Durkheim to the Rescue

Emile Durkheim was a very important figure of sociology. Not saying that Weber or Marx isn’t but Durkheim’s critique of society paved the way and actually opened the door for sociological methods and practice. Similar to Weber’s notion of understanding an individual’s behavior by the states of mind or motivations that guide it, Durkheim’s primary focus was on society as a force that is constantly imposed on an individual that exist independently of the behavior of the individual. He states that, “the task of sociology then is to analyze social facts-conditions and circumstances external to the individual that, nevertheless, determine one’s course of action”. He continued that these social facts can be discovered by collecting data which would display patterns behind the individual’s behavior.

Durkheim questioned how individuals could feel tied to one another in an ever increasing population of individualistic society, and came to the conclusion that “without some semblance of solidarity-the cohesion of social groups, or moral cohesion, society cannot exist”. People have to feel connected to each other in some way in order for a society to be what it is. After all, humans are social creatures who are bound to search for connections with other human beings. Durkheim’s position on society and social interaction is viewed as non-rational due to his collective approach on morality and other intrinsic sentiments that lead to behavior rather than rational strategic interests that are economical or politically vested.

Durkheim’s, “Rules of Sociological Method” insists that there are three essential points to sociology that basically places sociology on a distinct plateau in comparison to other sciences. He maintains that:

  1. Sociology is a distinct field of study
  2. Although social sciences are distinct from natural sciences the same methods can be applied
  3. The social field is also distinct from the psychological field

In “Rules of Sociological Method”, Durkheim defines social fact and states that “it is endowed with coercive power, by virtue of which they impose themselves upon him, independent of his individual will”. He later rejects Herbert Spencer’s theory that a rational education must allow a child to act in complete liberty, and argues that the aim of education precisely is the socialization of a human being.

In “The Division of Labor in Society”, Durkheim argues that economic specialization wasn’t necessarily bad for an individual or society as a whole as long as it isn’t “forced” or “pushed too far”, where the individual begins to feel isolated in his labor or where he no longer feels common work being done by people around him. Durkheim contested that division of labor can exist through mechanical and organic solidarity. He defined mechanical solidarity as being a characteristic of smaller “traditional” societies where everyone would be doing the same thing, whether that be producing or distributing goods, for the collective conscience  to the contribution of the group as a whole. Organic solidarity is a characteristic of a larger more modern and diverse population where people don’t necessarily engage in the same labor but all are interconnected with one another to contribute to the total group or society.

Durkheim believed that there were many pathological instances that could lead to the disintegration of society including the extreme division of labor and anomie. Durkheim defined anomie as “a condition in which society provides little moral guidance to individuals”. He associated anomie with the rapid growth in population resulting in the decrease of social interaction between individuals therefore causing them to lose or become attached to certain norms and values.

In “The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life”, Durkheim wanted to identify the social origins of religion as well as function. He believed that religion was the primary and most fundamental social institutions of humans and it gave rise to other social forms as well. Durkheim pointed out that religion was instilled in individuals outside of their will or their choosing.

Application/Critique

I agree for the most part on Durkheim’s account of society and its indoctrination it places of individuals of the society by way of education and socialization. I just feel as though that his account pretty much cancels out our free will of choice and places us in a position of either choosing to do something based off of a societal norm or religion. Yes we do become cultured and socialized form birth up until the age where we are able to make decisions for ourselves but not all individuals live the rest of their life based on every single principle and moral that has been instilled in him since birth. If that was the case adults would continue to believe in the tooth fairy and Santa Claus until the day they die. My argument to Durkheim’s account is that once an individual is able to make conscious and relative decisions based on the society s/he lives in they adjust their lifestyle to their liking or preference. Yes social behavior issues can always be traced back to upbringing but at some point the individual still made a conscious decision on their own to enact on whatever it was they did, on their own.

  1. Has materialism become a social norm that has replaced religion as far as morals and values?
  2. Does Durkheim’s anomie, Weber’s iron cage, and Marx’s commodity fetishism share similar views on society and consumption?

One thought on “Durkheim to the Rescue”

  1. As I was reading your review, I thought…wow! she really understands Durkheim. You pulled out the central points of his argument and discussed them in a way that shows a strong understanding of his larger argument. Then when I read your critique, I thought of Weber…your critique reveals your American love of individualism. It is hard for us to think collectively or that we,as humans, could be motivated collectively. Then I read your research question #1 and I thought…that is an awesome question!! How could we answer it? How could we operationalize the variables? Let’s discuss this in class tonight!

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