Social Typology and the Tropical
Forest Civilizations 1
Michael D. Coe
Probably the single most influential concept in the study of human society is the theory of solidarity proposed by Durkheim in his book The Division of Labor. 2 There are essentially two types of solidarity, and two kinds of society which correspond to these. Societies based on what he calls mechanical solidarity are relatively undifferentiated; if they are divided into segments (i.e., clans, etc.), these tend to be alike. The solidarity is one of likeness, and all the individuals within it are bound up under a single moral system which Durkheim terms the "collective conscience"; it is clear that he means by this the religion of the people. This unitary moral organization is expressed through laws which tend to be penal and repressive; that is, the religion is the all‐ pervading source of sanctions. Opposed to this are societies which are organized on the basis of organic solidarity. Here, what were formerly undifferentiated segments have now become organs: the division of labor has resulted in the differentiation of the constituent parts of the society, so that each is functionally dependent on the other. Religious sanctions have diminished, and law is generally restitutive rather than repressive.
Durkheim emphasized that these were polar social types and not likely to be found in extreme form anywhere in the world (although in our own time Nazi Germany would be the ideal mechanical society). Nevertheless, he maintained that there has been throughout history a definite evolutionary trend from the one to the other, beginning with the primi‐
tive, almost completely undifferentiated horde, through segmental societies which are nevertheless still mechanical, into truly organic societies based upon the division of labor.
The great contribution of his pupil Mauss was to demonstrate exactly how organic cohesion was brought about. In his cross-cultural study of prestation, 3 he demonstrated that the seemingly useless exchanges of gifts or competitive banquets in native societies (such as the kula of the Trobrianders or potlatch of the Northwest Coast tribes) actually play an overwhelmingly important role in these societies. That is, organic solidarity is brought about by the exchange of goods which often seem to us purely ceremonial rather than practical, but which serve to bind even distant peoples into a single system of reciprocity. Thus, exchange is the social glue itself, and is ultimately based on the division of labor; in its highest and most effective form it consists of large-scale trade.
Societies have progressed in the measure in which they, their sub-groups and their members, have been able to stabilize their contracts and to give, receive and repay. In order to trade, man must first lay down his spear. When that is done he can succeed in exchanging goods and persons not only between clan and clan but between tribe and tribe and nation and nation, and above all between individuals. 4
As Mauss above points out, this exchange can be in persons, and it is this kind of analysis which has been further carried out by Lévi-Strauss 5 who views society as ultimately based on the exchange of women between its constituent parts by a system of rules which is embodied in the kinship terminology.
This argument can be extended in an attempt to throw light on problems in the typology of early civilizations. There is no satisfactory definition of____________________
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Publication information: Book title: Political Sociology:A Reader. Contributors: S. N. Eisenstadt - Editor. Publisher: Basic Books. Place of publication: New York. Publication year: 1971. Page number: 157.
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