When he was appointed the first ever lecturer in sociology at the University of Bordeaux in 1887, Emile Durkheim was in no doubt that new fashions were often quickly embraced by the poorer and more marginal hoping to emulate the rich and powerful. He was also in no doubt that fashions were, by their nature, ephemeral. “Once a fashion has been adopted by everyone,” he noted, “it loses all its value.”
Durkheim had good reason to be worried about the transience of fashions, especially in the fickle world of academia where new voguish theories came and went with the seasons.
It was after all only five years previously that as a freshly graduated student in his mid-twenties he had set out to convince the grandees of French and German intelligentsia that not only was the study of society more than just an intellectual novelty, it also merited being recognised as a science in its own right. As sociology’s self-appointed architect, he saw in his own ambitions an echo of when, a century earlier, Adam Smith had established economics.
Coincidentally, like Smith, many of Durkheim’s ambitions were also shaped by an abiding interest in the “division of labour”. But unlike Smith, Durkheim was not especially interested in trucking, trading and bartering. Nor was he particularly concerned with the economic efficiencies that might be achieved by reorganising production processes in factories.
When he contemplated the division of labour, he had a much broader vision of the role “work” played in shaping both individual lives and society as a whole. And as far as he was concerned, many of the challenges faced by people living in complex urban societies had to do with the fact that in modern cities people did all sorts of different kinds of work.
Durkheim believed that a crucial difference between “primitive” societies and complex modern ones was that where simple societies operated like rudimentary machines with lots of easily interchangeable parts, complex societies functioned more like living bodies and were made up of lots of very different, highly specialised organs that, like livers, kidneys and brains, could not be substituted for one another.
Thus chiefs and shamans in simple societies could simultaneously be foragers, hunters, farmers and builders, but in complex societies lawyers could not moonlight as surgeons any more than admirals could moonlight as architects.
Durkheim also believed that people in primitive societies typically had a far stronger sense of community and belonging than people in more complex urban ones, and to this extent were happier and more sure of themselves. If everyone in a primitive society performed interchangeable roles, he reasoned, then they would be bound into a kind of “mechanical solidarity” that was easily reinforced by shared customs, norms and religious beliefs.
He contrasted this with life in modern urban societies, where people performed many, often very different roles and so developed very different perspectives of the world, and insisted that this not only made it harder to bind people together but also induced a potentially fatal and always debilitating social disease that he dubbed “anomie”.
Durkheim introduced the idea of anomie in his first book, The Division of Labour in Society, but developed it much further in his second monograph Suicide: A Study in Sociology, in which he aimed to show that suicide, which at the time was widely thought to be a reflection of profound individual failings, often had social causes and so presumably could also have social solutions.
He used the term to describe the feelings of intense dislocation, anxiety and even anger that drove people to behave antisocially and, when desperate, perhaps take their own lives. When Durkheim described anomie in this way he was trying to make sense of how the rapid changes brought about by industrialisation affected individual well-being.
He was particularly intrigued by the fact that, almost paradoxically, the increase in prosperity that accompanied industrialisation in France had resulted in more suicides and greater social stress. This led him to conclude that it was the changes associated with urbanisation and industrial development that were a major driver of anomie.
An example he offered was of traditional craftsmen whose skills were suddenly rendered redundant by technological advances and who, as a result, lost their status as valuable, contributing members of society, and were forced to endure lives robbed of the purposefulness that their work once provided them. Durkheim not only credited anomie with suicide, but also with a whole host of other social problems that up to then were commonly attributed to bad character, like crime, truancy and anti- social behaviour.
Durkheim believed that there was more to anomie than the sense of profound individual dislocation arising out of the changes associated with the Industrial Revolution. He insisted that anomie was characterised by what he called the “malady of infinite aspiration”, a condition arising when there are “no limits to men’s aspirations” because they “no longer know what is possible and what is not, what is just and what is unjust, which claims and expectations are legitimate and which are immoderate”.
It was not his explicit intention, but in invoking the “malady of infinite aspiration” he offered a strikingly original take on the problem of scarcity, different from that used by economists. Where Adam Smith and generations of economists after him were convinced that we would always be hostage to infinite desires, Durkheim took the view that being burdened by unattainable expectations was not normal but rather a social aberration that arose only in times of crisis and change, when a society lost its bearings as a result of external factors like industrialisation. Times like those he was living in.
As grim as his subject matter often was, a vein of undiluted optimism runs through much of Durkheim’s writing. He believed that having diagnosed the causes of anomie, it was just a matter of time before a social medicine was devised strong enough to treat the malady of infinite aspirations. He also believed that he was living through a unique period of transition, and that in time people would adjust to life in the industrial age.
In the intervening period, he thought that the adoption of a benign form of nationalism, like the gentlemanly loyalty he felt towards France, and possibly also the establishment of trade guilds like ancient Roman collegia that would provide harried urbanites with a sense of belonging and community, might ease the malady of infinite aspiration.
In hindsight, it is clear that Durkheim was wrong to think that the malady could be so easily cured. Anomie continues to be invoked time and time again in analyses of social alienation arising from change, but few share Durkheim’s optimism about a cure. There is good reason to think that by the time of his death in 1917 Durkheim was no longer so certain of it either.
By 1914, the nationalism that he believed might cure people of anomie had morphed into something altogether uglier, which in combination with the boundless ambitions of Europe’s leaders, and courtesy of the new- found capacity to mass-produce ever more destructive weapons, had plunged the continent into the first war of the industrial age. The war soon claimed the lives of many of Durkheim’s favourite students, and in 1915 the life of his only son, André. Durkheim was shattered by the loss and died soon after suffering a stroke in 1917.
Since then, the kind of stability that Durkheim imagined would eventually settle in following industrialisation has come to resemble just another infinite aspiration that slips frustratingly further away whenever it seems to be nearly in reach. Instead, as energy-capture rates have surged, new technologies have come online and our cities have continued to swell, constant and unpredictable change has become the new normal everywhere, and anomie looks increasingly like the permanent condition of the modern age.
Excerpted with permission from Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time, James Suzman, Bloomsbury.