In The Division of Labor in Society, Emile Durkheim writes about occupational groups as a source of community in modern societies. In his language, we might consider these occupational groups as reservoirs of mechanical solidarity in a mass society characterized by organic solidarity. I’ve never thought very seriously about this; mostly because I’ve assumed it’s just wrong. I belong to the American Sociological Association, and I’m happy to, but the ASA doesn’t feel like community to me. I rejoined this year after letting my membership lapse for several years. I joined as a grad student because I was told I should be part of the ‘profession’ if I wanted a good start to a ‘career.’ It wasn’t about joining a community for the sake of being part of a community, and then the meetings felt more like competitive exclusion than religious harmony. I rejoined primarily because Twitter has put me in touch with networks of sociologists and scholars in other disciplines, and those connections have made me feel a bit more connected to the discipline, and the academic-world in general, than I had recently. So, my renewed membership in ASA was really a consequence of feeling part of the community (if that’s the right word) of scholars . Maybe the ASA meetings in New York this summer will create that rare but great feeling of collective effervescence Durkheim tells us is the result of collectively celebrating our morality and social order. Maybe.
If I was asked about the totem of my tribe, I’d not show you my ASA lanyards. Instead I’d show this picture:
This morning in a criminology seminar we discussed a section of Crime and the American Dream by Richard Rosenfeld and Steven F. Messner (the section in this book). Their “thesis is that the anomic tendencies inherent in the American Dream both produce and are reproduced by an institutional balance of power dominated by the economy” (Rosenfeld and Messner 2011: 179). The dominance of the economy, they argue, weakens other institutions like the family, the government, and education, and the American Dream encourages unrestrained individualism and innovation. The cultural and institutional preferences given to individual economic success, along with the breakdown of other institutions which might foster community oriented values leads to a loss of social control and high levels of criminal behavior.
This morning we discussed a selection of the Manifesto of the Communist Party in Social Theory (the selection in Peter Kivisto’s Social Theory: Roots and Branches, Vol 4). We spend about a week reading and discussing Marx, and it’s never enough. In general, I think the students get the basic argument about the bourgeoisie and proletariat because they are likely exposed to this in other sociology classes. As important as that argument is, I’ve personally always been a lot more interested in what Marx has to say about alienated labor, how his work can lead into a discussion of consumption, and his general claims about the political implications of revolutions of the system of production.
I’m always looking for good ways to make Marx’s writing relatable to students. Many have had, or are working, jobs that are unsatisfying because they don’t allow them to be creative. These are jobs that are a means to an end, just like Marx writes about. I’ll ask them to think about the value of various commodities like iPhones. Who made that iPhone, what is its use, and why is it valuable? I’ll talk a little about advertisements that encourage us to want things we don’t even know exist. They get this point too, I think.
I know David Brooks’ job is to reach a word count, but when I read the headline of today’s column about immigration, “The Easy Problem,” I thought maybe he’d really give us the easy answer. The easiest of all answers comes from recognizing that borders are inhumane, and then doing the humanistic thing. I can think of no other threat to human emancipation, and simple well-being, that is so obviously socially constructed as a border. If somebody wants to walk across a border, they should walk across the border. Or better yet, get rid of the borders, and you’ve solved the immigration ‘problem.’ If you have to justify all of your beliefs with ‘free market’ ideals, then go ahead and read Brooks’ column. If you just like being a decent person, well, this is my significantly shorter suggestion.