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"Durkheim's "Division of Labor in Society" ": A Sexagenarian Postscript

Author(s): Robert K. Merton


Source: Sociological Forum, Vol. 9, No. 1, Special Issue: The 100th Anniversary of Sociology's
First Classic: Durkheim's "Division of Labor in Society." (Mar., 1994), pp. 27-36
Published by: Springer
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Sociological Forum, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1994

"Durkheim's Division of Labor in Society":


A Sexagenarian Postscriptl
Robert K. Merton2
KEY WORDS: sociological
structure.

reductionism; indices; positivism; metatheory; opportunity

INTRODUCTION
As originator and editor of this issue of Sociological Forum, which
commemorates the centenary of Durkheim's path-making Division of Labor,
Edward Tiryakian must take full responsibility for having invited this semiShandean postscript to an article of mine published 60 years ago. My
marching orders were simple and direct. I am to inform "the 1994 reader
of the circumstances that led me to write" that piece on the Durkheim
masterwork and to reflect briefly on some of its substance. A sizable assignment to be crowded into a limited space.
The question of how I came to write that paper can be readily, if not
briefly, answered. And, rightly enough for this occasion, the answer links
up with the earliest times of the Eastern Sociological Society, which sponsored the recent plenary session that provides the chief contents of this
commemorative issue. Seen in this long retrospect, the paper can be said
to have originated in February 1933 when Pitirim Alexandrovich Sorokin,
the renowned sociological theorist and founding Chairman of the Harvard
Department of Sociology,3 summoned his research assistant, then midway
in a second year of graduate study, to his office in Emerson Hall. Sorokin
1As usual, I am indebted to Harriet Zuckerman for vetting the manuscript.
20ffice of University Professors, Columbia University, New York, New York, and Russell
Sage Foundation, New York, New York.
3A Department of Sociology established tardily at Harvard only a year and a half before (in
1931) to replace a once-pioneering but then evidently obsolescing Department of Social
Ethics.
27
0884-8971/94/0300-0027$07.00/0 ? 1994 Plenum Publishing Corporation

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28

Merton

announced that, contrary to plan, he would not be able to deliver an invited


paper on recent French sociology to the April meeting of the Eastern Sociological Conference. (Evidently, it had not yet evolved into a Society.)
Would I be good enough to do the paper in his stead?
Though rather unnerved by the prospect, I recognized that my mentor
was not so much putting a question as voicing a strong and unforgiving
expectation. And. so I nervously agreed to what proved to be the first of
several such strenuous occasions for taking up one's scholarly work that
were being provided by the rapidly expanding opportunity structure of the
Harvard Department of Sociology. Abandoning any pretense at attending
lecture classes, I spent my days and evenings in Widener Library studying
the great abundance of sociological works issuing from Emile Durkheim
himself and from what was variously known in France as
the Durkheim school, the French school of sociology, the genetic sociologists, the
ethnographic sociologists and the group of L'Annde sociologique [which] include
such eminent figures as MM. L. Levy-Bruhl, Bougle, Fauconnet, Hubert, Mauss,
Halbwachs, and Davy. (Merton, 1934a:537)

So, too, I was reading in the not inconsiderable flow of important theoretical and empirical work stemming from that early advocate of methodological individualism, Gabriel Tarde, and reading as well in the less interesting
and far less consequential work of those other sociologists, such as Gaston
Richard and Renee Worms, who were dedicating themselves to polemics leveled against the holistic Durkheimian sociology and, in some notorious cases,
erupting in vicious diatribes directed against Durkheim himself.
In this continuing remote retrospect, I gain the impression that
Sorokin's assistant was engaged in emulating his teacher's own mode of
wide-ranging theoretical colligation as evidenced in Contemporary Sociological Theories (1928), the book that had led my undergraduate self at
Temple College to seek graduate study with him.4 For now, all these many
years later, I learn from my own research assistant, Jennifer Lee, that this
short paper read to the Eastern Sociological Conference in 1933 and published the next year in just nine pages, drew upon no fewer than 46 books
4Not, be it noted, to seek graduate study with Talcott Parsons. For, as I have observed about
"the young Parsons" elsewhere (Merton, 1980a:69), up to 1931, "Parsons had no public
identity whatever as a sociologist. He had published just two articles deriving from his
dissertation [Parsons, 1928-1929] and these had appeared in the Journal of Political Economy,
a journal it is fair to suppose not much read by undergraduates in sociology bent on deciding
where to do their graduate work. True, the year before, Talcott had translated The Protestant
Ethic into exceptionally, clear, direct, and most unTeutonic English prose. But this
achievement too would scarcely draw the attention of aspiring young sociologists to him.
And now, I do no injustice to Pitirim Sorokin's memory by reporting that although we
students came to study with the renowned Sorokin, a subset of us stayed to work with the
unknown Parsons."

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Durkheim's Division of Labor in Society:Postscript

29

and 16 articles (most of them in the then still untranslated French).s A


rather extended foundation for a modest structure of sociological gloss and
exegesis.
Nevertheless, it was that first published paper of mine6 which evidently led Ellsworth Faris, the exacting editor of The American Joural of
Sociology, then the official journal of the American Sociological Society (not
yet Association), to invite me to do an analytical article on the newly translated De la division du travail social. That is the paper (Merton, 1934b)
which is reprinted in this centennial commemoration of what Edward
Tiryakian has described as "Sociology's First Classic."
A MULTIDIMENSIONAL GLOSS AND EXEGESIS
As I re-read that aged paper, possibly for the first time since its publication 60 years ago, I find myself noticing its several dimensions. It begins
by touching upon (1) the quality of the translation, then proceeds to (2)
metatheoretical aspects and contexts of the pioneering book and to (3) its
methodological assumptions and one major research technique (empirical
indicators) while (4) sketching its principal problematics and substantive
ideas. The last of these having since received extended comment, I shall
confine myself to abbreviated observations on the first three. (Nor shall I
comment on the prose style of that early paper except to conclude from
phrasings such as "this hegemonic protagonist of the sociologistic school"
and "ineluctable necessity" that its author had apparently been infected by
the inimitable Veblenian prose, once kindly described, in Veblen's own
time, as "unnecessarily studied and anachronistic").
The Translation
The paper opens with a rebuke to the translator: "In a pedestrian,
and somewhat infelicitous, fashion, Durkheim's De la division du travail so5This previously unnoticed 3-to-1 ratio of books to articles takes on retrospective interest in
light of the article by Alan Wolfe, "Books vs. Articles: Two Ways of Publishing Sociology,"
appearing recently (1990) in this very journal.
6Faute de mieux, "Recent French Sociology" appeared in Social Forces, the official journal of
the nearby Southern (not the Eastern) Sociological Society, since it would be another
half-century before Sociological Forum was brought into being. And now, this reminiscent
piece inevitably brings to mind the memorable fact that, back in the latter 1930s, Robin
Williams, the distinguished founding editor who soon established Sociological Forum as a
journal of the first rank, was a graduate student in a course titled "Social Organization," the
first course I ever taught at Harvard.

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30

Merton

cial has been accorded a belated translation, 40 years after its initial publication." At the time I had no way of knowing, of course, that the editor,
Ellsworth Faris, would be writing a nasty, brutish, and short review of the
book in the same issue of the American Journal of Sociology (AJS).7 The
tenor of that review finds expression in its opening paragraph:
Elsewhere in this issue of the Journal appears an article on Durkheim's Division of
Labor, and this review may well be brief. Published when the author was thirty-five
years old, the work accepts as accurate the crude misconceptions of the 1880's
concerning the life of primitive man as set forth in the books of those who were
no more competent to describe them [sic] than a botanist would be to write a
treatise in his field without ever having seen a plant. (Faris, 1934:376)

Continuing in this vein for better than a page, the review takes no
notice at all of the basic theoretical contributions of the work; perhaps, as
he hints, Faris regarded discussion of that matter as having been preempted
by the article. However, the editor and the graduate student did agree,
independently and thoroughly, on one aspect of the book: the dismal quality of the translation. But what was described in the opening sentence of
the article as a "pedestrian and somewhat infelicitous" translation was much
enlarged upon in the devastating final paragraph of the review:
As to the translation, it is hard to speak with restraint. Incredible as it may seem,
the author actually translates conscience by the English word "conscience"
throughout8 ... there was hardly a page of a score of pages taken at random which
did not contain a mistranslation, sometimes a complete reversal of meaning ....
(377)

I recall having been concerned, when describing the "infelicitous


translation," that the translator, George Simpson, might be mistakenly identified as George Eaton Simpson, my onetime mentor at Temple College
who, not long before, had inducted me into the mysteries of sociology. And
upon reading Faris's onslaught, that concern promptly intensified into
angst. But happily, all that changed after 1984, following upon a new translation by W. D. Halls which Lewis A. Coser rightly describes, in his sterling
7That lead review, on pages 376-377 (Faris, 1934), cites the book strangely, as though it had
been written by the translator; thus: "Emile Durkheim on the Division of Labor in Society.
By George Simpson." Apparently, the severe editor Faris recognized his usage as anomalous,
not to say downright misleading, for he went on to explain: "(Translation of Durkheim's De
la division du travail social with an estimate of his work.)" I mention this detail only because
I found that in his capacity as editor, Faris had imposed what I took to be this thoroughly
misleading mode of citation upon my own article.
8But as Talcott Parsons (1934:309n) would observe in his first masterwork, The Structure of
Social Action, presumably without recalling the Faris review: "The French word conscience
may be translated either 'conscience' or 'consciousness.' . . . The predominant use of
'consciousness' in English translations is clearly indicative of an interpretative bias. It seems
best here to leave it untranslated."

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Durkheim's Division of Labor in Society:Postscript

31

introduction to the book, as "the first exact, adequate and satisfying translation of this key work" (Durkheim, 1893/1984:ix).9
Metatheoretical Aspects
As noted, in writing my own paper on the Division of Labor I did not
know, of course, that Faris would be mounting an egregious attack in the
very same issue of the AJS that had him dismissing the book in these words:
Not to be severe with a writer who, forty-one years ago, accepted as true what is
now known to be untenable, it would seem that extended discussion of an argument
based on abandoned premises might be considered an unnecessary expenditure of
energy. (Faris, 1934:576)

And yet, evidently in his capacity as a fair-minded editor of the JourFaris


went on to publish a relatively extended discussion of the Durknal,
heim argument by a graduate student who, I have reason to suspect, had
expended quite a bit of energy in explaining why he considered it "one of
the peak contributions of modern sociology."
However, in light of the regnancy of positivist thought in the early
1930s, I am surprised to note the great extent to which that paper, like its
predecessor, "Recent French Sociology," focused critically on Durkheim's
and Durkheimians' uncritical tacit and explicit acceptance of positivism. Indeed, the earlier paper criticizes the effort of that rather ambivalent Durkheimian, Lucien Levy-Bruhl, "to establish a radical difference between the
'primitive' and the 'civilized' mentality" as an unfounded positivistic assumption and goes on to assert with something of a rhetorical flourish:
Nor has M. L6vy-Bruhl troubled himself to investigate the degree of currency of
the "pre-logical" in "civilized" cultures,-certainly superstition has not softly and
suddenly vanished away even before the enlightened Boojum of Positivism. (Merton,
1934a:543)10
9Apropos the Faris and Parsons comment on the translation of conscience and by way of swift
and slight examples of the two translations, the title of Chapter III in Book Two of the
Division of Labor is translated by Simpson as "Progressive Indetermination of the Common
Conscience and Its Causes" and by Halls as "The Progressive Indeterminacy of the Common
Consciousness and Its Causes." The two translations generally differ far more in precision
of nuance than this single example suggests. Three decades later, Simpson himself observed:
"The translation of Division of Labor in Society that I made in my salad days is inadequate."
George Simpson, Emile Durkheim (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1963), p. ix.
0It speaks to the largeness of spirit of the editors of Social Forces back then that they should
have allowed the ironic phrase "enlightened Boojum of Positivism" to remain intact. It is
not now and was not then often the case, particularly during the Great Depression, that
social science journals would include allusions to writings such as Lewis Carroll's immortal
The Hunting of the Snark (1876). Still, it might be said in defense of that graduate student
that his ironic critique of Levy-Bruhl's method of "one-sided illustration" went on to the
following footnoted quotation of what amounted in effect to an ancient's call for the use of
a control group in social experimental design: "Does not M. Levy-Bruhl's method suggest

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32

Merton

In like fashion, the critical reading of the Division of Labor notes that
it too was "deep in the current of the positivistic thought that stemmed
from Comte" but goes on to concede that the book represented a
revolt against the individualistic-utilitarian positivism that [found] its prototypes in
the systems of Hobbes and Locke....

Despite this departure, Durkheim is described as still "too much the positivist" (Merton, 1934b:319-320).1" These judgments no doubt manifest the
theoretical influence of Parsons's "oral publications" in the cognitive micro-environment at Harvardl2; for though the author declares that "I am
deeply indebted to Dr. Parsons for much of the viewpoint here expressed,"
he was able to cite only one article by Parsons (1934) bearing directly on
the subject (an article that had appeared in print just months before).13
I notice, too, that my critique of Durkheim's argument goes on to question his "radical sociologism." His strong sociologistic perspective was taken
to involve a kind of sociological reductionism that, the research for "Recent
French Sociology" (Merton, 1934a:538, 541, 544-545) evidently persuaded
me, Durkheim had introduced in emphatic cognitive-and-organizational opposition to the psychological reductionism of the radical psychologism emerging in France. This sociological counter-reductionism I interpreted from a
sociology-of-knowledge perspective as being for Durkheim
the one way of maintaining the autonomy of sociology as an independent discipline,
and it is to this dominant preoccupation that many of his conceptions are due.
(Merton, 1934b:320)
the critical pertinency of the anecdote related by Diogenes Laertius concerning Diogenes
[Diagoras?] the Cynic who, when shown the votive tablets suspended by those who had
escaped shipwreck 'because they had made their vows,' inquired: 'Where are the portraits
of those who perished in spite of their vows?'" This anecdote with its methodological moral
has been often retold. For examples, see the quotations from Cicero, Francis Bacon, and
Laplace in Sills and Merton (1991), and for a current formulation of the methodological
import of the anecdote, see Kruskal and Mosteller (1979:117).
llAs was frequently the case, Durkheim's Regles de la mdthode sociologique, published two
years after the Division du travail social, explicitly formulated the epistemological and
methodological tenets that were largely tacit in the preceding work. His commitment to
positivism appears repeatedly; for example, in passages like this: "Since objects are given to
us only by sense perception [sensation], one can conclude: that to be objective, science ought
to begin with concepts formed from perception, not independently of it. It ought to borrow
the elements of its initial definitions directly from perceptual data." And again: "But sensory
perception may easily be subjective. It is also a rule in the natural sciences to discard those
perceptual data [donnenessensibles] that are too subjective [qui risqueit d'etre trop personnelles
dt l'observateur] in order to retain only those presenting a sufficient degree of objectivity.
Thus, the physicist . . . " (Durkheim, 1895/1927:54-55).
12To many of us in a print and multimedia culture, the concept of "oral publication"will seem a
flagrantoxymoron. But see more on the concept in Merton (1980b:1-35). On the primarydiffusion
and development of knowledge in cognitivemicroenvironments,see Merton (1979:76-94; 1994).
13For a fine collection and appraisal of the early work which includes that article, see Charles
Camic's edition of Parsons (1991).

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Durkheim's Division of Labor in Society: Postscript

33

Rejecting the two kinds of reductionist theories as both underdetermined by the facts (if I may adopt that anachronistic term to describe an
argument being advanced in the 1930s), those first papers of mine press
for an integration of sociological and psychological theory. In retrospect, I
sense there the beginnings of a theoretical orientation that found symbolic
expression, a dozen years later, in my frequently declared preference for
the inclusive term "social theory" rather than the segregative term "sociological theory." Indeed, in a recent account of his experience as a graduate
student at Columbia in the early 1950s, James S. Coleman notes that I was
then offering a course "in the logic of theory construction," which now leads
me to recall that it was assigned the odd-appearing but quite deliberate
title "Social Theory Applied to Sociology" (Coleman, 1990:18-19).
Methodological Assumptions and Research Techniques
The 1934 anatomizing of the Division of Labor makes much-I would
now say, too much-of the tension between Durkheim's retained positivism
and his theoretical commitment to deal with the subjectivity of ends and
goals. True, Durkheim maintained that it was such extrasocial, objective
demographic processes as "dynamic or moral density"-i.e., the growth and
increased density of populations with their typical increase of social interaction-which brought about the division of labor and the correlated organic solidarity (Merton, 1934b:325ff.). But he had no great theoretical
difficulty in locating socially derived values, beliefs, and ends in his evolving
sociological explanation of the great transition from mechanical to organic
solidarity. Still, it is of interest that, as noted in the critique, Durkheim
soon retracted the causal emphasis on "material density" of population,
declaring that "we were wrong, in our Division of Labor, in presenting material density too much as an exact expression of dynamic density" (Durkheim, 1895/1927:140n).14
4This passage was quoted from the first French edition of the Rules of Sociological Method
since the excellent Solvay-Mueller-Catlin translation of Les regles de la mnehode sociologique
into English was still five years in the offing. We students of Durkheim back then had no
other option; we could read him only in the original French. Nor was that altogether to the
bad; reading more slowly, we probably read such masterworks more intensively and intently
in the original than we would have done in translation. Furthermore, we were not misled
by others' faulty translations; when we erred in our readings, we at least had the perverse
satisfaction of knowing that the errors were our own. And we had the distinct pleasure of
being in direct touch with the author's unmediated texts. But, of course, all these sentiments
about erroneous readings obtained more readily back in those days when we were not being
variously assured on all sides that texts are altogether labile and can have as many reasonably
assigned meanings as there are readers.

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34

Merton

Emphatic criticism was leveled against another aspect of Durkheim's


methodology. One "fundamental weakness" of that methodology, the paper
argued, resides in its adopting the principle and engaging in the practice
of arguing by elimination of alternative hypotheses, theories, or explanations, in the manner proposed by Descartes (1637/1902:64ff.). Thus, it is
said that Durkheim
eliminates certain possible explanations of a particular set of social phenomena by
demonstrating that the logical consequences of the rejected theories are not in
accord with observed facts. He assumes that the possible number of explicative
theories is determinable (x), and that having eliminated x-1 explanations he is left
with the necessarily valid solution. (Merton, 1934b:327)

And of course, that surviving theory invariably turns out to be Durkheim's own, not alone in the Division of Labor but in the later consequential
works as well. However, the critique goes on to argue,
the fallacy of this method lies in the initial assumption that one has exhausted the
totality of possible explanations. The elimination of alternative theories in nowise
increases the probabilities of the other alternatives.

The kind of criticism of the Cartesian principle as adopted by Durkheim has been reiterated from time to time. A half-dozen years later, it
appeared in a thoroughgoing dissertation on Durkheim written by Harry
Alpert (1939:87-88) at Columbia (some years before I arrived there) and
it was materially elaborated in the much later magisterial monograph by
Steven Lukes (1973:31-32).
It is of some retrospective interest that despite its strong critique of
the positivistic epistemology underlying the Division of Labor, that early
paper of mine gave strong approval to at least one methodological and
procedural expression of positivism: the systematic use of empirical indices
of conceptualized "social facts" which are not directly observable. Just as
Tarde was arguing the case for indices, both social and psychological, in
his Laws of Imitation (1890/1903:114ff.), so Durkheim was arguing for social
indices, first, in the Division of Labor and then in much of his later work
(Durkheim, 1895/1927:55-58; 1897/1930: passim). Thus, in the Division, he
observes in terms readily translatable into our contemporary technical vocabulary of indicators, indices and variates:
[S]ocial solidarity is a wholly moral phenomenon which by itself is not amenable
to exact observation and especially not to measurement. .. [W]e must therefore
substitute for this internal datum, which escapes us, an external one which
symbolizes it, and then study the former through the latter. (1893/1984:24)

The graduate student evidently resonated to Durkheim's early recognition of the importance of identifying indicators and devising indices of
conceptualized social realities as a basic procedure in theory-based empirical inquiry. However, one notices that that cordial judgment of the proce-

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Durkheim's Division of Labor in Society: Postscript

35

dure in general was somewhat tempered in the critical discussion of Durkheim's specific "use of repressive and restitutive law as indexes of mechanical and organic solidarity, respectively" (Merton, 1934b:325-327). There,
the student-critic had the temerity to claim that Durkheim had simply failed
to demonstrate the assumed close and reliable association between the two
types of solidarity and two types of law. What the critic failed to note,
however, and what might have given him comfort, was that in a later important article, "Deux lois de l'evolution penale" (1901), Durkheim himself
modified his earlier position that the declining intensity of repressive (or
penal) law had resulted solely from the decline of mechanical solidarity
and the growth of organic solidarity. Nor, must it be said in conclusion,
had the critic's older self noted Durkheim's later theoretical concession on
his own; he came upon that now established social fact only years later,
on pages 258-259 of Steven Luke's "historical and critical" study of Durkheim (1973).
Edward Tiryakian's invitation to a brief retrospective has had at least
one unanticipated consequence. For only now am I led to a further understanding of the almost instant resonance I experienced upon encountering
Paul Lazarsfeld as a Columbia colleague and learning about his highly sophisticated theory and practice of social indexes (as summed up later in
Lazarsfeld and Rosenberg, 1955; Lazarsfeld, 1959:30-78). Small wonder
that with that early appraisal of indexes thus powerfully reinforced, I have
since continued to cite Durkheim, and to expatiate relentlessly, on the
methodological importance of couching sociological and social thought in
terms of concepts and their empirically observable manifestations.
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