Contemporary Theory Term Paper

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¶ … Emile Durkheim's approach to the analysis of modern society and social change. How does it differ from a Marxist framework?

According to Karl Marx, an economic analysis of the divisions of modern society was the most important way to examine social stratification. Marx focused on the means of production as providing the key as to how to address the roots of modern class conflict. Max said that industrial society was divided between profit-oriented capitalists, the people who own the means of production, and the proletariat workers who generated the capitalist's profits with their own sweat, toil, and 'rented' laboring bodies. The conflict between the proletarian and bourgeois classes was inevitable in a system of capitalist production, although the struggle between the haves and the have-nots had been going on since a societal division of labor had occurred. Thus, "Marx's approach is based on materialism, which asserts that the production of material goods shapes all aspects of society" ("Chapter 4: Society"). It is only because of the false consciousness of people in modern societies that they attribute their failure to succeed to individual character flaws, like not working hard enough.

Like Marx, Emile Durkheim was interested in the divisions of society. He asserted that divisions of labor, or "specialized economic activity," had increased throughout human history, but Durkheim was more concerned the impact of this upon societal structure and human interrelationships, rather than upon the economic implications of specialization alone. According to Durkheim, "traditional societies are characterized by a strong collective conscience or mechanical solidarity, social bonds, based on shared moral sentiments, that unite members of pre-industrial societies" ("Chapter 4: Society"). In contrast to Marx's stress upon the economics of class conflicts of the past, Durkheim stressed the positive nature of earlier societies. Pre-industrial societies were not necessarily conflicted, given the clear roles that people had, and the need to exist in a state of interdependence to survive. Marx agreed to some extent that "early hunting and gathering societies were based on highly egalitarian primitive communism, and that society became less equal as it moved toward modern industrial capitalism dominated by the bourgeoisie class (capitalists)" but he felt that class inequities had always existed to some extent, and there was no 'pure' past society free from oppression ("Chapter 4: Society").

Like Marx, Durkheim saw industrialization as dangerous, but for a different reason. "In modern societies, mechanical solidarity declines and is partially replaced by organic solidarity, social bonds, based on specialization, that unite members of industrial societies. This shift is accompanied by a decline in the level of trust between members of the society" ("Chapter 4: Society"). The greatest danger for Durkheim was not class division and economic inequity, but anomie, which occurs when social bonds break down, creating a sense of purposeless within individuals. Anomie is a "condition in which individual desires are no longer regulated by common norms and where, as a consequence, individuals are left without moral guidance in the pursuit of their goals" (Coser, 1977).

Marx stressed that the modern proletariat was estranged from its labor through a wage economy, where workers rented their bodies to produce far more goods than they could use in exchange for money, while property-owners benefited from workers' rented labor. Durkheim believed that anyone, on any rung of the economic ladder, could experience anomie, or alienation from his or her fellow human beings. This was especially rampant in industrial locations where people had come to work and left their local communities. Marx saw workers' sense of alienation and isolation as a result of a common feeling of political powerlessness and lack of class solidarity. The answer was not a return or a recreation of mechanical solidarity in society, but a new form of political solidarity.


Show how critical theory attempts to synthesize Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Max Weber in their critique of modern corporate capitalism and the kinds of persons it produces.

Marx viewed intensified class conflict as a negative result of modern corporate capitalism. It was generated from the sense of alienation workers have from the act of working for others rather than for themselves, and from workers producing commodities not for their ownership. It was inherently demeaning to workers and rendered them wage-slaves without a sense of meaningful productive purpose. Antagonism between the classes over the distribution of wealth and power in society was inevitable because of such alienation. For this conflict to cease, the proletariat must achieve class consciousness and class unity and own the means of production, or else they would exist in a constant state of unfulfilled wants and desire.

Freud likewise saw all of society as based upon conflict, although for Freud this sense of conflict began in the so-called family romance, where the child's desire for the all-powerful phallic mother and the death of the father was the id's first introduction to not being able to be satisfied in all of its wants and desires. The family structure inevitably created a system that replicated male-dominated authority, and where desire was inevitably redirected towards other, secondary objects, like a spouse or material goods, after the child was grown. This act of repression, viewed as necessary for Freud, paralleled the worker's displacement of the fruits of his or her labor into wages in Marx. Marx's typical worker works in a factory he or she does not own, and feels hostile towards the persons he or she should feel solidarity towards, in contrast to the capitalist owner of the factory. This parallels the initial hatred the child feels for the father which is then subsumed into identification with the father for boys, and with desire for girls. In some individuals, a desire for money (anally-fixated individuals) or other material goods (like fetishes) reflect blocked stages of normal developmental phases.

Freud thus provides psychological explanations for what Marx saw as general, economic and historical phenomena. Critical theory, by uniting the two theorists can help to explain why workers do not always revolt, using Freud, and to explain in more detail why what Marx called a false consciousness is the result of childhood development and displacement of feelings onto other objects, and repression of innate impulses. Critical theorists have also used Marx to de-stabilize Freud's pessimistic and inevitable reading of unfulfilled wants and desires. For example, Freud stated that girls first desire the mother as a site of imagined phallic power, then turn against the mother when they perceive themselves to be maimed by lacking a penis, through the journey of the Electra Complex. By stressing that female identification with the phallus, with males, and power is a cultural norm, rather than common to innate human psychology, change in the way that women function in society and see themselves becomes intellectually 'possible.' Likewise, Marxism can politicize Freud's discussion of, for example, the compulsion to hoard money -- the individual's fixation in the anal state of development may have personal roots, but it also has a societal root in capitalism's fixation on money.

Max Weber's critique of capitalism is often called idealist in nature, in contrast to Marx's materialism. Weber stressed how ideas conspire to shape the world, rather than economic reality ("Chapter 4: Society"). Weber believed that capitalism had its roots not in class oppression, but Protestantism. Weber traced the roots of modern capitalism to the secularization of society rendered intellectually possible by Protestantism, which stressed that because faith not worldly deeds saved souls, a secular bureaucratic society as existed under industrialism was acceptable. The Protestant emphasis on hard work and austerity complemented capitalism as well. But Weber, like Marx, also feared that the "rationalization of society carried with it a tendency toward dehumanization or alienation. He was pessimistic about society's ability to escape this trend" ("Chapter 4: Society"). Like Marx, Weber stressed that the current state… [end of preview; READ MORE]

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Contemporary Theory.  (2007, May 1).  Retrieved January 23, 2020, from

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"Contemporary Theory."  1 May 2007.  Web.  23 January 2020. <>.

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"Contemporary Theory."  May 1, 2007.  Accessed January 23, 2020.