Gender differentiation in Durkheim and Gabriel Tarde

In The Division of Labor in Society (1893), Durkheim offers “evidence” that as societies advance, men increasingly differentiate from women. He saw differentiation and specialization–the division of labor–as signs of social advance. In “primitive” societies, the women and men live very similar lives. So for Durkheim the feminist movement would be a retrograde movement, a step back into a primitive state. He cites the pseudo-scientific research of Gustave Le Bon on human cranial volume. Le Bon later came to be admired by people like Hitler.

Dr. Lebon has been able to establish directly and with mathematical precision this original resemblance of the two sexes in regard to the preeminent organ of physical and psychic life, the brain. By comparing a large number of crania chosen from different races and different societies, he has come to the following conclusion: “The volume of the crania of man and woman, even when we compare subjects of equal age, of equal height and equal weight, show considerable differences in favor of the man, and this inequality grows proportionally with civilization, so that from the point of view of the mass of the brain, and correspondingly of intelligence, woman tends more and more to be differentiated from the male sex.

The difference which exists, for example, between the average cranium of Parisian men of the present day and that of Parisian women is almost double that observed between male and female of ancient Egypt.” A German anthropologist, Bischoff, has arrived at the same result on this point. These anatomical resemblances are accompanied by functional resemblances. In” the same societies, female functions are not very clearly distinguished from male. Rather, the two sexes lead almost the same existence. There is even now a very great number of savage people where the woman mingles in political life. That has been observed especially in the Indian tribes of America, such as the Iroquois, the Natchez; in Hawaii she participates in myriad ways in the men’s lives, as she does in New Zealand and in Samoa. Moreover, we very often observe women accompanying men to war, urging them on to battle and even taking a very active part. In Cuba, in Dahomey, they are as war-like as the men and battle at their side. One of the distinctive contemporary qualities of woman, gentility, does not appear to pertain to her in primitive society. In certain animal species, indeed, the female prides herself on the contrary characteristic.

Durkheim, pp. 57-58

The problem here, aside from the linkage of cranial volume to intelligence, is the misunderstanding of evolution. Societies do no evolve from primitive to advanced or from crude to sophisticated; they simply change. If you want to evaluate the change, it just depends on what you choose to measure. For instance, if you compared the physical or mental health, rather than cranial volume, of the indigenous peoples of America, New Zealand, or Samoa (prior to colonization) to the Parisians or Londoners of Durkheim’s day, you might find the “primitive” people to be far healthier.  

It’s easy to dismiss Le Bon as an idiot and condemn Durkheim as well, but that doesn’t get us very far. We need to understand why these theories would seem plausible at the time. These men were trying to do science through the lens of social stratification; they saw society and nature in terms of higher and lower. But from the perspective of a decentralized, functional differentiated society, these ideas just seem stupid.

In stark contrast to Durkheim, three years earlier another French sociologist, Jean-Gabriel De Tarde, or Gabriel Tarde, (1843-1904), in The Laws of Imitation (1890), wrote,

Contemporary civilisation in England, America, France, in all modern countries, tends to diminish the intellectual difference, which was becoming more and more deep and far-reaching, between men and women by opening up most of men’s occupations to women and by letting the latter share in almost all the advantages of training and education of the former.

Tarde, Gabriel de. The laws of Imitation. New York: H. Holt and Company. Kindle Edition.

While for Durkheim the division of labor produced “higher societies,” Tarde didn’t see an increase in differentiation of labor based on gender; rather, he saw women entering occupations such law, medicine, etc. But Tarde didn’t think this integration of women into traditionally male occupations was necessarily a good thing. It’s not about good or bad; it’s just a social change. As he goes on to write,

Now, is social utility the end in view in either case? Were these transformations brought about to enable either class to be more successful in performing its special function, in cultivating the soil, or in nourishing and caring for children? On the contrary, many pessimists like myself foresee the time when, in consequence of these changes, we shall be without agricultural labourers, without nurses, and even without mothers who can or will nourish the continually decreasing number of their children.


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