Commentary Magazine


The Sociology of Emile Durkheim, by Robert A. Nisbet

The Sociology of Emile Durkheim.
by Robert A. Nisbet.
Oxford. 293 pp. $9.95.

Robert Nisbet is an eminent sociologist and historian of sociology with a publishing career that spans more than three decades. His interests cover a correspondingly wide range, including such seemingly disparate topics as the campus unrest of recent years and the conservative reaction to the French Revolution. If there is a central theme to his writings, it may become visible in his latest work, a deceptively simple book described by him as a “Durkheim primer,” an introduction to the “essential and constitutive” elements of the thought of the great 19th-century French sociologist. Nisbet seems to regard Durkheim as the sociological “founding father” most relevant to contemporary problems and best able to teach us how to theorize about them.

Durkheim is best known as the “sociologist of anomie.” His deepest insights concern the disintegrating effects individualism has had, not only on the social structure of the modern Western countries, but more importantly on the personality structures of their citizens. For Durkheim, personality is a social phenomenon: it is formed by the influences and restraints that society exercises on individuals, and everything in the human personality above the purely physical level is due to these social forces.

His analysis of the sources of human personality places Durkheim at the opposite end of the spectrum from such 19th-century individualists as Bentham and J. S. Mill. In Durkheim’s view, the destruction in the modern age of traditional communities and social forces (religious orders and institutions, guilds, local communities, aristocratic or otherwise non-nuclear families, etc.) has left man freer than he was before, yet his freedom has led not to greater happiness or even to greater opportunities for happiness, but to emptiness, fear, and despair. Durkheim’s most famous work, Suicide, deals with precisely this disintegration of the human personality under the pressure of modern individualism. But that work is equally important as an example of the sociological method at its most stringent and most successful. It is this “classical” quality in Durkheim’s methodology that attracts Nisbet.

Durkheim’s method is rigorously objective and “social.” Not only are “value judgments” on the part of the sociologist eschewed, but “subjective” factors such as consciousness and self-awareness are excluded from sociological theory. Durkheim is the great foe of the tendency to incorporate allegedly presocial or asocial human characteristics into sociological explanation; his triumph was to explain suicide rates, for example, wholly in terms of the social environment, without having recourse to any of the “internal” or “psychological” factors which to the non-sociological observer would seem to be primary in so intimate and personal an act as the taking of one’s life.

The Sociology of Emile Durkheim attempts to expound the basic elements of Durkheimian sociology with the evident intention of recalling American sociology to sound basic principles. Without being too specific, Nisbet accuses American sociology of a “recent . . . plunge into subjectivism.” He hopes to reestablish the more austere methodology of Durkheim, a methodology which proclaims the necessity of explaining all social phenomena in terms of “social facts.”

Perhaps because of the introductory character of the book, Nisbet’s discussion of what constitutes a social fact does not address some ambiguities in Durkheim’s own thought. Originally, it seems, Durkheim had regarded laws, enforced by sanctions, as the only social facts whose existence and content are amenable to objective scientific identification and interpretation. This obviously narrow notion is soon dropped, however, in favor of a conception of social facts which also encompasses customs and traditions. The problem with this extended concept is that unwritten and slowly evolving customs and traditions can never be as precisely known and described as can written and fixed laws. In Suicide, to complicate matters further, we meet social facts which are statistical in nature—the great theme of the book is that suicide (i.e., the suicide rate) “can be dealt with as a social fact”; but clearly a suicide rate cannot be understood either as law or as tradition.

Durkheim’s insistence, despite these contradictions, that social facts are things, has consequently evoked much criticism from the more positivistically-minded members of the social-scientific community; and his doctrine of “collective representations” has left him open to the charge that he posits a mystical “societal mind” as the substratum for shared societal beliefs and opinions. Nisbet contends that these criticisms are misunderstandings, although he concedes that some of Durkheim’s more extreme statements about social reality are “less useful” and even “undoubtedly suspect.” Unlike Durkheim, Nisbet is willing to view the sociological method as just one approach among others to social phenomena—for Durkheim, on the other hand, social reality cannot be viewed by means of any other methodology than the sociological.

Behind the question of methodology lies Durkheim’s complete break with the individualistic tradition of the Enlightenment. Durkheim seems to have shifted from viewing social facts as constraints on individual behavior to viewing them as the constitutive elements of personality, at least of those aspects of personality (including all the interesting ones) which comprise the individual’s social being:

There are two beings in man: an individual being which has its foundation in the organism and the circle of whose activities is therefore strictly limited, and a social being which represents the highest reality in the intellectual and moral order that we can know by observation—I mean society.

As Nisbet emphasizes, this view prevents the reduction of sociology to psychologism—the explaining of social phenomena in terms of the psychological traits of individuals—or biologism—the explaining of social phenomena in terms of the racial or other physiological characteristics of populations. It focuses attention on the social structures which are the basis of the social being of man.

When it comes to contemporary society, the yield of this approach to the study of man is an emphasis on social disintegration—i.e., the disappearance or weakening of structures which support constraints on behavior, and the consequent development of poorly integrated and undeveloped personality types. Durkheim regards the West of his time as being in the midst of a serious moral crisis, and Nisbet, for his part, finds it “unlikely that Durkheim, were he alive today, would believe the moral crisis . . . was anywhere near resolution even yet.”

Despite Durkheim’s emphasis on objectivity, he views sociology as able to tell us what is normal or abnormal about our society: “Social science . . . describes the type itself: whatever pertains to the type is normal, and whatever is normal is healthy.” And there is little doubt that Durkheim and Nisbet consider contemporary society unhealthy, even though it is not clear what would be the normal form of social life for our type of society. This lack of clarity did not cause a problem for Durkheim, presumably because he thought that some resolution of the West’s moral crisis was inevitable in the near future—if a social structure is sufficiently disintegrated, then it simply cannot survive. Nisbet, writing today, fails to explain why a century-long moral “crisis” cannot by now be regarded as normal, and hence a healthy, form of society.

For Durkheim, anomie, the normlessness that accompanies the disintegration of all social constraints, is bad and to be avoided. In part, this is a judgment grounded in his findings in Suicide—anomic suicide increases in modern society and serves as a clear indication that something has gone wrong. (Perhaps a more consistent Durkheimian than Durkheim himself would see increased suicide rates as normal for a crowded and over-populated society.) But if anomie is an evil, then a firm social structure must be good—a conclusion that may help to explain why a gentle and humane scholar like Durkheim could engage, as Nisbet puts it, in “the fiercest of nationalist passions” following the outbreak of World War I, for certainly wartime France was a less alienated and anomic society than the peacetime France that preceded it.

Nisbet appears to find Durkheim’s metamorphosis from “teacher-scholar” into “ardent French patriot” inexplicable. For Nisbet, it is clear that the kind of community that is required to end the West’s moral crisis cannot be the bastardized form offered by the supernationalist and all-powerful state, especially when at war, even if this form of community does result in lower suicide rates and a lesser incidence of mental illness. (Indeed, Nisbet’s Quest for Community is an eloquent and forceful discussion of just this danger.) During the last sixty years, the West has learned, or should have learned, that most of our political cures are worse than most of our social diseases. At times, Nisbet seems to say that this lesson can be learned from the conservative insights of such great sociologists as Durkheim, who emphasized the necessity of stable social structures for individual well-being and happiness, To this needs to be added the paradoxical admission that these self-same social structures have as their highest purpose the creation of an environment in which the individual will be free in mind and spirit to question their political legitimacy.

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