Comparing Marx’s and Durkheim’s frameworks through a contemporary application: identifying different social issues in the age of digital technology
In the 19th Century, both Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim were concerned with Western society’s historical trajectory becoming increasingly capitalist, industrial, and differentiated. Marx, a political economist, was deeply critical of the social issue of class struggle between capitalists and workers, and developed a theoretical framework that allows us to understand all social conflict in relation to the forces of material production. In contrast, Durkheim developed a sociological method that allows us to understand normal and abnormal patterns in collective behavior through the statistical analysis of collective phenomenon. While both theorists’ frameworks enable them to identify a different social issue and explain how it evolves throughout Western society’s historical trajectory, each is able to identify a social issue that the other cannot. So, in order to arrive at a more complete picture of the diverse social issues in any social context, it is necessary to consider social phenomenon within both frameworks. We can prove this by using both Marx’s and Durkheim’s theoretical and analytical frameworks to analyze the current state of technology, and uncover different yet equally urgent social issues in our contemporary digital society. This contemporary application will demonstrate how a Marxist approach toward technology as a means to raise productivity highlights social issues that stem from the capitalist system, while a Durkheimian approach toward the digitization of modern technology as a social fact sheds light on issues related to social solidarity.
To guide his study of social phenomenon, Karl Marx developed a grand theory: in any historical period, social relations are constrained to and shaped by the society’s current economic structure (Marx 1978: 4). By studying the material production in 19th Century Europe with his framework, Marx was able to explain how the incorporation of machines in factories worsened class struggle. By applying Marx’s framework to our current digital society, we can analyze how the advancement of technology has enabled capitalism to take on a much more extreme and socially pervasive form now than it did in 19th Century Europe.
If we frame our analysis of digital technology as the analysis of commodities, then we are able to use digital technology as a lens to understand the transformation of capitalism and capitalist-worker relations from the 19th Century to the digital age. In Capital, Volume One, Marx defines a “commodity” as an object that is produced by workers in the capitalist system and exchanged on the market (303). Every commodity is a product of human labor, and its value is measured by “the labor-time socially necessary…to produce an article under the normal conditions of production, with the average degree of skill and intensity prevalent at the time” (306). Marx noted that “productivity is determined by various circumstances [including] the state of science, and the degree of its practical application”, that is, how advanced the technology is at the current time (307). Marx observed this phenomenon in the 19th Century: “The introduction of power-looms into England probably reduced by one-half the labor required to weave a given quantity of yarn…The hand-loom weavers…continued to require the same time as before; but…the product of one hour of their labor represented after the [invention] only half an hour’s social labor, and consequently fell to one-half its former value” (306). Marx’s case of the power-loom exemplifies a fundamental rule within capitalism: because a commodity’s value is measured by the amount of time it takes a human to produce it, and because technology can produce a higher quantity of commodities within a period of time than humans can, technological innovation increases the socially necessary labor-time to produce that quantity of commodities. Thus, capitalists are incentivized to 1) replace human labor with the most productive machines available, 2) raise the value of a commodity, and 3) maintain low wages for the remaining workers, all in order to maximize their own profit. This logic demonstrates that the development of capitalism, along with competition and profit motive, is precisely what spurred the rapid development of technology. The mutually reinforcing relationship between innovation and capitalism raises an alarming question about the social implications of digital technology today: Does the linear advancement of technology further strengthen the capitalist economic system and magnify social issues within class struggle?
If we stay within Marx’s framework and follow this logic, we must focus solely on technology’s contribution to raising productivity, as we become determined to understand technology’s role in propelling capitalism forward. Marx explained that as capitalists replace human labor with machines, they turn laid-off workers into an “exploitable” “surplus-population” – an “industrial reserve army” desperate for employment and any wage at all (423). The more productive the technology capitalists own, the lower they can drive down wages to exploit the industrial reserve army (427). Technological innovation is a key component in the capitalist cycle that drives economic inequality and antagonism between capitalists and workers. If Marx were alive today to witness how astonishingly productive technology has become since the 19th Century, he would persuade us that the issue of class struggle in the age of digital technology is more urgent than ever before. Earlier machines invented during the Industrial Revolution, such as the power-loom, were only capable of replacing low skill, labor-intensive jobs. But today, technology has advanced to replace even jobs that require considerable amounts of human capital, such as paralegals. More than ever before, workers in our contemporary digital society have to compete with other workers to accurately forecast which jobs will be replaced by rapidly advancing technology, and brace themselves for the greater likelihood of being laid-off and thrown into the industrial reserve army.
We must note that due to the relative simplicity of the machinery he witnessed in his lifetime, Marx conceptualized productivity two-dimensionally; mechanical machines raise productivity by producing greater quantities of commodities in less time (307). The contribution of machines to raising a commodity’s value is compounded in the digital age, when digital machines not only move faster than their human counterparts, but can also make faster and more accurate calculations, and perform increasingly more complex tasks than any mechanical machine, say the power-loom, can. Productivity in the age of digital production must then be measured along three dimensions instead of two: quantity, time, and complexity. Arriving at this added dimension of productivity, we can conclude that digital technology is the direct outcome of capitalists’ ever-growing hunger for profit.
Furthermore, Marx’s framework reveals that digital technology in our contemporary society expands the workplace beyond the limits of a physical space, such as a factory or office, and permeates the worker’s mental space. For example, a capitalist is able to send emails to his workers whenever he wants. In this way, digital technology becomes a medium for him to exert pressure on his workers even after work hours. Marx would argue that the more advanced technology becomes, the more extensive the economic and social domination capitalists are able to place on workers. Forget Marx’s proposed fight “for shortening the working-time required in the production for a commodity” (404). In a high-tech society with such socially pervasive digital technology, a worker’s entire day becomes his “working-time”, regardless of whether he is at his job, or at home, receiving digital communication from his boss, or anxiously forecasting whether his job will become replaced by advancing technology.
Our application of Marx’s theoretical framework to digital technology shows just how effective Marx’s framework is for understanding how innovation perpetuates capitalism and intensifies class struggle. But Marx’s framework is only able to do so through grouping all digital technologies into the category of commodities in order to zero in on their contribution to raising productivity (quantity, time, complexity). This narrow view disregards the diversity of forms that modern technology takes on, from social media to artificial intelligence (AI), and increasingly life-like social companion robots. While Marx’s lens is crucial to exposing the flagrancy of class struggle at various degrees of innovation, we should consider another lens to look into the relationships between innovation social issues that exist outside the capitalist economic system. In order to discover these other social issues, we need to consider a less reductive view of digital technology. Emile Durkheim’s theoretical and methodological framework effectively complicates our understanding of digital technology.
Durkheim framed his study of society around the analysis of social facts: collective phenomenon (e.g. institutions, norms, and values) that are external to the individual, function independently of the individual, and constrain the individual (Durkheim 2013; 21). He insisted that when studying social facts, the sociologist must 1) “discard all preconceptions…which hold sway over the mind of the ordinary person” and distance himself from popular paradigms that may limit his analysis, 2) “define the [social facts] he treats, so that [he] may know exactly what his subject matter is”, then 3) “treat them as data…the sum total of rules that in effect determine behavior” (36, 39, 41). This method allows the sociologist to distinguish whether a social fact is normal – expected to occur among most individuals in society given the current social context – or pathological – uncommon given the current social context (55). Durkheim’s logic from his study, Suicide, is: we can identify social pathology in cases where social norms are violated – that is, cases of statistical discrepancies from average patterns in social behavior. While Marx’s grand theory says that society is shaped by material production, Durkheim’s grand theory says that society is possible through social solidarity: collective conscience that maintains balanced levels of social integration (social bonds between individuals) and social regulation (norms that regulate the pursuit of human desires). Balanced levels of social integration and regulation indicate normal social facts, whereas cases of imbalances – egoism and altruism, anomie and fatalism – indicate pathology (Durkheim 2006: 332). If a sociologist can diagnose a pathological social fact and study its patterns, he can help his society attend to previously unrealized social issues.
Let us use Durkheim’s sociological method to uncover social pathologies that Marx’s reductive framework does not allow us to uncover, that are just as unsettling as the intensification of class struggle. Let us study the digitization of modern technology as a social fact: 1) We disregard all preconceptions about digital technology. We separate ourselves from our emotional attachment to digital technology, and realize that digital technology is a thing that is external to us, independent from us, and constrains our behavior. We notice that in recent history, the most advanced technological innovations have taken a digital form, instead of a mechanical form. 2) We define our social fact. When we think of the “digitization” of technology, we refer to the incorporation of computer-programmed software into machines, which allows machines to make multiple complex calculations at once, then perform complex tasks based on those calculations. Knowing this, we see that the more complex a machine is, the more humanlike it is, that is, so well programmed that it can imitate human thought and gestures. We now care about the humanization of modern technology not just because it raises productivity and thus intensifies class struggle, but also because it shapes human behavior. 3) Now that we have an objective understanding of what our social fact is, we can look for patterns on how the digitization and humanization of technology shapes collective behavior. In Suicide, Durkheim diagnoses pathological imbalances in social integration and regulation across Europe in the 19th Century by analyzing demographic patterns in suicide rates. We can diagnose similar imbalances in our current digital society by analyzing the forms of digital technologies, their varying degrees of humanization, and their users.
Using Marx’s framework, we concluded that capitalists promote the digitization of technology, because it enables them to exercise more extensive dominance over workers, and further exploit them for profit. Marx’s analysis of capitalism explains why technology has advanced so rapidly from his time to ours. But no amount of understanding of capitalism can help us understand the shift in digital society’s fascination with humanlike forms of technology – namely social companion robots with AI software. Using Durkheim’s framework, we question: Why does our society invent digital technologies that resemble humans, both in their form and function? Why are humanized digital technologies increasingly marketed toward civilians for personal use (e.g. social companion robots), rather than marketed toward capitalists for raising productivity (e.g. assembly line machines in a car factory, stock price forecasting IT programs on Wall Street)? In The Division of Labor in Society, Durkheim explains that developments in capitalism, urbanization, and technology in Western society gave rise to differentiation between individuals (Durkheim 1973: 198). Technological innovation thus significantly contributed to the historical shift from mechanical to organic solidarity. Under organic solidarity, there is greater emphasis on the individual rather than the group, and relatively lenient punishments for the violation of norms (70). According to this logic, imbalances in social solidarity in a society with more advanced technology is more likely to manifest due to a shortage of social integration (egoism) and regulation (anomie), rather than an excess (Durkheim 2006: 234). This raises a red flag: seeing the extent to which technology has advanced from the 19th to 21st Century, does this not indicate that solidarity in our contemporary digital society is threatened by ever-diminishing levels of social integration and regulation?
To answer this, we must figure out: In a high-tech digital society where people are more vulnerable to egoism and anomie than ever before, where do we draw the line between normal and pathological forms of digital technology? In Suicide, whenever Durkheim observed higher suicide rates among one demographic than another (e.g. among married versus unmarried people), he compared the social bonds and norms that existed within the two demographics to determine which type of solidarity imbalance – egoism, altruism, anomie, or fatalism – to attribute to the pathologically high suicide rate within that demographic (193). Similarly, we can compare rates of usage of digital technologies of various degrees of humanization among different demographics, to determine which type of solidarity imbalance is present in our contemporary society. Let us compare social media – a less humanized digital technology, and social companion robots – a more humanized one. Social media functions to mediate social interactions; people can stay in touch with each other over distance, although a machine now stands in the way of direct social bonds. Social media thus reinforces social integration, but does so by transforming solidarity from human-human into human-machine-human. This transformation is revolutionary. But as society inevitably grows to be more technologically advanced and individualistic, the use of social media is increasingly common and expected; thus, it is becoming a normal social fact. However, the use of humanized digital technologies, such as social companion robots, is much rarer than the use of social media; thus, cases of their usage are a pathological social fact. Humanization allows technology to completely replace the diminishing opportunities for human-human interaction with human-machine interaction. The invention of social companion robots signifies digital society’s desperate attempt to cure loneliness, especially for demographics most vulnerable to egoism, like the elderly and divorced. In addition to egoism, the invention of excessively humanized robots also signifies pervasive anomie. Take the invention of the female sex robot, a digital technology that looks like and is programmed to speak and move like a real woman, with the sole function of satisfying the sexual desires of single men. In Suicide, Durkheim argues that divorced couples are more vulnerable to anomic suicide than married couples, due to the lack of regulation of sexual behavior outside matrimony (289). If we apply Durkheim’s thesis to our contemporary society, we can conclude that the more extremely humanized digital technologies become, the more severe the lack of social integration and regulation become.
Our application of Durkheim’s theoretical and methodological framework to digital technology shows us how effective the study of social facts is for diagnosing levels of social integration and regulation that stray from the normal conditions of solidarity in a particular social context. These social issues, such as loneliness or the unrestrained pursuit of sexual desires, transcend class lines. However, it is important to note that Durkheim never mentioned the role of capitalism in shaping solidarity in his work. Despite how important it is that Durkheim’s framework lets us uncover these social issues, we must not forget that the invention of digital technologies, regardless of their forms, is originally possible because of capitalists’ profit motive.
If we had only used Marx’s framework, and collapsed all forms of humanized digital technologies into one category, “commodity”, we would have become disillusioned at the extent to which capitalism has come to magnify class struggle. However, Marx’s framework cannot give us the theoretical and methodological tools that Durkheim’s framework can in order to 1) understand how digitization has produced new forms solidarity: human-machine-human as a normal form, and human-machine as a pathological form, and 2) diagnose extreme egoism and anomie in a high-tech digital society.
By putting our findings from Marx’s and Durkheim’s frameworks together, we see that 1) capitalist profit motive drives the digitization of technology, and 2) the disintegration of social bonds and norms manifests itself in the humanization of technology. Once we consider both Marx’s and Durkheim’s frameworks, we learn that neither of their grand theories is more correct than the other. In fact, we need to utilize both Marx’s and Durkheim’s frameworks to study any society and identify the social issues within that society. Social relations in any given context are shaped by both material production and the balances and imbalances in social solidarity. Digital technology has become so widespread in our contemporary society because of the ever-increasing expansion of capitalism and the transformation of social solidarity. We must now turn our attention to formulating policies that can resolve class struggle, encourage social integration, and reinforce social norms.
 We shall use their frameworks to analyze technology because, as we will come to understand later, technological advancement is what propels the linear historical trajectory that both Marx and Durkheim were concerned with.
 The third dimension of productivity that we uncovered using Marx’s framework, complexity, is made possible by the digitization of modern technology. http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/digital-technology
 In 2016, 68% of U.S. adults used Facebook. http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheet/social-media/
 A social companion robot has been invented to chat with the elderly and to give them tips to stay healthy. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2017/01/11/ai-robot-friend-launched-chat-play-games-lonely-elderly/
 The sex robot has been invented for men to satisfy their sexual desires. It is controversial precisely because it challenges social norms that regulate sexual behavior. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/life/female-robots-why-this-scarlett-johansson-bot-is-more-dangerous/
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