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Theories of Punishment: Durkheim and Marxist

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 2692 words Published: 10th Jul 2018

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Compare and contrast a Durkheim and a Marxist analysis of punishment in modern society.

Emile Durkheim is well known for his work on suicide related issues. However, Durkheim is not exclusive to the area of suicide, he had ample experience and expertise in other areas of sociological interest and one prominent field is crime and punishment. Why do societies punish offenders? This is a question that has been deeply explored by many sociologists including Binding who felt that a society’s “right to punishment…was nothing but the right to obedience of the law, which has been transformed by the offender’s disobedience.” The main objective of punishment thus was “the inmate’s subjugation under the power of law for the sake of maintaining the authority of the laws violated.” Thus, punishment was meant to “represent the holiness and inviolability of the duties to which it is attached.”

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Durkheim assigns the power of punishment to the state for the purpose of restoring and maintaining social and collective conscience. He felt that crimes shatter societal solidarity and when there is a right to punishment, and then society can restore its faith in each other by punishing the offender. However, Durkheim contends that in complex modern societies, collective feelings of revenge have been somewhat replaced by Anomie. And this anomie has weakened punishment which leads to more crimes and offences against the society.

Durkheim argues that people are shaped by their social experiences and it follows that if the collective conscience is weakened by, for example, too much criminal behavior, the moral ties that bind people together are also weakened. When this happens, the concept used by Durkheim to express this weakening of moral ties was that of Anomie.

For Durkheim, anomie occurred when traditional norms of behavior were undermined without being replaced by new norms. In the absence of clear moral guidelines for their behavior, people experience feelings of anxiety, aimlessness, purposelessness, disorientation and so forth. Anomie, therefore, was seen by Durkheim to be a very dangerous phenomenon, mainly because when people no longer believe in their obligations to others, they revert to self-interest. In effect, they attempt to look after themselves without bothering too much about how this may affect the lives of others.

How has this change occurred if at all? Is the criminal justice system really more lenient in modern societies than it used to be? This is the question that forms the basis for Durkheim’s entire premise on the subject of criminal justice in modern society. The fact that there is a close connection between Durkheim’s concept of anomie and changes in the criminal justice system cannot be denied. One of his sternest critics acknowledged that “there is also an underlying validity in the importance that Durkheim attaches to the law for any understanding of society” [9] p. 36. Certainly the phenomenon of law was of crucial importance in Durkheim’s sociological model because it was an external indicator of a level of social life at which moral forces became crystallized and institutionalized to a degree where they were formalized and backed by sanctions.

Durkheim could see the difference between the law prevailing in traditional and modern societies. Though he went slightly overboard with his divisions, it is a fact that Durkheim was among the first few to highlight the differences that had led to a shift in punishment from corporal punishment to institutionalized revenge. On a milder note, Durkheim said, “The duty of the statesman is no longer to propel societies violently towards an ideal which appears attractive to him. His role is rather that of the doctor: he forestalls the outbreak of sickness by maintaining good hygiene, or when it does break out, seeks to cure it. (Durkheim, 1982: 104)

Let us now study the differences in more detail. What was the primary difference? According to Durkheim the difference lied in the intensity of punishment. In traditional societies, punishment was more corporal in nature; it focused on the body of the offender. In modern societies, things have become more complex and focus has shifted to institutionalization. This institutionalization has led to a lenient form of punishment. And a lot of this can be attributed to breakdown of social cohesiveness.

The modern society is different from what you would expect a traditional society to be. Modern society is usually more “progressive,” “industrial” but at the same time materialistic. This aspect of the society makes it highly individualistic too. The individualism factor leads to the creation of what you would call a self-centered culture. In this self-centered zone, people are more concerned about their own welfare than the welfare of the society on the whole. Durkheim blames this individualistic streak for the breakdown of social cohesiveness and collective conscience that is the primary cause of social decay as well as lenient punishment.

I agree with Durkheim that punishment today is lenient. It does focus on revenge but there is a greater focus on rehabilitation of offenders which gives the whole picture a compassionate view thus resulting in leniency which is not often desired. Leniency is not desirable in all cases and in traditional societies or old world societies when punishment was stricter, crime rate was lower and recidivism was almost negligible.

There is another important concept which should be instilled here. Conformity is what Durkheim would want in a social system today but this conformity factor has been missing since people want to have their own individualistic streak. They do not want to conform. But for a society to care about each other’s welfare and to build cohesiveness, conformity is desirable. Morals and values can often take a backseat or they lose their intensity when there are too many groups and each has its own view. (Anthony Giddens, Capitalism and Modern Social Theory. An Analysis of the writings of Marx, Durkheim and Max Weber. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press (1971), 103).

When there is lack of conformity, there is also an increased risk of conflict and this can endanger the greater interest of the society. Durkheim feels that lack of conformity is one of the main reasons for growth of conflict and for further division of interest and for this reason; he suggests that conformity should exist. He also suggests the use of restitutive law as a possible solution bringing and maintaining law in a modern organic society.

Durkheim’s view of modern society’s law and lenient punishment emerges from his views on anomic division of labor. According to this concept division of labor of anomic type takes place when norms regulating activities break down or fail to emerge. One source of this anomie has been the rapid growth in economic conditions which gave rise to new “interests in conflict (which) have not yet had time to be equilibrated” p. 370.

Another major source was the discrepancies that existed between a group’s expectations and their achievements. In such an air of “relative deprivation”, rules that previously governed the means to goal attainment break down, and anomie and increased disorder could result. Some sociologists have sought to make international comparisons, maintaining that, on the basis of this theory, it should be possible to predict that in countries with an advanced division of labor, greater inequality and/or deprivation and/or rapid rate of change would be important predictors of higher levels of political instability and conflict.

One general consequence is that the absence of regulation can lead to unspecified desires, and the other is that for the individual specialist worker, work itself can lose its meaning. With regard to the forced division of labor, the possible consequences are, firstly, a resentment of exploitation and an attempt to meet force with force (resistance or revolution); secondly, there is the response of fatalistic acceptance of domination. In a society where anomie and forced division of labor are combined, the unlimited desires/resentment and meaninglessness/fatalism pairs reinforce each other. Some critics (Horton) have sought to contrast Durkheim’s concept of anomie with Marx’s concept of alienation, but the contrast only holds up if anomie is kept separate from the forced division of labor; whereas in practice, as Durkheim perceived, they are frequently combined. There can be absence of regulation (anomie) at one level and coercive regulation at another level (forced division of labor), as exemplified by unrestricted competition and lack of agreement over the regulation of prices and incomes, on the one hand, and inequality of opportunities on the other. However, in Durkheim’s view, spontaneous attachment to norms (as distinct from coerced attachment deriving from an imposed ideology) could only occur when the forced division of labor was mitigated.

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Durkheim drew a sharp contrast between two systems of law: one dominated by repressive sanctions and corresponding to mechanical solidarity, and the other characterized by a predominance of restitutive principles corresponding to organic solidarity. Critics pointed out that the contrast was overdrawn, and also that many of the societies he used as examples of mechanical solidarity and repressive penal systems were in fact not simple tribal or clan societies, but already possessed the rudiments of central state organization, as in the case of the ancient Jewish and Roman societies.

The most important additions or modifications to his original thesis were concerned with his classification of crimes, and with regard to the political factor. Whereas, in the original thesis, the main contrast was between repressive and restitutive sanctions, in the later article the contrast involves a classification of crimes into those that are fundamentally religious in character—offences against shared moral tenets that constitute the collective conscience—and those that are “individual”, in the sense of involving the essentially private interests of increasingly autonomous individuals. Penal sanctions also change in quantity and quality, with a movement away from corporal punishment and toward depriving the individual of possessions or freedom, i.e. fines and imprisonment. This development corresponds to the increasing differentiation within society, and the increasing focus on the individual, in this case as criminal or victim. Durkheim makes an interesting point about prisons only coming into existence when a society reached a sufficiently advanced stage of material development to permit the existence of secure and fortified establishments, such as castles or other large dwellings of a king or class of notables.

This was the kind of institutionalization I mentioned earlier in the paper. Now that a country has driven towards institutionalization, it has resulted in automatic leniency. Offenders do not suffer corporal punishment because it is generally disapproved of in the society. Such an attitude leads to leniency of punishment which may often prove to be damaging for social cohesiveness and general peace.

One feature of Durkheim’s social thought—one that most modern students are likely to notice—is that he can be placed upon either side of the political spectrum in a fairly straightforward manner. This certainly suggests something about the density of his thought, as well as the numerous ways in which his writings can be misunderstood. Essentially, Durkheim borrowed portions of what he considered to be “social facts” from the left and the right. This should not be surprising considering Durkheim’s primary understanding of society: society, to him, is a moral reality.

The social truths can only be grasped as such if they are reflected in moral beliefs. In other words, he believes there is an objective reality because social struggles serve to indicate to individual human beings that they are fighting for something independent of their own sense perceptions; something abstract and universal. Nevertheless, sociological explanation must fundamentally be concerned with what is independent of psychology and individual points of view; it consists of the search for the objective within the context of the subjective.

To Marx, however, even if this form of understanding proposed by Durkheim is attainable, the material world surrounding humanity is inevitably altered through the process of knowing it. Accordingly, human perception is not fully capable of grasping the truth behind events; it is only able to develop some representative illustration of it. So, the scientific observations of the world and the knowledge gained from these observations enable humans to recognize and impose patterns of behavior upon the physical world, thus, to manipulate it in a manner that can never be completely comprehended.

History, to Marx, has been misconstrued by the notion that some conceptual model can be used to characterize the history of production and labor. He attacks this way of understanding the progression of human history: “Thus, history must always be written according to an extraneous standard. The actual production of life appears as something unhistorical, while the historical appears as something separated from ordinary life, something superterrestrial,” (Marx 125).There is no such thing as objective truth, but our patterns of thought can evolve if human surroundings are also to evolve. Accordingly, to uphold the status quo is to selectively ignore the continuing processes of human thought and exploration.

Durkheim, on the other hand, is concerned with making broad sociological and psychological assertions about humanity. In order to accomplish his goal, Durkheim must make use of a rather difficult term: milieu. Broadly, Durkheim contends that every feature of social phenomena must be viewed through the lens of the particular time period in which it exists—its “milieu.” Put differently, if we are concerned with sociological analysis, then the unit of measure of the “individual” is nearly extraneous; the only unit that can be profitably employed is the milieu.

Accordingly, Durkheim believes that the social perspective is the most fundamental standpoint to view human life; therefore, psychological theories are inconsequential. So it should not be surprising that Durkheim argues that the social division of labor is not merely an abstract social phenomenon; instead it is a natural law of human existence. Although mankind interacts intimately with his environment, the social realities of his life trump the more concrete realities:

“The same cause which increases the importance of the collective environment weakens the organic environment in such a manner as to make it accessible to the action of social causes and to subordinate it to them,” (Durkheim).

The most prevalent objection to Marx’s theory of the state is that the mechanism needed to assure this equality of the classes is an authoritative state. Historically, this is why communist states have never been truly successful in the way Marx envisioned. To Marx, the continuation of class conflicts can only result in a form of communism. Others have asserted that the situations that are ripe for communism are merely situational and not unavoidable. As a result, capitalism will not necessarily progress to communism, but may take an altogether new form. Broadly, the differences between Marx and Durkheim’s interpretations of social institutions reveal the weakness inherent to both. Durkheim chose to take a purely mystical perspective regarding society; it was the outcome of abstract notions and social norms. Marx, on the other hand, saw it as purely a materialistic structure; it was based upon tangible and physical realities. Surely, neither can be completely accurate, but both maintain a level of truth as well as value for the future.


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