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Durkheim’s Sociological Niche:

An analysis of Durkheimian theory, method and substance as distinct from that of

Marx and Weber.

Stephen Sills
Development of Sociology
Dr. Bolin
October 5, 1999
Durkheim’s Sociological Niche

Émile Durkheim attempted early in his career to establish an academic niche for

his embryonic social science that would be distinct from its roots in moral philosophy

and separate from its related, and already established, discipline psychology (Ritzer

184). “Almost single-handed [Durkheim] forced the academic community to accept

sociology as a rigorous and scientific discipline” (Swingewood 97). Both by refuting

the veracity of the other social scientist in his polemical writings and lectures

(Giddens, Capitalism 72) and by narrowly defining or constraining his own work in

scope and method, he created the ‘boundaries’ of a sociological theory that were

distinct from those of other emerging social sciences such as economics, political

science, and anthropology (Nisbet, Sociology 42-43). In the process of establishing

sociology as an autonomous empirical science, he also distanced himself from those

who would become the other founders of the field: Marx and Weber.

“Durkheimian (like Weberian) sociology soon established itself a secure, and

prominent, position in academic social science, where as Marxism, because of its

revolutionary character, was for a long time either excluded altogether from the

universities or allowed a very restricted place there” (Bottomore 105). This

‘revolutionary character’ was one of the main reasons that Durkheim dismissed

Marxism as a viable means for improving the moral or social condition in modern

society. He felt that “profound change is always the result of long-term social

evolution” (Giddens, Émile 21) not a sudden revolution from the working class.

Moreover, he did not only differ with Marx in how social improvements should be

made or in the perspective of the legitimate academic science toward a misguided

social movement (together what Bottomore refers to as his political orientation), but

also in terms of the theoretical, methodological, and substantive approaches that

sociology should take in its empirical observation of the social world.

Weber, who was never shunned by the academy and did not believe in a class

revolution, none-the-less was of little importance to Durkheim though they were

contemporaries. According to Giddens, it is not surprising that they did not have

much impact on each other as they were influenced primarily by the separate

academic disciplines from which each emerges: Durkheim from French post-

Enlightenment philosophy and Weber from the German historical school (Capitalism

119-120). These differences in perspective are most evident in the approaches that

were employed in their sociologies as we will see in the analysis of Durkheimian

theory, method, and substance that follows.

Durkheim's Objective

To reduce Durkheimian theory to several key concepts is to look for the common

elements throughout his writings and published lectures. Concepts that he uses

liberally in early writings do no appear, or appear in altered forms (collective

conscience altered to collective representation), in later writing, and therefore, from

our historical perspective, cannot be said to be key to a comprehensive Durkheimian

theory (Nisbet, Émile 29-30). Examples of such concepts would include mechanical

solidarity and organic solidarity, terms which he eventually abandoned and were too

closely related to the ideas presented by the other social theorists from which he was

trying to distance himself e.g. Töniess - Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft and Spencer -

The Principals of Sociology (Lukes 141- 147).

Though some of his theories may be distinct from text to text as he rewrote his

science, there are several core conceptual themes that are apparent in both his

methodology and the substance of his sociology. Namely that sociology is a distinct
empirical science that focuses on the moral constraint imposed by external social facts

on individuals as its substance, for the express purpose of reestablishing and

maintaining a moral order within modern society.

Durkheimian Moral Science

Primarily in his earlier writings ‘Positive Moral Science,’ ‘Division of Labour’

and ‘The Rules of Sociological Method,’ he established as essential the tenet that

sociology is an empirical science and not a philosophical art. Durkheim, as quoted in

Nisbet, said that social philosophers, from Plato forward, try to “correct or transform

[reality] completely, rather than to know it. They take virtually no interest in the past

and the present, but look to the future. And a discipline that looks to the future lacks a

determinate subject matter and should therefore be called not a science but an art”

(Nisbet 45-46).

Durkheim did, however, build upon notions that began within the bounds of

post-Enlightenment philosophy. Though critical of Montesquieu (Ritzer 184), he

utilized Montesquieu’s aim to be “as objective and dispassionate, as free of political

or moral preconceptions as possible.” He also incorporated into his approach and

political orientation, Saint-Simon’s “intellectual, moral, and social conservatism.”

And, he further developed Comte’s ideas of a “true science of society…that would be

as determinedly positivist in its way as any of the other sciences”(Nisbet, Sociology


Social Facts

To be a ‘true’ science, sociology must have a context or a definite subject matter.

Durkheim believed that “society is a part of nature, and a science of society has to be

based upon the same logical principles as those which obtain in natural science”

(Giddens, Émile 39). Bottomore does not argue this point because, as he points out in
A Marxist Consideration of Durkheim, “the issues raised by this kind of critical

examination [of the basic conception of sociology as a science] do not so much relate

specifically to Durkheim as to the broad and widely debated question of the proper

philosophical [theoretical] foundations of any sociology” (106). Therefore, just as the

natural sciences look for physical forces that influence the world we perceive with our

senses, social science look at social facts as external forces which exerted moral

constraint on individuals (what Martineau called the social ‘THINGS’ that influence

morals and manners). “In modern terms, social facts are the social structures and

cultural norms and values that are external to, and coercive of, actors” (Ritzer 183).

In this manner, Durkheim established the context of sociology as the study of

“moral phenomena” (Giddens, Émile 19), such as anomie, collective conscience, and

social currents (nonmaterial social facts), and looked for structural and

morphological manifestations (material social facts) that influence and, more

importantly, constrain individuals (Ritzer 187). “The science of moral phenomena

thus sets out to analyse how changing forms of society effect transformations in the

character of moral norms, and to ‘observe, describe and classify’ these” (Giddens,

Capitalism 73).

Moral Order

Thus, Durkheim employed his science of moral phenomena with the prospect of

reintroducing and upholding a moral order within modern society. Durkheim's

opinion was that "the characteristic problem facing the modern age is to reconcile the

individual freedoms which have sprung from the dissolution of traditional society

with the maintenance of the moral control upon which the very existence of society

depends" (Giddens, Capitalism 99). For this reason, his theories centered on the ideas

of social cohesion (solidarity), moral order (law/ anomie/ collective conscience), and
the role of ideas (religion) and most importantly their influence on the social life of

individuals (Bottomore 106). If moral order was to be regained following the

transition from a traditional community (mechanical) to the interdependent modern

society (organic), a temporary period in his opinion due entirely to a lack of moral

cohesion brought upon by the cult of individuality and the specialization of labor, it

would do so more easily if it were guided by a morally conscious democratic state

advised and counseled by an empirically founded moral science (Giddens, Capitalism

79-81, 98-100).

Comparison of Methodological Approaches

Defined and restricted, therefore, in the scientific pursuit of establishing a causal

relationship between the moral reality of ‘modern’ turn-of-the-century France and the

social forces that created that order (or disorder), Durkheim employed comparative

method (for example, comparing totemism to modern monotheistic religions) and the

construction of dichotomies (such as normal vs. pathological) to investigate the social

world. As Nisbet states, "the comparative method, properly understood, is the very

framework of the science of society…[it] is inseparable from a scientific sociology"

(71). As a result, Durkheim set the agenda for the substance of his sociology and

established the methods it would employ as the observation of social facts and the use

of comparisons to establish causality in the resulting modern condition.

This narrowly focused, empirically grounded view of sociology as the study of

“the ways in which social facts are saturated with moral elements” (Swingewood 99)

and, more importantly, the utilization of the comparative method to develop a

primary causal relationship between 'primitive' and 'modern' societies, differed

somewhat from the approaches employed by Weber and Marx.

Though he did use many comparisons, especially historical and cross-cultural

comparisons, Weber did not utilize the comparative approach in his methodology for

the purpose of proving a causal relationship between past (more primitive) and

present (modern) conditions, but rather to show that there are many results that are

possible as well as many general causes for the modern condition, and that each is

distinct within its own history.

Marx was concerned, like Durkheim, with a causal relationship between the

primitive (feudal) and modern (capitalist) conditions and focused on how this

relationship inevitably resulted in the conflict between the bourgeois and working

classes. In a very non-Durkheimian manner, however, Marx looked to the future for a

possible break with the past, while Durkheim was concerned with regaining the moral

stability that once was. Durkheim would have called this projection a philosophical

projection rather than a scientific method.

Although Weber believed that “history is composed of unique empirical events,”

he was wary of reducing sociology to the level of an empirical science (Ritzer 221).

As quoted in Ritzer, Weber said, “A systematic science of culture... would be

senseless in itself” (221). While Durkheim seemed to believe that by scientifically

studying individual’s internalization of moral constraints (nonmaterial causes) and

their subsequent social manifestations (material effects), sociologists would be able to

predict and influence moral order in a modern society, Weber felt that it was

“logically impossible for an empirical discipline to establish, scientifically, ideals

which define what ‘ought to be’”(Giddens, Capitalism 134-135). Due to the special

nature of our human understanding (verstehen) of the subject matter, Weber believed

that sociology could generalize and interpret social phenomena in a way that the

natural sciences could not (Giddens, Capitalism 145- 149). Yet, he did not abandon

empiricism for an intuitive approach: Weber maintained that sociologists could

employ general concepts (ideal types) in positivistic analyses of particular historical

events (Ritzer 221-222).

Marx's sociology, in contrast to Durkheim's empirically grounded methodology

concerned primarily with moral order, employed a dialectical approach based on

historical material facts, not wholly dissimilar to Weber's historical sociology. As a

result, he (like Weber) did not find "simple, one-way, cause-and-effect relationships

among the various parts of the social world," but saw how these parts influence each

other (Ritzer 152). By focusing on the ways in which these pieces of the social world

interrelate, through conflict and contradiction, Marx was able to broaden his

substantive approach and consider many topics which are omitted entirely from the

Durkheimian viewpoint such as economic structures, dramatic political or social

changes, war and legitimate uses of violence, the role of the state (other than that of a

moral role), etc.

Durkheim’s Substantive Approach

It is easy to see, from the theoretical and methodological standpoint that

Durkheim developed, why he chose the substantive problems presented in The

Divisions of Labor, Suicide, and The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. In each

of these texts he has focused on providing examples of how sociologist may use

quantifiable, material social fact (distribution of population, suicide rates, laws) to

establish a relationship with nonmaterial fact (anomie, the growth of the cult of the

individual and the diminution of the collective conscience, beliefs, social currents)

and, in turn, the moral restraint imposed by these nonmaterial facts on the individual

(Lukes 9-11).

In Divisions of Labor, one of the causal agents attributed to the “disintegration of

the segmental type of social structure” characteristic of a mechanical society is

dynamic density (Giddens, Capitalism 78). Ritzer defines dynamic density as “ the

number of people in a society and the amount of interaction that occurs among them”

(Ritzer 190). Durkheim demonstrates that specialization of labor relates to the

frequency of contact between “differing modes of life and belief”, and that there is

relationship between this frequency of contact and the density of a population

(Giddens, Capitalism 78). Bottomore points out that Durkheim neglects, however, to

consider economic factors that contribute to the “differentiation of social functions,”

and tends only to attribute this differentiation to “morphological factors” such as the

size and density of population (Bottomore 115).

Suicide is perhaps the best example of Durkheim’s substantive application of

theory and method. In this work, he details the manner in which suicide, a deviant act

perceived as personal and solitary, “must be regarded as an immoral act, one in

contravention of the social bond” (Nisbet 228). He looks at the of the rate of suicide

(dependent variable) as it relates to the religious denomination of the individual

(independent variable) and surmises that suicide has little to do with the religion

itself, but rather the degree of social integration (intervening variable) among the

participants of that religion and the degree of traditional authority inherent in the

religion (Giddens, Capitalism 83). Neither does Bottomore’s Marxist Consideration

nor do Weber’s writings (as far as I can tell), have anything to say in regards to the

specific subject of suicide, yet both see the influence of the collective on the

individual as only one aspect of sociology. Weber says, in fact, that he became a

sociologist to “put an end to collectivist notions” (Ritzer 231).

Finally, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life was based largely on

ethnographic work that studied Australian aboriginal totemism, and can be criticized

as flawed and contrived (Lukes 477-480), but none-the-less outlines Durkheim’s

belief, agnostic though he was, in the sacred and the profane. “Religion is, in fact, the

ultimate nonmaterial fact, and an examination of it allowed him to shed new light on

this entire aspect of his theoretical system” (Ritzer 200). That which is sacred, he

demonstrated, is separated from the ordinary and “surrounded by ritual prescriptions

and prohibitions which enforce this radical separation from the profane” (Giddens,

Capitalism 107).

This substantive work is viewed by some as a departure from his earlier works,

in that it is based almost entirely on nonmaterial facts and is more akin to idealism

than positivism (Giddens, Capitalism 105-106). Yet others, including Giddens, view

The Elementary Forms of Religious Life as the culmination of Durkheim’s life-long

attempt to establish as the study of moral order as the primary subject of sociology.

While the majority of Marx’s refernces to religion are antagonistic or dismissive

of religion (Giddens, Capitalism 206), Bottomore feels that “Marxist studies of

ideology have paid altogether too little attention to those beliefs and practices which

create and sustain the unity of society against the devisive forces of class

consciousnes and class conflict” (Bottomore 112). Weber, on the contrary, spends a

great deal of time analyzing and comparing world religions and their role in shaping

social phenomena, most notably in The Protestant Ethic where he established a link

between the rise of Protestantism and capitalism and his wrtings on world religions

where, among other things, he looks at the role of authority as it accelerate the move

toward rationality (Ritzer 249-251).

According to Bottomore, Durkheim has omitted, or given only secondary

importance, in his substantive approach to: the importance of conflict, economic

structures, dramatic political or social changes, war and legitimate uses of violence,

and, most importantly perhaps, conflict between nation states.

I cannot find in the whole body of Durkheim’s work any serious attmept to

analyze the nationalism, imperialism, and international conflict which has

shaped the world of the late twentieth century. From this aspect of Durkheim’s

sociology is, wthout question, vastly less useful for analyzing the condition of

modern society and aas a guide to political aaction than are the more realistic

studies, not only of Marxist sociologists, but also of Max Weber. (Bottomore

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