Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim was primarily interested in how societies could remain coherent and integrated in present times when shared religious and ethnic background can no longer be relied on (Wikipedia 2005). Along with Herbert Spencer, he set the first scientific approaches to social phenomena that focused on social facts, instead of individual motivation. Durkheim suggested that social phenomena existed apart, independently and more objectively of individual actions and that these phenomena could be explained by social facts other than society’s, for example, climatic or ecological adaptation. This belief later came to be known as functionalism (Wikipedia).

His work, “The Division of Labor in Society,” published in 1893, examined the different types of society, particularly the division of labor and how this division differed between traditional and modern societies (Wikipedia 2005). He suggested a view that reversed the order of evolution among societies from a simple to a more complex state and argued that traditional societies were mechanical, had more or less shared things in common, a collective consciousness that submerged individual consciousness with strong norms and well-regulated behavior. The condition differed in modern societies, where this division of labor increased and individual consciousness became distinct from and clashed with the collective consciousness. This state of confusion among established norms led to a breakdown of behavior, which Durkheim described as the anomie, from all forms of deviant behavior, including and especially suicide, could develop

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I. Durkheim wrote that individual self-interests could be held in check only by forces originating from the outside, such as a collective conscience or a common bond of values, beliefs and ideologies (Elwell 2003). These cultural values, beliefs and ideologies should be institutionalized and then internalized by individual members of that society. Unlike in traditional societies, division of labor in modern societies was greater and more complex and common rules and values loosened. The sense of community and identity also decreased. The breakdown of social values and beliefs weakened moral guidance. Durkheim held that an individual would then tend to decide and act, not according to social restraint, but the satisfaction of his or her own needs, with little thought or regard for the consequences on others. He or she was left alone to find his or her own way. In discovering the power of social facts in determining human behavior, Durkheim studied suicide, which was considered one of the most intensely individual acts, purely moved by psychological and biographical factors (Elwell).

Dukheim identified three types of suicide, i.e., egoistic, anomic, and altruistic. He found that egoistic suicide occurred mostly among people who were not sufficiently integrated into social groups (Elwell 2003). They did not belong or interact and thus confronted with a personal crisis they must face alone. They did not internalize group regulation and guidance and had no social support they needed to face and handle stress.

The second type, called anomic suicide, occurred out of the lack of group cohesion or when the group could not provide sufficient regulation and guidance to the individual (Elwell 2003). He pointed to increased division of labor and rapid social change as the causes, both of which characterize or are associated with modernity. Rapid change would create tension in individuals either up or down the social structure and in those confronted by groups with different values and goals, which would compete for the individual’s loyalty and choice.

Durkheim demonstrated this in the case of Protestantism and Catholicism (Elwell 2003). Protestantism concedes greater freedom of thought and has fewer common beliefs and practices than Catholicism (Elwell 2003). On this basis, Durkheim said there should be higher suicide rates among Protestants because of their weaker bond and emphasis on autonomy and individualism. With an increasing division of labor and the weakening of traditional community and family ties, anomic suicide became associated with modernity. The individual confronted weak or contradictory norms or the lack of norms in his or her society and left to his or her own devices. The result would be deviance and stress.

Durkheim identified the third type as altruistic, as when the individual became tightly integrated into a group, which required him or her to give his or her life up for the group’s cause (Elwell 2003). This type can be illustrated by soldiers, nationalists and other intense believers of causes.

II. Durkheim used his analysis of suicide to show how the social as opposed to the psychological and biological can be emphasized and in interpreting suicide rates as expressions of social conditions are social facts that affect societies and individuals within them (Gingrich 1999). He set out rules on the conduct of social research for the observation of social facts, for distinguishing the normal from the pathological, for the constitution of social types, for the explanation of social facts, and for the demonstration of sociological proof. He maintained a strong structural view of society and illustrated the way each individual was influenced by social facts and also how each must fit into these social facts. He particularly pointed to the degree of integration and of regulation. His rules also stressed on the division of labor and the forms of solidarity, wherein economic relationships were governed by social conventions.

Many approaches to sociology have been derived from Durkheim’s method, which attempted to determine social facts and their influence along with concepts like norms, values, socialization, and institutions (Gingrich 1999). While his method made important contributions to social research, some objections were raised on the issues of action and of consensus, solidarity and common consciousness.

Some critics thought that Durkheim’s particular view of human freedom was too limited or that his view did not clearly establish the basis for human motivation and action (Gingrich 1999). They saw him as regarding society and social facts as determining human behavior and individuals with little option to accept these and that Durkheim considered deviations from this as abnormal and must be eliminated. These critics found that Durkheim had little to say about the nature of human motivation and was too concerned with larger structural issues.

The critics credited Durkheim as making a useful contribution to social research by presenting ideas on the source of societal solidarity (Gingrich 1999). But they also noted that his concern was solely this. They observed that Durkheim’s structural approach completely ignored conflict and power differences. The critics assumed that he might have constructed his approach partly to negate the Marist or conflict concept to the study of society. Durkheim’s method treated the anomic and the forced forms of division of labor as unusual but gave little attention and time to their analysis.

Critic Steven Lukes suggested that the concept of the social fact, for example, was downright indiscriminate in incorporating the entire range of social phenomena – population size and distribution, social norms and rules, collective beliefs and practices and range of opinions (Jones 1989). He objected to Durkheim’s willingness to focus more on the super-structural level and less on the infrastructural as he moved in his career and that his rules of research were rather awkward.

III    Durkheim found that social facts had social explanations (Gingrich 1999) and that higher incidents of suicides appeared to be linked to the time when social life was most intense. He specifically used statistics to demonstrate this theory, such as the time of the day, the day of the week or the season, which were not themselves the reason for the volume of suicides. He suggested that the increase of voluntary deaths, for example, from January to July was not because of organic disturbance but the intensity of social life in the summer than in winter, the sun’s position or the atmosphere. Yet the physical environment had no effect on the increase in the number of suicides, because it was socially conditioned. Without establishing the causes of suicide, Durkheim suggested that it must be related to collective life and that time and statistical factors must tie into an explanation for the phenomenon. Nonetheless, the explanation was social in nature and that the natural factors only worked socially. In his illustrative use of suicide statistics, Durkheim suggested that social currents served as suicide rates and these rates differed among societies and groups. He stressed that these figures or rates demonstrated regularities over time and that they should, therefore, be considered or accepted as social facts, at least statistically (Gingrich)

IV.  Issues surround Durkheim’s method of social research. Positive reviewers maintained that he used the analysis of suicide in a very quantitative and statistical manner that to them was exemplary in showing how to test hypotheses, in rejecting incorrect explanations for suicide incidence, working though a range of possible explanations and attempting to ferret out or control extraneous factors. This he did despite a shortage of other data.

Suicide was linked with depression and also with over-excitement, so that heat during peak summer months could not possibly have a direct relation to the rise in suicide rates (Gingrich 1999). If the season were to account for the incidence, then warm countries should have more suicides than cold countries, yet the opposite appeared to be true and Durkheim himself found no direct connection between the incidence and the heat.

Critics found Durkheim’s method to be very empirical and that he sought through all kinds of data to find evidence of the relationship and conditions expressed through these figures or statistics. In the process, he discovered patterns, which were not themselves the cause of the phenomenon of suicide, that the cause was social and that those observed patterns were merely suggestive of the underlying causes.

Durkheim’e method began with statistics on hand in the conduct of its work and in combination with observations. He was in search of social facts and social explanations and tried to establish these with data on suicides. Although his observations were almost entirely empirical and his discoveries failed to connect the occurrences of suicide to what his statistics suggested, Durkheim followed his own rules and in the most scientific and honest way possible with resources on hand.

Quote 1 :  Durkheim already suggested that individual self-interests can be controlled only from the outside, such as by a collective conscience or common values, beliefs and ideologies, which must, therefore, be institutionalized in order to create the effect. Greed is a fundamental craving in the individual, which the law and social norms have endeavored to regulate or inhibit. Greed seeks acquisition for its own sake and is, therefore, not limited by the extent of what has been attained. Because of its nature and because it lies within every individual, reality seems without value to that individual because this craving will never be satisfied. Only “fevered imagination” can approach the satisfaction of greed. But if reality offers nothing to approach that satisfaction urged by greed, the individual who confronts the frustration or emptiness may abandon reality and destroy himself.

Quote # 2. –  If the individual has no adequate social, emotional and spiritual support in his life, especially in times of crisis, he may find death more comfortable than life. He may then decide against social norms and laws and decide for himself. Social restraint or superficial satisfactions may at first prevent him from turning against himself. His relationships and the fear of physical pain in self-destruction can delay it. But external or internal factors can become too intense and unbearable to justify the continuation of physical life. The individual, not necessarily in a fit of madness but out of repeated and labored evaluation in his pursuit of happiness and wholeness, decide that life is not worth living as it is far more harsh than inexistence. At that point, he may opt for suicide.