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Sociology Notes and Topics on Sociology

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Old Saturday, October 01, 2005
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Default The Sociology of Emile Durkheim


According to Durkheim, social facts (or social phenomena or forces) are the subject matter of sociology. Social facts are , and must be studied distinct from biological and psychological phenomenon. They can be defined as patterns of behavior that are capable of exercising some coercive power upon individuals. They are guides and controls of conduct that are external to the individual in the form of group norms, mores and folkways. Through socialization and education these rules become internalized in the consciousness of the individual. These social constraints and guides become moral obligations to obey social rules.

The central issue in Durkheim's work concerns the source of social order and disorder. According to Durkheim, the desires and self-interests of human beings can only be held in check by forces that originate outside of the individual. "The more one has, the more one wants, since satisfactions received only stimulate instead of filling needs." Durkheim characterizes this external force as a collective conscience, a common social bond that is expressed by the ideas, values, norms, beliefs and ideologies of the culture, institutionalized in the social structure, and internalized by individual members of the culture. He elaborated the cause and effects of weakening group ties on the individual in his two works,

In The Division of Labor, Durkheim identifies two forms or types of solidarity which are based on different sources. Mechanical solidarity is "solidarity which comes from likeness," Durkheim writes, and "is at its maximum when the collective conscience completely envelops our whole conscience and coincides in all points with it." This occurs, Durkheim claims, in early societies in which there is not much division of labor. Such societies are relatively homogenous, men and women engage in similar tasks and daily activities, people have similar experiences. In such societies the few distinct institutions express similar values and norms that tend to reinforce one another.

Mechanical solidarity, Durkheim adds, means that "ideas and tendencies common to all members of the society are greater in number and intensity than those which pertain personally to each member." The norms, values and beliefs of the society (or the collective conscience) are so homogenous and confront the individual with such overwhelming and consistent force, that there is little opportunity in such societies for individuality or deviance from this collective conscience. The collective conscience and individual consciences are virtually identical.

According to Durkheim, traditional cultures experienced a high level of social and moral integration, there was little individuation, and most behaviors were governed by social norms, which were usually embodied in religion. By engaging in the same activities and rituals, people in traditional societies shared common moral values, which Durkheim called a collective conscience (modern sociologists would refer to them as the norms and values of society, which are internalized by individuals). In traditional societies, people tend to regard themselves as members of a group; the collective conscience embraces individual awareness, and there is little sense of personal options.

The second form of solidarity Durkheim terms "organic." Organic solidarity develops as a by-product of the division of labor. As a society becomes more complex, individuals play more specialized roles and become ever more dissimilar in their social experiences, material interests, values, and beliefs. Individuals within such a sociocultural system have less in common; however, they must become more dependent upon each other for their very survival. The growth of individualism is an inevitable result of the increasing division of labor, and this individualism can develop only at the expense of the common values, beliefs and normative rules of society--the sentiments and beliefs that are held by all. With the loosening of these common rules and values we also lose our sense of community, or identity with the group. The social bond is thereby weakened and social values and beliefs no longer provide us with coherent, consistent, or insistent moral guidance.

Although the diversity of norms and values has the potential to liberate the individual from tradition and the hierarchies of family, church, and community, the diversity also creates problems. According to Durkheim, if an individual lacks any source of social restraint she will tend to satisfy her own appetites with little thought of the possible effect her actions will have on others. Instead of asking "is this moral?" or "does my family approve?" the individual is more likely to ask "does this action meet my needs?" The individual is left to find her own way in the world--a world in which personal options for behavior have multiplied as strong and insistent norms have weakened.


Durkheim insisted that the study of society must not rely on psychological factors alone (reductionism). Rather, social phenomenon must be considered as a different class or level of fact. To demonstrate the power of these social facts in determining human behavior, Durkheim studied suicide. Suicide was an action that was widely perceived as one of the most intensely individual acts, one that is purely determined by psychological and biographical factors.

For example, we believe we can understand why Bryan Cadwallader committed suicide by examining the poor fellow's biography and psychology. After all, Bryan was the youngest of eight and the baby of his family. He was improperly toilet trained. His father and he never properly bonded. He was prone to athletes foot and bad breath. His children hated him. His wife ran off with a traveling balloonist. And his dog had bitten him the day he killed himself.

But facts like these cannot explain variations in suicide rates among different racial, ethnic, religious, and occupational groups. Durkheim reasoned that while suicide occurs in all societies, the suicide rate for various groups are often both different than other groups within the same society and stable over time. These differences and stability in group rates indicated that there was something other than psychology involved in the decision to commit suicide. Why is it that Protestants are more prone to suicide than Catholics? Why are there stable rates of suicide, year after year, within the same groups and societies? Why do rates differ between age groups within the same society? It is simply impossible, Durkheim insisted, to explain or interpret the characteristics and behaviors of human groups on a psychological or biological basis. Much of who and what we are, of how we behave and what we believe, is due to social forces.

In order to explain differential rates of suicide in various religious and occupational groups, Durkheim studied the ways these groups brought about social cohesion and solidarity among their members. He hypothesized that a significantly higher rate of suicide in a particular group was an indication that the social cohesion of that group was weak, and that its members were no longer protected during personal crises. Through an examination of government data, Durkheim demonstrated that suicide varies with the degree of social integration.

Durkheim described two types of suicide based on the source of this perceived lack of cohesion. Egoistic suicide occurs among some men and women who are not sufficiently integrated into social groups. Because they do not belong, or belonging, they do not interact and participate, when they are confronted with personal crisis they must face it alone. They have not internalized the regulation and guidance, nor do they have the social support needed to handle the stress.

The second type of suicide based on the lack of group cohesion Durkheim labels anomic suicide. Anomic suicide is likely to occur when the group fails to give the individual enough regulation and guidance. Protestantism, for example, "concedes a greater freedom of individual thought than has fewer common beliefs and practices." Because of this, Durkheim reasoned, we should see higher rates of suicide among Protestants as a response to these weaker rules of conduct and emphasis upon autonomy and individualism. Because of the increasing division of labor, as well as social trends that weaken the traditional ties of community and family, this type of suicide is associated with modernity.

A third major type Durkheim labeled altruistic suicide. This type of suicide occurs when the individual is tightly integrated into a group, and the group requires that individual to give up her life. It occurs among soldiers for their friends, nationalists for their countries, true believers for their cause. While he was aware of the dangers of the breakdown of social order, he also realized that too much social control of individual behavior could be dangerous as well .


Durkheim characterized the modern individual as suffering from social norms that are weak or often contradictory. Durkheim defines anomie as a condition of relative normlessness in a whole society or in one of its component groups. When these social regulations break down the controlling influence on individual desires and interests is ineffective; individuals are left to their own devices. Without normative regulation and moral guidance, deviance and stress are the result.

Durkheim identifies two major causes of anomie: the division of labor, and rapid social change. Both of these are, of course, associated with modernity. In the literature the focus tends to be on rapid change experienced by individuals either up or down the social structure. Here let us focus again on the division of labor. The individual in modern society is confronted with a variety of groups that have different values and goals, each of which competes for the individual's allegiance.

Compare the norms on premarital sexuality for females in more traditional societies (say America in 1900) with those of contemporary American society. (The double-standard on sexual behavior for males and females is part of our traditional morality; that is, boys have always been given mixed messages.) In a traditional setting, the strength of the bond is more intense between a young woman and the relatively few groups she belongs to. The message from all groups, family, church, school, and peers is virtually the same: "Don't do it." Compare this uniformity of message with the conflicting messages received by girls in modern American society. In most families, the message from the parent(s) is: "Don't do it"; although the message may be mixed if a teenager has older siblings. If she belongs to a traditional church, the message is the same. Movies, television, and music video messages, however, amount to "Everybody's doing it" (and are more beautiful and happier as a result). Media ads are encouraging: "Just do it!", connecting the product they are trying to sell with promises of sexual fulfillment. The school she attends as well as "Dear Abby" are telling her: "Don't do it; but if you do, use a condom." And finally, her peer group, particularly if she has a boyfriend, is encouraging her to: "Do it." Consequently, the young woman is left to her own devices; her personal desires and natural curiosity are not disciplined by consistent or strong group norms. Durkheim refers to this social condition as anomie--a condition in which individuals are given weak, inconsistent, or incoherent normative rules to follow.

A key point of Durkheim's concept of anomie is this: An increasing division of labor weakens the sense of identification within the wider community and weakens social constraints on human behavior. These conditions lead to social "dis-integration" --high rates of egocentric behavior, norm violation, and consequent delegitimation and distrust of authority. In the final analysis Durkheim's whole sociology revolves around this issue.

His is not a straight-line evolutionary theory, however. In his conception, anomie and unrestrained egoism are as harmful to the individual as they are to the sociocultural system, and institutions (and individuals) react to the social disorder that result. Durkheim believed that the functional needs of society necessitate the emergence of new forms of social integration. Even modern sociocultural systems with a high degree of a division of labor still need a common faith, a common collective conscience to integrate people into the society.


There are two legitimate aims of social investigation, to identify the historical causes or origins of a social phenomenon, and to identify its functions for the social system as a whole. "The determination of function is . . . necessary for the complete explanation of the phenomena. . . .To explain a social fact it is not enough to show the cause on which it depends; we must also, at least in most cases, show its function in the establishment of social order" .

Determining the functions of social institutions and patterns of social facts played a key role in all of Durkheim's sociology. For example, Durkheim saw crime as a normal occurrence in any social system and as serving some positive functions for the society as a whole. First, crime and the reaction to crime, he asserts, provides society with a point of normative consensus. By condemning the crime we are reaffirming bonds among the non criminal population, asserting that the group condemns and punishes the criminal action. A second function of crime is the drawing of boundaries for human behavior. By defining such boundaries, and punishing those who cross them, we are strengthening the collective conscience. A third function of crime is to provide a certain amount of flexibility within the society. "Where crime exists, collective sentiments are sufficiently flexible to take on a new form, and crime sometimes helps to determine the form they will take. How many times, indeed, it is only an anticipation of future morality--a step toward what will be".


To discover the essence of religion and the functions it served, Durkheim studied animism, totemism (religious beliefs based on the worship of sacred objects which are often thought to possess supernatural powers) and other "primitive" beliefs. "Now when primitive religious beliefs are systematically analyzed, the principal categories are naturally found. They are born in religion and of religion; they are a product of religious thought" . All religions divide social life into two spheres, he concluded, the sacred and the profane.

There is nothing intrinsic about a particular object which makes it sacred, he says. An object becomes sacred only when the community invests it with that meaning. Religion is "an eminently collective thing" . Religion is not only a social creation; it is the power of the community that is being worshiped. The power of the community or society over the individual so transcends individual existence that people collectively give it sacred significance. By worshiping God people are worshiping the power of the collective over all, they are worshiping society.

It was religion, according to Durkheim, which is one of the main forces that make up the collective conscience, religion which allows the individual to transcend self and act for the social good. But traditional religion was weakening under the onslaught of the division of labor; what could replace religion as the common bond?
The great things of the past which filled our fathers with enthusiasm do not excite the same ardor in us...In a word, the old gods are growing old or already dead, and others are not yet born...But this state of incertitude and confused agitation cannot last for ever. A day will come when our societies will know again those hours of creative effervescence, in the course of which new formulae are found which serve for a while as a guide to humanity; and when these hours shall have been passed through once, men will spontaneously feel the need of reliving them from time to time in thought, that is to say, of keeping alive their memory by means of celebrations which regularly reproduce their fruits. We have already seen how the French Revolution established a whole cycle of holidays to keep the principles with which it was inspired in a state of perpetual youth....There are no gospels which are immortal, but neither is there any reason for believing that humanity is incapable of inventing new ones. As to the question of what symbols this new faith will express itself with, whether they will resemble the past or not, and whether or not they will be more adequate for the reality which they seek to translate, that is something which surpasses the human faculty of foresight and which does not appertain to the principal question" .
While men are losing faith in the old religions, new religions will be born. For all societies feel the need to express their collective sentiments, ideas and ideologies in regular ceremony. While the forms and particular symbols may change, religion is eternal.
The kingdom of the heavens and the earth belongs to Allah. He indeed is able to do all things. -Quran, Al-Imran, Surah 3:189

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