Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Durkheim's nightmare

So here is Paris today ... thousands of anonymous strangers on Boulevard Saint-Germain at 5 pm, no sense of common bond or shared identity, a void of powerful values, lives of bleak consumerism. Anomie writ large. No friends, no community, no ceremony, no shared rituals. No eye contact on the street, no presumption of common cause. A Tom Waits world. It is Durkheim's nightmare about modernity.

Or is it? It is a city, to be sure, unlike a village. So the anonymity quotient is very high. But is it really a place of rampant anomie and hermetic individual dissatisfaction? Or is it instead a location for many thousands of micro-communities--religious, civic, ethnic, occupational? Is it a place with dense networks of friends, associates, and family, more intimately connected by cell phones than the village ever was through chance meetings at the market or the church? Is it in fact a powerful environment for human flourishing and social deepening?

In fact, it appears that the latter is the case for a large number of Parisians.

This may seem like a point that Durkheim anticipated through his distinction between mechanical and organic solidarity. But Durkheim's emphasis with the latter concept was on economic interdependency -- the division of labor -- rather than a recognition of the possibility of manifold micro-social relationships constituting a patchwork social world.

We might say that rather than anomie, the key shortcoming of modern cities like Paris -- or New York, Chicago, or London -- is social inequality and dramatically reduced opportunities for the bottom half of the income ladder. The people captured in the photo above have something in common beyond their cell phones -- they are mostly employed and affluent. But that profile of affluence is representative only of a fraction of the city's residents -- as documented by the excellent Observatoire des inégalités ( Just take the RER or Metro to the banlieue that surround the city to see the sharp separation of social worlds that Paris encompasses (

So it seems that the conception of the modern city implicit in Durkheim's thought is seriously wrong. The city is a different kind of locus for social interaction and individual life than the traditional town or village. But it is not inherently toxic for that reason. What is toxic is rather the dimension brought out by Marx -- the tendency of modern capitalist society to sharpen the separation between have's and have-nots.

It is not entirely an accident that I'm brought to think of Durkheim, since he spent much of his career less than a kilometer up Boule St.-Germain from this intersection. Ironically, Marx was here too in 1843.


Mark Cadden said...

Nice article about Durkheim's Anomie. His ideas about alienation in the Modern world lie at the core of how Sociology came to be born as a distinct academic discipline. From a young age he was fascinated at the changes in the world within 1 to 2 generations.

John said...

Developing similar ideas has been the focus of Barry Wellman's distinguished career. Highly recommend his Networked: The New Social Operating System.