Mechanical solidarity is a type of social cohesion whereby people feel solidarity due to their shared values, beliefs, and customs. It is contrasted to organic solidarity where people feel solidarity based on co-dependence.
Societies require a certain balance – a solidarity or connection that makes it possible for people to co-exist with one another peacefully.
The concept of mechanical solidarity, a term coined by Emile Durkheim(1858-1917), explains that traditional societies felt solidarity based on a certain degree of cultural homogeneity.
According to this concept, it is cultural likenesses that keep the society whole, peaceful, and operating efficiently.
Mechanical Solidarity Definition
Durkheim uses the term “mechanical” as a means to make an analogy to how a machine functions – relating society to a machine.
Durkheim refers to this type of interconnection in reference to pre-industrial societies (pre-1750). These societies were agrarian and had economies that were based on hunting, fishing, and subsistence farming.
According to Durkheim, these societies, directed by an over-arching mechanical solidarity, possessed a unique a collective consciousness and mutual understanding – two important factors that helped society function.
Conversely, as societies become more gradually more modern, and in turn, diverse, Durkheim theorizes that this mechanical solidarity is then replaced by something called organic solidarity.
When commonalties are no longer enough to maintain efficiency; specializations of roles and responsibilities within the same social system create a more organic collectively functioning society.
Shiermer (2015) explains:
“The stronger the collective consciousness, the more there is space for mechanical solidarity and less for individual autonomy. Mechanical solidarity stands counter to every attempt at building an individual personality”(p. 67).
Shiermer concludes that:
“…division of labor cause difference and individuality, rather than to celebrate it as a source of new found solidarity”(p. 68).
It is in these ideas that mechanical solidarity is rooted.
Another strong definition is from Gofman (2019):
“…the Durkheimian ‘segmentary’ societies with ‘mechanical’ solidarity are based on the similarity or identity of individual consciousnesses which are completely dissolved in “collective” or “common” consciousness. This consciousness, in Durkheim’s definition, ‘the totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average members of a society…’ (Durkheim, 1997, as cited in Gofman, 2019, p. 29).
Many sociologists would place Inuit societies in the Arctic region, early Native American tribes, and other pastoral societies into this category.
However, mechanical solidarity can be found in modern day society, particularly where the population is overwhelmingly homogenous (e.g., Japan, the Koreas, ethnically homogenous countries in Europe).
Moreover, the range of modern examples, that show elements of this process in action, is quite broad.
Mechanical vs Organic Solidarity
- Mechanical Solidarity – A society that derives its sense of solidarity from a homogenous set of values, beliefs, customs, and traditions.
- Organic Solidarity – A society that derives its sense of solidarity from mutual interdependence but respect for diversity of values & cultures.
Mechanical Solidarity Examples
- Tribal Societies: Durkheim held tribal societies as the ideal example of mechanical solidarity. These societies are small enough and homogenous enough that people feel connection like kinship rather than simply as a function of mutual economic trade.
- Provincialism: Even in advanced capitalist societies, mechanical solidarity still exists outside of the big cities. Rural farming communities, for example, may feel a sense of common culture and bondage that supersedes a common economic interest.
- Military and Paramilitary Units: Within militaries and paramilitaries, a strong shared culture is created that helps the members to build trust and a strong bond. This can be observed when veterans feel mutual respect for one another when they cross paths.
- Religious Uniformity: People in a society uniformly follow a single religious doctrine; everyone typically follows these beliefs without question; this serves as a type of glue and commonality for the society.
- Cults: Cults are often brought together not by the desire for interdependent, but by a common set of beliefs around a cult leader and their teachings.
- Monasteries and Religious Retreats: Often, people seek mechanical solidarity by retreating to remote monasteries or religious groups who they know share their values. For example, you may retreat to a Buddhist retreat where you share a strong commitment to meditation and the teachings of the Buddha.
- Shared Holidays and Traditions: A group of people celebrating shared holidays and traditions festivals, especially as they relate to a specific religious, cultural or moral belief system.
- Gift Giving Culture: Japanese customs of mutual gift giving, and the common knowledge shared about what is considered appropriate or polite.
- Niche Social Media Communities: While multicultural societies might be examples of organic solidarity, mechanical solidarity still exists within subcultural groups online. Sub groups created on social media platforms often have implicit and mutual understanding based on similar beliefs and even a shared online culture based on memes and slang.
- Societies with Shared Death Rituals: Mechanical solidarity can also be seen in the shared cultural rites and rituals around death within ethno-cultural groups.
- Shared Tech Cultures: Another way mechanical solidarity still unites some cultures is the emergent traditions of technology usage. Chinese citizens, for example, exclusively use the same service for interpersonal and global communication via smart phone: WeChat.
- Political Homogeneity: Some societies share relative political homogeneity that reflects a shared cultural tradition. In (North) Vietnam, this has historically been a common embrace of Communism, while in the USA, there is a significant plurality of people who embrace capitalism as the ideal political ideology.
Case Studies and Research Basis
1. Osgood (1891) – The Puritans
Case Study: People in a society uniformly follow a single religious doctrine; everyone typically follows these beliefs without question; this serves as a type of glue and commonality for the society.
Religion often (but not always) forms the moral glue within a society with mechanical solidarity.
One example of an early society bound by tradition, were the Puritans.
Simply explained, the Puritans were part of a religious reformation called Puritanism, which began in the Church of England in the late 1500s. As Bible literalists, they believed that the Church of England should remove all rituals (practiced by Catholics) that were not concretely relative to the writings in the Bible.
The Puritan religion (late 16th and 17th century) was mainly characterized by the passion of its spiritual beliefs and practices. The Puritans strongly believed in predestination, which had a strong impact on their sense of identity. As Osgood (1891) explains:
“They were the advocates of a definite religious system, which they came to the new world to put into practice. That this was their purpose they never lost an opportunity to declare. So important did this system seem to them that they made all interests, social and political, contribute to its maintenance and advancement. About it centred thought and effort; from it proceeded theory and policy. Relations with the home government, intercourse with the neighboring colonies, conduct towards immigrants, the bestow- ment and withdrawal of citizenship, the political and social life of town and commonwealth in all its phases…”(p. 1).
2. Simon (1952) – Japan
Case Study: Japanese customs of mutual gift giving, and the common knowledge shared about what is considered appropriate or polite.
Gifts are be a means of conveying your sentiments in most cultures, but in Japan there is a unique, and in many ways, particularly to non-Japanese people, a complex set of rules to follow.
Without explaining the intricacies of “zoutou” (gift giving) or “omiyage” (souvenir/gifts), there are some commonly known superstitions, that have embedded themselves into Japanese society.
It is important to be mindful of these superstitions when giving of gifts as a non-Japanese person, but to the majority of Japanese society this is both unspoken and collectively observed.
One notable example, is the number four; it is considered to be an extremely unlucky number.
Mainly, this is due to the similarities in pronunciation of the word “four” to the word “death”.
Similarly, the number nine is also considered to be an unlucky, as it is associated with the concept of suffering, pain, and loss.
Simon (1952) explains that Japanese hospitals do not have a ward labelled with the number four, and that birth dates associated with certain numbers can carry extremely bad omens(p. 288-289).
This shared knowledge, especially pertaining to numbers and gift giving, is a tradition that Japanese people adhere to for the exchange of gifts at weddings, events, funerals, and between family.
3. Blackwood (1984) – Native American Societies
Case Study: Gender roles and perspectives in early Native American societies (Western North American & the Plains) help demonstrate the mechanical solidarity in their societies.
Blackwood (1984) examines the “egalitarian relations of the sexes” in Western North American & Plains Native American societies (p. 28).
Focusing on the Kaska of the Yukon territory, the Klamath of the Oregon region, the Mohave, Maricopa, and Cocopah of the Colorado regions, she explains the dynamic of everyday life between genders:
“People of both sexes could achieve positions of leadership through skill, wisdom, and spiritual power […] tribes women owned and distributed whatever they produced…they had equal voice … and economic strategies were collective”(Blackwood, 1984, p. 32).
The subsistence-based economy was also reinforced by an absence of hierarchal kinship relations. It was understood that marriage promoted security, and that equality is implied without notions of superiority or inferiority between men and women.
“…the allocation of separate tasks to each sex established a system of reciprocity”(p. 34).
She explains that in response to colonialism in the late 18th and early 19th century, the role of women, and their social status declined.
Mostly due to the departure from a horticulturally based lifestyle, and a dramatic shift to a more nomadic lifestyle, dependent on buffalo hunting and survival warfare.
Interestingly, she claims that ethnographers who have studied this shift in gender roles often fail to capture the truth their subjective lens – using the role of warrior women in Plains Indians society to discredit them. She states:
“Ethnographer’s attribution of masculinity to such behavior seem to be a product of Western beliefs about the rigid dichotomization of gender roles”(Blackwood, 1984, p. 37).
The concepts of mechanical and organic solidarity help to demonstrate two different ways in which societies can stick together and operate peacefully. As the world globalizes, becomes increasingly multicultural, and embraces the economic efficiencies of capitalism (see: rationalization), we are increasingly moving away from mechanical solidarity and toward socially integrated societies that use organic solidarity as their social glue.
Blackwood, E. (1984). Sexuality and Gender in Certain Native American Tribes: The Case of Cross-Gender Females. Signs, 10(1), 27–42. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3174235
Gofman, A. (2019). Tradition, Morality and Solidarity in Durkheim’s Theory. İstanbul Üniversitesi Sosyoloji Dergisi, 25–39. https://doi.org/10.26650/sj.2019.39.1.0007
Schiermer, B. (2015). Durkheim’s Concept of Mechanical Solidarity – Where Did It Go? Durkheimian Studies, 20(1). https://doi.org/10.3167/ds.2014.200104
Simon, G. H. (1952). Some Japanese Beliefs and Home Remedies. Journal of American Folklore, 65(257), 281. https://doi.org/10.2307/537081
Osgood, H. L. (1891). The Political Ideas of the Puritans. Political Science Quarterly, 6(1), 1. https://doi.org/10.2307/2139228
Woodsum, J. A. (1995). Gender and sexuality in Native American societies: a bibliography. American Indian Quarterly, 19(4), 527–555.