Marx, Durkheim, Weber and Simmel

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Select the one classical sociological theorist (Marx, Durkheim, Weber or Simmel) that you feel is most relevant to sociology today. Describe at least three different ideas of the theorist that you feel are most important and why. The work of sociologist theorist, Emile Durkheim, remains highly influential to contemporary sociological research. Influenced by the turbulent social, economic, and political chaos of his times, his work focused heavily social change and order. Durkheim’s conceptualization that social cohesion and order is dependent on the interrelatedness of social structures became known as structural functionalism. Structural functionalism not only emerged as one of the three main theoretical perspectives in sociology, but Durkheim’s positivistic epistemological approach was instrumental in establishing sociology as a scientific discipline. As such, Durkheim applied this approach to three important areas of research that remain relevant in sociology today: specialized division of labor, social conditions of suicide, and religion and the sacred.

Durkheim viewed the idea of a highly specialized division of labor as being a direct contributor to social cohesion. As such, this division of labor is not only seen in the economy and the functions of government, but in the “responsibility for child socialization, for example, whereby socialization functions are dispersed across institutions – with the family, the church, and the education system all having discrete and specific institutional roles” (Dillon, 2014:94). Durkheim further contends that the increasingly specialized division of labor fosters social interdependence in society. In other words, specialized division of labor joins and integrates people, thus, creating social cohesion. Moreover, Durkheim viewed division of labor as a functional component of urbanization. As more people move into concentrated areas, increased social interaction and dependence is inevitable. Furthermore, division of labor brings us into contact with more people on a daily basis. Durkheim viewed these individuals as contributing to the physical density of our environment. Durkheim noted the significance of physical density in respect to the “social or moral density that it gives rise to; the more people we meet, the more social interacting we do, however fleetingly, and therefore the more densely we are constrained by social-moral norms of reciprocity and cooperation” (Dillon, 2014:96). Ultimately, the social interdependence that results from specialized division of labor produces organic solidarity. According to Durkheim (in Dillon, 2014:113), organic solidarity is the “social ties and cohesion produced by the functional and social interdependence of individuals and groups in modern society.”

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Durkheim further expands his focus on the significance of social dependence and social structures in his research on suicide. Durkheim focused on the social conditions that weakened or threatened solidarity and how different social circumstances can result in different social consequences. Durkheim believed that different conditions within society could lead to different reasons for committing suicide; therefore, he identified particular types of suicide including altruistic suicide, egoistic suicide, and anomic suicide. Expanding on the idea of altruism or a strong commitment to others, altruistic suicide occurs from closely regulated social conditions in which an individual is left feeling obligated to commit suicide (Dillon, 2014). In other words, it is an act of self-sacrifice that is for the benefit or good of a community or society and is considered the honorable option. Altruistic suicide is often associated with traditional societies and communities or societies with a high degree of social integration. Building upon the notion of individualism that became common with the rise of industrialism and capitalism, Durkheim characterizes egoistic suicide as “suicide under social conditions in which individuals are excessively self-oriented, and hence only very loosely bound to others individuals and social groups” (Dillon, 2014:100). The final category of suicide identified by Durkheim is anomic suicide or suicide that results when individuals experience extreme and sudden changes that disrupt social solidarity. According to Dillon (2014:102), anomic suicide is based on the notion of anomie or “the absence of norms or of established standards.” As such, anomie often results from social conditions associated with both natural disasters and economic events; thus increasing anomic suicide rates.

Focusing on the social nature and functions of religion, Durkheim contributed greatly to the understanding of religion from a sociological stance. Durkheim contended that religion is a social structure that helps to create social solidarity and cohesion within society. Durkheim presents three characteristics that all religious systems contain: beliefs, rituals, and moral communities. First, all religions have beliefs that can be categorized into two categories: the sacred and the profane. According to Durkheim (in Dillon, 2014:108), “every religion and hence every community or society too,” recognizes “a plurality of sacred things.” These sacred objects and places of meaning have been collectively set apart as special or worthy of reverence. Additionally, every community or society contains profane things that are considered ordinary, mundane, and non-sacred as well. Next, society attaches rituals or rites to that which is sacred. Rituals are “shared, sacred rites and practices that affirm and strengthen social ties, and maintain social order” (Dillon, 2014:113). Finally, all religions contain a moral community or a church, which is “a collective coming together of people with similar beliefs and rituals” which ultimately helps to unite and solidify society (Dillon, 2014:109). While Durkheim recognized the impact of capitalism in modern social institutions, he held firm to his argument of the significant social role that religion holds in society. In fact, Durkheim (in Dillon, 2014:111) argued that “religion would maintain itself as an eternal social fact: it would adapt and transform rather than disappear.”

Select one contemporary sociological theorist or perspective (post-World War II era and later) that you most agree with. Describe at least three different ideas of the theorist or perspective that you feel are most important and why.

Inarguably, understanding how society constructs and manages inequalities is of great importance to the sociology discipline, particularly regarding gender inequalities. The perspectives of marginalized groups such as women are key to better understanding the social processes of society. Therefore, feminist theory has helped to rearticulate sociological perspectives. According to Dillon (2014:331), the significance of feminist theory is that its core consists of a “focus on women’s inequality, and how that inequality is structured and experienced at macro and micro levels.” As such, this response will examine three different perspectives from three feminist sociologists: (1) Dorothy Smith’s bifurcation of consciousness perspective; (2) Patricia Hill Collins’ Afrocentric feminist epistemology; and, (3) Arlie Hochschild’s gendered division of emotional work.

While we have made much progress regarding equality for women, there are still lingering and persistent inequalities present in society today. As such, Smith’s perspective regarding the conflicted relationship that women experience between their public or work sphere and their domestic or home life remains very relevant. Smith calls this perspective a bifurcation of consciousness. According to Dillon (2014:364), bifurcation of consciousness is “ knowledge that emerges from the contradictory realities that women experience due to the split between objectified knowledge and the public world of work etc., and women’s everyday, localized experiences (in the home, as mothers, etc.).” Simply put, when women defy the traditional gender roles of remaining in the domestic sphere of home and family and enter the work world, certain contradictions are exposed. Moreover, when women choose to enter the work world they often maintain their places in the domestic world as well. Therefore, women must simultaneously balance these contradictory demands.

Equally, Patricia Hill Collins has contributed greatly to progressing the views and perspectives of women, particularly Black women. In her article, Toward an Afrocentric Feminist Epistemology, Hill Collins contends that bodies of specialized thought are often a reflection of opinions and perspectives of the individuals or group that creates it. She continues her argument by noting that the experiences of African American women as they relate to “work, family, motherhood, political activism, and sexual politics” are often “distorted in or excluded from traditional academic discourse” (in Kivisto, 2013:350). As an alternative to the Eurocentric masculine knowledge validation process, Hill Collins presents the Afrocentric feminist epistemology approach to rearticulating and redefining the Black woman’s experience into academia discourse. Just as feminist thought rests upon the argument of a shared history of gender oppression among women, the Afrocentric feminist epistemology rests upon the overlapping of the core African value system that existed prior to racial oppression of Blacks and the value system that originated from the commonalities of family structure, religion, culture, and community during racial oppression. Building upon the ideal of concrete experience as a criterion of meaning, Collins (in Kivisto, 2013) contends claims are more credible coming individuals’ that have experienced and lived through the experiences for which they are presenting, opposed to those that have only studied or read about it.

Prior to Arlie Hochschild, the notion of a connection between emotions and sociological theory received little attention from theorists. Inarguably, underscoring the role of human emotions in social processes seems both illogical and irrational considering that emotions are fundamental in characterizing human nature. Hochschild portrayed emotions as work. She argued that emotions are more than mere natural human responses or feelings, but socially constructed and determined by feeling rules. According to Dillon (2014:356), feeling rules are “socially defined, patterned ways of what to feel and how to express emotion in social interaction and in responding to and anticipating social events.” Building on the premise that emotions are socially constructed, Hochschild contended that emotions are specifically gendered. While men are expected to more assertive and task driven, women are expected to focus more on feeling rather than acting. According to Hochschild (in Dillon, 2014:356), “women are more responsible for smiling, being nice, celebrating others, empathizing with others, whereas men are expected to do the aggressive emotional tasks.” Moreover, this notion of women focusing on emotions and feelings extends in all areas of society, including their professional lives. As such, when women express any unexpected emotions or feelings, they’re often both scrutinized and criticized.

Describe the one social issue or problem that you feel is most pressing for 21st century America. Give an overview of at least three insights into the issue provided by sociological theorists (classical and/or contemporary). While the United States remains one of the most affluent and advanced nations in the world, social inequalities continue to be a persistent and pressing problem. As such, social stratification and inequality remain at the core of sociological thinking. Undoubtedly, societal hierarchies of class, gender, and race often manifest themselves as inequalities, particularly economic inequality. While we often view social class as a result of how much income and wealth a person possesses, it consists of much more. Not only does income and wealth help determine one’s class, but also the institutions of our society, including state policies and the structuring of the economy (Ore, 2019). As such, it imperative to further examine how such inequalities are constructed as well as how they continue to exist in society. We can look at the perspectives of three sociological theorists related to economic inequality: Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Ralf Dahrendorf.

Responding to the economic and social concerns of his time, Karl Marx’s ideas and perspectives have continued to influence sociological thought, particularly his work regarding capitalistic societies. Considering that America still has a staggeringly high rate of 46.2 million people in poverty, Marx’s views on income disparities and capitalism remain relevant. For Marx, the positions in which capitalists and workers hold in respect to capital was essential to capitalism. As such, this produces a polarized class structure. According to Marx (in Dillon, 2013:59), increased employment and wages mean more wealth for the bourgeoisie; however, the effect is a wider “economic and social gulf between capitalists and workers.” Simply put, an increase in wages has no effect on the inequalities that are associated with capitalistic societies. Moreover, Marx contended institutions tied to the economic markets are not the only institutions that promote capitalism. In fact, political, legal, educational, family, religious, and cultural institutions promote the capitalistic ideology. According to Marx (in Dillon, 2014), these superstructure institutions not only promote capitalistic ideologies but the structural inequalities of capitalists and wage-workers as well.

While Marx focuses heavily on the opposing classes of the bourgeoisie and the wage-workers, Max Weber introduced the notion of a middle-class. Emphasizing the significance property ownership as a determining factor in class structure, Weber identified four different classes: (1) the working class (laborers); (2) the petty bourgeoisies; (3) the property-less intelligentsia and specialists; and, (4) the class privileged through property and education. As such, Weber (Dillon, 2014:144) contended that “investment managers and professional and expert employees occupy a ‘positively privileged’ location vis-à-vis corporate capitalism (without necessarily owning the corporation); they have access to highly rewarding economic opportunities, and ones typically less accessible to clerical, skilled, and unskilled workers.” Weber also emphasized a close connection between economic class and social status. Moreover, he contended that status and prestige are not determined by economic class alone. According to Weber (in Dillon, 2013:145), “membership of a particular status group confers prestige, but also it obliges one to have a certain ‘style of life: the maintenance of a particular lifestyle visibly shared with others of similar status.”

While it may appear that Ralf Dahrendorf built upon the works of Marx, he actually critically reevaluated Marx’s theory. While he agreed that conflict between social classes drives social change, he argued that the dichotomized property and class relations assumed by Marx no longer characterized capitalism. Dahrendorf’s (in Dillon, 2014) views reflected what he termed as a post-capitalistic society: not economic position, but positions of authority define social class. As such, Dahrendorf contends that the structural changes of capitalism involve the decomposition of both the capitalists and working-class. While Dahrendorf (in Dillon, 2014:226) argued that the capitalist class had become differentiated between ownership and management, “the working-class of today, far from being a homogeneous group of equally unskilled and impoverished people, is in fact a stratum differentiated by numerous subtle and not-so-subtle distinctions.” Thus, multiple economic groups or authority structures that Dahrendorf refers to as conflict groups characterize capitalism. According to Dahrendorf (in Dillon, 2014:227), “inter-group conflict emerges when one group becomes aware of the threat posed to its interests by the legitimate existence and behavior of some other group.”

If you could only give one (and only one) sixty minute lecture on the general nature and importance of sociological theory to undergraduates in an introductory sociology course, what three issues would you address and why?Sociological theory is as complex as it is broad and diverse. However, the importance and significance of sociological theory should never be underscored.  Kivisto (2013: xxi) characterized social theory as “”tools of analysis, or lenses into aspects of social reality.”” Simply put, social theory offers multiple perspectives to help us make better sense of both social behavior and society in general. As such, sociological theory is essential to analyzing and explaining social issues. Inarguably, society is filled with persistent and lingering issues, particularly the notion of inequality. We all have either experienced inequality personally or known a friend or family member that has. Ultimately, everyone in society is affected by inequality to some degree. As Patricia Hill Collins (in Dillon, 2014:350-351) points out:

Race, class, and gender represent the three systems of oppression that most heavily affect African-American women. But these systems and the economic, political and ideological conditions that support them may not be the most fundamental oppressions, and they certainly affect many more other people of color, Jews, the poor, white women, and gays and lesbians have all had similar ideological justifications offered for their subordination.

Issues of class, race, and gender inequality remain at the core of social inequalities. Moreover, in order to deconstruct such systems of inequality, we must understand how inequality is constructed. As such, this response will examine the importance of these issues as well as how sociological theory addresses them.

One of the great things about teaching an undergraduate sociology course is the opportunity to challenge students beyond their comfort zones. Social inequality is definitely at the heart of the sociology curriculum, particularly class inequality. The United States historically has been known as the land of opportunity and the home of “American Dream.” In fact, the United States is synonymous with the notion that social mobility is equally possible for anyone. However, that is not the reality for the millions of people living in poverty in the United States. To understand class inequality and its consequences, it’s only logical that we look at sociological theory through the eyes of Marx. His work on capitalistic societies is fundamental and essential in understanding how we have evolved into the society that we are today. Most notably, Marx makes three observations that I feel every student should take into account. First, Marx (Dillon, 2014) envisioned and practically predicted the expansion of capitalism into becoming today’s global economy. Next, Marx (Dillon, 2014:71) contended that “capitalism is a system of structured class inequality based on unequal relations to capital” and, “economic power determines political and social power.”

Equally, race inequality continues to be an ongoing issue in the United States. In fact, people of color often face barriers in the form of discrimination when it comes to housing, employment, and education. The continued persistence of racism is even more troubling considering America elected its first Black president in 2008, Barack Obama. Moreover, considering that many students have lived their entire lives living in the same neighborhoods and associating in the same social groups, they’re lack of experience with racial diversity is not surprising. For most students, college life is their first real exposure to diverse groups of people. As such, many sociological theorists have presented frameworks to understand how and why we continue to foster racism in today’s society. For example, many sociologists have expanded upon the perspectives of William Du Bois who focused on structural and cultural forces the reproduce as well as transform the significance of race as a social fact (Dillon, 2014). Moreover, Paul Gilroy offered an interesting perspective regarding what he termed as new racism. According to Gilroy (in Dillon, 2014:420), new racism is “a racism that emerges when a dominant racial-cultural group attributes core cultural (not biological) differences to the worldviews and ways of being of minority racial groups.” In other words, this type of racism groups people together by the similarities in their cultures, as opposed to biological traits such as color of skin.

Despite the great progress that society has made regarding gender equality, gender inequality ironically remains as pronounced in society as ever. For example, just recently the #MeToo movement moved into the national spotlight. The #MeToo movement is an attempt to address gender inequalities by addressing sexual allegations and sexual violence against women in the workplace. Undoubtedly, these type of inequalities are relevant issues in the minds of almost every young female, especially female college students. As such, sociological theory is pertinent to understanding how to address and deal with gender equality. Inarguably, feminist theory offers much insight into this issue. The works of Dorothy Smith has been instrumental in furthering the studies of gender inequalities. In her bifurcation of consciousness perspective, Smith contends that women are often divided between two conflicting worlds: their everyday experiences in the work world and their personal and home life. In contrast to men, these two worlds create demands and conflict which women must learn to balance.


  1. Dillon, Michele. 2014. Introduction to Sociological Theory: Theorists, Concepts, and Their Applicability to the Twenty-First Century (2nd Edition). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing.
  2. Kivisto, Peter. 2013. Social Theory: Roots and Branches. New York: Oxford University Press.
  3. Ore, T.E. 2019. The social construction of difference and inequality: race, class, gender, and sexuality. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.”
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Marx, Durkheim, Weber and Simmel. (2021, Jun 16). Retrieved from