Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work
One of the more curious features of sociology is the number of times that it has been founded. In the late nineteenth century both Max Weber in Germany and Emile Durkheim in France behaved as founding fathers of the new science, without taking any interest whatever in each other’s work. In 1914 when the barbarism of bourgeois civilization erupted in World War I, each identified his own nation as being enlisted in the cause of civilization and his nation’s opponents as being enlisted in that of barbarism.
This philistine political nationalism was related to the nationally isolated character of their academic work. Both Weber and Durkheim believed that although the science that they were founding dealt with the character of the distinctively modern social order—with the resemblances and differences between that social order and the societies and cultures of alien times and places—the motives that inspired them to understand modernity arose from a particular and partisan preoccupation with the destinies of Germany and of France.
One of the many merits of Steven Lukes’s new, extensive intellectual biography of Durkheim is that it provides much material that helps to answer the question of how far Durkheim’s analysis of social life has an independent and continuing interest, and how far it reflects the particular circumstances of the French Third Republic in the years between 1880 and 1914. On this as on every other aspect of Durkheim’s career Lukes’s study is encyclopedically informative, and pleasurably lucid.
It enables us to understand how original Durkheim’s thought is in relation to the ideas of his immediate predecessors. In 1880 the climate of French secular thought had been mainly formed by Comtean positivists. When foreign thinkers were influential, as in Durkheim’s case Spencer and Wundt were, they were usually at best limited to framing new answers and solutions to positivist questions and problems. Durkheim not only opened up new theoretical perspectives. He had a passionate interest in the particularized detail of social life which rescued him to some degree from the incurably generalizing tendency of French positivism. Dr. Lukes thus offers us an intellectual portrait not only of Durkheim but of his age. If he rarely goes beyond the immediate critical questions arising from Durkheim’s writings, it is surely because the task he set himself, that of clarifying Durkheim’s thought and career, was necessary before deeper questions could be raised.
Durkheim’s work had three main themes. The first was that “society is not a mere sum of individuals; rather the system formed by their association represents a specific reality which has its own characteristics….” There are specifically social facts which have only sociological explanations. The suicide rate of a given society is to be explained not by the motives and reasons of the people who killed themselves, or by any other psychological factor, but by the degree of anomie, of the breakdown of socially established norms, in the community. This view is to be contrasted with that of those social scientists who have followed Weber…
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