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Emile Durkheim Summary and Analysis

Emile Durkheim Summary and Analysis



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Published by: Jeff on Apr 24, 2007
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While Durkheim’s writings touch on issues of political organization and morality, thefundamental concept diffused throughout his writings reflects a desire to provide a theoreticalframework for describing and understanding the social construction of societal life. The overallagenda for Durkheim is to explain the process by which individuals socially integrate into society,as well as to provide a model for understanding the relationship between people and their respectivesocieties. Most basically, Durkheim develops a framework for analyzing the construction andconstitution of social life.As put by Giddens, Durkheimian scholars “hold that society is a unity which displayscharacteristics that cannot be reduced to those of its component individuals.” (Giddens 2)Durkheim and his successors view society as an entity, which though a consortium of individualactors, is more than simply the sum of each individual part – the amalgamation of these individualscreates a social solidarity, which would be impossible for any one individual to achieve by him or herself.For Durkheim – who held the first true post as a sociologist – the importance of thediscipline as a scientific exploration into the structure, nature, and functions of society was paramount. He sought to apply the methodologies and techniques of laboratory experimentation tothe level of human social interactions, and in doing so, aimed to “reveal the abstract skeleton beneath all aspects of society.” (Collins 183-4) His study and subsequent book,
illustrateshis application of the scientific method to social analysis. In the study, he analyzed different factorsof an individual’s life (marriage, children, religiosity, etc.) in hopes of proving his hypothesis thathigh-intensity social structures (as manifested by the aforementioned indicators) reduce thelikelihood that an individual will commit suicide. (Collins 184) Durkheim set himself apart fromhis contemporaries by his desire to analyze the larger issue of social solidarity, in contrast to simplyempirically describing his findings on suicide as an isolated phenomenon. He sought not simply tofind a correlation between specific lifestyle factors and suicide, but rather probed deeper tounderstand the abstract social structure which related both.
Durkheim also stressed the importance of sociologists operating and studying a givensociety in its contextual environment. He argues, “the sociologist will therefore consider economicfacts, the state, morality, law and religion as so many functions of the social organism, and willstudy them as the phenomena which occur in the context of a definite, bounded society.” (Giddens57) He further presses the point saying, “one cannot study one social function wholly in isolationfrom others.” (Giddens 57) In this way, Durkheim sought to deviate from the philosophicaltradition of examining absolute truths removed from any contextual parameters, and instead aimedto perform analysis within the contextual environment being studied. He viewed sociologists akin to physicists, astronomers, and chemists, in that all learned about new phenomena through the analysisof facts present in individual environments, and not simply by engaging in isolated, individualmental exercises and theorization. Durkheim hoped that sociologists, through data collection andanalysis would be able to reveal social laws, just as scientists of the hard sciences are able to revealnatural laws. (Giddens 60) However, Durkheim equally maintained that observers must not becaught up in the particular mechanisms of any one society, saying that a sociologist, “must endeavor to consider [social facts] from an aspect that is isolated from their individual manifestations.”(Giddens 66). More simply, Durkheim insists that while sociology must analyze data and makeobservations in order to develop theories, sociologists must focus on generalizing their analyses todevelop universal social laws. This is akin to physicists using observations from any one situationto theorize and support formulations of universally applicable laws.The Durkheimian vision of sociology as utilizing similar procedures, methods, and modes of operation as the natural sciences requires a set of assumptions about the nature of social life andsocietal evolution. The most fundamental assumption underlying Durkheim’s work regards thenature of society itself. He comes from the perspective that every social institution and process hasa purpose and reason for existing – that is to maintain social order and solidarity within a givensociety. Durkheim’s functional view of social processes and occuerences is well illustrated by hisview of ritual practice in religion. Durkheim stresses that the goal of ritualistic practice in religion isto reinforce the social solidarity of a society, as it is necessary “to strengthen sentiments which, if 
left to themselves would soon weaken”, and thus “it is sufficient to bring those who hold themtogether and to put them into closer and more active relations with one-another.” (Giddens 230)Throughout his work, Durkheim continually analyzes the role of individual processes in furtheringsocial order as a whole. Another example illustrating the functionalist view of Durkheim is seen in
The Division on Labor 
when he rejects the utilitarian view of modernization, which states that as aresult of the division of labor, there will be more individualism which in turn will lead to anomieand social instability and degradation. (Giddens 177-179) In opposition, Durkheim proposes thatthe differentiation of tasks and division of labor will create interdependence which will in factincrease social solidarity. He states, “the state of 
is impossible wherever interdependentorgans are sufficiently in contact and sufficiently extensive,” for they have an “active and permanent feeling of mutual dependence.” (Giddens 184) Again, Durkheim takes a social phenomenon – the division of labor – and takes the perspective that its main aim is to support socialorder. The assumption of universal functionalism is a prerequisite for Durkheimian theory, and thusa key pillar for understanding the nature of his work and approach.Durkheim’s theoretical framework is also based on a lesser assumption – that societiesevolve along a linear track from traditional to modern, as a result of a number of factors, including population growth. In
The Division on Labor 
, Durkheim outlines the differences between traditionaland modern society, as well as outlines the progression from the former to the latter. This linear  progression of societies allows Durkheim to illustrate the manner in which social solidarity ismaintained in modern societies, despite the rise in individualism. (Giddens 144-47)Through his work, Durkheim champions a positive approach for understanding social processes and societal mechanisms, as he assumes a functional view of the social universe. Hehopes to understand the social construction of society by applying scientific methods to socialsituations, and analyzing the social world much as a physical scientist would analyze the naturalworld. Durkheim’s approach and contributions were paramount in sociology’s quest to achievelegitimacy as a social science.

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