Emile Durkheim: Solidarity and the Birth of the Modern City

Will Brown
6 min readApr 10, 2020


Cromford Mill in Derbyshire is one of the most important buildings ever constructed. Its modest appearance belies its significance. For this mill, constructed in 1771, was the world’s first factory — a driving force behind the industrial revolution. Now, it isn’t necessarily the function of the building which renders it so important, but rather its impact upon the social ordering, and indeed operation, of society. The factory, as a concept, ushered in a new way of existence for its workers. Previously, under feudal rule, many subsided through tending to their own patch of land, renting it from a landed aristocrat, in a literal had to mouth existence. With the factory, and the division of labour within its walls, the peasantry became the working class, from producing the goods and means of their own survival to working for a wage. With this change, the structure of society was indelibly altered.

The best way to understand this profound change is through the work of legendary French sociologist Emile Durkheim. Durkheim, a positivist who thought the nature of society could be reduced down to a set of fixed, unalterable laws. He lived through the second half of the 1800’s, a time where the enlightenment ushered in scientific thought was influencing everything from the art of J.M.W Turner to our understanding of the weather. This ‘hard’ scientific approach is best encapsulated in Durkheim’s magnum opus, Suicide, a qunatitaive, statistical study into the causes and demography of sucicide. However, it is not this work that is under investigation here, but rather his other seminal contribution to the then fledgling subject of sociology; 1893’s The Division of Labour and Society.

The central theory contained within this work is the dichotomy between mechanical and organic solidarity. As mentioned above, in the centuries preceding the industrial revolution, many lived in small, agrarian villages where they would produce goods to consume or to sell at a market. Across the United Kingdom the vast majority lived in these villages, within which social life was strictly homogeneous. The residents would carry out the same work, or at least work in relation to one task — the production of food — pray at the same church and ultimately stay in the same village for their entire lives. This is mechanical solidarity. Solidarity created through shared resebalences, experience and commonality. Through this existence, those who occupied these villages, most importantly, also thought in the same way, in what is referred to as collective consciousness. To quote Durkheim

In a small society, since everybody is roughly placed in the same conditions of existence, the collective environment is essentially concrete. It is made up of human beings of every kind who people the social horizon. The states of consciousness that represent it are therefore of the same character. (Durkheim, 1984, p229)

In essence, the social reality of agrarian, peasant life lacked discernable variety, everyone was locked together, as if cogs in a machine. This form of society, although rare to the extent of near extinction, still exists today, with examples coming from the non-nomadic tribes of the Amazon and the Congo basin, to the so-called Sentinalise of North Sentinel Island. However, as I’m sure you are aware, the majority of the globe’s 7 billion residents do not live in agrarian villages, but in globally interconnected towns and cities, within which the residents certainly do not believe in the same things, do the same tasks or live under the same social conditions.

It was Adam Smith, in his Wealth of Nations who first thought of the ‘division of labour’, a concept which drastically altered pretty much everything. In a feudal society, those who lived off of the land did so to primarily feed themselves. They would work from start to finish on the production of their food, doing everything necessary along the way. It was Smith who thought, what if we separated the production process into small individual tasks, each carried out by one person. The example he used was the manufacturing of a pin. Smith argued that “ten workers could produce 48,000 pins per day if each of eighteen specialized tasks was assigned to particular workers. Average productivity: 4,800 pins per worker per day. But absent the division of labor, a worker would be lucky to produce even one pin per day”. This is the basis for the division of labour, published in 1776 — five years after the development of the Cromford Mill.

As Smith’s work was disseminated and more and more factories were built, the notion of work and, in many ways, existence, was under alteration. Less worked on the land and many began to work in factories. As a result, settlements would emerge around the factory site, meaning that the workers could be in close proximity to work. Gone were the days of the small, rurally isolated village, banished to the anals of history by the rise of the factory. In these new settlements, the residents were not living the same lifestyles. Sure they would work at the local factory, pit, steel works, ship builders etc. — but rather than working for their own survival, they received a wage. As a result, the concrete, collective environment had been eradicated. What replaced it was a form of solidarity not based in the sameness of village life, but a solidarity which grew out of the division of labour and the factory, a solidarity based upon inter-dependency; an organic solidarity.

As can be seen in the image above, this organic mode of social life is based upon the differences of those who inhabit it. Rather than everyone being peasant farmers, the division of labour produced a plethora of different occupations. For instance, take a clothing factory. Within it you would find seamstresses, weavers, technicians, cleaners and so on, different occupations which rely upon one another to function. Beyond this you need farmers to grow the cotton, supply lines to transport the raw materials to the factory and the subsequent means of selling the produce. It is within this organic mass of inter-dependent development that the modern city is born. In the U.K, as time marched on and the industrial revolution took stride, millions of people would move into the nascent industrial powerhouses of cities such as Sheffield, Manchester and Newcastle to name a few. London is a clear example of the rise of the city, where from 1800 to the 1940’s the population increased from one to around eight million.

The dichotomy between mechanical and organic solidarity demonstrates the fundamental shift in society which heralded the urban age, a process which is still taking place today in countries such as China, India and Nigeria. The city as a broad concept is a testament to organic solidarity, to the inter-dependency and cooperation required for it to function. However, Durkheim, the author of these concepts, viewed the prevalence of organic solidarity with caution. Rather than viewing it as a positive ideal, he saw organic solidarity as a life without structure and thus, without meaning.

According to the Collins dictionary of sociology, anomie — a theory conjured up by Durkheim — is a life without norms, where “there exists little consensus or a lack of certainty on values or goals; a loss of effectiveness of the normative and moral framework which regulates collective and moral life”. As a result an individual can experience a sense of loss or isolation, a form of being cut adrift at sea. To feel this is to feel anomie. Yet, as referred to towards the beginning of this piece, Durkheim wanted to establish a set of laws with which society can be analysed, he praised rigid structure over malleable networks. In the city, a locale seemingly without moral frameworks (to take a Durkheimian view) there is fertile ground for morally bankrupt activities to flourish. Sex work, drugs, gang violence are all predominately urban phenomena and all function as a derivative of the division of labour — they all exist out of inter-dependency. Yet, without the division of labour, the diversity and multiculturalism much praised within our cities couldn’t exist. Ultimately, Durkheim may have been wary of the effects of organic solidarity, but it has become so prevalent that the world today couldn’t exist, let alone our cities.

Reference: Durkheim, E, 1984., The Division of Labour in Society, Macmillan, Baisingstoke

By Will Brown

Doctoral Researcher

Loughborough University




Will Brown

Researcher of urban systems and carbon management at Cambridge University. This blog is where I share my new ideas and concepts - hope you enjoy it!