Emile Durkheim was born in 1858. It is useful, I think, to place him chronologically in context with the other great figures of the classical period of Sociology – Marx, Weber, and
As I explained at some length in my tutorial on The Study of Society, prior to the nineteenth century the standard contrast in Western thought was between Natural Philosophy, or the study of the laws governing bodies in space and time, and Moral Philosophy, or the study of human affairs, explanatory as well as normative. Some thinkers, such as the ancient Atomists and also modern materialists like Thomas Hobbes, sought to explain the behavior of human beings by appeal to the laws governing bodies in space and time. Others, such as Rene Descartes, drew a sharp distinction between the two realms, denying that such a reduction of the psychological or human to the physical was possible. This latter tradition can be traced all the way back to the famous passage in Plato’s Phaedo in which Socrates contrasts a physicalistic explanation of why he is sitting in prison awaiting execution with a moral or purposive explanation that appeals to the norms and purposes guiding his decision not to escape and flee.
In neither tradition was there room for, or acknowledgement of, the existence of, a separate and autonomous realm of the social that could not be reduced either to the physical or to the psychological. The discovery of the social, if I may put it that way, is a distinctive accomplishment of nineteenth century thought. Now, obviously, intelligent observers of la comedie humaine have been making shrewd and insightful observations about social phenomena for at least as long as the written record exists. One need only recall Plato’s brilliant typology in The Republic of the various fallings-away from the ideal state – Plutocracy, Timocracy, Democracy, and Ochlocracy. But Plato, like all those who followed him, traced these differing forms of social organization to the psychological characteristics of the persons who dominated them.
A first major step in the direction of the identification of the autonomy of the social was taken by Adam Smith when he compared the customary or natural prices that rule in the marketplace to centers of gravity drawing to them the fluctuating market prices influenced by the vagaries of supply and demand. But it was only in the writings of Georg Hegel [much as I hate to admit it] that we find the revolutionary idea of society as an organic unity exhibiting characteristics and forms that are not immediately reducible to, or traceable to, the psychological characteristics of individuals.
This idea underlies a good deal of Marx’s discussion of social relations of production as well as his extraordinary analysis of mystification in Chapter One of Capital. But there was considerable resistance from nineteenth century thinkers to the novel claims of the social, and this resistance cast doubt on the autonomy and legitimacy of Sociology, the new academic kid on the block, as it were.
Durkheim, the first great Sociologist, fully understood the philosophical presuppositions of the new discipline. In the work before us, Suicide, published in 1897, he undertakes to meet the objections head on and present an elaborate empirical justification of the thesis that there is a realm of social phenomena that cannot be reduced either to the psychological or to the physical.
Durkheim states the central methodological or ontological problem of Sociology clearly and uncompromisingly in the Preface to the book. “Sociological method as we practice it rests wholly on the basic principle that social facts must be studied as things, that is, as realities external to the individual. There is no principle for which we have received more criticism, but none is more fundamental. Indubitably for sociology to be possible, it must above all have an object all its own. It must take cognizance of a reality which is not in the domain of other sciences. But if no reality exists outside of individual consciousness, it wholly lacks any material of its own. In that case, the only possible subject of observation is the mental states of the individual, since nothing else exists.”
He repeats this point with emphasis later in the same paragraph. “[T]here can be no sociology unless societies exist, and … societies cannot exist if there are only individuals.”
Durkheim proposes to establish the existence of society as an independently existing entity, and thereby to legitimate Sociology as a discipline, by studying the incidence of suicide.
Why on earth suicide?
There were two reasons for the choice. The first was practical. The systematic collection of statistical data for entire countries more or less began in the modern era with the work of the Intendants of the ancient regime in
Durkheim’s second reason is a good deal more interesting. Suicide, he pointed out, is a quintessentially private and individual act. It is an act that directly involves only one person. Even murder involves at least two people, the murderer and the victim. On the face of it, there does not seem to be any direct connection between one act of suicide and another [though, as we shall see, that is not quite true.] If investigation should reveal patterns of great statistical regularity in the incidence of suicide, that would suggest that forces are at work that cannot in any obvious way be explained by appeal solely to the psychological states and processes of individuals.
It is interesting to contrast this question with that which exercised the Classical Political Economists. They began from an observed regularity – Smith’s “natural prices” or “centers of gravity” – and then sought to explain that observed regularity by a Labor Theory of Natural Price [or “Labor Theory of Value” as the 18th century put it.] But as Smith himself understood, the observed regularity of natural prices emerges out of “the higgling and jiggling of the marketplace,” which is to say it is a consequence of wide-ranging interactions between economic actors. Although the adequate explanation of the resulting regularities is a challenging task, as Ricardo and Marx discovered, the existence of those regularities is not surprising, since they emerge from a system of economy-wide interactions.
By contrast, if it should turn out that the uniquely private and individual act of suicide is subject to regularities fully as reliable as those in the marketplace, that would seem to argue for the operation of social forces not reducible to, or explicable in terms of, individual motivations.
Tomorrow, we shall discover what Durkheim learned when he looked at the vital statistics of suicide, and how he explained what he found.