by Phil Bartle, PhD
A Very Brief Summary
The general approach of Durkheim could be described in various ways.
He wanted sociology to be a science, distinct from other sciences and from other academic disciplines.
He wanted to avoid "reductionism," meaning to reduce answers explaining social phenomena by referring to psychological or individual causes.
He gave us a first understanding of the sociological perspective, that although culture and society are carried inside us as individuals, it behaves as a level of reality that transcends, or cuts across, individuals.
His studies of suicide are important to us in their revealing that sociological perspective.
Suicide is not an act that is easily studied by asking individuals –– those who are successful at it tend to be dead, while those who attempt it unsuccessfully do so perhaps as a cry for help, and may not lead us to understanding those who are successful.
He looked at rates of suicide, and saw they varied by country, religion, gender, marital status, and religious affiliation, but that the rates stayed consistent for each category.
He coined the term "social fact," referring to those rates, and said we should explain social facts by social facts, not by psychological or biological facts.
He said that our degree of being connected to the small groups around us, leads to being more connected to the larger society.
Those with low levels of connectivity, which he called "anomie," were more likely to have fewer forces making us conform to social values and expectations, and thus more likely to commit suicide or engage in other disapproved acts.
The concept of social fact lies behind the thinking of Kroeber who coined the word "superorganic."
He looked at the "glue" that held society together, which he called "solidarity" and suggested that in simpler societies that solidarity was based upon sameness and conformity, which he called "mechanical solidarity."
In more complex societies where there was not only greater division of labour in the productive or economic areas but a greater diversity of roles and responsibility in general, we are or were held together by our interdependence upon each other.
He led us to our first sociological understanding of the relationships between individuals and society, in that he contradicted common sense notions or perspectives.
From common sense, we feel that society is made up of and controlled by individuals, whereas Durkheim showed us that individuals are products of society, and that society has various characteristics that go beyond the individual, and can not be explained by individual behaviour.
The classical perspective, functionalism, derives from the writing of Durkheim.
Another important point (not Durkheim's, but mine) is that we should not anthropomorphise society or culture.
I write about that word in my "key words" section on this site. Society cannot think, it can not feel, it can not judge, it can not see, or do many things that individual human beings can and do.
This is part of the sociological perspective.
See keywords: Social Fact.
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