The Sociology of Emile Durkheim

maxresdefault.jpgEmile Durkheim (1858-1917) French sociologist, regarded as one of the ‘founding fathers’ of sociology. His early work developed a theory of society as a transcendent reality that constrained individuals, and proposed the methodology necessary to study that reality. His work was influenced by Kant, by the French tradition of Rousseau, Saint-Simon and Comte, and stood in opposition to the individualism inherent in British moral and social philosophy. In 1898 he founded the journal L’Année Sociologique, which  was crucial to the institutionalisation of sociology as an academic discipline in France. His later work showed an increasing interest in small scale, pre-industrial societies and religions, and thus contributed to the development of cultural anthropology.

Durkheim’s first major publication, The Division of Labour in Society (1893), offers an account of what holds a society together, and thereby seeks to demonstrate that social order and stability cannot be explained by a reduction to the actions of individuals, and particularly not in terms of Herbert Spencer‘s appeal to free social contracts between individuals. Durkheim compares modern industrial society to smallscale, pre-industrial society, initially suggesting a sharp distinction between the two. Modern societies have an extensive division of labour. It is this phenomenon that makes social contract theories plausible, for no one individual can master all the skills necessary to survive in the society. Each individual is dependent upon all others to provide those satisfactions which he or she is unable to provide for him or herself. The individual is thereby inhibited, practically, from leaving society. Durkheim calls this ‘organic solidarity’, drawing on the organic analogy, in which the various parts or institutions within a society are compared to the organs of an animal body, with each organ contributing a specialist function that is necessary to the survival of the whole.

DivisionIn contrast, pre-industrial societies are characterised by a minimal division of labour. The stability of society is thereby made more perplexing, for, all other things being equal, individuals (or small units, such as the family) have all the skills necessary to survive independently from the rest of society. In effect, all individuals are competent in all the skills necessary to survival, and are thus not practically dependent upon other humans. Nothing appears to inhibit the fragmentation of society into many isolated individuals or small units. Such societies have ‘mechanical solidarity’. Each individual is socialised into a common culture, the conscience collective (that may be translated as either ‘collective consciousness’ or ‘collective conscience’, which is to say that it entails both a cosmology, which structures the way in which individuals perceive the facts of their world, and a morality, through which the world is evaluated). Thus, while modern society allows great individuality, and indeed a cult of the individual that may threaten social solidarity, in pre-industrial society all members of the society are alike. They believe the same things, and share the same opinions and values. Social fragmentation is, however, ultimately inhibited by the rule of law. While law in modern society is perceived to be typically restitutive, compensating the victim for any material loss suffered, in pre-industrial society, law is repressive. To violate the moral or legal code that is inherent in the conscience collective is not to injure another individual, but to offend society itself. A crime thus transgresses sentiments that are approved of by all members of society, and the criminal thereby effectively places him or herself outside of the social order (which may be literally enforced through expulsion or execution). Greater force is given to the law in so far as it is given a sacred quality. Durkheim may thus hypothesise that religious imagery (such as god, and the soul) in fact give substance to more abstract social concepts. To worship god is, in practice, to worship society.

This bold distinction between mechanical and organic solidarity is compromised when Durkheim observes that in an economic contract ‘not everything is contractual’ (1984, p. 158). He thereby suggests that purely contractual relationships are insufficient to explain social relationships even within organic solidarity. A taken-for-granted morality, and thus a conscience collective, sets boundaries and the framework within which contractual relations are pursued and observed. The loss of such a conscience collective, with the increasing individualism of modern society, is seen by Durkheim as a problem that requires remedy, for example, through the encouragement of moral links with other members of society, in a revival of something akin to medieval guilds. (These ideas have recently been revived in political philosophy, in the communitarian response to liberalism.)

In The Rules of the Sociological Method (1895), Durkheim outlined a methodology for sociology. At the core of this is the notion that society is an independent level of reality, and may be studied as such. The regularities that may be identified in society, for example in social statistics, which Durkheim calls ‘social facts’, may thus be treated as ‘things’, which is to say that they have an objectivity that must be taken seriously on their own terms, rather than being reduced to the aggregate subjective intentions and actions of individuals. Durkheim thereby encourages a positivistic approach to sociology, encouraging both causal explanations (such that one social fact may be identified as the cause of another) and functionalist explanations, analogous to that used in biology. His approach is, however, more subtle than some commentators and followers have suggested. His substantive research suggests three levels of social objectivity: a morphology, of population densities and distribution, of territorial organisation, of levels of technology, of architecture and other material resources; institutions, of formal and informal rules; and collective symbolism, including values, ideals, opinions, mythologies and religions. The final level indicates Durkheim’s sensitivity to the meaning that social facts have for individuals, and thus to something akin to interpretative approaches within sociology.

In Suicide (1897), Durkheim further explores the transcendence of society over the individual. He attempts to explain why, for any given country, suicide statistics (and indeed other ‘moral statistics’, covering murder, prostitution and alcoholism) are highly stable from one year to the next. His explanation works, initially, by relating a particular society’s suicide statistics to other social facts, such as religion, military cultures and family structures. (It may be noted that Durkheim was aware of the imprecision of official suicide statistics, and that social factors, such as the stigma associated with suicide, might influence the recording of a particular death as suicide.) From apparently causal links between social facts, so that for example highly militaristic cultures and Protestant cultures have higher suicide rates, Durkheim generates a more abstract explanation in terms of underlying social forces. Suicide is thereby seen to depend upon social integration (i.e. the power of society to give the individual member legitimate goals) and moral regulation (i.e. the power of society to moderate the potentially infinite desires of the individual). Low social integration leads to egoistic suicide, where an individual identifies few of his or her goals with those of a group. Suicide is thus higher among the Protestants and the unmarried. Suicide may fall at times of war, when a common purpose is identified. Conversely, high social integration may lead to altruistic suicide, where an individual is prepared to sacrifice his or her personal goals to those of the collective, either positively, in acts of heroism, or negatively, when failure to achieve collective goals leads to shame. Anomie – the condition of living in the absence of recognised norms and values — occurs due to there being a lack of appropriate means to the achievement of acknowledged goals. Both economic crisis and unprecedented economic success can generate anomic suicide, as old rules of conduct cease to be relevant.

The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), developing certain themes and interests found in his and Mauss‘s (1963) Primitive Classification, is Durkheim’s last major work. This may be seen to offer a sociological answer to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781) (as indeed The Division of Labour responded to Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, 1790). Durkheim superficially agrees with Kant’s argument that time and space are not objective, in the sense of being part of a world that is independent of the human subject, but rather are imposed upon the perceived world by the human observer. However, where Kant argued that the structures of time and space are universal, being common to all human subjects, Durkheim suggests, using ethnographic data from Australian aboriginal societies, that different cultures embed different understandings of space and time in their members. An individual’s understanding and experience of time and space therefore reflect the structure of his or her society, and the discipline necessary to act competently in that society. Durkheim’s argument proceeds further, in order to explore totemism. In totemism, a natural image is bestowed with a sacred quality, and becomes the focus of group identification. A system of totems within a culture thereby serves, on the one hand, to articulate the relationship between groups (such as clans) and thus the social structure itself, for the members of the society, and on the other, through religious ceremonies, to reinforce individuals’ identification with the society, their clan, and the values inherent in the culture. Thus, again, religious images are understood as encoding social reality. While Durkheim studies only what he regards as the simplest form of society (and religion), his contention is that parallel relationships hold between the cultures and structures of complex societies. This hypothesis may be seen to have a considerable influence on structuralism (and especially the work of Levi Strauss).

Source: Cultural Theory The Key Thinkers by Andrew Edgar and Peter Sedgwick, Routledge

Categories: Philosophy

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6 replies

  1. I just want to thank you for a wonderfully clear, succinct, and illuminating account of Durkheim. He seems an even more profound and wide-ranging thinker than I had hitherto appreciated.


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