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Solidarity, often referred to as social solidarity, is a fundamental concept in the scientific study of human societies, cultures, and social relations. Researchers who were concerned to discover why societies cohere (and why they may disintegrate) hypothesized that social cohesion may be due to ideas or feelings people have about one another. Alternatively, structural conditions, such as a particular arrangement of social roles and relations, might foster conditions producing human unity.
Social theorist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) first wrote about the problem of social solidarity in The Division of Labor in Society (1893). Durkheim considered society as a moral force characterized by a fundamental duality: Individual consciousnesses comprised the social entity even while society’s norms imposed constraint on any single individual. As societies change, the type of solidarity that “glues” society together also changes. Social solidarity of undifferentiated societies, or mechanical solidarity, is based on likeness (e.g., the cultural similarity of each member of a tribe). Industrial societies cohere because of organic solidarity, based on the interdepen-dency of dissimilar individuals (e.g., occupational diversity due to the division of labor).
Feelings of solidarity are encouraged when individuals strongly identify with a collectivity. Durkheim saw this as one of the bases for religious sentiments. In every religion, boundaries are drawn between the sacred and profane. Through this type of categorization, Durkheim explains, humans both create a moral ordering for social life and develop the conceptual apparatus necessary for rational thought. “The categories of the understanding” are “born in religion and of religion” (Durkheim  1965, pp. 21—22). Conceptualizations of time, space, class, causality, and so forth, although linked to brain function, are elaborated and interpreted differently in different cultures. The source of this variation is the social collectivity representing a collective conscience. In Durkheim’s view, the collective conscience is expressed through “collective representations,” or symbols. These cultural symbols “are the result of an immense cooperation, which stretches out not only into space but into time as well; to make them, a multitude of minds have combined their ideas and sentiments” ( 1965, p. 29). Because collective representations express the heritage of an individual as well as provide the intellectual framework for his understandings, the person feels himself linked to a tradition and standards of behavior. Thus, the individual’s ideas and feelings stem from a source beyond his personal experience; they come from society itself.
A stable social order rests on the solidarity of its people. What happens when social stability is threatened, through crime, for example? Durkheim argues, somewhat paradoxically, that crime and punishment (the reaction to crime) reinforce the social order. When an infraction is defined as criminal, it places the person who committed the crime outside the social order and deems him worthy of punishment. Those who have not transgressed are affirmed in their status as the law-abiding citizens. Durkheim argues that crime thus builds social solidarity and cohesiveness. Contemporary scholars counter that Durkheim’s vision presents an oversocialized conception of humans. For example, Allen Liska and Barbara Warner’s (1991) research shows that fear of crime may undermine social solidarity in U.S. neighborhoods where criminal behavior is not checked by authorities. Similarly, Teresa P. R. Caldeira’s (2000) research on Sao Paolo indicates that multiple processes linking crime, poverty, and social status in a context of weak or corrupt policing can lead to increasing social isolation and the fragmentation of public spaces. This, in turn, undermines the potential for democratic development. Liska and Warner’s research ultimately supports the Durkheimian position by arguing that the stabilization of crime in certain areas leads to social withdrawal, constraining “opportunities for crime, thereby decreasing both robbery and other crimes” (Liska and Warner 1991, p. 1441). Caldeira’s research, by contrast, challenges the Durkheimian argument by suggesting that “social solidarity” under some repressive conditions is merely an expression of class, caste, or ethnic identification.
If excessive crime and lawlessness indicate the breakdown of society and solidarity, utopian or intentional communities present an idealized vision of a cohesive social order. In Commitment and Community, Rosabeth Moss Kanter identifies a social order of perfect solidarity where society is maintained through individual commitment, not coercion. This is an “imagined utopia,” in which “humankind’s deepest yearnings, noblest dreams, and highest aspirations come to fulfillment, where all physical, social, and spiritual forces work together, in harmony, to permit the attainment of everything people find necessary and desirable” (Kanter 1972, p. 1). History abounds with numerous attempts by religious or political idealists to create such societies in miniature. Despite repeated tries, none have found an ideology or set of social arrangements that invariably induces persons to want to do what they have to do: to follow society’s rules without question or resistance. In short, there are limits to social solidarity’s hold over the individual.
Whereas the ideational approach focuses on symbols, feelings, and identities, a structural approach to social solidarity identifies relational connections among individuals as key for maintaining social order and cohesion. James Moody and Douglas White articulate a social network conception of solidarity that defines structural cohesion formally as “the minimum number of actors who, if removed from a group, would disconnect the group.” Society, in their view, is built up “through the hierarchical nesting of … cohesive [network] structures” (Moody and White 2003, p. 103). The structural perspective is theoretically indebted to Durkheim’s argument in The Division of Labor and Georg Simmel’s (1858—1918) research on group formation, but methodologically, network analysis draws from graph theory in mathematics. This combination of theoretical and formal traditions allows for greater operational specification of the concept of social solidarity, as well as empirical analysis of how solidarity functions in reality. Using network analytic techniques, researchers are able to determine where, within a social network, relations are most stable and where they are likely to break down. This represents a scientific advance in the field, which is yielding promising results.
Since the nineteenth century, social theorists have viewed solidarity as a key factor underlying the problem of order in society. Durkheim’s writings provided a strong impetus for two lines of theorizing: ideational and structural. Sociologists of religion and anthropologists were most interested in Durkheim’s arguments about the religious basis of solidarity feelings, concepts, and symbols. Criminologists followed Durkheim in his interest in the social functions of crime. Social network theorists have drawn from Durkheim and others to develop a formal definition of social cohesion, or solidarity, in order to investigate varying social structures. Each line of investigation has increased human knowledge of the internal dynamics and power of social connection.
- Caldeira, Teresa P. R. 2000. City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in São Paulo. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Durkheim, Émile.  1933. The Division of Labor in Society. Trans. George Simpson. New York: Macmillan.
- Durkheim, Émile.  1965. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Trans. Joseph Ward Swain. New York: Free Press.
- Kanter, Rosabeth Moss. 1972. Commitment and Community: Communes and Utopias in Sociological Perspective. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Liska, Allen E., and Barbara D. Warner. 1991. Functions of Crime: A Paradoxical Process. American Journal of Sociology 96 (6): 1441–1463.
- Merry, Sally Engle. 2002. Urban Danger: Life in a Neighborhood of Strangers. In Urban Life: Readings in the Anthropology of the City, eds. George Gmelch and Walter P. Zenner, 115–129. 4th ed. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland.
- Moody, James, and Douglas R. White. 2003. Structural Cohesion and Embeddedness: A Hierarchical Concept of Social Groups. American Sociological Review 68 (1): 103–127.
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