January 08, 2021

Come Together: Applying Durkheim's Ideas to the Capitol Siege

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

I am struck by one photo in particular from the January 6 attack on the United States Capitol. It is a picture of members of the House of Representatives sheltering in place in the House chamber. Rep. Susan Wild lies on the floor, mask down, eyes closed, and appears in distress. Her left hand is on her chest; Rep. Jason Crow reaches out and holds her right hand. (You can see this image and the video of them recounting their experience here.) This picture reveals the fear members of Congress felt during these tense moments. Facial expressions range from apprehension to terror, with many members sitting and lying on the floor.

The most striking part of this picture highlights the connectedness between colleagues Wild and Crow. This is a very human image of one person reaching out to comfort another. But it also a very sociological image, one that highlights the interdependence we share (see Todd Schoepflin and Peter Kaufman’s previous posts for excellent discussions of interdependence).

Nineteenth century French sociologist Émile Durkheim discussed the importance of interconnectedness in society. In his book The Division of Labor in Society, Durkheim notes that solidarity emerges from larger social forces. Mechanical solidarity comes from feeling a sense of similarity with others, perhaps from performing similar types of work, holding shared beliefs, or kinship networks.

We can see this form of solidarity among both members of Congress and among those that demonstrated outside and stormed the Capitol. In what has been a particularly partisan era, sharing political beliefs can create a strong sense of connection with like-minded others. Social media and partisan information sources help strengthen this sense of being part of a larger whole.

Wearing similar clothing is one way of demonstrating similarity, whether it is the business attire worn by members of Congress and their staff, or shirts and hats with candidates’ names or political slogans.

The shared experience of going through the trauma of being locked down and fearing mob violence creates solidarity as well. When both chambers of Congress reconvened hours later, the tone of their speeches revealed a palpable difference. Many of the speeches highlighted their shared values of American democracy and the tradition of peaceful transition of power. Members from both parties often applauded speeches, especially those thanking law enforcement for their security. Reinforcing the notion that we are all Americans reinforced this idea of connection and shared beliefs.

Organic solidarity, according to Durkheim, emerges through interdependence as societies grow more complex. Groups that might have different values and beliefs and do different types of work depend on one another, albeit often in ways that are often invisible, which Peter Kaufman so clearly illuminates in this post from 2012.

Durkheim argued that the social order is maintained by this necessary cooperation. For instance, I am dependent on having good Internet service for my work, especially now in the COVID-19 era. This means that I am dependent on the people who keep servers and networks (that I don’t fully understand) operating—including technicians,  engineers, and customer service people. As Todd Schoepflin writes,  we are dependent on a whole host of people who we seldom think about to maintain our roads, grow, produce, stock, and deliver our food.

Perhaps writing in 1893, Durkheim might not have been able to predict that in advanced societies we would lose sight of organic solidarity because these forms of interdependence become invisible. It might help partially explain how American society has become so fractured, and why we sometimes feel like we lead completely separate lives from those with whom we do not seem to share cultural practices, values, and beliefs.

Durkheim might look at the siege of the Capitol and all of its ugliness—the deaths and injuries, the broken glass, the ransacked offices, the flags of insurrection, and images of terrified lawmakers—as a chance to reinforce shared values among a seemingly fractured society. As he wrote in The Division of Labor in Society:

Crime therefore draws honest consciousnesses together, concentrating them…A common indignation is expressed. From all the similar impressions exchanged and all the different expressions of wrath there rises up a single fount of anger…anger which is clear-cut…, anger which is that of everybody without being that of anybody in particular. It is public anger (p. 58).

While people with diverse political points of view may not agree on many things, the events that took place at the Capitol on January 6 have united many people in condemnation. Perhaps, as Durkheim suggests, this may be a way to begin to rebuild some of our broken solidarity, to rebuild a sense of what Durkheim called collective consciousness—a sense of unity founded on shared values and beliefs.

What other sociological theories might we apply to recent events?

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