Organic solidarity and informality – two irreconcilable concepts?

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By Christian Giordano

For social sciences’ mainstream theoretic paradigms, informality – together with its specific coalitions, networks and personalised relationships – has a questionable, if not notorious, reputation. These aspects are often regarded as pre-modern, dysfunctional or indeed anomic (Durkheim 1893) because they foster or are the foundation of social phenomena such as friend’s favouritism, nepotism, cronyism, patronage and corruption.

In this conclusion we argue that, in principle, so-called modern societies, according to social sciences’ mainstream theoretic paradigms, should essentially be founded on Emile Durkheim’s organic solidarity, thus on formal structures. We shall bring to the fore how in many societies that are considered modern – and thus characterised by formal organisational structures and based on organic solidarity – these structures are infiltrated or replaced by a vast phenomena of informality, which the actors themselves consider meaningful, and thus legitimate, though often illegal and rationally suitable for specific situations.

Among the fundamental concepts of the social sciences, that of solidarity dates back to the beginnings of sociological thought in the late nineteenth century. In fact, sociological reflection on forms of solidarity may be attributed to Durkheim along with Ferdinand Tönnies, Georg Simmel and finally Max Weber, though these last three did not use the term solidarity as systematically as Durkheim did. Simmel spoke exclusively of a solidarity already rooted in pre-Christian religiosity, thus calling into question the idea that solidarity is solely a product of Christianity (Simmel 1908: 556–7). Unlike Tönnies, Weber and Durkheim, however, Simmel never attempted to develop a core dichotomy (Jenks 1998). In fact, though Tönnies (1912) and Weber (1956) used different notions, on closer analysis several analogies can be detected. Tönnies is well known for his distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, whereas Weber, indirectly inspired by Tönnies, speaks correspondingly of Vergemeinschaftung and Vergesellschaftung. By Gemeinschaft and Vergemeinschaftung these two authors identify archaic, traditional, thus pre-modern forms of society, or types of social cohesion or social relations. Gesellschaft and Vergesellschaftung are the exact opposite of the first two, that is, they are typified by their rationality in terms of values (Wertrationalität) and goals (Zweckrationalität), and therefore correspond to more advanced forms of society based on types of solidarity ascribable to modernity.

However, it was Durkheim who devised the classic core sociological dichotomy between mechanical and organic solidarity. Durkheim points out that mechanical solidarity emerges and develops in situations of proximity, where the various actors maintain strongly personalised relationships and live in relatively small communities. This form of solidarity is founded on an affinity of roles and behaviours, and division of labour is therefore scarcely developed (Durkheim 1893). Accordingly, mechanical solidarity is based on similarity and is generally prevalent in small groups such as family, kin, village and tribe. These small collectivities, where highly personalised relationships are prevalent, are far more important than the single individual. Ultimately, according to Durkheim, mechanical solidarity is a social characteristic of archaic, primitive, back- ward and traditional societies as well as of tribal, pastoral or rural ones. One cannot fail to notice, however, that Durkheim’s representation of mechanical solidarity mirrors that of societies under colonial regimes or possibly the France profonde peasant communities of his times.

Organic solidarity emerges in societies characterised by marked social differentiation, thus with a highly differentiated system of social division of labour, which generates a considerable complexity of social roles and positions. Accordingly, societies based on organic solidarity have a high degree of specialisation, which may be regarded as a true guarantee of social cohesion since everyone is dependent on everyone else’s labour. Organic solidarity, therefore, is rooted in the certainty of reciprocal dependence between people who have a specific function or exercise an activity within society. Consequently, unlike societies based on mechanical solidarity, they do not have a strong collective consciousness, but rather an individual awareness that the division of labour safeguards the existence of the members of these societies. This promotes an allegiance not as much to persons, but rather to public institutions as well as to the collectivity’s laws, norms, rules and customs. The formal legal system based on the law of restitution and contractual practices thus finds its legitimacy. Finally, given their specific social structure, these are modern societies with a great number of members and are characterised by considerable social complexity.

In all these dichotomous conceptions put forth by Tönnies and Weber, and especially in the pair mechanical solidarity/organic solidarity formulated by Durkheim, an implicit value judgement, perhaps involuntary, spontaneous and possibly unconscious, comes to the fore. Essentially, societies based on organic solidarity are deemed more advanced, thus also more modern, since even the subtitle of Durkheim’s book (1893) in a so-to-speak spontaneous manner mentions the concept of sociétés supé- rieures. Undeniably, in Durkheim’s book societies characterised by mechanical solidarity, in the words of Edward B. Tylor (1871), are survivals, that is, a residual category or, better yet, a relic of the past. Thus, mechanical solidarity is a phenomenon heading towards extinction, whereas organic solidarity – that is, modernity – is the present and above all represents the future. Even an insightful observer such as Durkheim lapses into a number of clichés typical of a specific evolutionism of his times.

In the wake of Durkheim in particular, many representatives of the social sciences developed similar, albeit not identical, theoretic approaches, though not all of them drew direct inspiration from his work. We are referring in the first place to the so-called modernisation theories that postulate a more or less required and above all advisable transition from the traditional (tribal or rural) stage to that of modernity (urbanity) where, to paraphrase Durkheim, organic solidarity is prevalent. Ultimately, the vast majority of modernisation theories, still very popular despite criticisms especially in discussions about social strategies and development policies, also regard these societies, rightly or not, as traditional or, due to specific socio-cultural characteristics, pre-modern. Thus these societies are viewed as deficient socio-cultural aggregations; consequently, they are the negative reference of Western modern societies and are considered backward. According to these theories and discourses of social development policies, these socially and culturally lagging societies must be helped to achieve modernisation by copying or at least drawing inspiration from the Western model.

In essence, Western societies are beyond dispute the reference model to pursue. Clearly, all theories of development to a greater or lesser extent smack of ethnocentrism, which tends to belittle and at times even censure the social representations and practices of societies that are not founded on organic solidarity. Yet, a social organisation in line with the principles of organic solidarity implies living and acting in a society where formal organisations as well as the consequent social practices should, in theory, be by far predominant, if not indeed generalised. In principle, informality is banned from the public sector, yet tolerated and regarded as normal in the strictly private sphere or, better yet, especially among people linked by intimate relationships, for example, family members or close friends entertaining strictly emotional relationships. Informality, particularly in the public sphere, is frowned upon since it is deemed dangerous because of the dysfunctionality it may trigger in public institutions.

Yet, the phenomenon of informality in organic solidarity societies remains important and cannot be interpreted via simplistic theories on the individual actor’s socialisation deviance or deficit or the persistence of specific bygone cultural models. We ought to bear in mind, instead, that informality with its various forms and its complex array of dyadic relationships, coalitions and personalised networks, such as ritual or symbolic family relationships, instrumental friendships, blat and similar phenomena, clientelist networks, coalitions and mafia-like associations, is not evidence of social inferiority or deviant behaviour. Therefore, Durkheim appears to be too inflexible with his overly idealistic or maximalist conception of organic solidarity and his markedly critical and somewhat arrogant view of mechanical solidarity.

In order to grasp the significance of informality in modern societies, and also therefore the meaning it is attributed by the actors themselves, social sciences need to perform a reversal of perspective, in Nietzsche’s words (Nietzsche 1892). This methodological procedure, which in social sciences has been endorsed particularly by Weber and Clifford Geertz (Weber 1956; Geertz 1973, 1980), allows the observation that, contrary to many theoretic approaches still widespread in the social sciences, informality weakens neither the state nor its public institutions in general. Quite the opposite: it is their longue durée (Braudel 1958: 725 et seq.), nonfulfilment and resulting permanent legal arbitrariness, thus also their inconsistent institutional legitimacy that trigger citizens’ rational reaction. The latter, logically enough, opt for the most efficient and less conspicuous route offered by various types of informality in order to neutralise the actions of the public sector, which is perceived as legal, yet is also viewed as illegitimate. The nearly generalised diffusion of a feeling of mistrust in the public sector, and especially in anything perceived as pertaining to the state, generates a permanent informalisation of any- thing formal. We need to point out, however, that public mistrust is not an irrational attitude, but rather an instrumentally rational social know- ledge that is deeply rooted in complex societies and is based on actual and likewise longue durée historical experiences.


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