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Emile Durkheim is one of the most significant social theorists of the twentieth century, credited with founding modern sociology and anthropology. Durkheim argued for a new conceptualization of society in which, as he famously said, one should “consider social facts as things” (Durkheim 1982 : 60). That is to say, one should regard the ideas, norms, rules and values which members of a society shared as if they were part of objective reality. As objective facts, “social things” (Lemert 2008) should not be treated as if they were mental constructs, but should be seen as something external to any one individual consciousness. Social facts impose themselves on individuals of a society, constraining them and shaping how they act.
The social facts of society are, in another way, like the thoughts of a collective mind. Individuals do not merely join or participate in a social system, but take part in a collective consciousness. Durkheim's conception of the individual subject is also influential in this regard. He defined the subject as homo duplex possessing a consciousness which was only partly its own, and partly something that belongs to a fusion of consciousnesses of all the members. The representations, rules and codes of society exist as part of this fusion of consciousnesses. Thus the collective consciousness influences each individual, and individuals experience this collective consciousness as if it were as it is was just the way things are. Durkheim's homo duplex is similar to other conceptions of a divided, dual subjectivity which emerge in the early 20th century and lead to new models of psychodynamic process and language. In this context, Durkheim paves the way for a break with the autonomous rational mind of the Enlightenment.
For Durkheim, society is a total, integrated system which is greater than the sum of its parts. As Durkheim often emphasizes, a thing sui generis which persists in spite of the slings and arrows of fortune. To explain why an institution or pattern of behavior exists, then, we cannot look to where it comes from, or what its origins are. Because it is a “social fact” we can't understand it by thinking about it in terms of what people are trying to accomplish or intending to do. As a part of society, people just don't question it. To explain it, the social analyst must seek out how that pattern reinforces other patterns, and the overall patterning of the society as an integrated whole. Institutions can have a function that is quite different from its stated purpose.
For instance, consider the laws that prohibit murder, stealing, and negligence. Imagine a murder case. Now imagine that you hire someone to do some work for you, and they do a bad job. In one case the murderer is punished. In the other case, the two parties can go to court and each can argue against the other. Even if the work performed was so poorly and irresponsibly performed that it hurt or killed someone, the person who did a bad job is not necessarily treated as a criminal.
It seems natural to say that this is because murder is immoral. The purpose of the prohibition seems to be to try to discourage bad things from happening. Why not punish people whose poor work causes harm and suffering too, though? Why do we make this distinction between criminal matters and civil matters? Racism, adultery, libel, lying and negligence are probably not as awful as murder, but in some ways, they are also moral issues. And yet we treat them as if they were different than 'crime'.
You might say, well, maybe in the past this existed for a reason, and now it's just become a tradition, like a town that has a law that says ducks can't wear pants. Durkheim argued that we cannot explain this by looking to history or for that matter looking to what people may have once intended when they made these laws. Instead he argues laws governing crime and laws governing disputes between people each function to create different kinds of social solidarity.
Criminal acts are punished by repressive sanctions. The punishment of certain acts as crimes affirmed the basic similarities of the members of a society and their adherence to common moral ideas. Durkheim uses the term mechanical solidarity to refer to this feeling of oneness. Murderers do not have to do anything for the family of the victim, but they are put in jail or executed. Their crime is against the state, that is to say, the society as a whole is the victim, and so the punishment is applied by the state acting on behalf of the people.
By contrast, other kinds of acts are treated as disputes between individuals and do not involve the society as a whole. As such, the way these wrongs are resolved is through restitutive sanctions. If someone does a poor job, then they have failed to deliver on their agreement, and broken the terms of the contract. They must make restitution, and then the matter is settled. The function of restitutive sanctions is to create what Durkheim called organic solidarity, a solidarity based on the complementary differences between people as specialized parts of a division of labor.
The content of the act, he said, does not determine what kind of sanction applied. Rather the type of social relationship that exists between the two parties is what determines the sanction, because the sanction is functionally connected to that relationship. A murderer and a victim are seen in many societies as being members of the same social group. The sanction functions to create a feeling that everyone in society has a stake in the outcome. Different societies treat the same act with different kinds of sanctions. So for instance in many societies, including the Nuer, murder is treated as a bad thing, but it is not a 'crime' against the society as a whole. It is a harm done to a person and his or her relatives, and so the response is to treat murders as disputes between families.
Even though they have different kinds of social solidarity and different institutions which function to generate social solidarity, all societies have both mechanical and organic solidarity. Laws, whether written or unwritten, serve the social function of maintaining these kinds of solidarities, and society as a whole.
Recently an 1911 audiorecording of a lecture by Durkheim (2002) has come to light: http://kieranhealy.org/blog/archives/2014/08/20/durkheim-viva-voce/.
Durkheim, Emile. 1982 . The Rules of Sociological Method. New York: Simon and Schuster.
———. 1997 . The Division of Labor in Society. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Durkheim, Emile. 2002 . “Jugements de Valeur et Jugements de Réalité”. Lecture presented at the Congrès International de Philosophie, Bologna, April 6. http://kieranhealy.org/files/misc/durkheim-jugements-text.pdf.
Healy, Kieran. 2014. “Durkheim Viva Voce.” Kieran Healy, August 20. http://kieranhealy.org/blog/archives/2014/08/20/durkheim-viva-voce/.
Lemert, Charles C. 2008. Social Things: An Introduction to the Sociological Life, 4th ed. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.