The French sociologist Émile Durkheim can be considered, with recognized authority, the main constructor of the modern social science, as we know it, as well as a sculptor of ideas, who chiseled the masterpiece of modern Sociology, creating a totally differentiated and unique field of science, not to be confused with other thought currents, like Philosophy or Anthropology, which were subjects Durkheim was rather versed on as well. However, can we proclaim that he influenced contemporary culture to the point of establishing the path it would follow to meet modernity with a new perspective? I certainly believe Sociology owes him a lot in what concerns his studies, no matter how criticized they may have been. His quest for impartiality and rigor can be considered the basis to transform Sociology into an academic Subject. His methods may be contested, but the facts are undeniable: he was a pioneer!
According to a study (The Sociological Method of Durkheim, Philosophical Review, by Theodore de Laguna):
He (Durkheim) entered upon the study of sociology with the conviction that little or nothing of real scientific value had been done in that field even by those who, like Comte and Spencer, were reputed to be founders or reformers of the science.(Laguna)
He set himself to the task of initiating a real science (Laguna)
In order to achieve this goal, Durkheim’s work was based in empirical and rationalistic approaches: to treat social facts as facts (Laguna) means to look for enlightenment in fresh unbiased observation (Laguna) which aimed at guaranteeing that society would keep its integrity and meet modernity as a whole. According to Durkheim, individuals, groups, different cultures, per si, cannot influence or change the social facts that exist on their own.
A social fact is defined as any mode of action, thinking and feeling. External to the individual, and imposing itself on him by virtue of coercive power (Laguna)
In Durkheim’s view, society was embedded of patterns of thought and behaviour that are common to a collective consciousness (Durkheim) and the fact that religion and traditional cultural values seemed to have lost their social power, constituted a demand for a strict methodology to study society and its new challenges. This way, it would be possible to face the rise of newly re-created institutions (family, marriage, but also education, religion, culture, work and politics among others) in a dispassionate, scientific way: with the rational eye of impartiality. Following this line of analysis:
Language, laws both statute and moral, religious beliefs, financial systems impose themselves upon the individual. They are general because collective (i.e., obligatory) and not vice versa. (Tufts)
The concepts of social fact and collective consciousness are, therefore, essential in cultural terms to understand the theory of Durkheim, who has been highly criticized in several academic schools of thought for his extreme positivism (derived from Comte) and his conservative view of the social institutions. Durkheim was, nevertheless, a huge influence in contemporary cultural Sociology. He not only managed to institutionalize Sociology as an academic subject (Weiss), but he recognized the important role of individuals and mainly “a rational capacity, condition for a true autonomy” (Weiss), contradicting, this way, those who accused him of looking at individuals as non-important. In fact, the proclamation of individual autonomy allows individuals to achieve a rational (well-informed) freedom, morality and an ethical behavior. Durkheim had a serious concern with individual deviances, with crime, with suicide, with all the drawbacks and flaws that afflict society and devoted a big part of his work to study them and look forward to finding a theoretical healing for them.
According to Raquel Weiss, a lot of the academic criticism that has been lingering against Durkheim’s work is rooted in a misinterpretation of his global work, which was transversal to society and, therefore a sociological cultural asset. Although different periods of thought can be identified when you research Durkheim’s global work, the fact is he embraced a variety of issues and social topics that helped understand and identify social problems within the concepts of morality, social stratification, religion, law, education and deviance, to mention a few, providing discussion ( solutions) for all of them. Durkheim chose his social issues with maturity and rigor, dissected them and connected them to a common line of thought: the collective consciousness (Durkheim).
Durkheim’s conclusions were of utterly importance to a deep sociological approach of man, as part of a social and global reality. If prejudice is left behind, much is to be gained with a clear, impartial look of his work. Pearson 1 divided Durkheim’s full work in four different stages, covering his last one a long list of new problematics that led Durkheim to “new empirical fields”, which are present in his work “Les Formes Élémentaires de la vie Réligieuse” (1912). Focused precisely on his final theories and making a link between Durkheim’s interpretation of culture and society, Jeffrey Alexander, for example, managed to see the sociologist’s work with a new positive theoretical synthesis that is worth analyzing, in order to reinforce the idea that Durkheim’s influence in cultural sociology is undeniable. In his book “The Cambridge Companion of Durkheim”, excerpt p.1-10 He wrote:
Sociology as it has been commonly understood (Alexander)
Concluding that the solution should be:
Review this largely silent alternative history. (Alexander)
It is not possible to go much further in the research of this interesting new vision proposed in J. Alexander’s book, as the main aim of this paper is to decide if Durkheim’s theories influenced contemporary Sociology, but the “alternative history” (Alexander) mentioned by this author makes us believe there is still much to be learnt and revised in what concerns Durkheim’s views. An open-minded review will certainly be a positive achievement in sociological, cultural and academic terms. As J. Alexandre wrote about the criticism inputted on Durkheim’s earlier sociology and his concept of an external “physical constraint [as] the most important thing for social life,” (Alexander), he refutes the accusation by saying that:
Durkheim remonstrated that he had “. . . never considered it more than the material and apparent expression of a profound and interior fact that is entirely ideal: this is moral authority (Alexander)
Durkheim believed that “Collective representations” (Durkheim) allow things to acquire properties that are non-existent, but permit them, nonetheless, to remain strong, influential, even sacred to people, in a word: real and truly influential.
They determine the conduct of men with the same inevitability as physical forces. (Durkheim 1912: 325–6)
Despite all the criticism and antagonism he managed to arise, Durkheim continues to sow his influence in many scholars who admire him or contest him, but, precisely because they do, they ironically attest the historical importance of his sociological approach to culture, values, society in general and to individuals as autonomous beings embraced by a common consciousness. No one throws a stone at a fruitless tree and, to be fair, there is no way anyone can honestly state that Durkheim’s tree of knowledge bore no fruits, even if bitter ones, is there?
de Laguna, Theodore. “The Sociological Method of Durkheim”. The Philosophical Review 29.3 (1920): 213–225. Web. 10 May 2016. http://www.jstor.org/action/doBasicSearch?Query=Durkheim&acc=on&wc=on&fc=off&group=none
Tufts, James H. “Recent Sociological Tendencies in France”. American Journal of Sociology 1.4 (1896): 446–456. Web. 10 May 2016. http://www.jstor.org/action/doBasicSearch?Query=Durkheim&acc=on&wc=on&fc=off&group=none
Weiss, Raquel. “Paradigmas de Interpretação – um Balanço das Perspectivas sobre a Obra Durkheimiana”, Academia Edu – part of the report delivered to FAPEST Jan (2007). Web. 10 May 2016.
Parson, Talcott op.cit. p., 386-387 cited by Weiss, Raquel “Paradigmas de Interpretação – um Balanço das Prespetivas sobre a Obra Durkheimiana”, Academia Edu – part of the report delivered to FAPEST Jan (2007). Web. 10 May 2016.
Jeffrey, C. Alexandre and Smith Philip “The Cambridge Companion of Durkheim”, excerpt p.1-10, Cambridge University Press. Web. 10 May 2016.
Durkheim, E. (1912: 325–6), cited in “The Cambridge Companion of Durkheim”, excerpt p 10, Cambridge University Press. Web. 10 May 2016.