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Key Features of Durkheim's Methodology

of Sociology
1. Durkheim was epistemologically a positivist, assuming that facts were given
in experience. He saw no difference in pursuing inquiry in the physical and social
sciences. Similarly, he seemed committed to the version of determinism that one
could explain and predict action if one had the pertinent regularities (laws). (See his
Rules of Sociological Method.)
2. Durkheim is rigorously anti-psychologistic (anti-individualist) in his
understanding of society. In this he follows Comte (who follows Rousseau) in
rejecting the 'utilitarian' conception of the genesis of society (Hobbes, Smith,
Bentham, Mill). We cannot, he argues, 'deduce society from the individual.' It is
clear enough, accordingly, that he rejected psychological explanations of
behavior, but is not clear whether he supposed that one could offer sociological
explanations of behavioror indeed, whether he restricted explanations to types
of behavior, e.g., anomic vs altruistic suicide, and to social phenomena, e.g.,
suicide rates.
3. His Suicide is rightly taken to be a seminal work in what is today called
quantitative sociology. For Durkheim (following J.S. Mill), while one could not
use the Methods of Agreement, Difference and Residues in social science (since
experiment was impossible), one must use the Method of Covariation. (Logistic
Regression is a post-Durkheim strategy for this.)
4. In response to 'utilitarians,' he argues that there are social facts. Social facts are
not 'psychological facts,' but are 'ways of acting or thinking with the peculiar
characteristic of exercising a coercive influence on individual consciousness.' Social
facts are 'external,' 'objective' and not reducible to 'states of the individual
consciousness.' Thus, 'legal rules, moral obligations, popular proverbs, social
conventions' 'have a permanent existence and do not change with the different
applications made of them, they constitute a fixed object, a constant standard of
reference for the observer, which excludes subjective impressions and purely
personal observations.' It was 'the very foundation' of his method that 'social facts
are to be treated as things.' Inquiry into social facts defines sociology. He argued
that social facts constrained behavior, seemed not to hold that they also enabled
it, and sometimes suggested that they determined behavior.
5. 'Social facts do not differ from psychological facts in quality only; they have a
different substratum.' Durkheim calls this 'the collective conscience.' 'The states of
the collective conscience,' are, he writes, 'different in nature from the states of the
individual conscience; they are representations of a different sort. The mentality of

groups is not the same as that of individuals; it has its own laws.' (This raises
difficult questions about the sense in which a collective conscience exists or
alternatively, about the ontological status of 'social facts.')
6. The collective conscience is represented by symbols. Indeed, 'social life, in all its
aspects and in every period of its history, is made possible only by a vast
symbolism' (p. 186). His work on symbols as representations, especially in The
Elementary Forms of Religious Life, was enormously influential, as well.
7. In his Division of Labor in Society, Durkheim offers four dimensions of the
collective conscience: the volume, intensity, rigidity and content of the beliefs and
values which comprise the collective conscience. Seeing how they change and
differ allows us to see the difference between traditional societies (based on
'mechanical solidarity' and modern societies which are characterized by 'organic
solidarity.' He argued that the tradition that had followed Adam Smith misconceived
the function of the division of labor. He insisted that it is critical to solidarity.
8. Durkheim defended functionalism, but was a critic of the idea that because some
social institution was useful, it was perception of its usefulness that brought it into
existence. But he followed Comte in holding that societies, like organisms, have 'a
lawful development.' Anomie, e.g., was an 'abnormal' condition which demanded a
response if the 'social organism' was to regain a 'healthy' homeostasis. Since
Parsons drew from Durkheim on this issue, we forego further discussion here.
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