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Monday, December 12, 2011


The central idea of Durkheim’s analysis, and indeed of much of his theoretical work, is that human beings exist in, and are in some sense the products of, a collective social order. He posits this in contradistinction to the methodologically individualist thesis that society is nothing more than the summation of the beliefs, purposes, and actions of the individuals who compose it, and that all explanation therefore must begin with propositions about individuals and move from there to conclusions about collections of individuals, or societies.

Stated thus baldly, Durkheim’s thesis seems patently false, for it is manifestly the case that if one eliminates the individuals from any situation, there does not remain something social, like the smile of the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. But if we examine individuals in a temporally longitudinal fashion, and ask of each one how she or he becomes an individual person, then Durkheim’s claim appears not merely true but obviously true. Here is what I mean.

Each person is born into an already formed social situation, in which gender roles, family structures, religious beliefs, norms, world views, economic categories, political structures, and even styles of bodily self-presentation – ways of walking, sitting, standing, and gesturing – are well established. As the infant develops, she internalizes the particular pattern of norms that characterize the society into which she has been born. Very quickly, we can tell that a child is nineteenth century English or Second Century Roman or eighteenth century Masaii or twenty-first century Chinese, and so forth. The norms, expectations, and modes of behavior that are internalized so completely form the child that there is no sense at all in which the child first grows to maturity and then chooses a social lifestyle. The child who internalizes no set of norms and modes of being is not a free spirit but what used to be called a “wolf child.” Even rebellion has its social styles and norms, so that a rebel is as easily placed in his or her social context as a docile conformist.

It is in just this sense that the social precedes the individual. To be sure, every social role, every style of being, every norm is the product of the choices and actions of previous generations of individuals [think of the way in which language, a quintessentially human activity, evolves.] But to any given individual, almost everything has been formed before he or she comes on the scene. Ask a young child what she wants to be when she grows up, and she will reply by naming some already well established social role – “I want to be a doctor, an astronaut, a revolutionary, a bus driver.”

Now, social roles are not immutable, as Durkheim well knew. Indeed, they are always changing, evolving, being transformed, sometimes by the deliberate and intentional choices of individuals, sometimes without anyone being aware of the process of transformation. But at any moment in the history of a society, one finds individuals who are embedded in a structure of social relations that has shaped them—a structure that is thus temporally and causally prior to the individual, and hence also prior in the order of explanation.

With this as his methodological background, Durkheim addresses the phenomenon of suicide, and concludes that the different modes or forms of suicide correspond to different degrees of the integration of individuals into society. He begins by examining variations in the incidence of suicide among the several religious groupings of nineteenth century Europe. He finds that there is a striking and very stable difference in the incidence of suicide among Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. Putting it simply, Protestants are much more likely to commit suicide than Catholics, and both are much more likely to commit suicide than Jews. Why?

First of all, Durkheim observes that “as a rule suicide increases with knowledge.” But immediately he adds that “Knowledge does not determine this progress. It is innocent; nothing is more unjust than to accuse it. … Man seeks to learn and man kills himself because of the loss of cohesion in his religious society.” Durkheim then issues a stern defense of knowledge, in a fashion that is peculiarly apposite to the anti-scientific temperament of so many Americans today:

“Far from knowledge being the source of the evil, it is its remedy, the only remedy we have. Once established beliefs have been carried away by the current of events, they cannot be artificially reestablished; only reflection can guide us in life, after this. Once the social instinct is blunted, intelligence is the only guide left to us and we have to reconstruct a conscience by its means. Dangerous as is the undertaking there can be no hesitation, for we have no choice. Let those who view anxiously and sadly the ruins of ancient beliefs, who feel all the difficulties of these critical times, not ascribe to science an evil it has not caused but rather which it tries to cure!”

Durkheim draws the following conclusion” “If religion protects man against the desire for self-destruction, it is not that it preaches the respect for his own person to him with arguments sui generis; but because it is a society. What constitutes this society is the existence of a certain number of beliefs and practices common to all the faithful, traditional and thus obligatory. The more numerous and strong these collective states of mind are, the stronger the integration of the religious community, and also the greater its preservative value. The details of dogmas and rites are secondary. The essential thing is that they be capable of supporting a sufficiently intense collective life.”

Having examined the effect of religious belief on rates of suicide, Durkheim turns to two other spheres of social integration – family life and politics –and draws analogous conclusions from his data. He finds that inversely with the degree of integration of religious society, of domestic society, and of political society. “Social man,” he concludes, “is the essence of civilized man; he is the masterpiece of existence.”

All of this, recall, is intended by Durkheim as a refutation of the methodological individualism that dominated so much of nineteenth century thought, and as a justification for the existence and autonomy of a separate intellectual discipline, Sociology, whose object of investigation is the distinctively and irreducibly social character of human existence.

Social integration protects human beings from the isolation that can provoke self-destruction, but is social integration, to whatever a degree, an unalloyed benefit for human beings? By no means, Durkheim argues. Indeed, the statistics, he claims, reveal an alternative and contrary tendency to which he gives the label “altruistic suicide.” Tomorrow we shall see what he means by that provocative term.


Don Schneier said...

Aside from refuting "methodological" individualism, Durkheim also raises the possibility that 'individual' is itself a social construct that is contingent historically, anthropologically,economically, etc. Furthermore, the logical challenge that he helps pose is that of a Dialectical concept of Individual to a prevailing Atomistic one. For example, the American 'rugged individual' is an Atomistic Capitalist concept that is, perhaps, a secularization of some ingrained theological concept of 'soul'.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Don, I think that observtion is basically correct. This is one reason why reading these classics is useful. It calls into questions concepts we use every day without reflection.

Michael said...

Have you A Nervous Splendor:Vienna 1888-1889, by Frederick Morton? It's a lovely history of the city, and some of it's notable characters (Prince Rudolf, Bruckner, Brahms, Hugo Wolf, Freud, Herzl), and while it's more "literary" than scholarly in tone and substance I think it's well worth reading.

I mention it because the book is essentially the story of the zeitgeist of the city, a spirit that will be defined by the suicide of the Crown Prince. Morton argues, indirectly in some cases, directly in the case of the prince, that the whole city lived under a fatalistic gloom. My point is that much of what Morton describes resonates with what you've written about Durkheim.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I don't know the book at all. When I get home, I will see whether I can find it in the UNC library.

Thanks for the suggestion

formerly a wage slave said...

I have a reservation about your third paragraph-- not that I exactly think it is wrong. I think you are right in suggesting that to another personthe ways which I think, speak, behave like a person from the USA are obvious, but a person not from the USA sees things the USA person does not see--- and that means there are cultural things --- features of who I am---that I am unaware of, and so cannot really be said to choose.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

If I understand you, I agree with you completely. Notice that I said we do NOT choose who we become in the process of growing up. Hence much of what we become is, in a sense, invisible to us, even though it may be immediately obvious to someone from another culture [how I stand, for example, or how I talk, or how I express pleasure or disappointment or anger.]

Am I misunderstanding you?