Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim

French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) was an avowed critic of some of Spencer's views while incorporating others into his own writing. Durkheim stressed that people are the product of their social environment and that behavior cannot be fully understood in terms of individual biological and psychological traits. He believed that the limits of human potential are socially based, not biologically based. As Durkheim saw religious traditions evaporating in his society, he searched for a scientific, rational way to provide for societal integration and stability (Hadden, )997).

In 71le Rules of Sociological Method (I 964a/1 895), Durkheirn set forth one of his most important contributions to sociology: the idea that societies are built on social facts. Social facts are ."aterned ways of acting. thinking, and feeling that exist outside anyone individual but that exert social control over each person_ Durkheim believed that social facts must be explained by other social facts-by reference to the social structure rather than to individual attributes. Durkheim was concerned with social order and social stability because he lived during the period of rapid social changes in Europe resulting from industrialization and urbanization. His recurring question was this: How do societies manage to hold together? In Th Division of Labor ill Society (1933/1893), Durkheim concluded that preindustrial societies were held together by strong traditions and by members' shared moral beliefs and values. As societies industrialized, more specialized economic activity became the basis of the social bond because people became dependent on one another. Durkheim observed that rapid social change and a more specialized division of labor produce strains in society. These strains lead to a breakdown in traditional organization, values, and authority and to a dramatic increase in anomie-o condition in which social control becomes ineffective as a result of the loss of shared values and of a sense of purpose in society. According to Durkheim, anomie is most likely to occur during a period of rapid social change. In Suicide (1964b/1897), he explored the relationship between anomie social conditions and suicide.

Durkheims contributions to sociology are so significant that he has been referred to as "the crucial figure in the development of sociology as an academic discipline [and as) one of the deepest roots of the sociological imagination" (Tiryakian, 1978: 187). He has long been viewed as a proponent of the scientific approach to examining  social facts that lie outside individuals.

He is also described as the founding figure of the functionalist theoretical tradition. Recently, scholars have acknowledged Durkheim's influence on contemporary social theory, including the structuralist and postmodernist schools of thought. Like Comte, Martineau, and Spencer, Durkheim emphasized that sociology should be a science based on observation and the systematic study of social facts rather than on individual characteristics or traits.

Can Durkheim's ideas be applied to our ongoing analysis of credit cards? Durkheim was interested in examining the "social glue»lthat could hold contemporary societies together and provide people with a "sense of belonging." Ironically. the credit card industry has created what we might call a "pseudo-sense of belonging" through the creation of "affinity cards" designed to encourage members of an organization (such as a university alumni association) or people who share interests and activities (such as dog owners and skydiving enthusiasts) to possess a particular card. In later chapters, we examine Durkheim's theoretical contributions to diverse subjects ranging from suicide and deviance to education and religion