Max Weber and Durkheim in an Age of Over-Sharing

The more the modern world surprises and worries me, the more I turn to the classics of sociology, who experienced their fair share of major social and cultural shifts. My two favourites are Max Weber with his stark warnings about politics and power and Emile Durkheim on anomie.

Max Weber
Max Weber

It was actually not Weber but Georg Simmel who coined the phrase ‘sterile excitation’ to describe what many of us feel at the moment: a tumult of anxiety and passionate feelings when watching the news, but feeling powerless to do much about it. However, Weber publicised the term and warned also of the dangers of so-called charismatic leaders who unleash a ‘following’ they cannot control. Gripped by a need to increase their ‘likes’ (as Weber would say nowadays, looking at social media), these leaders are willing to court controversy and deliberately incite hate-talk and violence from their followers (while denying any personal responsibility). These followers think they are romantic revolutionaries but they are in fact driven by the basest of motives (adventure, booty, power, spoils) and, after victory, usually degenerate into nothing more than looters of all descriptions, claims Weber. It’s this ‘adventure’ item which I see in the cult of celebrities nowadays: a fantasy that they are leading the life we would like to lead if only… Harmless when it’s merely wishful thinking and daydreaming, but it can be used for nefarious purposes too, just like Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympic gods were used to both inspire and divide German society in the 1930s.

emiledurkheimMeanwhile, Emile Durkheim talked about the tension in any human between individual needs and our social roles.

There are in each of us two consciences: one which is common to our group in its entirety…the other represents that in us which is personal and distinct, that which makes us an individual

Contrary to most contemporary mantras of ‘be yourself’, ‘you owe it to yourself to develop to your full potential’, ‘follow your own path’ and so on, Durkheim actually thinks the social self contributes significantly to the development of an individual character:

Because society surpasses us, it obliges us to surpass ourselves, and to surpass itself, a being must, to some degree, depart from its nature—a departure that does not take place without causing more or less painful tensions.

He warns against the dangers of excessive individualism:

Our purely individual side seeks satisfaction of all wants and desires. It knows no boundaries. The more one has, the more one wants, since satisfactions received only stimulate instead of filling needs. Instead of asking “is this moral?” or “does my family approve?” the individual is more likely to ask “does this action meet my needs?”

It’s when the gap between individual and social needs becomes too unbridgeable, or when one deliberately decides that one has had ‘enough’ of society and will only follow individual desires, that ‘anomie’ sets in.

What strikes me when perusing social media nowadays is this desire to overcome ‘anomie’ by connecting online.

I know some or all of these are Kardashians, but I have no idea who is who, sorry...
I know some or all of these are Kardashians, but I have no idea who is who, sorry…

We are no longer afraid of sharing our most intimate moments or thoughts, sometimes carefully curated, it’s true, but sometimes deliberately self-flagellating, as if in a competition who can hit rock-bottom first. I’m not criticising others for it: I have done it myself. I used to keep a diary to wrestle with my thought processes and feelings, but now I frequently find myself musing out loud online. Perhaps I get more feedback and support from my online friends, with whom I interact nearly daily, rather than from my real-life friends, whom we don’t really get to see all that frequently. Sad but true!

This sharing of stories has enabled us to not feel alone with our anxieties, sorrows or troubles. Others have felt alone, have experienced depression or oppression, ill-health or bereavement, have advice or comfort for us. This is the positive side of the internet and I love it.

However (aside from the more obvious dangers of trolls and shouting at each other over an ever-widening abyss) the plethora of discourses has also resulted in a state of permanent sterile excitation. At least in my case it has. And it’s keeping me from producing worthwhile work, because I see the futility of it all…

If awareness of the situation is the first step towards improvement, may the next steps be close behind, please!

Any chance of bridging that precipice? From Vancouver Sun, a fearless (or foolish) slackliner.
Any chance of bridging that precipice? From Vancouver Sun, a fearless (or foolish) slackliner.

10 thoughts on “Max Weber and Durkheim in an Age of Over-Sharing”

  1. I must admit I’ve thought for years all this “Be yourself” stuff is merely code for “There’s no such thing as society” but phrased to sound as if it’s a good thing. We seem to have gone from “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” to “Siddown! Siddown! Siddown! Shutup!” and putting coal jobs above the survival of the planet. Time for the fightback to get underway, I feel…

  2. What a thoughtful and well-written post, Marina Sofia. I agree with you that sometimes, the classic philosophers got it so very right… Whatever the next steps are, I think we need to understand our own history and reflect it on. Otherwise we repeat it…

  3. Thank you so much for this post, MarinaSofia! I am one of those Type A people who feel safer when everything is backed up by a theory, explained, labelled. You just nailed it for me.

    As for over-sharing. I have an Instagram account that only my closest friends and family can follow, but every blogger or Twitter friend is invited to follow. I feel better when I share things with you, maybe because we haven’t met, or simply because we connect at levels that other people can’t even understand. In any case, here’s to us over-sharing online with the right people!!!

  4. What an interesting and timely post, Marina. And I think you are spot on – this cult of the self leads simply to selfishness and no sense of community or the general good of all. There is good in the Internet, and in many ways it’s better to deal with your emotions and issues rather than bottling them up. But again I do sometimes think we need to stop whining so much, man and woman up a bit, and get on with sorting out the mess we’ve made of this planet!

  5. Great piece Marina, both writers offer real wisdom which can help us navigate the seemingly crazy world we live in these days. I like the concept of ‘sterile excitation’ which seems to sum up the experience of so many people, particularly as the news grows more and more hysterical. It’s also so hard to weed out what is real from what is subverted or misrepresented both by mainstream and non-mainstream media and that adds, I think, to the general feeling of impotence in the face of what we’re told is going on.
    I decided to deactivate my Twitter account a couple of weeks ago, both for self-preservation and because I no longer felt I could support a platform which both enabled and encouraged the man who must not be named by becoming a key source of ‘news’ from that individual. What I’ve found since is that I don’t feel quite so powerless and I don’t feel that the world is such a terrible place either. It has problems, but they are fixable and there are lots of little things we can do to make things better if we can just take our eyes for a moment off the whirlwind of craziness being spun around us that distracts us from doing anything effective. I’ve also found alternative news sites which aren’t just about the usual stuff, like positive news: and this has helped me to reframe the world as something which can be engaged with as opposed to the Twitterverse which, aside from some pockets of loveliness (it has certainly helped me engage with some wonderful people) tends to overwhelm into disengagement. Consequently I feel much better and I’m starting to think much more about how I connect effectively instead of approaching ‘society’ defensively. It has felt like a healthy decision.

  6. Very interesting post.
    Today’s awe for celebrity baffles me. I prefer “pour vivre heureux, vivons cachés”

    For me, “be yourself” might be encouraging people to bloom and reveal what’s behind their social mask but it’s also a licence to be selfish. Why should I respect others or rules? It cannot be helped, I have to be myself.

    1. Yes, you read my mind: it’s all too easy to abdicate responsibility for caring about others (and their reactions) in the name of ‘authenticity’. I have probably gone too far the other way (tried too hard to please others), but the ‘asocial’ extreme is not the answer.

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