To the memory of my parents,
Bill and Doreen Stedman Jones

Durkheim Reconsidered

Susan Stedman Jones




  1   Questions of Interpretation: Sociology contra Durkheim

  2   Durkheim as Theorist of Order and Science

  3   Understanding Durkheim in his Time: Historical and Political Considerations

  4   Philosophy and the Republic: The Influence of Renouvier

  5   Differentiation and the Problems of Modernity

  6   Individualism and Socialism?

  7   The Science of Facts and Things: Methodological Considerations

  8   Society as the ‘Coefficient of Preservation’: The Question of Suicide

  9   The Thinking State: Power and Democracy

10   Practical Reason and Moral Order: Morality and Society

11   Belief and the Logic of the Sacred

12   Final Reflections: Durkheim contra Sociology

       Appendix: Durkheim and Renouvier


       Biographical Sketches





Why does Durkheim need a reconsideration? There is certainly always a gap between a thinker and what is made of him or her subsequently; but when this gap becomes unbridgeable, then something must be done. The gap between Durkheim’s thought and what has been made of him subsequently in the social sciences is the reason for this reconsideration. This book is a response to the puzzles I have encountered in the way he has been interpreted and the research that inspired me to attempt to unravel them. Unlike many sociologists or anthropologists, I read Durkheim before I read those thinkers or movements by whom he has been interpreted – this at least allows the possibility of a fresh view of an important thinker. I discovered that the interpretation of Durkheim has a feature which characterizes prejudice everywhere: if something is repeated long and often enough, it acquires the patina of truth. These difficulties which I encountered in the interpretation he has received in the social sciences have led to questions which are germane to the understanding of his thought and which serve to underpin the reflections in this book.

I first encountered Durkheim through anthropology, when between my degrees in philosophy, I buried myself for a while in the study of ‘other cultures’, and it was here that my suspicions were initially aroused. Here through his identification with Radcliffe-Brown’s structural functionalism, he was a characterized as a thinker interested above all in rigid structures and functions as sustaining them: he was associated with ‘closed’ and ‘unchanging’ societies whose only dynamic, it would appear, is to stay still. This early colouring has remained as an accepted feature of his view of society. But I could not square this with the picture I got when I read his actual texts: did he not insist on the changing dynamic quality of social relations? But how did he account for these?

Durkheim’s vision is so much larger than that of Radcliffe-Brown: he employed a language in his description of the social that is so much more complex and nuanced than that encapsulated simply by ‘structure’ and ‘function’. Indeed, the more I read and reflected, the more it became clear that there was another language which seemed more theoretically profound than the first, and even to be the basis for it. I recognized certain terms of this consistent language, which, while put to a different use, were distinctly philosophical – in fact were Kantian in origin – where else could all that talk about representations and categories come from? Here, then, is a another question: how do representations relate to structure and function?

Then I encountered another Durkheim in anthropology; here he had became source and justification for a kind of determinist collectivism outré in questions of knowledge; again, this has clung to his name. So he was held to authenticate reference to the group and its structural and symbolic activity as sufficient to answer all questions about knowledge in society. Certainly Durkheim put society and the collective centre stage in terms of epistemology, but what is, and what is not, entailed by this position? How is it that he uses the concept of ‘reason’ as part of his account of the human being (1925a: 95/113)? How does this relate to the collectivity? And having just read Le Suicide, I was inspired to ask how he could then hold ‘free thought’ to be a constant aspect of ‘the history of the human mind’ (1897a: 430/375) These might not be very interesting questions for anthropological accounts of specific societies, but they are crucial when it comes to the interpretation of a thinker, especially in evaluating his notorious ‘sociologism’. So how do these fit in here? The answer I received was that they don’t, and that this is not authentic Durkheim! So – and this has remained a feature of the interpretations imposed on him – those features that do not fit each passing ‘dominant ideology’ are swept under the carpet in the interest of sustaining each cherished interpretation, or one that is easier on the mind theoretically.

It was whilst teaching the philosophy of social science that I noticed that students arrived at university with their minds made up about Durkheim, and that their views were confirmed not only by what they were taught subsequently, but also by student texts which continue to exercise a baleful influence. Durkheim appears peculiarly easy to parody and reject, particularly when certain philosophical and historical issues are left out of account. It was also whilst teaching that I encountered yet another Durkheim – this was the sociologists’ Durkheim. Unlike the sociologists, I became acquainted with Parsons only through my interest in Durkheim; whereas they, it would appear, were acquainted with Durkheim through Parsons. Thereafter, Durkheimianism and Parsonianism were identified. But again I could see that Durkheim’s theoretical interest or language was not adequately expressed by Parsonianism. The result of this identification was a Durkheim concerned above all with order and normative integration. But what does Durkheim mean by order and the normative?

I was now becoming aware of the peculiar fate Durkheim had suffered: he was treated as a kind of badge of foreign authority for theories which only encapsulate a small aspect of his thinking, but with which he was identified and through which he was interpreted. This fate is the contrary of the old adage that a rolling stone gathers no moss. The Durkheim stone had rolled between different theories, and was thick with moss – consisting of the set of interpretations and criticisms attached to his name. The Durkheim stone has travelled widely: it was rolled all the way from France to the United States and from there to Britain and elsewhere.

Although previously he was positively attached to theories which claimed to represent him, now a new phenomenon occurred. With the swing away from structural functionalism, he became the bogeyman of sociology – this is particularly clear in Gouldner’s The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology, where Durkheim is blamed for structural functionalism’s ahistorical, uncritical thinking. Of course, he was also by now the archetypal conservative as interpreted by Nisbet, Coser and Parsons. But this raises further questions: in what sense is Durkheim a structural functionalist, and what is entailed by the functionalism he does espouse? In what sense is he a conservative? By now the moss on the Durkheim stone was thick with all the attachments, positive and negative, that clung to the concept ‘Durkheimian’.

There was a further movement in sociology which added significantly to this and which I was uniquely placed to observe. This was the swing away from science and the move towards questions of interpretation and meaning as dominant in theory. Durkheim now became the straw man of the phenomenological movement for his scientism and positivism. Odd that he was originally held to be mystical for his strange concept of the conscience collective! Now there is another question: what does Durkheim mean by ‘science’? Why did Durkheim think there was a science which adequately accounted for social reality? What was its nature, and what is and is not entailed by it? This concept of ‘science’ had become a political football amongst the competing schools of sociology. I stubbornly refused to believe both the critics of his science and his supporters who wanted to turn him into the hard man of science who ignored all ‘soft’ philosophical issues. I was convinced that he was using a scientific language, but with a unique philosophical nature. How else can his science be connected with ‘rationalism’ (1895a: ix/33)?

A distinct feature of many of the critiques of Durkheim is their philosophical inspiration. Since he had acquired the reputation for both scientism and conservatism, he was now the butt for both Marxist and phenomenological critiques. But did he never consider the type of questions raised here? Did he not know about meaning and the question of how things appear to consciousness (the problem of phenomenalism)? But here is another question: what is the relation of meaning to structural conditions? Are social worlds built up out of the rational pursuit of meaning? Further, for Marxists – through the static, moralizing aura that clung to his name – he failed to acknowledge conflict or historical development. But had he not heard about Hegel and dialectical views of history, or questioned the problem of materialism? Now another question emerges for the radicalism that has so consistently opposed Durkheim: why is it, given the degree of conflict (industrial and gender) in society, that it hasn’t quite fallen apart? What is it about social worlds that has such a tenacity? Uniquely, Durkheim underlines this, but how?

Whatever the critiques of his actual sociology, Durkheim has been treated as though extraordinarily philosophically naïve. But there is an unusual feature of this: those educated as sociologists were using concepts derived from philosophy to attack Durkheim, but here was a thinker educated as a philosopher, who taught it before turning to found his sociology. The peculiarity of Durkheim is that he does not overtly reflect on the philosophical aspect of methodologies, but advances a distinct theoretical language as a means of accessing the social world. Was it possible that this was like the tip of an iceberg, whose concealed mass might, if brought to the surface, begin to answer some of these philosophically inspired critiques?

It has been stated correctly that Durkheim is well known, but not known well. With significant exceptions, he has been taken out of context theoretically and politically – particularly through the critiques addressed to him. The world he lived in was swept away by the horrors of the 1914–18 war – and it is to significant features of this that we must return to understand the full complexity of his thought. Given the current state of the social sciences, a reconsideration of Durkheim is timely, and even necessary. What follows can only contribute to this, by revealing certain misunderstood or neglected aspects of the original vision, and by clearing away the thicket of interpretations that obscure the view. It is with these that we must begin.