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Society with a capital ‘S’

16 August 2013

David Martin assesses one of the founding figures of sociology


Émile Durkheim: A biography Marcel Fournier
David Macey, translator
Polity £45
Church Times Bookshop £40.50 (Use code CT567)

THIS beautifully translated book provides a rich, exhaustive, and exhausting account of Émile Durkheim as one of the central founders of sociology, and of the era of French intellectual and social history in which he lived.

It was the crucial period for the emergence of social science, and also of "the intellectual", signalled by Émile Zola and the Dreyfusards, enthusiastically supported by Durkheim, his nephew and collaborator Marcel Mauss, and the rest of the circle associated with theAnnées Sociologiques.

Yet sociology squeezed in by the back door of pedagogy and issues of religion, morale, and secular morality, notably in the divisive debates before the separation of Church and State in 1905. Durkheim worked at the universities of Bordeaux and Paris, but never held a chair in sociology. In England, Scotland, and the United States, sociology had significant roots in Christian social concern, whereas elsewhere it had them in secularised Jewry.

For Durkheim, sociology was the creation of French culture from Montesquieu and Condorcet to Saint-Simon and Comte, although he acknowledged substantial debts to German thinkers. He engaged with Freud, notablyTotem and Taboo, and Simmel, and, of course, Marx, all fellow Jews; but it seems that he never read Max Weber, his immediate contemporary and co- founder of sociology. It is important to remember that France was at least as infected by anti-Semitism as Germany, and in the Great War, in which Durkheim lost a son, he was accused of being a German spy.

The background was the multicultural world of Alsace, although Durkheim was in fact born in Épinal, in the Vosges, the son of a rabbi. His interest in the sociology of religion culminated in 1912 in hisThe Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, based on his earlier studies of totemism among Australian aborigines. As with all his great works, in particular hisRules of Sociological Method,The Division of Labour, andSuicide, he was keen to establish thesui generisnature of social causation as distinct from narrative in history, speculation in philosophy, and individual motivation in psychology.

In opposition to those who located the sources of religion in delusion and intellectual mistakes, whether through dreams, spirits, or natural forces, he believed that totems and rites reflected an underlying reality, "the sacred" as distinct from "the profane", that was not to be identified with God, but with Society with a capital "S". Religionfunctionedto express the collective consciousness, including an idealised vision of Society. His English follower, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, made this functionalist approach a significant plank of English anthropology.

Durkheim was a democratic socialist who rejected versions of Marxism based on violence and material forces. There was a time when functionalist social analyses related to the social whole: for example, in debates over nationalism as a quasi-religion or religion substitute, they were treated as "conservative" compared with conflict theories based on class.

Those debates have mostly disappeared, but Durkheim's concern with "anomie", or normlessness, and with the family, should divorce become too frequent an option, still feeds into contemporary arguments. Whether he established sociology over against understandings based on individual psychology remains a moot point: we constantly refer to sociological data, but rarely grasp their inner logic.

The Revd David Martin is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics, and Hon. Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Lancaster.

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