Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim stands among the seminal classical theorists of sociology such as Karl Marx, Max Webber and Ferdinand Tonnies (Morrison, 2006). At a time where the subject of sociology itself was in its stages of infancy in universities, Durkheim’s contribution is described as the foundation for what we recognize today as social sciences (Morrison, 2006).

Though he never considered himself a ‘sociologist’, Durkheim’s theoretical perspectives and social concerns were profound and comprehensive, straddling aspects of  religion, education, economics, law, psychology, ethics, philosophy, and theology. Among his central attention were regarding the aspects of Gemenshaft and Geselshaft: how societies were able to function and be efficient as they progressed into modernization when shared religion, culture and ethnic background seemed to deteriorate in tandem as they develop (Giddens, 1971).

Durkheim borrowed August Comte’s social analysis where he deconstructed society into several parts and described each piece as playing a significant role in keeping the community alive and healthy, much like how each limb and organ throughout our bodies co-exist with one another. For one component to deteriorate or malfunction, the whole system would be affected. He then compounded the Gemenshaft theory with “social facts” as he moved towards Geselshaft, a term he coined to describe how each component had “an independent existence greater and more objective than the actions of the individuals that composed society” (Giddens, 1971).

His predecessors like Tonnies hypothesized that we all have a purpose to and for each other that motivates us to co-exists, like a barter system, with the exception that humans are the commodities. For Durkheim, the “collective consciousness” that underlies a traditional society changes to “individual consciousness” in a modern society as a result of division of labor. Hence, the simplicity, complacency and structured moderation that gelled people together peacefully slowly dissipates as it becomes complex with different specialization in employment and social roles (Poggi, 2000).

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Needless to say, Durkheim broke the mold of looking at Comte’s society as a simple family where there was no conflict, confusion and “anomalies” among its members. It is through these anomalies, or social problems, that we create forms of deviant behavior, most notably, suicide (Poggi, 2000). In a nutshell, the more progressive or “organic” we become, the more social problems are created called anomalies. And these anomalies are the diseases that corrupt who we are that can eventually tip us over the edge with suicide.

Since young, Durkheim was notably a hard-working, studious and scholarly individual.  He was born on April 15 1858 in Lorraine, France into a family of devout Jews. His father and forefathers were all rabbis, yet since young, Durkheim knew he was not to follow suit (Poggi, 2000). He took an alternative path into the secular movement holding on to a belief that even the role of religious phenomena in society had its roots in social understanding rather than a higher, ethereal Being or Divine intervention (Poggi, 2000). His religious deviation could be due to the insurgence of Marxist politics that were sweeping Europe as repercussions of the French Revolution and Prussian War (Poggi, 2000). Nonetheless, the backbone of all his work was influenced by his family’s religious upbringing though they may not be distinct.

At college, Durkheim grew a reputation for being obnoxious. Though he won many accolades upon entering École Normale Supérieure in 1879 his lecturers did not think much of him unlike his peers: Henri Bergson, Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges and Jean Jaurès, the latter who later became Durkheim’s closest friend (Giddens, 1971).

Politics at the time made Durkheim a staunch socialist. Tensions of the Franco-Prussian war, the siege of Paris and a new republican government overturned many changes intellectually for scholars throughout Europe, including Durkheim (Morrison, 2006). In America, tensions were also arising from the civil war between the Union and the eleven southern states led by President Lincoln (Morrison, 2006). It is interesting to point out that as Durkheim germinated a keen observation for social studies and social deviant behavior, America was experiencing the booming explosion of migration from all over Europe (Mclaughlin, 1990) due to the political instability.

Despite America’s own civil conflicts, North America was becoming the goal destination for transatlantic migration. With its rapid influx of racial and cultural assimilation from Africa, South Americas through to Ireland, Durkheim’s work were soon to be seminal and timely in analyzing the social discrepancies that were to befall the new melting pot America (Mclaughlin, 1990). Soon, the country, under the leadership of President William McKinley at the turn of 1890, was experiencing the very problems Durkheim and his peers were scientifically trying to prove in rapidly developing organic societies. America was undergoing what sociologists describe as “transplanted networks” – foreign cultures taken out of its roots and transplanted amongst each other in a new climate allowing the plurality to blend into a concoction of some sort (Mclaughlin, 1990).

For most Americans, immigration had caused an acute problem: the loss of the true “American” identity. America was not just having problems with cultural diversity, but also color diversity. Racial inequality was also due to color division. Though the civil wars had removed the term slavery from its context, the stigma, prejudice and discrimination among the African American and the whites continued to persist, causing an over-layering of marginality on top of the European migration (Mclaughlin, 1990). This racial division soon led to insufficiency and inequality in opportunities leading to so many social anomalies (Mclaughlin, 1990). Considering the fact that Durkheim never set foot in America, it is ironic that America was to become the perfect guinea pig of a society for his all future analyses.

As more Europeans fled to America, Durkheim grew increasingly nationalistic for a weakened France but left for Germany for a year. His return brought new inspiration. He helped to revolutionize the secular education by introducing social science as a teacher in pedagogy and reforming the French school system (Giddens, 1971). A slew of famous accomplishments came after: in 1893 he wrote The Division of Labor in Society, in 1895 he finished Rules of the Sociological Method and founded the first European Department of Sociology at the University of Bordeaux, in 1896 founded the journal L’Année Sociologique, and in 1897 published Suicide (Morrison, 2006).

For a man of his astounding contribution, scholastic achievement and nationalistic pride, Durkheim succumbed to a bullet much closer to his heart: the death of his son in World War I. He never recovered from his sadness and two years later in November 15 1917, Durkheim, emotionally overwhelmed and devastated, died from exhaustion.

Though he died at a young age of fifty-nine, Durkheim left a legacy of social understanding that speaks in volume up till today. One of his remarkable works is his book entitled Le Suicide (1897) that argues how collective forces are instrumental determinants for suicide than individual factors. Though the book was greatly challenged by scholars and skeptics alike, Durkheim’s investigations warrant a legitimate space for understanding, if not comparative study (Brym and Lie, 2006).

Though suicide is commonly associated with psychiatric illness, human weaknesses as an escape to life’s difficulties, or mental dysfunction due to substance abuses, Durkheim contends that it is society and its trappings that leads an individual over the edge (Edles and Appelrouth, 2004). What has been recorded such as race, heredity, psychiatric factors, etc are all “peripheral factors”, far from the nucleus of the causes. The nucleus is by not looking at suicide as an individual or isolated case, but by looking at the totality of suicide in a society: what are the factors causing people to commit suicide? Why are people committing suicide?

Based on Le Suicide, one strong basis is caused by an individual’s poor integration into his society (Emirbayer, 2003). By not being able to fit in, one becomes a social outcast – an anomaly – and being left out or misplaced is what leads one to want to be completely out of the whole community, hence suicide. Another cause is when there is no moral or social integration or regulation for the individual within his society (Edles and Appelrouth, 2004). His formulation: each society has an aptitude for suicide. This is measured by taking the proportion between the total number of voluntary deaths and the population of every age and sex against its historical period (Emirbayer, 2003).

Durkheim creates a linking between individual pathologies to social conditions (Edles and Appelrouth, 2004). He describes four types of suicides: egoistic, altruistic, anomic and fatalistic (Emirbayer, 2003). Egoistic suicide occurs when man finds no more purpose in life. An example is when a person lives alone or has loosened his bonds with his family, is divorced and feels disconnected with others. His sense of non-belonging and feeling non-appreciated would be the triggers that end his life (Edles and Appelrouth, 2004). It is considered the most extreme form and a natural disposition for individuals living in highly developed and modern societies.

Altruistic suicide is when an individual gives his life for his group. Examples of this would be the practice of human sacrifices in certain remote tribal cultures and suicide bombers.  Durkheim describes another type of suicide that stems from this extreme form of helplessness – fatalistic suicide. Such suicide results in primitive groups or societies where the individual is rendered powerless in releasing himself from a form of oppression such as slavery or sacrificial cult.

Anomic suicide happens when there is lack of moral regulation to the individual and his social group. This occurs when the individual feels morally lost and adrift, setting him apart from everyone else. He may have deviated himself from not wanting to be a part of any religion because there many to choose from, or because the religious plurality has reduced his insight on the true meaning of religion (Brym and Lie, 2006).

Through Durkheim’s teachings, we learn that if all members of a society were anchored to common sets of symbolic representations, to common assumptions about the world around them, individuals in their social groups would feel a sense of belonging and help prevent societies from social decay and degeneration.

References

1.Applerouth, S. A. and Edlers, L. D. (2004). Sociological Theory in the Classical Era: Text and Readings. Thousand Oaks. Pine Forge Press

2.Brym, R. J. and Lie, J. (2006). Sociology Your Campus for a New World. Australia. Thomson Wadsworth

3.Emirbayer, M. (2003). Emile Durkheim Sociologist of Modernity. MA. Blackwell Publishing Ltd

4.Giddens, A. 91971). Capitalism and Modern Social Theory. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press

5.  Poggi, G. (2000). The Founders of Modern Political and Social Thought. Oxford. Oxford University Press

6.Morrison, K. (2006). Marx, Durkheim, Weber. London. Sage Publications Inc.

7.  V. Yans-Mclaughlin. (1990). Immigration Reconsidered History, Sociology and Politics. Oxford. Oxford University Press

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