Solidarity: What Brings Us Together
Are you a member of a club? Have you joined any organizations and spent any time or money with the group and the other members? You might be experiencing something that Emile Durkheim wrote about.
Durkheim’s concepts of organic and mechanical solidarity are fun to think about. Organic solidarity is based on interdependence and is the social glue that keeps society together in complex societies. Mechanical solidarity, based on homogeneity and similarity, is the social glue that keeps society cohesive in less complex societies.
Durkheim saw in growing societies an increasingly complex division of labor, reinforcing differences among people. No longer would most people live in small communities, have the same jobs, and live the same type of lives, e.g., working on a farm. A more complex society consists of many different jobs and people living many different types of lives. If society is to survive as it becomes less homogeneous, new bonds would need to form based on those differences.
Interdependence is one such social bond, since when one specializes in one type of labor, one will depend on others to do the labor required in other areas. For example, if you are a doctor, you depend on nurses, physician’s assistants, and other medical professionals to get your job done, but you also depend on the mechanic to keep your transportation working, the barber or stylist to cut your hair, and the dry cleaners to keep your clothes pressed.
The social bonds created within occupational groups or within other interest groups is a secondary type of social glue connecting people in personal ways. Dense population centers support multiple interest groups, allowing people to join different networks of people and creating many different types of social glue.
When we first learn these concepts, we may assume that mechanical solidarity is replaced completely by organic solidarity. This may not necessarily be the case. In our current times, organic solidarity is likely to characterize the types of social cohesion that are primary while mechanical solidarity is less likely to describe how our societies maintain themselves.
Alexis de Tocqueville was well aware of our American propensity to volunteer. We are a nation of “joiners” as “Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations” (Tocqueville, Democracy in America). Those student clubs on campus offer but one type of opportunity to join with others to pursue interests. We may, throughout our life span, join interest-based clubs, parent-child groups, neighborhood collectives, and occupational associations.
Some of our understanding of this behavior is captured from surveys on volunteering. Volunteering is usually defined as working for some organization without pay. According to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics report, just over one quarter of the population volunteer for an organization. The tasks volunteers perform run the gamut from office work to ministering, food distribution, coaching, and artistic performances.
Can this sub-group activity of joining clubs be considered a micro version of mechanical solidarity? It does create groups of like-minded people, as those people come together to perform some common task. Volunteers have things in common that brought them together for a shared goal. The application of the concept doesn’t work entirely, however, since people who belong to the same organization are not held together as tightly as are people in smaller heterogeneous communities.
Durkheim’s concept of the collective conscience helps us understand the difference as it represents the shared beliefs in a society. Those who live in smaller homogenous societies (mechanical solidarity) share a very strong belief and moral structure while those in more complex heterogeneous societies (organic solidarity) may not. Those smaller occupational and interest groups that we join provide a collection of beliefs to which we may belong and between which there may or may not be any cohesiveness.
Take a moment and consider the groups in which you take part. How important to you are they? How strong is the group’s collective consciousness, or shared beliefs? How does interdependence relate to the group? Society is made possible by our bonds with one another; I invite you to consider the number and quality of yours.