emile durkheim

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Edles e Appelrouth (2010)

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  • Key Concepts

    Anomie

    Social facts

    Social solidarity

    Mechanical solidarity

    Organic solidarity

    Collective conscience

    Ritual

    Symbol

    Sacred and profane

    Collective representations

    There can be no society which does not feel the need of upholding and reaffirm-ing at regular intervals the collective sentiments and the collective ideas whichmakes its unity and its personality. Now this moral remaking cannot be achievedexcept by the means of reunions, assemblies and meetings where the individuals,being closely united to one another, reaffirm in common their common sentiments.

    (Durkheim 1912/1995:47475)

    Have you ever been to a professional sports event in a stadium full of fans? Or toa religious service and taken communion, or to a concert and danced in the aisles(or maybe in a mosh pit)? How did these experiences make you feel? What dothey have in common? Is it possible to have this same type of experience if or when youare alone? How so or why not?

    3 MILE DURKHEIM (18581917)

    94

  • These are the sorts of issues that intrigued mile Durkheim. Above all, he sought toexplain what held societies and social groups togetherand how. In addressing these twinquestions, Durkheim studied a wide variety of phenomenafrom suicide and crime, to abo-riginal religious totems and symbols. He was especially concerned about how modern,industrial societies can be held together when people dont even know each other and whentheir experiences and social positions are so varied. In other words, how can social ties, thevery basis for society, be maintained in such an increasingly individualistic world?Yet Durkheim is an important figure in the history of sociology not only because of his

    provocative theories about social cohesion, but also because he helped found the disciplineof sociology. In contrast to some of the other figures whose works you will read in this book,Durkheim sought to delineate, both theoretically and methodologically, how sociology wasdifferent from existing schools of philosophy and history, which also examined socialissues. Before we discuss his ideas and work, however, lets look at his biography because,like Marx, Durkheims personal experiences and historical situation deeply influenced hisperception and description of the social world.

    A BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH

    mile Durkheim was born in a small town in northeastern France in 1858. In his youth, hefollowed family tradition, studying Hebrew and the Talmud in order to become a rabbi.However, in his adolescence, Durkheim apparently rejected Judaism. Though he did notdisdain traditional religion, as a child of the Enlightenment (see Chapter 1) he came toconsider both Christianity and Judaism outmoded in the modern world.In 1879, Durkheim entered Frances most prestigious college, the cole Normale

    Suprieure in Paris, to study philosophy. However, by his third year, Durkheim hadbecome disenchanted with the high-minded, literary, humanities curriculum at theNormale. He decided to pursue sociology, which he viewed as eminently more scientific,democratic, and practical. Durkheim still maintained his interest in complex philosophi-cal questions, but he wanted to examine them through a rational, scientific lens. Hispractical and scientific approach to central social issues would shape his ambition to usesociological methods as a means for reconstituting the moral order of French society,which he saw decaying in the aftermath of the French Revolution (Bellah 1973:xiiixvi).Durkheim was especially concerned about the abuse of power by political and militaryleaders, increasing rates of divorce and suicide, and rising anti-Semitism. It seemed toDurkheim that social bonds and a sense of community had broken down and social disor-der had come to prevail.1

    Upon graduation from the cole Normale, Durkheim began teaching in small lyces(secondary schools) near Paris. In 1887, he married Louise Dreyfus, from the Alsace regionof France. In the same year, Durkheim began his career as a professor at the University of

    1As indicated in Chapter 1, France had gone through numerous violent changes in government sincethe French Revolution in 1789. Between 1789 and 1870, there had been three monarchies, twoempires, and two republics, culminating in the notorious reign of Napoleon III who overthrew thedemocratic government and ruled France for 20 years. Though the French Revolution had brought abrief period of democracy, it also sparked a terrifying persecution of all those who disagreed with therevolutionary leaders. Some 17,000 revolutionaries were executed in the infamous Reign of Terror, ledby Maximilien Robespierre. Consequently, political and social divisions in France intensified. Frenchconservatives called for a return to monarchy and a more prominent role for the Catholic Church. Indirect contrast, a growing but still relatively small class of urban workers demanded political rightsand a secular rather than religious education. At the same time, capitalists called for individual rightsand free markets, while radical socialists advocated abolishing private property altogether.

    mile Durkheim 95

  • Bordeaux, where he quickly gained the reputation for being a committed and excitingteacher. mile and Louise soon had two children, Marie and Andr.Durkheim was a serious and productive scholar. His first book, The Division of Labor in

    Society, which was based on his doctoral dissertation, came out in 1893; his second, TheRules of Sociological Method, appeared just two years later. In 1897, Suicide: A Study inSociology, perhaps his most well known work, was published. The next year, Durkheimfounded the journal LAnne Sociologique, which was one of the first sociology journals notonly in France, but also in the world. LAnne Sociologique was produced annually until theoutbreak of World War I in 1914.In 1902, with his reputation as a leading social philosopher and scientist established,

    Durkheim was offered a position at the prestigious Sorbonne University in Paris. As he haddone previously at Bordeaux, Durkheim quickly gained a large following at the Sorbonne.His education courses were compulsory for all students seeking teaching degrees in philos-ophy, history, literature, and languages. Durkheim also became an important administratorat the Sorbonne, serving on numerous councils and committees (Lukes 1985:372).Yet not everyone was enamored with either Durkheims substantial power or his ideas.

    Durkheims notion that any social thingincluding religioncould be studied sociolog-ically (i.e., scientifically) was particularly controversial, as was his adamant insistence onproviding students a moral, but secular, education. (These two issues will be discussed fur-ther below.) As Steven Lukes (1985:373), noted sociologist and Durkheim scholar,remarked, To friends he was a prophet and an apostle, but to enemies he was a secularpope.Moreover, Durkheim identified with some of the goals of socialism, but was unwilling

    to commit himself politically. He believed that sociologists should be committed to educa-tion, not political activism. His passion was for dispassionate, scientific research.This apparent apoliticism, coupled with his focus on the moral constitution of societies

    (rather than conflict and revolution), has led some analysts to deem Durkheim politicallyconservative. However, as the eminent sociologist Robert Bellah (1973: xviii) points out, totry to force Durkheim into the conservative side of some conservative/liberal dichotomy isinappropriate. It ignores Durkheims lifelong preoccupation with orderly, continuous socialchange toward greater social justice (ibid.:xvii). In addition, to consider Durkheim politi-cally conservative is erroneous in light of how he was evaluated in his day. Durkheim wasviewed as a radical modernist and liberal, who, though respectful of religion, was most com-mitted to rationality, science, and humanism. Durkheim infuriated religious conservatives,who desired to replace democracy with a monarchy, and to strengthen the military. He alsocame under fire because he opposed instituting Catholic education as the basic curriculum.Moreover, to label Durkheim conservative ignores his role in the Dreyfus affair.

    Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish army colonel who was charged and convicted on false chargesof spying for Germany. The charges against Dreyfus were rooted in anti-Semitism, whichwas growing in the 1890s, alongside Frances military losses and economic dissatisfaction.Durkheim was very active in the Ligue des droits de lhomme (League of the Rights ofMen), which devoted itself to clearing Dreyfus of all charges.Interestingly, Durkheims assessment of the Dreyfus affair reflects his lifelong concern

    for the moral order of society. He saw the Dreyfus affair as symptomatic of a collectivemoral sickness, rather than merely anti-Semitism at the level of the individual. As Durkheim(1899, as cited by Lukes 1985:345) states,

    [w]hen society undergoes suffering, it feels the need to find someone whom it can holdresponsible for its sickness, on whom it can avenge its misfortunes; and those againstwhom public opinion already discriminates are naturally designated for this role. Theseare the pariahs who serve as expiatory victims. What confirms me in this interpretation

    96 SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY IN THE CLASSICAL ERA

  • is the way in which the result of Dreyfuss trial was greeted in 1894. There was a surgeof joy in the boulevards. People celebrated as a triumph what should have been a causeof public mourning. At least they knew whom to blame for the economic troubles andmoral distress in which they lived. The trouble came from the Jews. The charge had beenofficially proved. By this very fact alone, things already seemed to be getting better andpeople felt consoled.

    In