First year · Sociology

Theorising Modernity essay: With reference to the Marx’s and Durkheim’s thinking, consider whether modern societies are fundamentally shaped by conflict or consensus.


Social conflict is inseparable from any given democratic society. Should it necessarily be seen as a symptom of a dysfunctional society? Should it not on the contrary be regarded as a normal adjustment procedure which attempts to level out conflicting interests between social groups? The political and social history of democratic societies has been marked by face-to-face contact between workers and their employers in the field of wage claims or working conditions. If nowadays labour disputes have not disappeared, other issues which are more societal and which have adopted new expressions, now constitute the daily social and political life. Social actors get together and organize collective actions with a common goal in view. When this goal comes into conflict with the interests or statutory position of another social group, we can speak of social conflict. However the question arises regarding the significance that should be given to such a situation. Should it be considered as a pathological breakdown of social cohesion or as a failure of integration by the protest group? For the founding fathers of sociology, conflict was a key concept, especially for Marx, a German philosopher, economist and sociologist. In the Communist Manifesto (1848) he wrote with Friedrich Engel, Marx equates History with the history of the class struggle. For him, the profit of the capitalist ownership of the means of production, and the exploitation of the value that comes from overworked employees inevitably lead to conflict. If conflicts are often the expression of conservative positions and a resistance to change in the preservation of acquired social improvements, they have historically been an instrument of social, and sometimes political, transformation. Another major sociologist of the 19th century, Emile Durkheim explained conflict differently. When studying organic solidarity which characterizes modern societies, he analyzed certain forms of social conflict as the result of an anomic condition.



Marx distinguishes social groups that are objectively identifiable in society but not necessarily aware to exist as groups, and those who are not only identifiable but are conscious of being a group, because they have common interests and they are capable of mobilizing to defend their interests. Only these groups are considered by Marx as a social class in itself. According to him each social class is linked to production in a specific way and this results in the division of society. In other words, the owners of the capital on the one hand (the ruling class) and the workers who have no other resources than their labour on the other hand (the oppressed class), emerge in the sphere of production, and thus exploitation and domination inevitably generate antagonistic groups. Workers have different ways to oppose the owners of the means of production: they go on strike, they occupy the factory premises, they try to take over the means of production, and they can even sequester bosses. This is typically a bipolar society. Labour disputes and the class struggle have resulted in the transformation of economic inputs. Political power takes into account the demands of employees and passes new laws to ease working conditions. Thus these changes in working conditions have led to social change and it is in that sense that we can say that conflicts do serve the making of History.

The conception that society is not homogeneous, but that its members have divergent and sometimes contradictory aspirations, is not new. But Marx has advanced the idea that the opposition between the different social classes is the thread that allows us to understand the succession of societies and historical periods (Giddens, 1971). The theory of class struggle explains that, except for primitive communities, all societies are composed of classes (free citizen and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, employers and workers) in constant opposition and this opposition is the very engine of history. Marx examines how the modern bourgeoisie is born from the feudal society, based on the old ruling class of nobles. After overthrowing the feudal system, the bourgeoisie changed the world, transformed social relations, values, and the dominant ideology, and also developed the science and technology that are essential in the new bourgeois society. However, Marx maintains that it has also given rise to a new social class, the modern proletariat, that is to say, the class of all those who have only their labour to sell, and whose interests are directly in conflict with those of the bourgeoisie. Marx believes that in all the existing classes in modern society, only the working class is actually capable of transforming it. Three dimensions are necessary for the existence of classes: being in the same social position, that is to say, a class includes individuals who occupy the same position in the productive process; sharing the same values, lifestyle or culture, thus forming a community of life; and feeling a collective consciousness : it is not enough to occupy the same social position, the class members must also defend its interests, share the same experience and fight against other classes, at least those who are responsible for the situation of the oppressed class. Therefore for Marx, conflicting classes are inseparable from the class struggle which is at the heart of the dynamic forces.

Marx distinguishes between the “class in itself” and the “class for itself “: A class in itself refers to individuals who are objectively in the same situation, who share the same problems but do not have a collective consciousness so they do not form a fighting group: it is not a class for itself. To create a class for itself the members must be struggling, have common interests and defend them. For Marx, the conflict between social classes, and more precisely the opposition between the working class and the bourgeoisie, transforms society and allows History to progress. The “revolutionary” function of social conflict is obviously at the heart of the analysis that the philosopher and economist Marx led about the social and political evolution of the long term. In capitalist society, the capitalistic bourgeoisie owning the means of production frontally opposes the proletariat. These are the contradictions and conflicts between classes which must eventually produce social change and the transition to a form of post-capitalist society. This vision of the working class’ destiny since the nineteenth century has historically been belied. However, without leading to the same prophecies, other thinkers such as Ralf Dahrendorf or Pierre Bourdieu (Morrow and Torres, pp.177-178) have shown that the analysis in terms of classes as defined by Marx does not take into consideration the mechanisms of domination and social reproduction that characterize our societies. In the 1990s, the French sociologist Henri Mendras created a model which is based on a spinning top that represents the society in its entirety and is composed of constellations representing different social groups. The central constellation exerts constraints on the secondary groups, both the «constellation of elites» and “constellation of the poor” (Mendras, 1991), but it also acts as a buffer between the two extremes. The spinning top is an illustration of the concept of the averaging, but also the flexibility of social stratification: it seems possible to go from one constellation to another. This model is interesting because it represents a break from the Marxist ideology. Some indicators show that social issues may have forgotten too quickly the concept of social class. However one may wonder whether the process of replacing classes should always take the form of a struggle. Is not the Marxist view somewhat reductionist? Are factors of social change only exogenous? In the second part we will see how Durkheim’s conception of social integration sheds light on social change.


Durkheim, one of the founding fathers of French sociology, analyzed certain forms of social conflict as the result of an anomic condition (that is to say not regulated by all accepted standards) resulting, in some cases, in the division of labour.

In this situation, individuals see themselves more as being related by ties of solidarity. Durkheim studied the main types of social stratification based on their dominant mode cohesion, and he questions the foundations of consensus to show that the growing anomie in modern industrial societies is not inevitable, as long as it develops an appropriate morality. But the increase in volume and density of a population actually has an effect through the “moral” or “dynamic” density (mass and frequency of exchanges), whose growth causes in turn the evolution of social settings. Traditional societies have a mechanical solidarity, they often take the form of a community, where everyone knows everyone, and there is a collective consciousness that allows social control. The size of the order is vertical. Social change is rare; the roles of actors are often acquired at birth, implying that evolution is next to impossible even in case of conflict. However in our modern societies, solidarity results from the multitude and complexity of human relationships. It is an organic solidarity that stems in part from the division of labour, the specialization of tasks, and the fragmentation of the work. Mechanical solidarity is characterized by the juxtaposition of equivalent social groups (such as hordes and clans), multifunctionality and functional interchangeability of individuals, and a strong collective consciousness which ensures uniformity. The law is especially repressive. Organic solidarity manifests itself in the differentiation of specialized functions involving the cooperation of social workers, the development of social relations and a modern centralized democratic state. The dimension of integration is horizontal. Durkheim had an evolutionist vision of social change. And conflict does not appear as the engine of modification for him, because social change is related to evolution in society which itself is linked to the division of labour.

As a witness to the birth of the industrial society, Durkheim wondered how to unite people in a society that is increasingly individualized. In his book, The Division of Labour In Society (1893), he defines the evolution of solidarity: past traditional societies were based on mechanical solidarity involving collective behavior and poorly differentiated production activities (Web1). Solidarity is based on proximity, similarity and sharing a common history and values ​​to human communities. But it must give way to organic solidarity to prevail in our modern societies. This cohesion is defined by the interdependence and complementarity (that is to say that the society manufactures a system of specialized parts, all of which being necessary for the functioning of society – for example, without the farmer there is no baker or supermarket, but without the supermarket or bakery food, the farmer is unable to produce etc..) imposed by modern society on humans. It is being implemented by the high population density in the country and advanced technology. The division of labour occurs because individuals are less alike, they no longer live in the same place and they have all different jobs. Durkheim then creates a relationship of interdependence, and of social function between human beings. Paradoxically, the society is saved by that which endangers the diversity of the population.

Concerning conflict theories, other authors such as the sociologist Max Weber, regarded conflict as an indicator of economic and social disruptions. In this context, it is not a malfunction, but it identifies both the fault and the remedy. At the individual level, social conflict has a socializing function in the sense that it constitutes an opportunity for recognition of the opponent, and also a search for a compromise. Through engagement with the peer group, it is inclusive, especially since it is often the occasion for renewed bonds with those who share the same sociability goal. Among the founders, Weber sees in the struggle of social actors, the desire to impose their power. According to him, people are in constant conflict to reach a higher status. And they fight for power resources, more prestige and greater wealth. Weber thus establishes a close link between conflict and social change. The vision of Weber is close to that of Social Darwinism of the struggle for life with the survival of the fittest. This is a rather pessimistic view (Marsh et al, 1998).



To conclude, for Marx, in each historical period the instrument of social change, the motor of history is the ongoing conflict between, the two major social classes prevailing in any society. For Durkheim, the social division of labour leads to a change in society characterized by organic solidarity. Nowadays, despite all these changes, conflicts and more particularly labour disputes have not disappeared. Less frequent, they are nevertheless often harder and uncompromising. For example this is visible in the number of days of strikes, and in the fact that walkouts are more systematic. Forms and purposes of the labour action are being renewed: publicized calls for the boycott of products by “citizen-consumers”, the mobilization of public opinion by operations with high media exposure (for example blackmail and threats of sabotage, occupations of industrial sites, and kidnappings of members of company management…). Now the conflict does not therefore engender only traditional mobilizations (strikes, demonstrations), but also legal, media and more symbolic weapons. But in this field, other forms of social mobilization are competing with labour disputes on social themes, showing that the pacification of social dialogue remains fragile.



Reference list


  • Darhendorf R., Class and class conflict in industrial society, Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1973 (dt. Erstausgabe 1956)
  • Durkheim, E. (1893) The division of labour in society. New York: Free Press
  • Giddens, A. (1971) ‘The relations of production and class structure’, in Capitalism and Modern Social Theory. Cambridge University Press
  • Marsh, I. & Campbell, R. & Keating, M. (eds.) (1998) Classic and Contemporary Readings in Sociology. Longman
  • Marx and Engels (1848), The Communist Manifesto, New York: Penguin group
  • Mendras H., (1991) Social Change In Modern France: Towards a Cultural Anthropology of the Fifth Republic, Cambridge University Press
  • Morrow and Torres (1995) Social Theory and Education: A Critique of Theories of Social and Cultural Reproduction, Suny Press
  • Palumbo and Scott (2005) ‘Classical Social Theory I: Marx and Durkheim’, Modern Social Theory, Harrington, A. (ed.). Oxford University Press, pp. 40-62

Web 1 : School of Social Sciences (2010) Emile Durkheim- Functional Explanation. From Coser, 1977:140-143 Available at: (Accessed: 23 November 2013)



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