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Essay: Understanding Karl Marx, Durkheim and Weber’s Contributions to Modern Sociology

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The theoretical and historical works of Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber still influence contemporary sociological theory. It can be understood that in order to excel in the field of sociology, one must proficiently understand and applicably comprehend how to use all three of these classical sociological perspectives. The works of these three theorists each yield an array of complexities and can be considered hard to understand at times but their intentions were not as nebulous. They all took on the transformation from a premodern, agrarian society to a modern industrial one under capitalism as a topic of interest. Their ideas become contradictory as well as complementary to each other in some point. However, there is much debate as to who’s perspective possessed superiority of modernity over the others. This essay seeks to comparatively analyze the ‘oeuvre' of these theorists as well as argue the relevance of each perspective in regard to modernity as well as which model of society provides the best fit with the sociohistorical phenomenon of modern society.

Summary: Common Ground

Understanding how Marx, Durkheim and Weber’s perspectives compliment as well as contradict each starts with determining the common ground of each theorist. For example, the mutual primary catalyst that all three of these theorists preoccupied themselves with was the “Great Transformation”  (Polanyi, 1942) that occurred as a result of industrialization and urbanization of Europe during the 19th century. Prior to the great transformation, people based their economies on reciprocity and redistribution across personal and communal relationships (Polanyi, 1942). Beginning with the Laissez-faire, social dislocation that was imposed by an unrestrained free market and gave rise to a society saturated by capitalism. Capitalism is defined as an “economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market” (Merriam Webster, 1833).  People in capitalist societies, particularly in urban areas, became estranged from the natural world, so the rift has an experiential dimension. The three theorists can be considered structuralists, but they focused on different types of structures. Specifically, the contexts that each shape market exchanges. The classical theorists have all been justifiably criticized during the past 40 years for ignoring the relationship of humans to their natural environment.


Marx associated the emergence of modern society above all with the development of capitalism. Marx conceived of societies largely as factories and cities that took in massive amounts of resources and used them to frivolously spew out a seemingly infinite stream of commodities and massive amounts of environmental harm. In Marx’s view, “The first historical act is… the production of material life itself. This is indeed a historical act, a fundamental condition of all history” (Marx 1964: 60). He conceptualizes historical materialism by examining what he considers the first historical act driven by human basic needs and the dissatisfaction that leads to the constant production of new needs that deviate from necessity. Marx considers all factors of society as being dependent or responsive variables that result from one independently influential variable of mode of economic production which he considers the foundation from which culture manifests. He states that, “Thus the ideas, these categories, are as little eternal as the relations they express . They are historical and transitory products” (Marx 1976). Furthermore, he asserts that all aspects of human life for instance religion, law, education, culture, norms, art and so forth all factor into legal, political, philosophical, literary, and artistic development which all ultimately rest on the economy. There is, rather, a reciprocity within a field of economic necessity which in the last instance always asserts itself (Marx and Engels 1962: 304). Marx began to relate this observation to the theories of the German soil scientist, Justus von Leibig, who outlined "complex processes of metabolic exchange (in soils) in which an organism … draws upon material and energy from its environment and converts these via various metabolic reactions into the building blocks for proteins and other compounds necessary for growth." (Foster, 1999).


To Durkheim, social solidarity is the key to society, “Without these ‘social links,’ he stated, individuals would be separate and unrelated” (Morrison, p. 128) He felt that strong bonds had to be maintained to keep solidarity which was what he felt society needed to function best. He questioned the place the individual now had in this modern society.

Hearing to Marx, Durkheim is also stating that human desires are unlimited and “the more one has, the more one wants, since satisfactions received only stimulate instead of filling needs” (Durkheim 1951: 248). Durkheim is the only one of the three classical theorists to assign a prominent role to population change as a causal force. His reaction to rationalization was that it connected in particular with industrialization and the new social division of labour which this brought about. Durkheim argues that increases in human population density and overall population size intensifies competition between humans and that in turn leads people to specialize and trade the products produced through specialized activities.


Weber defines sociology as the “science which aims at the interpretative understanding (verstehen) of social behavior in order to gain an explanation of its cause, its course, and its effects (Weber 1964: 29). He opposed with Marx on the idea of historical materialism and defining social system in a new way by combining the factors of economy and religion. He outlines this view shift in his literary works of The Protestant Ethics and The Spirit of Capitalism where he defines three processes that he believes are associated with the rise of capitalism and modernity: rationalization, secularization and disenchantment. According to Weber, rationalization is the central problem of the modern, industrialized world which disagrees with Karl Marx’s belief of the central problem of modernity being the capitalist structure of domination, and the ensuing alienation of people in said structure (Marx, 1976). Secularization inhabits many levels of meaning, both as a theory and a historical process but as Weber postulates, secularism results from a decline in levels of religiosity as a result of modernization of society. Rationalization and secularization both began to disenchant religious institutions and superstition. Weber believes technological change (by specialists) plays a role in the overall dynamic driving urbanization and industrialization. For Weber capitalism is embodied as an accountant who wears eye shades. S/he is 'calculating, efficient, reduces uncertainty, increases predictability, and uses increasing amounts of non-human technologies' (Foster and Holleman).


Marx, Durkheim and Weber, are all indispensable for understanding the sociological enterprise. Each perspective has served as a precursor to critically analyze the structures and functions of modernity. I’d like to conclude this comparison of all three theorists with the proposition that given the levels of relevance to modernity, I would venture to say that Weber’s model is of greatest heuristic worth in interpreting modern society because of his sensitivity to the Protestant ethos. In Politik als Beruf, Weber famously defined the state as having the monopoly on legitimate force (Weber 1992: 158-159). Weber maintained that without force, there could be no state. This rejection of the idea of a world without force is still prevalent amongst global societies. State and “rulership” (“Herrschaft”) are necessarily bound together, and that it is the latter which is the basis for the former. A force that has seemed to implicitly drive majority of current societies is religion whether it’s in the presence or absence of secularism. Since no civilization in the past has ever been able to sustain itself without some broadly accepted religious and ethical system at its core, it’s maybe safe to assume that while it separation of church and state is crucial, not everything that defines state lacks religious origin.  

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