Along with Marx and Weber, Durkheim outlined the characteristics of the transition of society to modernity and what was problematic with this shift. This essay will explain Durkheim's ideas on this transition, concentrating on the division of labour and social cohesion. I will explain how this path to modernity may lead to a state of anomie and outline the links Durkheim made with anomie and suicide. Finally, I will look at uses of the term made since Durkheim and conclude with an assessment of the usefulness of the concept today.
In understanding the transition to modernity, Durkheim, like Marx, took a holistic approach and argued that society cannot be reduced to individuals...'society' was, argued Durkheim, a phenomenon in its own right. It did not depend upon the intentions and motivations of individuals for its continued existence. In his aim to establish sociological autonomy, to establish Sociology as a discipline sui generis, Durkheim sees society as more than just the individuals who constitute that society, believing in the ability to explain individual action in terms of society as a whole.
Thus, in outlining the evolution of social phenomena, Durkheim saw a fundamental difference between pre-industrial and industrial societies. In the former there is relatively little social differentiation: the division of labour is comparatively unspecialised. Social solidarity in pre-industrial societies is based on similarities between individual members - they share the same beliefs and values and, to a large degree, the same roles. This uniformity binds members of society together in a close-knit communal life. Durkheim refers to unity based on resemblance as 'mechanical solidarity'. Individuals feel moral obligation to others because others are like themselves. Society is built around 'repressive law' and thought and morality are dominated by the "collective conscience," i.e., by beliefs and sentiments that everyone shares.