaps one of the most vital and critical theorists within classical sociology. Even today the likes of Habermas and Giddens still draw strongly on the insights of Weber into the workings of modern societies and the institutions within these societies and their interactions with humans. Weber's work cut across a number of major axis with reflections and common themes with both Marx and Durkheim whom he often criticized and thus his work is an example of a  reflexive one at times when considering the other two theorists, (Turner, 2002).

As was mentioned in the preceding discussion dealing with Marx Weber proposed an alternative to Marx's methodological collectivism in his theory of methodological individualism. It was this opposition to Marx's macro theorising in favour of a micro theorising which sets Weber's work apart and indeed he can arguably be seen as being representative of a shift from macro theorising to micro theorising characteristic of much contemporary sociological work, (Diggins, 1996) . Similarly Weber's work stands in opposition to the positivistic leanings of both Marx and Durkheim by emphasising the human element involved in the formation of human structures. Human agency for Weber is at the heart of the sociological condition and representative of his view that rather than sociology being an externality in terms of comprehension of the human condition and society, in that it must look from the outside in sociological meaning and understanding must be an internal exercise constructed from the inside out by reference to the actions of individuals and the shared meanings that from the collective comprised of all the individual human actions which comprise any given societal structure, (Morrison, 1995).

Weber's seminal work exploring the relationship between Protestantism and the rise of capitalism encapsulates the nature of his ideas and the opposition between them and both the work of Durkheim and Marx in particular, (Weber, 1985). For Weber it was the particular characteristics of the protestant faith which demarked out the rising of capitalist through the enforcement of a set of social values related to the religious overtones associated with the protestant religion. In particular Weber examined the Calvinist doctrine of predestination as illustrating the principal tenets of capitalism and its development. Simply put the Calvinist doctrine held that God had only selected a relative handful for entry into the paradise in the afterlife. As a result of the uncertainty associated with knowing if one was one of the chosen or not the signs of material success in this life reflected in the accumulation and gaining of wealth were held to be indicators and transfigured into being such indicators that one was chosen and concomitantly that being blessed in this life meant it was certain you would be blessed in the next life also, (Marshall, 1982).

Weber suggested that the reason for European development of capitalist societies was inextricably linked with the predominance of protestant ethics determining the social forces that would come to bear in the development of capitalist society. In essence then Weber sought to escape the countervailing deterministic logic of praxis present within both the works of Durkheim and Marx, (Layder, 1994). He linked his theory of methodological individualism, or the sociology and social meaning of everyday life with processes of historical change, but sought not to relate these to deterministic superstructures but rather subjected them to the influences of individuals as they interacted with the cultural and social forces which they both produced and were a product of. Thus while markets and labour division and the economics of trade did indeed historically occur elsewhere in the world it was in Europe where the peculiar confluence between these economic organisations and a particular cultural marker that the highly rationalistic and materialistic version of capitalism familiar now to the world first came to seed and develop in the confluence between both these results of human agency and action, (Lehmann and Roth, 1993).

Contextually and superficially on many levels Marx and Weber shared similar grounds. By this we can argue that both were critical of capitalism, even if the vehemence of the criticism differed substantially between the two, they were both global in focus concerning with tracing macro historical changes, if however the underlying causes for these changes differed between the two. Both saw conflict as being a critical component of the dynamic of human societies and both advocated and adopted historicist logic in their theorising and investigation into the human social forces they both wished to investigate. Thus many have argued that Marx and Weber are 'partly similar' and 'partly different', (Wiley, 1987).

As we have illustrated in our discussion the key differences or arguably the key difference between the two lies in the inescapable determinism evinced by Marx in favour of the much more flexible suggestions for societal change articulated by Weber as a result of human agency. Weber also stands apart for his highly individualised theoretical conceptions related to changing forces within human society. In this regards we can see similarities also superficially between the work of Weber and the later work of post-modernists such as Foucault. For Foucault the social is as much a construct of individualities as anything else including the truths we objectively claim the social world is based on, (Foucault, 1990). While Weber argues that individuals construct the social structures around them as a result of the congruence between these forces postmodernists argue that the entirety of the structures themselves are contingent on the social construction played out between the bodies of knowledge generated by humans at specific places and at specific times, (Bertens, 1995).


Our brief discussion here has attempted to trace the main convergences and differences between three classical theorists within the discipline of socio0logy. Their legacy can be most clearly detected in the contemporary debates and schisms currently present within the discipline reflected a long methodological divide between opposing viewpoints about the manner in which the discipline should construct its investigations and construct its theoretical standpoints as a result.

The classical divide between micro and macro conceptions evinced by the theorists we have investigated here is at the core of current methodological divisions within the discipline. There is in essence still a gulf between those who offer grand narratives suitably refined dealing with the manner in which social structures are formed and maintained and the social forces at play within these structures and those who reject these grand narratives in favour of micro-physics of power illustrating the contingent and dependent social constructivist forces which determine the makeup and perceived makeup of the societies in which we inhabit, (Bertens, 1995). There is thus almost still a conflict between conflict theorists but moved to a different epistemological level, from for example the shared commonality of language suggested by Habermas to the varied perceptions and power relationships determining the world suggested by the likes of Baumann and Foucault. In a sense then we can argue that the classical theorists here represent the formations and bones of the current debates which engage us within the discipline of sociology.


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