Emile Durkheim on Institutional Analysis

Emile Durkheim on Institutional Analysis

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Emile Durkheim on Institutional Analysis by Emile Durkheim

Ranging from Durkheim's original lecture in sociology to an excerpt from the work incomplete at his death, these selections illuminate his multiple approaches to the crucial concept of social solidarity and the study of institutions as diverse as the law, morality, and the family. Durkheim's focus on social solidarity convinced him that sociology must investigate the way that individual behavior itself is the product of social forces. As these writings make clear, Durkheim pursued his powerful model of sociology through many fields, eventually synthesizing both materialist and idealist viewpoints into his functionalist model of society.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226015361
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/01/2013
Series: Heritage of Sociology Series
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 283
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Mark Traugott is professor of sociology and history at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Read an Excerpt

Emile Durkheim on Institutional Analysis

By Mark Traugott

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1978 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-17330-6



Charged with the task of teaching a science born only yesterday, one which can as yet claim but a small number of principles to be definitively established, it would be rash on my part not to be awed by the difficulties of my task. Moreover, I make this avowal without difficulty or timidity. Indeed, I believe that there is room in our universities, beside those chairs from which established science and acquired truths are taught, for other courses in which the professor in part creates the science even as he is teaching it; in which his listeners are almost as much collaborators as pupils; in which they join him in searching, in feeling the way, and sometimes even in wandering astray. I do not, therefore, come before you to reveal a doctrine which is the privilege and the secret possession of a tiny school of sociologists nor, above all, to propose ready-made remedies to cure our modern societies of the ills from which they suffer. Science does not move so quickly. It needs time, a great deal of time, to become of practical use. Moreover, the inventory of what I bring to you is far more modest and easier to set forth. I believe that I am able to pose with some precision a certain number of special questions which are related to each other in such a way as to form a science set among the other positive sciences. To resolve these problems, I shall propose to you a method with which we shall experiment together. From my studies of these matters, I have drawn a few orienting ideas, a few general perspectives, a little experience, if you like, which I hope will serve to guide us in our prospective research.

Still, I hope that these reservations will not have the effect of awakening or reawakening in some of you the skepticism of which sociological studies have sometimes been the object. A young science should not be overly ambitious, and it enjoys greater credibility among scientific minds when it presents itself with greater modesty. However, I cannot forget that there are still some thinkers, though in fact few in number, who have doubts about our science and its future. Obviously we cannot ignore them. But I feel that to discuss in an abstract way the question of whether or not sociology is viable is not the best manner of convincing them. Such a discussion, however excellent, never converted a single disbeliever. The only way to demonstrate movement is to take a step. The only way to demonstrate that sociology is possible is to show that it exists and that it lives. That is why I am going to devote this first lecture to setting before you the succession of transformations through which sociology has passed since the beginning of this century. I shall show you the progress which has been made and that which remains to be accomplished, how sociology has developed and how it is now developing. From this exposition, you will decide for yourselves what service this discipline can render and to what public it must address itself.


Since Plato and his Republic, there has been no lack of thinkers who have philosophized about the nature of societies. But until the beginning of this century, most of this work was dominated by an idea which radically prevented the establishment of sociology. In effect, nearly all these political theorists saw society as a human creation, a product of art and reflection. According to them, men began to live together because they found that it was useful and good; society is an invention which they thought up in order to better their condition a little. According to this view, a nation is not a natural product, like organisms or plants, which are born, which grow and develop through some internal necessity. Rather, it resembles the machines which men make by assembling parts according to a preconceived plan. If the cells of an adult animal's body become what they are, it is because it was in their nature to become that. If they are aggregated in a specific way, it is because, given the existing milieu, it was impossible for them to be aggregated in any other. On the other hand, the fragments of metal from which a watch is made have no special affinity either for a given form or for a given mode of combination. If they are arranged in one way rather than another, it is because the artisan willed it. It is not their nature but his will which explains the changes which they underwent; it is he who has arranged them in the way which conformed most closely to his plans. Well, shouldn't it be the same way with society as with this watch?

According to this perspective, there is nothing in the nature of man which necessarily predestined him to collective life; he himself invented it and established it. Whether it is everyone's creation, as Rousseau argues, or that of a single man, as Hobbes thinks, it derived in its entirety from our brains and from our imaginations. In our hands it is but a convenient instrument, one which we could do without, if necessary, and which we can always modify at will. For we can freely undo what we have freely done. If we are the creators of society, we can destroy it or transform it. All we have to do is exert our wills.

Such is the conception which has reigned until recent times. The opposite view, to be sure, has come to light at rare intervals, but only briefly and without leaving behind lasting traces. The illustrious example of Aristotle, who was the first to see society as a natural fact, remained almost without imitators. In the eighteenth century, the same idea was indeed reborn with Montesquieu and Condorcet. But Montesquieu himself, who so firmly declared that society, like the rest of the world, is subject to necessary laws which are derived from the nature of things, let the consequences of his principle escape him even as he posed it. Under such circumstances, there can be no place for a positive science of societies, but only for the art of politics. Science, in effect, studies what is; art combines means in view of what should be. If, therefore, societies are what we make them, we needn't ask what they are, but only what we should make of them. Since it is not necessary to account for their nature, there is no reason we should know it; it is enough to determine the end which they must fulfill and find the best way to arrange things so that this goal is indeed fulfilled. For example, we might suppose that the aim of society is to assure each individual the free exercise of his rights, and from that we could deduce sociology in its entirety.

The economists were the first to proclaim that social laws are as necessary as physical laws and to make this axiom the basis of a science. According to them, it is just as impossible for competition not to level off prices little by little or for the value of merchandise not to augment when population increases as it is for objects not to fall in a vertical line or for rays of light not to be refracted when they pass through media of unequal density. As for the civil laws made by princes or voted by assemblies, they are merely the expression, in a sensible and clear form, of these natural laws. Civil laws can neither create nor change natural laws. One cannot give value to a product which has none—that is, which no one needs—by issuing a decree. And all the efforts of governments to modify societies at their will are useless when they are not outright harmful. It would be better that they abstain from such attempts. Their intervention can hardly be anything but harmful. Nature does not need them. She follows her own course all on her own. It would not be necessary, even if it were possible, to help or to hinder her.

Extend this principle to all social facts and sociology is established. In effect, any special order of natural phenomena subjected to regular laws can be the object of a methodical study, that is to say, of a positive science. All skeptical arguments founder on this very simple truth.

"But," the historians say, "we have studied societies and have not discovered the most insignificant of laws. History is but a series of accidents which are, no doubt, interrelated according to the laws of causality but are never repeated. Essentially local and individual, these accidents pass and never return and are, therefore, refractory to any generalization, that is to say, to any scientific study, since there is no science of the idiosyncratic. Political, economic, and legal institutions depend on the race, the climate, and all the circumstances in which they develop: these are all heterogenous factors which do not lend themselves to comparison. In each civilization they have their own physiognomy, which can be studied and described with great care; but we have said all we can when we have produced a well-executed monograph."

The best way to answer this objection and to prove that societies, like everything else, are subject to laws would assuredly be to discover those laws. But, without waiting until that has been accomplished, a very legitimate induction permits us to affirm that they exist. If today there exists any point settled beyond question, it is that all natural entities from the mineral world up through man come within the province of positive science, that is to say that all that concerns them occurs according to necessary laws. This proposition no longer partakes of conjecture; it is a truth which experience has demonstrated, for these laws have been found, or at least we are discovering them little by little. In succession, physics and chemistry, then biology, and finally psychology have been established. We can even say that of all laws, the one based on the best experimental evidence—for not a single exception is known, though it has been verified in an infinite number of cases—proclaims that all natural phenomena evolve according to laws. If, then, societies are part of nature, they must also obey this general law, which simultaneously results from and dominates science. Social facts are, without doubt, more complex than psychic facts, but are not the latter infinitely more complex than biological and physico-chemical facts? Yet there can be no question today of setting apart conscious life from the rest of the world and from science. When the phenomena are less simple, their study is less easy; but it is a question of ways and means, not of principle. Moreover, because they are more complex, they are more flexible and more easily take on the stamp of the least circumstances which surround them. That is why they appear more individual and are mutually distinct to a greater extent. But the differences must not blind us to the similarities. There is, no doubt, an enormous gap between the consciousness of a savage and that of a cultivated man; and yet both are human consciousnesses between which there are resemblances and between which comparisons can be made. The psychologist who draws from these comparisons so much useful information knows this well. The same is true of the flora and fauna amid which man evolves. As different as they may be from one another, the phenomena produced by the actions and reactions among like individuals placed in analogous circumstances must necessarily resemble one another in some respect and lend themselves to useful comparisons. Will someone allege, in an effort to escape this consequence, that human liberty excludes any idea of law and makes any scientific prediction impossible? That objection can hardly interest us, and we can ignore it, not out of disdain, but through the application of method. The question of knowing whether or not man is free is no doubt of interest, but it belongs to metaphysics, and the positive sciences can and must ignore it. There are philosophers who have discovered in organisms and even in inanimate objects a sort of free will and contingency. But neither the physicist nor the biologist has changed his method because of such findings; they have peacefully gone their way without concerning themselves with these subtle arguments. Similarly, psychology and sociology need not wait until the question of man's free will has finally been resolved before they can establish themselves. This question has been pending for centuries, and everybody recognizes that it is not about to be resolved. Metaphysics and science both have an interest in remaining independent of one another. We can, therefore, conclude that one must choose between two alternatives. Either one recognizes that social phenomena are accessible to scientific investigation, or else one admits, for no reason and contrary to all the inductions of science, that there are two worlds within the world: one in which reigns the law of causality, the other in which reign arbitrariness and contingency.

That is the great service which the economists have rendered to social studies. They were the first to sense all that is living and spontaneous in societies. They understood that collective life could not brusquely be established by some clever artifice; that it did not result from an external and mechanical impulsion but is slowly elaborated in the very heart of society. In this way they were able to ground a theory of liberty on a foundation more solid than a metaphysical hypothesis. In effect, it is obvious that if collective life is spontaneous, it must not be deprived of its spontaneity. Any fetter would be absurd.

Still, one must not exaggerate the merit of the economists. Even while saying that economic laws are natural, they understood the word in a sense that diminished its import. According to them, there is nothing real in society but the individual. Everything emanates from him, and it is toward him that everything converges. A nation is only a nominal entity; it is a word which serves to designate a mechanical aggregate of juxtaposed individuals. But it has no specific properties which distinguish it from other things. Its properties are those of the elements which compose it, merely enlarged and amplified. The individual is, therefore, the only tangible reality which the observer can get at, and the only question which science can set for itself is to investigate how the individual should conduct himself in the principal circumstances of economic life, given his nature. Economic and, more broadly, social laws are not, then, very general facts which the scholar induces from the observation of societies, but logical consequences deduced from the definition of the individual. The economist does not say, "Things happen in this way because experience has established that fact." Rather he says, "Things should happen in this way because it would be absurd if it were otherwise." The word natural should therefore be replaced by the word rational, which is not the same thing. If only this concept of the individual, which is supposed to contain in itself the entire science, were adequate in reality! But in an attempt to simplify things, the economists have artificially impoverished the concept. Not only have they ignored all circumstances of time, place, and country in order to conceive of man's abstract type in general, but in this ideal type itself they have neglected everything which does not bear upon strictly individual life to such an extent that, passing from abstraction to abstraction, nothing is left but the sad portrait of an isolated egoist.

In this way, political economy lost all the benefits of its founding principle. It remained an abstract and deductive science, concerned not with the observation of reality, but with the construction of a more or less desirable ideal. For this abstract man, this systematic egoist whom it describes, is solely a creature of reason. Real man—the man whom we all know and whom we all are—is complex in a different way: he is of a time, of a country; he has a family, a city, a fatherland, a religious and political faith; and all these factors and many others merge and combine in a thousand ways, converge in and interweave their influence without it being possible to say at first glance where one begins and the other ends. It is only after long and laborious analyses, barely begun today, that it will one day be possible to determine in an approximate way the role of each. The economists did not yet, therefore, have a sufficiently correct idea of societies to serve as a basis for sociology. For the latter, taking as its point of departure an abstract creation of the mind, could surely result in a logical demonstration of the metaphysical possibilities but could not establish laws. What was still lacking was a natural realm to observe.


If the economists stopped at the halfway point, it was because they were poorly prepared for this sort of study. They were, for the most part, jurists, businessmen, or statesmen and rather unfamiliar with biology and psychology. In order to be able to integrate social science into the general system of the natural sciences, one must at least have practiced one of them. It is not enough to possess general and practical intelligence. To discover the laws of the collective consciousness, one must know those of the individual consciousness. It is because Auguste Comte was current with all the positive sciences, with their method and their results, that he was in a position to found, this time on a definitive basis, sociology.


Excerpted from Emile Durkheim on Institutional Analysis by Mark Traugott. Copyright © 1978 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

A Note on the Translations
The Origins and Objectives of Sociology
1. Course in Sociology: Opening Lecture
2. Sociology and the Social Sciences
3. Note on Social Morphology
Reviews and Critical Analyses
4. Review of Albert Schaeffle, Bau und Leben des Sozialen Körpers: Erster Band
5. Review of Ferdinand Tönnies, Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft
6. Review of Antonio Labriola, Essais sur la conception matérialiste de l'histoire
7. Review of Gaston Richard, Le socialisme et la science sociale
8. Review of Marianne Weber, Ehefrau und Mutter in der Rechtsentwickelung
9. Review of Lucien Levy-Bruhl, Les fonctions mentales dans les sociétés inférieures and Emile Durkheim, Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse
Law, Crime, and Social Health
10. Two Laws of Penal Evolution
11. Crime and Social Health
The Science of Morality
12. Introduction to Morality
Sociology of the Family
13. Introduction to the Sociology of the Family
14. The Conjugal Family
15. Divorce by Mutual Consent

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