Emile Durkheim – Division of labour, social fact, suicide, religion and society

Durkheim was born in Epinal, France. He came from a long line of devout French Jews; his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had all been rabbis. He began his education in a rabbinical school, but at an early age, decided not to follow in his family’s footsteps and switched schools, realizing that he preferred to study religion from an agnostic standpoint as opposed to being indoctrinated. Durkheim entered the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in 1879.

Durkheim became interested in a scientific approach to society very early on in his career, which meant the first of many conflicts with the French academic system, which had no social science curriculum at the time. Durkheim found humanistic studies uninteresting, turning his attention from psychology and philosophy to ethics and eventually, sociology. He graduated with a degree in philosophy in 1882. Durkheim’s views could not get him a major academic appointment in Paris, so from 1882 to 1887 he taught philosophy at several provincial schools. In 1885 he left for Germany, where he studied sociology for two years. Durkheim’s period in Germany resulted in the publication of numerous articles on German social science and philosophy, which gained recognition in France, earning him a teaching appointment at the University of Bordeaux in 1887. This was an important sign of the change of times, and the growing importance and recognition of the social sciences. From this position, Durkheim helped reform the French school system and introduced the study of social science in its curriculum. Also in 1887, Durkheim married Louise Dreyfus, with whom he later had two children.

In 1893, Durkheim published his first major work, The Division of Labor in Society, in which he introduced the concept of “anomie”, or the breakdown of the influence of social norms on individuals within a society. In 1895, he published The Rules of Sociological Method, his second major work, which was a manifesto stating what sociology is and how it ought to be done. In 1897, he published his third major work, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, a case study exploring the differing suicide rates among Protestants and Catholics and arguing that stronger social control among Catholics results in lower suicide rates.

By 1902, Durkheim had finally achieved his goal of attaining a prominent position in Paris when he became the chair of education at the Sorbonne. Durkheim also served as an advisor to the Ministry of Education. In 1912, he published his last major work, The Elementary Forms of The Religious Life, a book that analyzes religion as a social phenomenon.

Influence of predecessors on Emile Durkheim:
  1. The father of sociology Auguste Comte, wanted to develop sociology as positive sciences so that social faith could be directly observe and proper solution could be given to related problems. Durkheim was highly influenced by his view point the corroboration of which we find in his statement “consider ‘social facts as things”.
  2. Utilitarian positivists: They are basically economist and for them the social system or society is made up of human beings and everyone has a special quality in oneself and those qualities are useful for the system that is with the help of their utility, social system as properly governed. In this way the focal point of study for utilitarian positivist is an individual.
  3. Durkheim while rejecting this aspect accepted the positive aspect and in this way propounded his self structured positivism. In which he turned down their thinking that individual is important for society. According to Durkheim individual is nothing in himself and society is everything. Thus society is not made up of individuals but rather the existence of individual is very much attached into the existence of society. This is why Durkheim focal point of study is society or social fact with which the collective conscious is attached.

Nature And Scope Of Sociology According To Durkheim:

Durkheim was explicitly concerned with outlining the nature and scope of Sociology. Durkheim considered social sciences to be distinct from natural sciences because social sciences deal with human relationship. However the method used in the natural sciences could be used in the social sciences as well.

He was concerned with examining the nature of Sociology as a social science distinct from Philosophy. Philosophy is concerned with ideas and conceptions whereas science is concerned with objective realities. Philosophy is the source from where all science has emerged. Durkheim advocated for positivist method to study social phenomena.

Durkheim laid down the general conditions for the establishment of a social science which also applies to Sociology:
  1. Science deals with a specified area or a subject matter of its own, not with total knowledge. He pointed out Science is not concerned with total human knowledge or thought. Not every type of question the mind can formulate can be tested by science. It is possible for something to be the object of the philosopher or artist and not necessarily stuff of science at all.
  2. Science must have a definite field to explore. Science is concerned with things, objective realities. For social science to exist it must have a definite subject matter. Philosophers, Durkheim points out, have been aware of ‘things’ called laws, traditions, religion and so on, but the reality of these was in a large measure dissolved by their instance on dealing with these as manifestations of human will. Inquiry was thus concentrated on the internal will rather than upon external bodies of data. So it is important to look to things as they appear in this world.
  3. Science does not describe individuals but ‘types or classes of subject matter’. If human societies classified then they help us in arriving at general rules and discover regularities of behaviour. Social science which classifies the various human societies, describes the normal form of social life in each type of society’, for the simple reason that it describes the type itself; whatever pertains to the type is normal and whatever is normal is healthy.
  4. The subject matter of a science yields ‘general principles’ or ‘laws’. If societies were not subject to regularities, no social science would be possible. Durkheim further points out that since the principle that all the phenomena of the universe are closely interrelated has been found to be true in the other domains of nature, it is also valid for human societies which are a part of nature. In putting forth the idea that there is a ‘continuity of the natural and social worlds’, Durkheim has been strongly influenced by Comte.

Durkheim and positivism:

Durkheim argued for his own methods on the grounds that they were essential to the development of a ‘positive science’, i.e. an approach seeking to find law-like relations among phenomena and modelled on the physical sciences. In this respect, Durkheim was an inheritor of the legacy of his French predecessor Auguste Comte (1798–1857), a founder both of positivism and of sociology in the mid-nineteenth century.

In Suicide, Durkheim subjected official figures on suicide to statistical analysis, indicating how sociology might be taken in a quantitative direction. For a time in the 1950s and early 1960s this approach had ensured Durkheim much attention from methodologically minded social scientists. The idea that sociology could and should be a science was very strong; so was the notion that science required the discipline to be quantitative. However, with the interpretative turn, which began in the mid-1960s, talk about sociology as a positive science and about quantification became hallmarks of the positivist outlook, by then anathema to many in sociology. Indeed, Durkheim came to emblematise all that was politically and epistemologically unacceptable in sociology.

Against individualism

In line with our earlier consideration of the theme of humanism in Marx, we begin with Durkheim predominantly as a critic of individualism. His critique has two main strands:

  1. It is a fundamental misconception to suppose that society is (only) an aggregate of individuals, i.e. he opposed the view that the properties of society are merely the properties of individuals writ large.
  2. Individuals cannot pre-exist society, i.e. individualism as a doctrine is only conceivable in a certain kind of society; individuals, as represented by this idea of individualism, are only possible in this kind of society.

Durkheim’s major target, then, is the idea, the doctrine, of ‘individualism’, which he seeks to expose as an ideology, to use a Marxist term.

  • In Durkheim’s sense, individualism prizes unconditionally the distinctness and independence of individual human beings, who are to be treated as inviolable in their freedom and autonomy. The idea that individuals should be subordinate to any collective authority is to be borne, if at all, only in the most limited and necessary circumstances.
  • The doctrine of individualism is in many respects a political doctrine—its classical statements remain the political theories of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke—about the relationship of the individual to the rest of society and, in particular, to the putative representative of that society, the state. However, individualism also has a potentially scientific, methodological aspect to it in suggesting that the constituents of social reality are only and exclusively individual human beings.
  • According to this view, ‘society’ is merely a name for the other individuals in relationship with whom a given individual co-exists. The only way to understand society, then, is to understand the general nature of all those individuals as an aggregate. To take a simple example of the kind Marx railed against, the competitive nature of capitalist society is understood as a result of the natural competitiveness and acquisitiveness of human beings generally. Indeed, individualism often conceives of human nature as essentially anti-social, for the individual is conceived of as being motivated only by self- interest. In a picture explicitly painted in Hobbes’s Leviathan, individuals lack all concern for others; they exist in society most reluctantly, conceding to the collective some of their freedoms and rights only for the sake of the benefits to be derived. Durkheim maintained that such conceptions were quite false: to attempt to apply them was entirely the wrong method for a genuine science of society. Nevertheless, Durkheim was unswervingly confident that society could be studied scientifically.
How is a science of society possible?
  1. Durkheim assumed that for there to be a science it has to have a subject matter. On the face of it, the appropriate science of society is psychology, the science of the individual mind. After all, if we can understand the mind, we shall understand why individuals behave as they do, and will have no need of an additional science, sociology. Durkheim was eager to dismiss this assumption, but was aware, also, that it has a natural appeal; individual human creatures are tangible, we can encounter and observe them in the flesh, whereas society seems to be no more than an abstraction from their behaviour. We do not meet society in the street, exchange words with it, and watch it going about its activities. Surely individuals are real but society is not. However intuitively true this view may seem, Durkheim insists it is false. True, society is not directly observable, perhaps, but it is observable in its effects. It does exist; it may not be detected by the conscious awareness of those individuals, yet it causally affects their actions.
  2. In this way Durkheim argues that sociology can be a science that treats of a genuine subject matter because society exists as an authentic natural reality. It is as much a reality as physical nature, though different in character. Early on, in the way he set out in The Rules of Sociological Method (1966), he tried to present the lineaments of his general strategy. There he argued that the way to establish, in principle, the reality of society was to reveal the criteria that define something as a reality. They are general criteria, which include physical reality as a special case.
Criteria for reality

To say something is a reality is to say two main things:

  1. It is external, i.e. exists outside our individual consciousness.
  2. It is constraining, i.e. its existence sets limits to our actions.

For example, a brick wall is patently a reality because it exists in the world out there and it resists our
actions if we try to walk through it. If these are the criteria of facts, i.e. of real things, then Durkheim says
that society satisfies them.

How can this assertion be justified?
  1. It cannot sensibly be disputed, of course, that the patterns of life in our society are not simply individual inventions. The law is not something that I or any other individual has invented. The law has been developed collectively, built up over a long time by many individuals. It now confronts me as a thing that exists in the world, whether I will it to do so or not. One test for reality is satisfied; such social facts are external.
  2. Further, if I try to act in the world, the law may offer me resistance. I cannot simply do anything that I want to do. Yet the law is not necessarily constraining from a subjective point of view, even though objectively this is the case. For many of my actions, I take account of the law in a way which affects those actions, but I do not perhaps experience it as resistance to my individual will. I have simply become accustomed to doing things in ways which comply with the law. For example, when I decide to get some cash, I go into the bank, present a cheque and am given the cash in return.
  3. Consequently, it may seem that I freely do what I want. However, I am doing it in conformity with the law, the way I have to do it if I want my actions to be unimpeded. Suppose I decide to do otherwise, by entering the bank armed with a pistol. In that case I will meet resistance, people will try to refuse to give me the money; they will try to capture me and, eventually, to incarcerate me in prison. The law exists, then, as something which, in designing my actions, I must take into account as a real consideration, just as much as I take into account the brick wall adjoining the door which I use to pass through to the next room. Consequently, the second test of a social fact is demonstrated, i.e. it constrains actions.
Social unity:

If a society is to be said to exist, then it must satisfy certain conditions for unity (otherwise, as a matter of simple tautology, it would not exist, and we could not say that it did).

Durkheim’s functionalism originates in the notion that for a society to exist it must be ordered in such a way as to meet these conditions. If a society exists, and is bounded?, in what way is it bounded? It must have an inside and an outside, but what does the line between the two differentiate? A tempting idea might be geography, for, of course, societies are often identified with territories. In Durkheim’s view this cannot be an answer, not least because of the methodological rule, which he has laid down, that a social fact cannot be explained by any other kind of fact, physical, biological, geographical, climatological or psychological, but only by other social facts. The boundary that demarcates a society must be social: it must relate to membership, which includes or excludes people. For example, French persons visiting England do not, thereby, become part of English society, although they are present on English territory, since they do not have the relevant membership. Further, the boundary is moral in nature. The line of demarcation runs between acceptable and unacceptable conduct; those who transgress basic rules—criminals, the mentally ill—are outside the society. That the very existence of society presupposes such a demarcation, Durkheim illustrates with an ingenious account of the nature of crime.

The foundations of society:
  1. Durkheim’s rejection of individualism takes the form of a thoroughgoing critique of the utilitarian school of thought. Some thinkers have argued that individuals make up the ways and practices of society on the basis of their practical usefulness to them. For example, Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) offers the picture of individuals setting up a sovereign authority as a means of regulating their relationship between themselves and restricting the mutually destructive tendencies that unregulated competition would produce.
  2. Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) had the idea that society consists of individuals, who devise contractual relationships as a way of facilitating their transactions with one another. This explanation does not work. It is an illusion that a contract is created purely by the individuals who are party to it. Certainly, individual parties do make up any one specific contract, but these parties expect this particular contract to be like all contracts in general, i.e. to be created within a pre-established moral framework. After all, if contracts were merely a matter of individual-to individual agreement, then what would be the point of creating them? If individuals did not trust one another to do as they say, then there would be no point in attempting to improve one’s position towards the other by getting him or her to make an explicit, formal agreement obliging the required actions. If one’s word were not to be trusted, then why would a mere signature on an agreement be any more reliable? The value of a contract resides in its being made against the background of institutional arrangements. It does not simply bind the actual parties, but also involves obligations on others who are not party to the contractual agreement. The forces of law and order will support the claims of someone who has made a contract if that contract is validly made. Furthermore, society lays down what a contract can validly be; it is defined in terms of understandings in the society at large so that, for example, in our society one cannot make a contract to sell oneself into slavery.
  3. Non-contractual elements in contract A framework of moral understandings and of social arrangements of enforcement is presupposed in the making of a contract. The parties to the contract do not establish this framework, but it is necessary if their action of making a contract is to have any sense.
  4. Consequently, the idea of society being founded in some sort of contractual arrangement between individuals—invoked by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78) as well as Hobbes and Spencer—is a non-starter. Hence Durkheim’s argument about non-contractual elements in contract opposes the idea that the actions of individuals can antedate the existence of society, since the capacity to perform actions, and not just those of contract- making, extensively presupposes the existence of a social framework, i.e. shared rules and forms of social organisation.
  5. The idea of the individual— which we described above as ‘political’—is essentially one of distinctiveness and autonomy, of someone entirely independent of others; individuals should, ideally, be left free to do whatsoever they want (within distinct but very broad limits). This idea is not a conception of human nature, though it offers itself as such. Rather, it is only thinkable in a certain kind of society, namely, the complex, modern society we now inhabit.
  6. The individual, in this sense, cannot exist in the simplest, most basic form of society—one which Durkheim terms ‘mechanical’. In the very simplest societies (as Durkheim conceived them) there is little specialisation; the individual human beings engage in similar activities on a self- sufficient basis. Self-sufficiency means that there is little interdependence within the society: any single part of the society—an individual or family group—is not significant to, or essential for, the group’s continued existence. The solidarity of such a group derives from likeness, not interdependence; the members feel bonds of unity because they are much alike in their pattern of life and also in outlook.
  7. Under such basic conditions, life is homogeneous, and the space for the development of distinctive patterns of thought or outlook is severely restricted. Individuals learn their convictions from others and have little or no reason to challenge or depart from them. Since the variety of their own experience is so limited, it serves only to confirm those same shared beliefs in the eyes of each individual. The analogy underpinning this notion of mechanical solidarity comes from the conception in physics of the mechanical structure of a gas, which is made up of identical individual and independent atomic units.
  8. Of course, in line with Durkheim’s argument about crime, it follows that if a mechanical society ensures such standard existence and uniformity of belief, then there will be strong, widely shared sentiments and, therefore, intense, punitive reaction against crime, i.e. against anyone who might become different. Under pressure of population growth, such a society will begin to change its nature, for it cannot simply continue to expand while remaining the same. Here Durkheim is echoing Hegel’s idea of quantity into quality. The need for a society to cope with increasing numbers gives rise to the development of specialization, i.e. a division of labour.

Social Fact:

To Durkheim society is a ‘reality sui generis’. Hence society represents a specific reality which has its own characteristics. This unique reality of society is separate from other realities individuals and is over and above them. Thus ‘this reality of society must be the subject matter of sociology’. A scientific understanding of any social phenomenon must emerge from the ‘collective or associational’ characteristics manifest in the social structure of a society. While working towards this end, Durkheim developed and made use of a variety of sociological concepts. “Collective representation” is one of the leading concepts to be found in the social thought of Durkheim. Before learning about ‘collective representations’ it is necessary to understand what Durkheim meant by ‘social facts’.

Social fact is that way of acting, thinking or feeling etc., which is more or less general in a given society. Durkheim treated social facts as things. They are real and exist independent of this individual’s will or desire. They are external to individuals and are capable of exerting constraint upon them. In other words they are coercive in nature. Further social facts exist in their own right. They are independent of individual manifestations. The true nature of social facts lies in the collective or associational characteristics inherent in society. Legal codes and customs, moral rules, religious beliefs and practices, language etc. are all social facts.

Analysis of the Definition:

  1. Durkheim saw social facts as laying in a continuum. First, on the one extreme are structural or morphological-social phenomena. They make up the substratum of collective life. By this he meant the number and nature of elementary parts of which society is composed, the way in which the morphological constituents are arranged and the degree to which they are fused together. In this category of social facts following are included: the distribution of population over the surface of the territory, the forms of dwellings, nature of communication system etc. All the above mentioned social facts form a continuum and constitute a social milieu of society.
  2. Further Durkheim made an important distinction in terms of Normal and pathological social facts: a social fact is normal when it is generally encountered in a society of a certain type at a certain phase in its evolution. Every deviation from this standard is a pathological fact. For example, ‘some degree of crime’ is inevitable and normal in any society. Hence according to Durkheim crime to some extent is a normal fact. However, an extraordinary increase in the rate of crime is pathological. Periodical price rise is normal social fact but economic crisis leading to anarchy in society are other examples of pathological facts.
  3. For Durkheim the ‘subject’ of sociology is the “social fact”, and that social facts must be regarded as ‘things’. In Durkheim’s view sociology as an ‘objective science’ must conform to the model of the other sciences. It posed two requirements: first the ‘subject’ of sociology must be specific’. And it must be distinguished from the ‘subjects’ of all other sciences. Secondly the ‘subject’ of sociology must be such as to be “observed and explained”. Similar to the way in which facts are observed and explained in other sciences.

Main characteristics of social facts:

  • Externality,
  • Constraint,
  • Independence, and
  • Generality.
  • Social facts, according to Durkheim, exist outside individual consciences. Their existence is external to the individuals. For example ‘domestic or civic or contractual obligations’ are defined, externally to be individual, ‘in laws and customs’. ‘Religious beliefs and practices exist outside and prior’ to the individual. An individual takes birth in a society and leaves it; however “social facts” are already given in society. For example language continues to function independently of any single individual.
  • The other characteristic of social fact is that it exercises a constraint on individuals. “Social fact” is recognized because it ‘forces itself’ on the individual. For example, the institutions of law, education beliefs etc. are already given to everyone from without. They are ‘commanding and obligatory’ for all. Such a phenomenon is typically social because its basis, its subject is the group as a whole and not one individual in particular.
  • A social fact is that which has more or less a general occurrence in a society. Also it is ‘independent of the personal features of individuals’ or ‘universal attributes of human nature’.

Examples are the beliefs, feelings and practices of the group taken collectively. The social fact is specific. It is born of the association of individuals. It represents a ‘collective content of social group. or society’. It differs in kind from what occurs in individual consciousness. Social facts can be subjected to categorization and classification. Above all social facts from the subjects matter of the science of sociology.

There are two related senses in which social facts are independent to the individual.

  • First, every individual is born into an ongoing society which already has a definite organisation or structure. There are values, norms beliefs and practices which the individual finds readymade at birth and which he learns through the process of socialization. Since these phenomena exist prior of the individual and have an objective reality, They are external to the individual.
  • Secondly, social facts are independent to the individual in the sense that anyone individual is only a single element within the totality of relationship which constitutes of society. These relationships are not the creation of any single individual, but are constituted by multiple interactions between individuals. To understand the relationship between the individuals and the society, Durkheim draws a parallel to the relationship. A living cell consists of mineral parts like atoms of Hydrogen and Oxygen; just as society is composed of individuals. Yet life such as, the living beings are more important than their parts. The whole is greater than the collection of parts. The whole (society) differs from individual manifestations of it. In putting forward this criterion Durkheim wanted to show that social facts are distinct from individual or psychological facts. Therefore their study should be conducted in an autonomous discipline independent of Psychology, i.e. Sociology.

The social facts put moral ‘constraint’ they exercise on the individual. When the individual attempts to resist social facts they assert themselves. The assertion may range from a mild ridicule to social isolation and moral and legal sanction. However, in most circumstances individuals conform to social facts and therefore do not consciously fell their constraining character. This conformity is not so much due to the fear of sanction being applied as the acceptance of the legitimacy of the social facts.

Durkheim put forward his view to counter the utilitarian view point which was prevalent during his time that society could be held together and there would be greatest happiness if each individual worked in his self-interest. Durkheim did not agree, Individual’s interest and society’s interest do not coincide. For social order, it was necessary for society to exercise some control or pressure over its members.

  • To confirm the coerciveness of social facts in their effects on individuals, Durkheim looks at education’s efforts “to impose on the child ways of seeing, feeling, and acting which he could not have arrived at spontaneously …..the aim of education is, precisely, the socialisation of human being; parents and teachers are merely the representatives and intermediaries of the social milieu which tends to fashion him in its own image”.
  • Durkheim adds that social facts cannot be defined merely by their universality. Thus a thought or movement repeated by all individuals is not thereby a social fact. What is important is “the corporate” or “collective aspects” of the beliefs, tendencies and practices of a group that characterize truly social phenomena”. These social phenomena are transmitted through the collective means of socialization.

Thus social facts can be recognized because they are external to the individuals on the one hand, and are capable of exercising coercion over them on the other. Since they are external they are also general and because they are collective, they can be imposed on the individuals who form a given society.

Rules for the Observation Of Social Fact:

The first rule that Durkheim gives us is: “consider social facts as things” Social facts are real. As ‘things’ they have to be studied by ‘the empirical method’ and ‘not direct intuition’; and also, they ‘cannot be modified by a simple effort of the will’.

While studying social facts as ‘things’ three rules have to be followed in order to be objective:

  1. All preconceptions must be eradicated. The sociologist must emancipate himself from the common place ideas that dominate the mind of the layman and adopt an ‘emotionally neutral attitude’ towards what he sets out to investigate.
  2. The sociologist has to formulate the concepts precisely. At the outset of the research the sociologist is likely to have very ‘little knowledge of the phenomenon in question’. Therefore he must proceed by conceptualizing his subject matter in terms of those properties which are external enough to be observed. Thus in Division of Labour the type of solidarity in a society can be perceived by looking at the type of law – repressive or restitutive, criminal or civil – which is dominant in the society.
  3. When the sociologist undertakes the investigation of some order of social facts he must consider them from an aspect that in independent of their individual manifestations. The objectivity of social facts depends on their being separated from individual facts which express them. They provide a common standard for members of society. They exist in the form of legal rules, moral regulations, proverbs, social conventions, etc. It is these that the sociologist must study to gain an understanding of social life.

Rules For Distinguishing B/W the Normal and the Pathological:

  1. Durkheim makes a distinction between ‘normal’ and ‘pathological’ social facts. But Durkheim explains that a social fact is considered to be normal when it is understood in the context of the society in which it exists. Social fact which is ‘general’ to a given type of society is ‘normal’ when it has utility for that societal type.As an illustration he cites the case of crime. We consider crime as pathological. But Durkheim argues that though we may refer to crime as immoral because it flouts values we believe in, from a scientific view point it would be incorrect to call it abnormal. Firstly because crime is present not only in the majority of societies of one particular type but in all societies of all types. Secondly, if there were not occasional deviances or flouting of norms, there would be no change in human behaviour and equally important, no opportunities through which a society can either reaffirm the existing norms or else reassess such behaviour and modify the norm itself. To show that crime is useful to the society, Durkheim cites the case of Socrates, who according to Athenian law was a criminal, in his country because it served to prepare a new morality and faith which the Athenians needed. It also rendered a service to humanity in the sense that freedom of thought enjoyed by people in many countries today was made possible by people like him.
  2. When the rate of crime exceeds what is more or less constant for a given social type, then it becomes an abnormal or pathological fact i.e. sudden rise in the suicide rate in Western Europe during the nineteenth century was a cause for concern for Durkheim and one of the reasons why he decided to study this phenomenon.
  3. Classification of societies into types is an important step towards explanation as problems and their explanations will differ for each type. It is also needed to decide whether a social fact is normal or abnormal, since a social fact is normal or abnormal only in relation to a given social type. Durkheim uses the term ‘social morphology’ for the classification of social types. The question is, how are social types constituted? The word “type” means ‘the common characteristics of several units in a group’ e.g. “bachelors” and “married person” belong to two types and Durkheim was able to show that suicide rates are found more among the ‘bachelors’. (Please do not apply this to individual cases.)
  4. We must study each particular society completely and then compare these to see the similarities and differences. Accordingly, we can classify them. In order to know whether a fact is general throughout a species or social type, it is not necessary to observe all societies of this social type; only a few will suffice. According to Durkheim, “Even one well made observation will be enough in many cases, just as one well constructed experiment often suffices for the establishment of a law” Durkheim wants societies to be classified according to their degree of organization, taking as a basis the ‘perfectly simple society’ or the ‘society of one segment’ like the ‘horde’. Hordes combine to form ‘aggregates’ which one could call ‘simple polysegmental’. These combine to form ‘polysegmental societies simply compounded’. A union of such societies would result in the still more complex societies called ‘polysegmental societies doubly compounded’ and so on.

Rules for the Explanation of Social Facts :

  • There are two approaches which may be used in the “explanation of social fact”s – “the causal” and “the functional”. The former is concerned with explaining ‘why’ the social phenomenon in question exists. The latter involves establishing the “correspondence between the fact under consideration and the general needs of the social organism, and in what this correspondence consist”. The causes which give rise to a given social fact must be identified separately from whatever social functions it may fulfill. Normally, one would try to establish causes before specifying functions. This is because knowledge of the causes which bring a phenomenon into being can, under certain circumstances, allow us to derive some insight into its possible function. Although ‘cause’ and ‘function’ have a separate character this does not prevent a reciprocal relation between the two and one can start either way.
  • In fact Durkheim sees a sense in the beginning of his study of Division of Labour with function in Part I and then coming to causes in Part II. Let us take an example of ‘punishment’ from the same work: crime offends collective sentiments in a society, and the criminal is punished. The act of punishment strengthens the sentiments necessary for social unity.
  • The method by which Social Facts may be developed: The nature of social facts determines the method of explaining these facts. Since the subject matter of sociology has a social character – it is collective in nature – the explanation should also have a social character. Durkheim draws sharp line between individual and society (society is a separate reality from the individuals who compose it and has its own characteristics) and also a line between psychology and sociology. Any attempt to explain social facts directly in terms of individual characteristics or in terms of psychology would make the explanation false. Therefore in the case of causal explanation “the determining cause of a social fact should be sought among the social facts preceding it and not among the states of the individual consciousness”. In the case of functional explanation “the function of a social fact ought always to be sought in its relation to some social end”.
  • The final point about durkheim’s logic of explanation is his stress upon the comparative nature of social science. To show that a given fact is the cause of another we have to compare cases in which they are simultaneously present or absent, to see if the variations they present in these different combinations of circumstances indicate that one depends on the other”. Since sociologists normally do not conduct laboratory controlled experiments but study reported facts or go to the field and observe social facts which have been spontaneously produce, they use the method of indirect experiment or the comparative method.
  • Durkheim, following J S mill’s system of logic, refers appreciatively to the ‘method of concomitant variations’ as the procedure of the comparative method. He calls it ‘the instrument par excellence of sociological research’. For this method to be reliable, it is not necessary that all the variables differing from those which we are comparing to be strictly excluded. The mere parallel between the two phenomena found in a sufficient number and variety of cases is evidence that a possible relationship exist between them. Its validity is due to the fact that the concomitant variations display the causal relationship not by coincidence but intrinsically. It shows them as mutually influencing each other in a continuous manner, at least, so far as their quality is concerned.
  • Concomitant variation can be done at different levels – single society, several societies of the same species or social type, or several distinct societies. However to explain completely a social institution belonging to a given social species, one will have to compare its different forms not only among the societies belonging to that social type but in all preceding species as well. Thus to explain the present state of the family, marriage, property, etc. it would be necessary to know their origins and the elements of which these institutions are composed. This would require us to study this institution in earlier types of societies from the time domestic organization was in its most rudimentary form to its progressive development in different social species. “One cannot explain a social fact of any complexity except by following its complete development through all social species”.

The comparative method is the very framework of the science of society for Durkheim.


Gabriel tarde: While criticizing Durkheim’s social fact Tarde says that it is very difficult to understand how a society can exists without an individual. Tarde has criticized Durkheim for neglecting individuals and giving much emphasis on society. In this reference Tarde says that if students and professors are evacuated from a college, what will remain their except the name.
Harry elmer bayons: has criticized Durkheim for putting more thrust on the constant part of social fact. For him individuals do many actions without any societal compulsions. For example helping weaker people, philanthropist activities etc.

  • In the construction of social methodology Durkheim says that the society is not because of individuals, but rather individuals behaviour are shaped by society. He wants to say that a biological individual is made a social individual only by society. In absence of society, there will be a complete lack of socialization of individual and they will behave like animals there.
  • Durkheim has focused his concentration towards the personality of individuals, which is built by society through formal and informal ways. In this way, it can be said that human personality is a replica of society. Clearly, had there not been, the existence of society, there would not have been the existence of individuals.
  • Durkheim has made it clear that man does certain activities in his own wills and it comes under a purview of social facts. It would definitely have some kind of compulsion might be it in a philanthropist activity which directly may not force an individual but truly speaking individuals can’t do any such activity without any indirect compulsion. The kind of feeling attached with this activities are attainment of salvation, freedom from cycle of birth and death, attainment of social prestige and piety, etc.
  • Durkheim has himself used this method in successfully describing his theories like Division of labour, suicide and religion.
  • It is a novel and comprehensive way in understanding social problems. If problems have reached to abnormal situation they have become pathological and so could be diagnosed.
  • Moreover it paves the way to provide solution to the related social problems. For Example in India in two different groups, the suicide rate was found at increase recently and they are school children and farmers (cash cropper). For school children, hiplines and support systems have been established.
  • To protect farmers from suicide there debits have been written off and it is suggested to bring them under the security through insurance. The other problems which have been identified with social facts are crime, smuggling, black marketing, drug addiction, alcoholism prostitution, etc. and the respective solution is provided from time to time.
  • Most importantly, it provides the acceptance of social change which is the basis of development and progress.

Division of Lobour:

Economists explain the division of labor as a rational device contrived by men to increase the output of the collectivity. Durkheim rejects this explanation as reversal of the true order. To say that men divided the work among themselves, and assigned everyone a different job, is to assume that individuals were different from one another and aware of their difference before social differentiation.

Durkheim also opposes “contractualists” like Spencer who stressed the increasing role of contracts freely concluded among individuals in modern societies. To Durkheim modern society is defined first and foremost by the phenomenon of social differentiation, of which contractualism is the result and expression. He also considered and rejected the search for happiness as an explanation, for nothing proves that men in modern societies are happier than men in archaic societies. Moreover, since division of labor is a social phenomena, the principle of the homogeneity of causes and effect, demands an essentially social explanation.

Durkheim insists that division of labour, a social phenomenon, can only be explained in terms of three social factors–the volume, the material density, and moral density.

  1. Volume refers to the size of the population and material density refers to the number of individuals on a given ground surface. Moral density means the intensity of communication between individuals. With the formation of cities and the development of communication and transportation, condensation of society, multiplies intra-social relations. Thus the growth and condensation of societies and the resultant intensity of social intercourse necessitate a greater division of labor. “The division of labor varies in direct ratio with the volume and density of societies and, if it progresses in a continuous manner in the course of social development, it is because societies become regularly denser and generally more voluminous.”
  2. As societies become more voluminous and denser, more people come into contact with one another; they compete for scarce resources and there is rivalry everywhere. As the struggle for survival becomes acute, social differentiation develops as a peaceful solution to the problem.
  3. When individuals learn to pursue different occupations, the chances of conflict diminish. Each man is no longer in competition with all; each man is in competition with only a few of his fellows who pursue the same object or vocation. The solder seeks military glory, the priest moral authority, the statesman power, the businessman riches and the scholar scientific renown. The carpenter does not struggle with the mason, nor the physician with the teacher, not the politician with the engineer. Since they pursue different objects or perform different services, they can exist without being obliged mutually to destroy one another. The division of labor is thus, the result of the struggle for existence.

Durkheim identified two forms of solidaritymechanical solidarity and organic solidarity in two types of societies- societies with simple division of labour & societies with complex division of labour:

Mechanical solidarity

  • Mechanical solidarity is solidarity of resemblance. People are homogeneous, mentally and morally; they feel the same emotions, cherish the same values, and hold the same things sacred. Communities are, therefore, uniform and non-atomized. Durkheim suggested that mechanical solidarity prevailed to the extent that “ideas and tendencies common to all members of the society are greater in number and intensity than those which pertain to each member.” He explained that this solidarity grows only in inverse ratio to personality.
  • Solidarity, he suggested, which comes from likeness “is at its maximum when the collective conscience completely envelops our whole conscience and coincides in all points with it”. “Thus, a society having a mechanical solidarity is characterized by strong collective conscience. Since crime is regarded as an offence against ‘common conscience’, such a society is also characterized by ‘repressive law’ which multiplies punishment to show the force of common sentiments”.
  • The laws in mechanical solidarity are repressive and penal in character; they aim at inflicting suffering or loss on the criminal and try to suppress recurrence of crime. According to Durkheim, an act is treated as criminal “when it offends strong and defined states of the conscience collective”. Thus crime is viewed as an affront to the conscience collective which feels hurt by the criminal act and therefore tries to resist it. Hence one of the important functions of punishments is actions and reactions taking place at the collective level. In the words of Durkheim, “We must not say that an action shocks the common conscience because it is criminal, but rather that it is criminal because it shocks the common conscience, we do not reprove it because it is a crime, but it is a crime because we reprove it”.

Organic solidarity:

With the increase of the volume of population, material density and moral density also increase. According to Durkheim, division of labour is a peaceful solution to the needs created by the increase of population, in size and density. This increase in division of labour gives rise to organic solidarity. Organic solidarity is characterized by decline of conscience collective. The role of conscience collective become progressively smaller as division of labour becomes specialized. Individuals become increasingly freer, while becoming more aware of their inter-dependence. It is this heightened sense of inter-dependence that contributes to solidarity. The freedom of individual becomes a venerated principle of a society based on organic solidarity. Relations between individuals and groups become contractual.

  • Whereas mechanical solidarity arose from similarities of individuals in primitive society, organic solidarity on the other hand develops out of differences rather than likenesses between individuals in modern societies. Individuals are no longer similar, but different; their mental and moral similarities have disappeared.
  • A society having organic solidarity is characterized by specialization, complex division of labor and individualism. It is held together by the inter-dependence of parts, rather than by the homogeneity of elements.
  • It is also characterized by the weakening of collective conscience and restitutive law. Organic solidarity, as Durkheim envisioned it develops out of differences rather than likenesses and it is a product of the division of labor. With the increasing differentiation of function in a society come differences between its members.
  • With the emergence of division of labor in society, owing to a complex of facts such as increased population, urbanization, industrialization, and with its concomitant rise in dissimilarities of individuals in society, there was an inevitable increase in interdependence among society’s members. And, as noted earlier, when there is an increase in mental and moral aptitude and capabilities, there is a decrease corollary in the collective conscience.
  • The two forms of solidarity correspond to two extreme forms of social organization. Archaic societies (primitive societies as they were once called) are characterized by the predominance of mechanical solidarity whereas modern industrial societies, characterized by complex division of labor, are dominated by organic solidarity. It must, however, be noted that Durkheim’s conception of the division of labor is different from that envisaged by economists. To Durkheim social differentiation begins with the disintegration of mechanical solidarity and of segmental structure. Occupational specialization and multiplication of industrial activities are only an expression of a more general form of a social differentiation which corresponds to the structure of society as a whole.
  • The law that exists in organic solidarity is no longer a law of punishment rather it is a law of restitution. Unlike the repressive law which seeks to inflict suffering on the criminal, restitutive law simply tries to restore the status-quo. Further, while repressive law remains diffuse through out the community, restitutive law has special organs and institutions tribunals, councils, functionaries, and so on.
  • The operation of restitutive law is in fact the application of general rules to particular cases, and it is, above all general rules, that arise out of the use and want of society. Even when restitutive sanctions, as Durkheim says, are strangers to conscience collective, the latter is not completely absent. If contracts have power to bind, it is conscience collective that is the source of this power. And further more, it is a power that can be invoked only when the contracts confirm to the general rules of law and have something of a moral value.
  • Further comparing the organic solidarity with mechanical solidarity, Durkheim, suggests that social cohesion is greater in the case of organic solidarity. As labour is divided so also does each member of the society depends more and more on this labour. The labour of one fits into the labour of the other, and produces cohesive community. Thus, as the community becomes more cohesive and better integrated, individual becomes freer and more able to exercise his initiative, being less tightly bound by common sentiments.

The division of labour thus contributes both to the cohesion of the society and to the self-expression and freedom of the individual. However, the above mentioned discussion refers to what organic solidarity ought to be. It does not describe the situation actually obtaining in modern industrial societies. Durkheim himself was aware of this hiatus between what ought to be and what really happens. Therefore, he called the above description as a normal type of division of labour, at the same time, pointing out to major abnormal forms of division of labour discussed below.

Abnormal forms of division of labour

Durkheim regarded the chaos 18th and 19th century laissez-faire society, its wholly unregulated markets, its arbitrary and extreme inequalities, which led to the restriction of social mobility and its class wars and trade union conflict, as far from normal division of labour. These aberrations of the industrial society were explained as abnormal forms of divisions of labour viz., the anomic division of labour and the forced division of labour.

Anomic form of division of labour
  • The essence of the idea of anomie as applied to economic behavior is that relations between men or groups of men engaged in commercial and industrial enterprises are devoid of regulation by shared moral beliefs or by accepts the existence of classes and the regularity of the class conflicts.
  • Class conflict for Durkheim, was manifested in a series of disputes and clashes which resulting from the absence of agreed limits or insatiable appetites of manufacturers or entrepreneurs as much as in the unlimited desires of workers. Here, he regards trade-unions as replacing individual selfishness by collective selfishness, since competing representative groups could not overcome the anarchy of the economy.
  • However, Durkheim does not regard the conflict of interest between employer and employee as an incurable obstacle and makes certain suggestions to redeem the anomic situation in modern industrial societies.
  • He points out the need for improving the conditions of work and the contractual conditions of employment. For example measures like provisions of employment, and legislation aimed at ensuring safety. Healthy condition of work and the replacement of rules by power by the rule of law. Each industry to create a kind of self-governing institutions or corporation, empowered to administer codes of conduct to bind all those engaged in the occupational sphere.
  • These institutions would be linked with the state. Excessive decentralization of power led to anarchy but the corporations could equally protect their member against arbitrary state interventions.
  • Further, he cites the example of professional organizations, such as lawyer’s organizations, which create professional ethics governing their work. According to him, this would go a long way controlling the anomic state of professional industrial and commercial life. According to Steve Fenton, Durkheim’s solution for the state of anomic prevailing in industrial societies was similar to the concept of guild socialism.
Forced division of labour:
  • Under the heading of the ‘Forced Division of Labour’ Durkheim discusses those socially structured inequalities which undermine solidarity. Durkheim explicitly recognizes that class inequalities restrict the opportunities of the lower classes and prevent the realization of their abilities. Resentment accumulates and men are led to revolutionary thoughts. The problem here is not a lack of rules but rather the excess of them in that rules themselves are the cause of evil. The rules have in fact arisen in order to enforce the division of labour coercively. Individual specialism and occupations are not freely chosen but forced upon each person by custom, law and even sheer chance. Individuals find themselves estranged, resentful and aspiring to social positions which have been arbitrarily closed off to them.
  • This is clearly the case, Durkheim observes, where a person can enjoy a special advantage owing to possession of inherited wealth or where ‘thanks to the persistence of certain prejudices, a certain distinction is attached to some individual’s independent of their merits’. The forced division of labour then brings about a situation which one modern author has called “the anomie of injustice”. It is this which has produced class conflict and not, as Marx would have called it, the inherently exploitative nature of capitalism. Durkheim considers that all inequality could not be abolished. But whereas some inequalities are ‘natural’ and occur spontaneously, others are ‘external inequality’ which can be mitigated. What in effect he is urging is the creation of what today is called ‘equality of opportunity’ or a ‘meritocracy’. For this to be possible all forms of hereditary privilege should be abolished. There cannot be rich and poor at birth’, he wrote, ‘without there being unjust contracts’.

Division of labour analysed after durkheim

Elton mayo-
  • Studying productivity and industrial relations in an American industrial plant discovered empirically ‘the importance of informal social groups in forming attitudes and practices at work’. He converted the particular finding that “informal association” influenced man’s working attitudes, into the general principle that industrial behavior should be understood through its social contexts. Human behavior was not wholly not even predominantly rational and logical. The desire to stand well with one’s fellows, the so-called human instinct of association, easily outweighs the merely individual interest and the logical reasoning upon which so many spurious principles of management are based.
  • In the Social problems of an Industrial Civilization, he draws on Durkheim’s evolutionary model to elaborate his own distinction between ‘established’ and ‘adaptive’ societies. Suicide as an example to characterize the decay of established grouping and the failure of a restless modern civilization to create alternative bases of social life.
Harold wiliensky,
  • The author speaks of the relationship between “division of labour and social integration”, and examines the variable degree to which work situations and experiences of the labour forces encourage participation in and integration into, secondary social groups. If we give a man some college education, he puts him on a stable career ladder, and top it with a nice family income, he will get into the community act’.
  • Wiliensky clearly presents his hypothesis that stable experience in the labour market leads to social integration as a test of ‘Durkheim’s ideas’. He argues that men with orderly careers have contacts with kin friends and neighbours that are at once more integrated.
  • He, however, adds that not all group participation is conductive to solidarity. The participation pattern of miners, long shore men and others who in lodge and union, at home and at the bar, reinforces their common alienation and isolation.
  • After Durkheim a literature has developed, with an interest in the world of work that is often known as the sociology of occupations and professions’.

Suicide: Diagnosing social pathology

Suicide is a major theory of social constraints relating to collective conscience. IT is cited as a monumental landmark in which conceptual theory and empirical research are brought together. Durkheim’s use of statistical analysis was for two primary reasons:

  • To refute theories based on psychology, biology, genetics, climatic, and geographical factors, and
  • To support with empirical evidence his own sociological explanation of suicide.

He speaks of suicidal currents as collective tendencies that dominate some very susceptible individuals and catch them up in their sweep. The act of suicide, at times, is interpreted as a product of these currents. The larger significance of Suicide lies in its demonstration of the function of sociological theory in empirical science.

Durkheim rejected the various extra-social factors such as heredity, climate, mental alienation, racial characteristics and imitation as the cause of suicide. He arrived at the conclusion that suicide which appears to be a phenomenon relating to the individual is actually explicit to individual and can be analysed logically with reference to the social structure and its ramifying function which may induce, perpetuate, or aggravate the suicide potential. Durkheim’s central thesis is that suicide rate is a factual order, unified and definite, for, each society has a collective inclination towards suicide, a rate of self-homicide which is fairly constant for each society so long as the basic conditions of its existence remain the same.

Suicide For Durkheim, suicide was a result of imbalance in the independence/ autonomy relationship. In brief summary, suicides occur among those subject to too much or too little social solidarity.

Suicide is notable in taking what appears to be the most individual of acts, which seems therefore least likely to exhibit any regularities of a social kind, and then going on to demonstrate that suicide varies according to social ties, to their presence or absence, their strength or weakness. It is important to remember that it is differential rates between social groups that Durkheim sought to explain, e.g. Protestants commit suicide proportionately more frequently than Catholics and Jews, single men more frequently than married ones, and urban dwellers more than rural. Durkheim argues that these differentials reflect differences between the social groups, i.e. the different ways individuals are connected
to society, and the kind of social support that results.

Durkheim proposed four basic types of suicide:
  • The egoistic and anomic reflect social ties that are too weak;
  • The altruistic and fatalistic types arise from connections that are too strong so that in this case the group suppresses individuality.

Egoistic suicide results from the social isolation of the individual. It occurs among those who have fewer social ties, such as those who live alone in rooming houses rather than with a family, or those burdened with an intense spiritual loneliness. For example, Protestants have a higher suicide rate than Catholics since Protestant teachings emphasise that one is face to face alone with God, that one’s relationship is entirely direct, and that one must, therefore, carry the entire burden of effort essential to one’s salvation. Roman Catholic teachings, however, make the church and its practices the basis for one’s relationship with God and provide mechanisms, e.g. the confessional, to share the burden and so to give social support in life.

By contrast, Anomic Suicide was occasioned by In effect, the moral code of society fails to maintain its hold over the individual. The seemingly paradoxical feature of suicide is that although suicide rates rose during times of economic recession, as we might expect, they also rose during times of economic boom and prosperity, when we might expect them to decline. The superficial element of the explanation is that both situations—boom and bust—occasion dislocation between the individual’s social position and the socially prescribed morals which relate to them. Within a socially stratified society there are different norms (moral standards) for the different social classes, and they specify different tastes and aspirations for the members of the respective groups. For example, middle-class people may expect to go to university, while lower-class people may not expect or even aspire to do so. Such norms develop on a collective scale and over time; since they arise from the real situations of the group, they have a realistic character. Even if lower-class people aspire to university attendance, they are less likely to succeed. However, economic bust and boom both result in abrupt movement of people up and also down the social scale. Middle-class people find themselves in greatly reduced circumstance in crashes, while lower-class people can be rendered enormously prosperous by economic booms. In other words, the standards to which they have become accustomed become inapplicable, precipitating suicide.

Altruism and fatalism are at the other extreme. Altruism involves individuals seeing the preeminence of the group over themselves to the extent that the group’s needs seem greater than theirs.

In fatalism, the group dominates individuals so intensely and oppressively that they are rendered entirely powerless over their fate.

Altruistic suicide is instanced by cases such as the suicide of military officers for the honour of the regiment, or the self-sacrifice of a leader’s family and retinue on the leader’s death, or the self- sacrifice of suicide bombers. In such cases the bonds within the social group are so strong and intense that they create among the members a powerful sense of group identity. Individuals are so dependent upon the group for their sense of identity, in fact, that they think themselves less important than the group and are willing to give up their lives in order to respect and preserve it and its values.

The fatalistic form which receives barely a mention from Durkheim (one brief footnote), occurs when individuals in a group are placed in a position of such restriction that they feel nothing can be done to control their own life save to exit from it, e.g. suicides among slaves. This argument for a balance between social regulation and individual autonomy concludes that the problem in modern, i.e. organic, society is that the balance has swung too much towards freedom from social regulation.

Durkheim’s concern was with understanding the mechanisms which structured relations between the individual and society, with a view to working out how to readjust them in the desirable direction. As for making out a case for a science of sociology, in the analysis presented in Suicide Durkheim felt he had succeeded in demonstrating the existence of supra individual patterns in terms of which individual fates were decided. In any given society the rates of suicide did not vary much over time, and Durkheim wrote of society as ‘demanding a certain rate’ of individual deaths. This kind of remark might seem to justify the impression, which alienated many from Durkheim, that he was giving far too great a reality to society. He seemed to treat it as something not only arising from association among human beings, but also as having a life of its own.

Arguably, however, Durkheim did not intend any such suggestion. After all, he did point to collective phenomena to justify his talk about the reality of society’s existence and did seek to avoid conveying the impression that society was something utterly dissociated from its members. From this point of view, his remark about society ‘demanding’ a certain rate of suicides was really only a way of saying, admittedly loosely, that the conditions which exposed people to the risk of suicide remained constant for comparatively long periods of time. Rather than unjustifiably reifying society, Durkheim can be read as emphasizing the fact that our membership of society is neither of our choosing, nor something we can cast off at will.

Critical Evalution:

  • M. Halbwachs (1930) concluded that Durkheim’s analysis could be simplified to an inverse relationship between social complexity and suicide rates, demonstrated by the fact that suicide rates were lower in rural areas where life styles were simpler than in towns. Modern theories usually assume that rapid changes of socio-economic status are the cause of suicide. Though unlike durkheim they include various psychological factors to explain why only certain individuals commit suicide in these circumstances.
  • R. Cavan’s (1928): Outside the Durkheimian tradition, R. Cavan’s also focus on Social disorganization, which is conceptualized in terms of population variables such as high rates of social mobility and social complexity that weaken that influence of social values on individuals.
  • The devastating criticisms of Durkheimian theory made by J.B. Douglas (1967) indicate that existing accounts lack foundation and are misguided. He shows that official statistics are highly inaccurate and systematically biased in ways that support disintegration theories. Suicide are more accurately reported in towns than rural areas, highly integrated groups are more likely, than poorly integrated ones, to conceal suicides by ensuring that other causes of death are recorded, the medical competence of those who categorize deaths for official purposes varies and may be assumed to be greater as societies modernize (and more complex).
  • Thus Durkheimian and ecological theories simply and uncritically reproduce the distortions inherent in official statistics. Existing theories are also misguided, because they impute social meanings to suicide such as ‘egoistic’ and ‘anomic’, that are based merely on untested commonsense judgments and ignore the actual meanings for those involved. In Douglas’s view, particular social acts like suicide cannot be explained by abstract social meanings such as ‘suicide’ lies in its demonstration of the function of sociological theory in empirical science.

Religion and Society

  1. Durkheim’s last major book, ‘The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912)’, is often regarded as the most profound and the most original of his works. The book contains a description and a detailed analysis of the ‘clan system’ and of “totemism in the Arunta tribe” of Australian aborigines, elaborates a general theory of religion derived from a study of the simplest and most “primitive” of religious institutions, and outlines a sociological interpretation of the forms of human thought which is at the heart of contemporary sociology of knowledge.
  2. Durkheim began with a refutation of the reigning theories of the origin of religion. Tyler, the distinguished English ethnologist, who supported the notion of “animism’, i.e., spirit worship as the most basic form of religious expression. Max Muller, the noted German linguist, put forth the concepts of “naturism”, i.e., the worship of nature’s forces.
  3. Durkheim rejected both concepts because he felt that they failed to explain the universal key distinction between “the sacred and the profane” and because they tended to explain religion away by interpreting it as an illusion, that is, the reductionist fallacy.
    • Moreover, to love spirits whose unreality one affirms or to love natural forces transfigured merely by man’s fear would make religious experience a kind of collective hallucination. Nor is religion defined by the notion of mystery or of the supernatural.
    • Nor is the belief in a transcendental God the essence of religion, for there are several religions such as Buddhism and Confucianism, without gods. Moreover, reliance on spirits and supernatural forces will make religion an illusion.
  4. To Durkheim it is inadmissible that system of ideas like religion which have had such considerable place in history, to which people have turned in all ages for the energy they needed to live, and for which they were willing to sacrifice their lives, should be viewed as so profound and so permanent as a correspond to a true reality. And, this true reality is not a transcendent God but society.
  5. Thus the central thesis of Durkheim’s theory of religion is that throughout history men have never worshipped any other reality, whether in the form of the totem or of God, than the collective social reality transfigured by faith. (Collective Conscience, Social Fact)
  6. The essence of religion: According to Durkheim, the essence of religion is a division of the world into two kinds of phenomena, the sacred and the profane.
  7. The sacred refers to things human beings have set apart, including religious beliefs, rites, deities, or anything socially defined as requiring special religious treatment. Participation in the sacred order, such as in rituals of ceremonies, gives a special prestige, illustrating one of the social functions of religion. “The sacred thing, is par excellences that which the profane should not touch and cannot touch with impunity.” The profane is the reverse of the sacred. “The circle of sacred objects, cannot be determined once for all. Its existence varies infinitely, according to the different religions.”

Accordingly, durkheim defines religionas a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden-beliefs and practices which unite in one simple moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to it.”

  1. Beliefs and practices unite people in social community by relating them to sacred things. This collective sharing of beliefs, rituals, etc., is essential for the development of religion.
  2. The sacred symbols of religious belief and practice refer, not to the external environment or to individual human nature but only to the moral reality of society.
  3. The origins of religion: Instead of animism or naturism, Durkheim took “Totemism” among the Australian tribes as the key concept of explain the origins of religion. Ordinary objects, whether pieces of wood, polished stones, plants or animals, are transfigured into sacred objects once they bear the emblem of the totem. Durkheim writes: Totem, refers to an implicit belief in a mysterious or sacred force or principle that provides sanctions for violations of taboos, inculcates moral responsibilities in the group, and animates the totem itself.
  4. The emphasis here, in keeping with his overall emphasis upon social analysis of social phenomena, was upon the collective activities as the birthplace of religious sentiments ideas.
  5. According to Durkheim, the essence to Totemism is the worship of an impersonal, anonymous force, at once immanent and transcendent. This anonymous, diffuse force which is superior to men and very close to them is in reality society itself.
  6. Moreover, durkheim claims that just as societies in the past have created gods and religion, societies of the future are inclined to create new gods and new religions when they are in a state of exaltation. When societies are seized by the sacred frenzy, and when men, participating in ritualistic ceremonies, religious services, feasts and festivals, go into a trance, people are united by dancing and shouting and experience a kind of phantasmagoria. Men are compelled to participate by force of the group which carries them outside of themselves and gives them a sensation of something that has no relation to every day experience. During such moments of sacred frenzy and collective trance, new gods and new religions will be born.
  7. Durkheim believed he had solved the religious-moral dilemma of modern society. Religion is nothing but the indirect worship of society. Modern people need only express their religious feeling directly toward the sacred symbolization of society. The source and object of religion, Durkheim pointed out, are the collective life – the individual who feels dependent on some external moral power is not a victim of hallucination but a responsive member of society.

The substantial function of religion, said Durkheim, is the creation, reinforcement, and maintenance of social solidarity. Religion act as an agency of social control and provides solidarity. He argued that religious phenomena emerges in any society when a separation is made between the sphere of the profane-the realm of everyday utilitarian activities-and the sphere of sacred-the area thatpertains TO THE TRANSCENDENTAL, THE EXTRAORDINARY.

  • Religion, as durkheim saw and explained it, is not only a social creation, but is in fact society divinized. Durkheim stated that the deities which men worship together are only projections of the power of society. If religion is essentially a transcendental representation of the powers of society, then the disappearance of traditional religion need not herald the dissolution of society, Furthermore, Durkheim reasoned that all that is required for modern men now was to realize directly that dependence on society, which before, they had recognized only through the medium of religious representation.

On the most general plane, religion as a social institution serves to give meaning to man’s existential predicaments by typing the individual to the supra individual sphere of transcendental value which is ultimately rooted in his own society.

Critical Evaluation:
  1. With his study of religion, Durkheim successfully demonstrated the application of functionalist methodology in sociology which subsequently influenced the works of B. Malinowski and A.R. Radcliffe-Brown.
  2. Durkheim’s view, that the idea of sacred and the beliefs associated with it are a symbolic representation of society itself has been corroborated by the later researches of Guy swanson. Swanson carried out a comparative study of religious beliefs in simple societies organized on kinship principle and the complex and highly differentiated societies of the present day.
  3. Swanson found that kinship based societies had no concept of single god and neither did they have any ecclesiastical organisation which competed with kinship organisation for obesisance. Instead they tended to practice totemic type of religion which symbolized and strengthened the kinship organization. On the other hand, highly differentiated types of societies, like kingdom or a nation tended to have a belief in a single supreme god. Such a belief in a single God provided a rallying point for the members of the society and thus helped in maintaining solidarity. Thus the nature of religious belief corresponded with the nature of social structure as postulated by Durkheim.

Despite this, Durkheim’s work on religion has been criticized on various grounds.

  1. Durkheim’s view that religion act as an agency of Social control and provides solidarity is true only for simple small scale societies which practice a single common religion. In the case of modern industrial societies religion has lost both these function. Given the highly differentiated and diversified nature of modern societies, religion can no longer act as an agency of social control. Next, the existence of a plurality of religions, quite often lead to inter religious conflict and therefore endanger solidarity rather than enhancing it.
  2. Durkheim’s absolute distinction between sacred and profane has also been criticized. Critiques have objected that the distinction is faulty at an empirical level that is, as an account of what aborigine religious were actually like. They also complained that it fails at the conceptual level. For example, it is not clear why there can only be two classes of objects. Is there not also at least one other class which consist of things which are neither sacred nor profane but, simply ‘mundane’. Again, critiques asked whether the relationship between the two classes of objects one of total hostility or one of a division between two complimentary systems of thought. Edmund leach insists that actions fall in between the two extremes on a continuous scale. At one extreme are actions which are entirely profane, at the other actions which are entirely sacred. Between the two extremes fall the majority of social actions.
  3. Further Worsley has criticized Durkheim’s explanations of religious beliefs and rituals. Despite the length and detail of ‘Elementary Forms’ the explanation is casting a very general form. The origins of the actual religious systems are not accounted for at all, but treated as if, say, the choice of the sacred object or of the actual ritual prescription themselves were arbitrary and unimportant. This is especially regrettable in the case of rituals since it has been argued that rituals do, in fact, always contain an important material basis in the agricultural technology of the tribe or the group which implies them.
  4. Next criticism is related to durkheim’s views on relationship between society and religion. Durkheim’s views on this aspect are irritatingly ambiguous and even tautological. At various points, he seems to be claiming that social organisation exerts a casual influence over religious thoughts. At others, as when he asserts that ‘nearly all the great social institutions have been borne’ in religion’. It is religious thought which is seen as the determining element. He appears to be arguing that religion end societies are the same thing. This does not exhaust the list. Steven Lukes has identified no less than six distinct hypotheses, none of them reducible to the other about the relationship between society and ideas which can be found within Durkheim’s sociology of knowledge as a whole

An Assesment Of Durkhiem:

  1. One of the main problems in sociology was defining “theory (subject matter) and method”, durkheim gave clear answers, both for theory and method. Durkheim faced up to complex methodological problems and demonstrated by implementing in his works, the necessity of empirical research for a science of society. Durkheim defined sociology as the science of social facts and of social institutions. Social facts, in turn, are analysed in their capacity as constraining forces in the determination of human conduct or in more modern terms, as part of the apparatus of social control.
  2. In this connection, His discussions of the collective conscience, in spite of some variations, call attention to the ways in which social interaction and relationships significantly influence individual attitude, ideas and sentiments. For Durkheim, the reality of society preceded the individual life. Durkheim frequently, especially in discussions on the collective conscience, reached a degree of sociological realism that seemed to deny altogether the social significance of individual volition or decision. Society is real, to be true, but so is the individual. And the two, it should be remembered, are always in interaction. Giving priority to one or the other is misleading in the long run.
  3. Durkheim showed convincingly that social facts are facts sui generis. He brought out vividly the social and cultural importance of division of labour. He analysed the nature and many of consequences of social solidarity. He indicated the role of social pressure in areas of human activity where it had previously escaped detection. Along with Max Weber he brought the attention of sociologists to the significance of values and ideals in social life.
  4. Durkheim believed in formulation of causal explanations (positivism). It is argued by him that it is the business of the sociologists to establish causal connections and causal laws. Although many are skeptical about this approach, a great number of causal connections and functional correlations have been established by sociology with a reasonable degree of probability. Moreover, those who are skeptical about finding causal relations concede the existence of such trends in sociology. While pleading for causal explanations, Durkheim argued that since laboratory experimentation is impossible in sociology, we should go in for indirect experimentation, by using the comparative method. This particular method continues to be used by sociologists.
  5. Durkheim is the pioneer of functional approach in sociology. After Durkheim the functionalist approach was pursued by Talcott Parson and R.K. Merton. It is in the context of functionalism that Durkheim distinguished between normal and pathological functions. This opening in sociological research has been further elaborated by later thinkers. Closely following Durkheim, Merton distinguished between ‘Manifest’ and Latent’ functions. Also, the idea of ‘dysfunction’ goes back to Durkheim’s idea of ‘pathological’ functions. Although Durkheim claimed that religion contributes to social solidarity, Merton pointed out that it can be dysfunctional in some societies since it can be very frequently, a source of discord and social conflict.
  6. Durkheim established a relationship between suicide rates and the degree of integration of individuals in a social group in his theory of suicide. This part of the work of Durkheim has been found to be useful, and it has been confirmed by later studies like those of Douglas and Giddens.
  7. One of the important contributions of durkheim is in distinguishing the phenomena studied by psychology and sociology. According to him, sociology must study social facts, those which are external to individual minds and which exercise coercive action on them. Taking a cue from this view of Durkheim, many sociologists have developed their thoughts. Ginsberg concedes this point. There might be psychological generalization firmly established by relating them to general psychological laws. In the same manner, Nadal argues that some problems of social enquiry might be eliminated by a move to a lower level of analysis into the fields of psychology sociology and biology.
  8. Durkheim made population size an important factor in the study of sociology. Societies can be classified according to their volume (individual) and density (number of social relations). He thought that increase in volume generally brought about increase in density and the two together produced variations in the social structure. In recent sociology this particular problem has been taken up in a different way in the book ‘The Lonely Crowd’ by Riesman. Modern sociologists attach considerable importance to the problem of population. The influence of population movements upon economic growth is examined by Lexis in his book ‘The Theory of Economic Growth’.
  9. Durkheim did contribute to the typology of societies. He distinguished between mechanical solidarity and organic solidarity. Besides, Durkheim was aware that societies might be classified in other ways also. He classified them as a simple societies (the hordes), simple poly segementary societies (the three tribes which founded Rome) and doubly compounded poly segmental societies (The Germanic tribes). This attempt of Durkheim was further elaborated in terms of scale and internal differentiation by Marret and Davy.
  10. Durkheim argued that division of labour was the primary sources of social solidarity. In mechanical solidarity law would be repressive, while in organic solidarity, law would be restitutive. Durkheim also discussed abnormal forms of division of labour that is those which go against the promotion of social cohesion. In the abnormal forms he found two, the anomic and the forced. By the first he meant examining specialization. As a remedy Durkheim proposed contact through professional association and negotiation between capital and labour. What Durkheim anticipated is very true of modern times. This approach is greatly followed by a number of thinkers who discount Marx’s ideal of social or class conflict.

Finally, after Durkheim very little work has been done on the importance of religion. However, there are a number of empirical studies of particular sects in terms of their relation with and response to the social milieu in which they exist just as those of Wilson and Peter Berger, etc.

  1. Durkheim’s approach has been criticized for its extreme form of social realism. He has been condemned for over emphasizing society and the group at the expense of the individual. Durkheim has adopted a determinist point of view according to which individual has been subordinated almost totally to the collectively. Religion, law, moral etc., are the aspects of conscience collectively which according to Durkheim, shaped individual behavior and his values. Thus individual’s choices, meanings and motives have no independent place in Durkheim’s scheme of things (Weber). In fact, they themselves are viewed as shaped by the social forces. Thus, exaggerating the importance off collectivity over individuals Durkheim has inadvertently ended up legitimizing fascism.
  2. This extreme form of social realism is manifested in his work of suicide, where he speaks of suicidogenic currents as collective tendencies which dominate individuals and force some of them to commit suicide. Here, as pointed out by Douglas, Durkheim totally ignores the meanings and motives which the individual impute to their circumstances before they take the extreme step of committing suicide.
  3. Durkheim has also been criticized for his extreme positivism as can be seen in his attempt to make sociology a natural science. It has been argued that the study of the phenomena of suicide can never rely exclusively upon statistical data, because such data can never be authentic. The official records reveal what the police, the doctor or the coroner regard as the case for suicide. Sometimes, the deaths caused due to accidents or murders may get registered as suicide in the official records and vice-versa.
  4. Further, the positivist emphasis on explaining phenomena exclusively on the basis of outwardly observable characteristics ignores the human side of social behavior. It fails to take into account the subjective dimension of human behavior manifested in the meanings, choices and motives of an individual.

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