01/03/2012 06:32 pm ET Updated Mar 04, 2012

From Occupy Wall Street to Durkheim: What Is Solidarity?

Solidarity is a term that has been thrown around the Occupy Wall Street movement about as frequently as the term, "We Are the 99%." But what does solidarity mean when it comes to strangers uniting for a common cause? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines solidarity as, "unity (as of a group or class) that produces or is based on community of interests, objectives, and standards." So in other words, exactly what the people of Occupy Wall Street are basing their relationships off of.

Emile Durkheim, a sociology theorist in the early twentieth century, wrote about Solidarity in his famous dissertation, "The Division of Labor in Society," where he offers a perspective still relevant to many elements of the modern Occupy Wall Street movement. Durkheim divided the concept of solidarity into two categories, mechanical and organic, and a transition period that he dubbed "Dynamic Density." While it would seem at first glance that the Occupy Wall Street encampments are nothing but a skeletal version of a primitive society, the social dynamic inside the camps says otherwise.

Durkheim characterized more primitive forms of solidarity as "Mechanical Solidarity." Generally speaking, there is little structure to the division of labor when it comes to Mechanical Solidarity. As societies are forming, members tend to be responsible for a broad range of tasks, unifying the collective through their generalist roles. Societies, and sub-cultures of society, in early forming stages, are relatively homogenous, meaning that most people share most of the labor. Roles seem undifferentiated from each other, which is likely to result in more competitiveness among members, since all members are relatively equal. This basically sums up the Occupy Wall Street movement from an outside point of view. For those who have never participated, it seems like a bunch of hippies mulling about doing nothing, and occasionally you hear stories like "Occupy Denver Votes Out First Member," or "Occupy Wall Street Kitchen Goes on Strike."

Durkheim characterized a modern, complex society by elements of "Organic Solidarity." Organic Solidarity contains far greater division of labor, including specialization. This type of specialization extends first from the individual, then to the group, and finally on to the institutions. Each member has a much smaller range of tasks. When a society is operating within the framework of Organic Solidarity, acts of cooperation become the norm out of necessity; the society sees less infighting, and more productivity, due to a sense of belonging, contribution and responsibility. 

When the Occupy camps are left to their own devices, generally two things start to take place: 1) they grow (along with their health and safety issues), and 2) they begin to become wildly more productive (protecting Occupation encampments from police raids can become very taxing on resources and really wear on cohesion). As they grow and become more productive, their infrastructures and processes begin to evolve and coalesce as well. Many of the camps that have been left alone by their local governments have developed impressive infrastructures for maintaining comforts including health, safety, and security measures inside the camps.

The Occupy Wall Street movement seems to be at a transition period, attempting to go from a primitive version of society to a more complex version, accompanied by the development of a more systematic division of labor. Durkheim referred to the moment in time (and history) when a society begins transitioning from Mechanical Solidarity to Organic Solidarity as "Dynamic Density." A population increase by itself, or an increase in interaction among individuals by itself, doesn't necessarily cause the transition to occur. A population increase and an increase in interactions simultaneously can often create that Dynamic Density.

As population increases occur and the community begins to perceive resources as more scarce, competition increases between individuals, which in turn encourages increases in the division of labor. Increasing the division of labor among members allows for people to create a social structure that complements rather than conflicts, making for a peaceful and productive existence. This is exactly what we're seeing driving these transitions in the Occupy movement. As the camps grow, police raids occur, and outside support wanes, the resources within the occupations become precious, and the movement is starting to see the divisiveness and infighting fall away as the need for productivity and peace becomes number one.

While solidarity was a common term early on in the movement, so many members didn't fully understand what it meant or how to practice it. As the remaining dedicated participants continue to fight for the survival of the movement, now, more than ever, the term solidarity is ever-present in the forefront of all of our minds.