The Freakonomics guys—economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner—take a look at why suicide rates rise as a country’s standard of living increases, just as Durkheim would have suspected. The podcast and related content can be found here.
Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) was born in the northeastern French town of Épinal. He came from a long line of French Jews, though he would only go to rabbinical school for a few years before denouncing religion. Always a gifted student, Durkheim entered the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in 1879, studying the classics and reading early social theorists like Herbert Spencer and Auguste Comte, who pushed early on for more scientific approaches to understanding social behavior. Disappointed with the French academic system, which had no social science curriculum, Durkheim taught philosophy in France before moving to Germany and completing his dissertation in 1886. Durkheim’s dissertation later became The Division of Labor in Society, forever setting a high benchmark for sociology graduate students after him. In 1887, he married Louise Dreyfus, with whom he had two children.
Always productive, Durkheim published some of the most influential works in classical sociology at a fast clip, including Division of Labor in Society in 1892, Rules of Sociological Method in 1895, and Suicide, his most famous work, in 1897. In 1902, he was appointed to a faculty position at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he would remain as an influential teacher and scholar. In addition to becoming France’s first sociology professor, he would also go on to found its first sociology journal. It is no wonder he is often cited as the father of sociology.
Like Weber and Marx, he was also active in politics, oftentimes finding himself in the minority as a socialist sympathizer. As a Jew and a staunch supporter of social justice, Durkheim was active in the effort to overturn the conviction of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish colonel wrongly accused of acting as a German spy. He was also critical of the rise of French nationalism at the onset of World War I, though his spirit wasn’t truly crushed until the death of his son André, who was killed in battle in 1915. It was a tragic event from which Durkheim never fully recovered. He died from a stroke in 1917, leaving behind not just a legacy but also an entire discipline.
Many of us never realize the amount of control and constraint that society places on us. Yet, those of us who have taken a sociology class or two are aware of our own social locations, and being cognizant of it can be jarring. Durkheim gives us a framework for making sense of the stability of life and the layers of integration, control, and regulation that maintain it. Whereas Marx had an eye for conflict and disruption, Durkheim asks us to think of social solidarity and stability as something special to be explained, not as a default or taken-for-granted experience. For example, in the Rules of Sociological Method, Durkheim shows how crime is actually normal in society because without it, we would have no sense of what is morally acceptable. Durkheim’s theories remain central to a number of sociological subfields, including the sociologies of religion, criminology, law and deviance, culture, and more.
Unlike Marx, Durkheim was heavily invested in making sociology an empirical discipline on par with the natural sciences. More specifically, Durkheim wanted to know: how does society hold itself together despite the fact we all have different interests? Durkheim hoped to answer this question through the scientific study of what he called “social facts.” According to Durkheim, social facts are “manners of acting, thinking, and feeling external to the individual, which are invested with a coercive power by virtue of which they exercise control over him.” For Durkheim, sociology is the systematic study of these peculiar types of facts. Durkheim also proposed a methodology or set of rules for studying these social facts, which you can learn more about by reading The Rules of the Sociological Method in the Social Theory Re-Wired print reader.
Durkheim was primarily interested in what holds society together when it is made up of people with specialized roles and responsibilities. In The Division of Labor in Society, Durkheim provides an answer by turning to an external indicator of solidarity—the law—to uncover two types of social solidarity, mechanical solidarity and organic solidarity. Societies with mechanical solidarity tend to be small with a high degree of religious commitment, and people in a mechanical society oftentimes have the same jobs and responsibilities, thus indicating a low division of labor. In other words, it is not a very complex society, but rather one based on shared sentiments and responsibilities. Societies characterized by organic solidarity, on the other hand, are more secular and individualistic due to the specialization of each of our tasks. Put simply, organic solidarity is more complex with a higher division of labor.
Durkheim argues that societies move from mechanical to organic solidarity through the division of labor. As people began to move into cities and physical density mounted, competition for resources began to grow. Like in any competition, some people won and got to keep their jobs, whereas others lost and were forced to specialize. We now know this form of differentiation to be a key element in the division of labor. As a consequence, the division of labor generated all sorts of interdependencies between people, as well as key elements of organic solidarity, like a weaker collective conscience.
Following the discussion above, Durkheim argued that societies characterized by organic solidarity generated social solidarity not through sameness, but through interdependence. However, Durkheim also stated that this solidarity is precarious and can be abnormal, producing anomie as a consequence. Although Durkheim does not give a clear definition of anomie, it can loosely be defined as a feeling of disconnection from the moral norms and rules of a society. Under a state of anomie, there is not enough moral regulation in a society to counteract the individualism associated with a complex division of labor. In other words, a society that celebrates individualism runs the risk of forgetting to tell individuals what they can and cannot do. We can also think of it as a state of normlessness. (For more on anomie, see the Interactive Reading for Suicide.)
For Durkheim, religion is about the separation of the sacred from the profane. The sacred refers to those collective representations that are set apart from society, or that which transcends the humdrum of everyday life. The profane, on the other hand, is everything else, all those mundane things like our jobs, our bills, and our rush hour commute. Religion is the practice of marking off and maintaining distance between these two realms. Rituals, for example, reaffirm the meaning of the sacred by acknowledging its separateness, such as when religious devotees pray to a particular statue or symbol. You can read more about Durkheim’s theory of religion by reading The Elementary Forms of Religious Life in the Social Theory Re-Wired reader.
Durkheim’s life and thought continues to attract the attention of many of today’s most prominent social theorists. See, for example,
Steven Lukes’ book on Durkheim’s life and work:
or Mustafa Emirbayer’s take on Durkheim as a preeminent theorist of modernity:
or Jeffrey Alexander’s book on Durkheim’s relevance for cultural studies:
While the origins of sociology as a discipline began in Europe in the early nineteenth century, sociology in the United States didn’t become institutionalized until close to a hundred years later. Many believe the high point for sociology and sociological theory in the U.S. to have happened in the middle of the twentieth century. This was due to a number of factors, probably the most important being the vast expansion of the higher education system following World War II. Furthermore, the social programs and policies of the 1950s and 1960s made for an increased demand on the part of government officials for better social scientific knowledge. In short, college enrollments and funding for the social sciences were at all time highs.
Like many things American, sociological theory at the time contained a wide variety of influences and ideas; it was a veritable “melting pot” of classical theories being reformulated in new and exciting ways. The major theorist of the time period, Talcott Parsons, for example, had synthesized the theories of Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, and Vilfredo Pareto into his own grand theory of social action. Others, like Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, were inspired by phenomenology, Durkheim, and Marx in developing their own “social constructionist” perspective. And still others, like Herbert Blumer and Erving Goffman, drew upon classic American pragmatist thought as well as the social psychology of Mead to develop a sociology that focused on the intricate meanings and presentations of self we encounter in everyday interaction.
In this larger social environment, American sociology flourished, but not without a good deal of conflict. Theory in sociology at this time was characterized by a deep split between the dominant, structural–functionalist perspectives of Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton and groups of dissenters, some of whom focused less on vast social structures and functions and more on interactions, everyday practices, and meanings, and others, like C. Wright Mills, who criticized Parsonian theory for its lack of a critical perspective. While Parsons’s brand of systematic and grand theory was dominant through the 1940s and 1950s, his approach lost influence during the 1960s and 1970s, and the more marginalized theories began to gain influence among a new generation of scholars.
Talcott Parsons (1902–1979) was without question the most eminent American sociological theorist of the 1940s and 1950s. Parsons synthesized the classical theoretical ideas of Weber, Durkheim, and Vilfredo Pareto to develop (with Edward Shils) his “action theory.” Parsons’s action theory focused on the integration of social structural, psychological, and cultural elements of human behavior in the hopes of creating a unified theory of social action for the social sciences. Parsonian theory began to wane in the 1960s, however, as more interactionist and critical Marxist theories of social life began to gain prominence. Although Parsons’s theoretical influence in sociology is not nearly as large as it once was, interest in his work has recently begun to rise, particularly in Europe. Parsons also exerted a decisive influence over some of the biggest minds in contemporary theory, including Jürgen Habermas, Niklas Luhmann, and Jeffrey Alexander.
Herbert Blumer (1900–1987) was the founder of the influential theoretical perspective “symbolic interactionism.” Blumer developed symbolic interactionism by extending and elaborating on central aspects of George H. Mead’s social psychology, particularly his understanding of human action as being oriented around significant symbols. For Blumer, human beings acted largely in response to the meanings that things have for them and these meanings, in turn, arise from interactions with others. In contrast to structurally and system-minded theorists like Parsons, Blumer viewed society as a fluid process that is under constant construction and negotiation.
Peter Berger (1929–) and Thomas Luckmann (1927–) came to prominence with the publication of their co-authored book, The Social Construction of Reality, in 1966. In it, Berger and Luckmann combine insights from phenomenological, Durkheimian, Marxist, and symbolic interactionist approaches to develop a groundbreaking theory of how the objective reality of the social world comes into existence. For Berger and Luckmann, social reality was “constructed” through a three-part, reciprocal process of objectification, institutionalization, and internalization. Berger and Luckmann both remain prominent social theorists, particularly in the study of modern religion.
Harold Garfinkel (1917–2011) was the founder and principle developer of the theoretical perspective known as ethnomethodology. Garfinkel understood ethnomethodology as a distinct approach to sociological inquiry, one that painstakingly analyzes and describes the various methods by which members of a social group maintain the orderliness and sensibility of their everyday worlds. Unlike approaches that took the objectivity of social facts as given, Garfinkel took it as his job to understand how this seemingly objective reality was constantly being produced, managed, and negotiated in the everyday activities and routines of ordinary people. A guiding principle of ethnomethodology was to not bring pre-existing understandings of what constitutes social reality to the setting under study—neither social structures, nor the objectified institutions of social constructionists, not even the “significant symbols” of symbolic interactionists. Rather, the idea is to let members’ own methods of establishing social reality speak for themselves.
Erving Goffman (1922–1982) is famous for having developed a distinct dramaturgical approach to social interaction and identity. Influenced by the work of Mead and symbolic interactionists such as Blumer, Goffman studied the everyday management of identity as one would study a play or theatrical drama. Central to his theoretical perspective on the self are his ideas about “impression management.” Goffman was the quintessential scholar of everyday life, and his theoretical perspective on self, society, and interaction remains one of the most oft-used and influential in all of sociology.
C. Wright Mills (1916–1962) was perhaps the most vocal and powerful critic of the structural–functionalist approach to sociology that was dominant in the mid-twentieth century. Mills was a critical sociologist in the vein of Marx and the Frankfurt School, and felt that American sociological theory in the 1940s and 1950s was inherently conservative and uncritical in its orientation. Mills is most famous for coining the term “the sociological imagination,” a perspective which allowed the person who cultivated it to grasp the important connections between history and biography, social structure and individual experience.
For an in-depth look at the history of American sociology, go to your library and check out Craig Calhoun’s edited collection, Sociology in America: A History:
From p. 315 in Social Theory Re-Wired
The following studies seek to treat practical activities, practical circumstances, and practical sociological reasoning as topics of empirical studyGarfinkel is not typically thought of as a scholar in the pragmatist tradition, yet many themes of pragmatism are evident in his work.
If therefore industrial or financial crises increase suicides, this is not because they cause poverty, since crises of prosperity have the same result;Durkheim’s Suicide is remarkable for its methods. In the opening pages of the excerpt, Durkheim traces suicide rates in regions undergoing economic booms and busts, finding that suicide rates are unexpectedly high during times of tremendous economic growth. So, suicides cannot simply be due to poverty but rather abrupt change.
Thus the final and definitive concept cannot stand at the beginning of the investigation, but must come at the end.Here Weber is laying the groundwork for developing an ideal-type of the “spirit of capitalism.” Recall from Weber’s Profile page that ideal-types are analytical constructs, sort of like measuring sticks, which can be used to understand concrete empirical cases.