Durkheim and Social Change

A basic truth about humanity is that effort deserves reward. Is our society one where reward is accurately related to effort? Reward in its various forms is not absent, but neither is it well correlated to effort. An honest man who works hard may remain poor and unrecognized, another may become rich overnight by some chance event, as an extreme example, perhaps winning the lottery.

A man may spend much time and money building himself a home to retire to, and then the government of his land compulsorily purchase it. The money was not the issue. There are so many factors that affect this equation between effort and reward, that it may at times seem hopeless or overwhelming to make sense of it. In these circumstances, it is unremarkable that people suffer stress, tension and insecurity, and may feel like giving up, become apathetic or depressed, dissolve their marriage, leave a job or college course, emigrate, or worse, commit suicide.

The French sociologist Emile Durkheim, with On Suicide  (1897), was the first to systematically explore this idea of social frustration. In studying the division of labour in society, he was aware the increasing pressures upon people had consequences; people have a ‘breaking point’. He became interested in the  ‘worst case scenario’, suicide, seemingly the most individual of acts, but also having a social basis..

What can be learnt from a study 113 years old? Durkheim, unsurprisingly, concluded people commit suicide when life has become meaningless. To feel alienated from society means to feel no part of it, no influence or involvement in its purposes, even to feel rejected by it. Personal reasons of course, are paramount in understanding individual motives. The death of a loved one, an incurable illness, failure of a business enterprise or mounting debts are all factors often cited when a person chooses to end their life, but it is worth remembering individuals often cope with several of these pressures without killing themselves.

Sometimes however, it is as if there is no goal both desirable and attainable, or efforts to reach that goal are proving fruitless. Durkheim put it this way: ‘All man’s pleasure in acting, moving and exerting himself implies the sense that his efforts are not in vain and that by walking he has advanced. However, one does not advance when one is walking with no goal.. to pursue a goal which is by definition unobtainable is to condemn oneself to perpetual unhappiness’.

I once worked for a company that operated an employee bonus scheme. Since each month’s bonus was a substantial part of take-home pay, I soon relied upon it to cover the month’s expenses. The scheme worked well, and the company’s turnover increased. Gradually, however, they decided to alter the terms of the bonus scheme such that it was increasingly difficult for the sales people to obtain. As the months past, one of the new terms, that each individual bonus was dependent on the performance of sales people in other sectors of the business, combined with an economic recession, led to the conclusion I no longer had any personal control over whether I would be paid the bonus. The company faced a severe downturn, and eventual takeover by a rival. Notwithstanding outside factors, it was pretty clear poor managerial decision making was a major issue.

Durkheim made a similar case. In a large market, with much subdivision of labour, an entrepreneur could not take in the scope of the market at a glance, and so it was inevitable he made incorrect decisions. A ‘boom and bust’ economy is the result. The relevance to suicide rates is this. The three groups of people most at risk according to Durkheim’s study of suicide and work,  are those on the lowest employment rung with no hope of advancement, and those at the top, struggling to maintain their position, and with much to lose. The third group were retired professionals, with no occupation, and for whom life also had little meaning.

By contrast, certain groups of people did not seem vulnerable to suicide at all. They worked in professions such as journalism, lecturers, ministers, accountants, truck drivers, and engineers. What did these have in common? They could be regarded as occupying the middle rungs of the employment ladder, with a relatively high level of personal determination (at least when the study was carried out).

The middle classes however, face the same pressures as others in most ways. Their values are threatened, their beliefs in standards of clothing and cleanliness, even their desire to preserve the buildings, landscapes and traditions of the past. Small wonder if they feel hopeless or desperate. The desperation of the very under-privileged minority is well known. The desperation of the majority is no less real.

Stress as such is not a cause of suicide. In the German concentration camps, rates of suicide were low, nor do people commit suicide in conditions of danger. Further, there was seen to be a link between suicide rates with forms of ‘opting out’ behaviour, an extreme would be suicide-bombers, criminals, rebels, and also drug addicts, alcoholics, and professional invalids (a more up to date British term might be ‘benefits scroungers’).

Somewhat confirming these findings, is the work done in many parts of the world about the frequency of basic depressive disorders, linked with suicide rates. It was found these were not related to class, to place of residence, to nature of personal beliefs or any of the usually accepted factors, but solely to the degree of cohesion in the local community.

A key factor in social change is technological change. We need a breathing space to grow used to emerging technologies. Such a view may go against what is accepted today, but is cited as a factor in understanding the upward trends of crime and violence, insecurity, suicide and loneliness. Cultural diversity, not standardization should be the aim.

Personal possessions too, mean less today. How so? Certainly the struggle to acquire them has not changed. Once people loved their belongings, clothes, dishes, beds, tools, books, for they were hard to replace. Acquiring them was difficult, it involved effort and individuality. Today we live in a throwaway society, everything is expendable. We become detached from the world we live in. In addition, television news allows us to witness catastrophic events as they occur. The entertainment media erodes our revulsion at theft, rape, murder. Small wonder, for example that few of the employees in the worlds failing banks felt any sense of personal responsibility, the need to warn savers and investors, their next door neighbours, you and I.

Image: Vincent Willem van Gogh ( 1853 – 1890) was a Dutch Post-impressionist painter whose work had a far-reaching influence on twentieth century art for its vivid colors and emotional impact. He suffered from anxiety and increasingly frequent bouts of  mental illness throughout his life and died, largely unknown, at the age of 37 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Little appreciated during his lifetime, his fame grew in the years after his death. Today, he is widely regarded as one of history’s greatest painters and an important contributor to the foundations of  modern art.

Reference: Rattray Taylor, Gordon (1972) Rethink: A Paraprimitive Solution

See also Posts: Helplessness: On Depression, Development and Death and Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point

Help available online:www.nhs.uk/Livewell/