Differentiation and social cohesion: returning to Durkheim for a unitary theory of deviance



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Texas Tech University


Of all the classical sociologists, Emile Durkheim is perhaps the most influential in the field of deviance. Innovations from his work undergird two competing theoretical approaches to explaining deviance today. Durkheim's arguments in The Division of Labour in Society(1933) and Suicide (1966) about how variations in the collective conscience and anomie produce deviant conduct contribute to the basis for several theoretical developments that offer explanations for why people violate norms. These developments, which stem from a fianctional/consensus paradigm include strain, cultural deviance, social control, and social disorganization theories. On the other hand, his recognition that deviance often enhances social cohesion provides the foundation for theories that examine why deviant labeling occurs. His observations not only anchor conflict labeling theory (Void, Bernard, and Snipes 1998:124-125), but they also undergird historical and contemporary explanations for why the labeling process seems to have its own rhythmic ebb and flow (Erickson 1966; Lusane 1977).

Durkheim's contributions to deviance theory, however, emerge in different works as distinct and even competing theories. Throughout the literature, social differentiation, or the increasing division of labor, drives variations in the collective conscience and anomie, which ultimately provide explanations for deviant behavior. On the other hand, the topic of social differentiation is not to be found in Durkheim's consideration of how labeling has an impact on social solidarity because these considerations only apply to his "primitive societies." How is it, then, that labeling theory has borrowed from a construct that applies to Durkheim's primitive societies in various effortsto explain deviance labeling in highly differentiated, contemporary societies?

I propose that these seemingly distinct theoretical perspectives that provide answers to conflicting questions mask a single, unitary theory of deviance that can be drawn from Durkheim's work. This theory can explain how differentiation ultimately produces not only deviant conduct, but also deviant labeling in today's highly differentiated societies.

After examining the two separate theoretical perspectives in the remainder of this chapter. Chapter II provides a critique of Durkheim's assertion that mechanical solidarity becomes increasingly less important as a source of social cohesion as societies differentiate. This critique provides the foundation for developing a unitary theory in which differentiation can ultimately explain deviant labeling. I close this thesis by offering three implications for a unitary theory of deviance.