[Daniela Ramírez Camacho] Emile Durkheim

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From: “Daniela Ramírez Camacho”
Sent: Thursday, September 23, 2004 10:14 PM
Subject: Durkheim

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917)

Durkheim’s Social Theory.

Durkeim’s thoery of society was centered on the question of social cohesion. What holds society together? Durkheim argued that what creates this social cohesion is a shared system of ideas and values that shapes and controls individual behavior. He referred to this system of beliefs and values the “collective conscience”. The collective conscience arises from “the communal experience and interactions of the members of a society”.

As subject of study Durkeim suggested looking at “social facts”. He described social facts as “the social and behavioral rules that exist before an individual is born into a society”. Influenced by Comte, he proposed studying observable facts rather than general laws.

“A social fact is every way of acting, fixed or not, capable of exercising on the individual on external constraint, or again, every way of acting which is general throughout a given society, while at the same time existing in its own right independent of its individual manifestations.”

Social facts are objective facts.

1) Social facts exist prior to our own existence; therefore, they exist outside of us

2) Social facts carry coercive power. If we resist or challenge them, negative real effects will be inflicted upon us. For this reason, social facts and social currents become evident once the individual resists them.

In contrast with social facts which are stable, social currents are transitory. Social currents are movements of emotion that emerge from outside individuals and spread because of being many individuals together.

The whole makes the individuals.

Durkheim’s theory of society rejects the assumption which explains that “society is the product of human will and it is, no more no less, what man makes of it”. According to
Durkheim, individuals do not make the whole but the whole makes the individuals. Social facts are called social because those types of thought and behavior do not come from the individual itself, they are imposed to the individuals.

Similar to Plato’s philosophy, Durkheim argues that “the individual manifestations of social facts are imperfect representations of crtistallized social facts”.

Intellectual Implications.

In the 19th century, no clear distinction separated anthropology, sociology, and psychology. Durkheim was a strong proponent of the creation of a specific science that focused on society. He argued that a science of society would have to study its subject matter: society. Thus, the center of study would not have to be the individual.

He criticized the philosophers who had claimed to study society through a method of individual introspection. Durkheim argued that sciences study data, actual societies, in order to achieve some understanding of it.

Tylor had used ethnographic data for his analysis but he considered it expression of individual interests. Durkheim opposed Tylor and Spencer in that their starting point were the individuals and from there, they inferred about society. Durkheim’s theory challenges Tylor and Spencer principally in that individuals cannot create collective thoughts. This is explained in three key points.

1) The individual will not voluntarily prefer to live in cohesive group. The individual’s self interest or natural egoism will at times push him/her to establish social bonds but these would more likely be temporarily. Self interest can put individuals in opposition. What creates cohesion and solidarity is the “collective conscience” that regulates and modifies self interest in a sui generis reality.

2) According to Tylor and Spencer, “social institutions arise out of individual’s interpretation of its own experience. Durkheim argues that individual’s sensations and thoughts are temporal and in constant flux, whereas systems of beliefs are stable.

3) Durkheim rejected that people adhere to institutions because of the personal utility they offered. Individual interests are subjective and vary. Collective beliefs and practices are accepted by people because they carry certain authority and respect.

Durkeim started the French anthropology school of thought that competed with the American school leaded by Boas. Boas focused more on field research while Durkheim focused on philosophical matters.


1) How would Durkheim explain social change? Is there room for conflict in Durkheim’s theory?

2) The idea of cultural relativism is to an extent contained in Durkheim’s theoretical work. Are the idea of cultural relativism and the idea of cultural evolution mutually exclusive or not?

3)What are Durkheim’s contributions to modern anthropology? What are the limitations of Durkheim’s theory?






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