Ryan : History of Sociological Thought

 Durkheim : Rules of the Sociological Method


  • One of three books written in a productive 4 year period 1893-1897 (along with Division of Labor and Suicide).
  • In DoL Durkheim showed that sociology had something to add to the account provided by utilitarians.
  • In Suicide Durkheim showed that it was possible to explain what seemed to be an individual phenomenon in terms of sociological variables.
  • Here, Durkheim wants to delineate what sociology is good for (what its object of study is) and how to do it.


reality sui generis
social fact
ritual energy
individual as social product
cult of individual
mechanical/organic solidarity


In Marx we had to learn a few new tricks of thinking.  First, we flipped the ideal and the material and remembered to look to material social relations as the foundation of our explanations for social phenomena.  Even thinking can be traced back to material arrangements.  We also learned to think dialectically.  To understand how society works we have to realize that there are often present conflicting and contradictory concepts.  We had to learn to conceive of the world in "both/and" rather than "either/or" terms.  In your other classes you might have encountered this in terms of "structure" vs. "agency."  Some theories try to privilege one or the other.  Other theories -- ones with a dialectical logic -- allow that society may best be viewed in terms of BOTH structure AND agency and that these have a reciprocal and mutually implicative relationship.

In Durkheim we are going to encounter another cognitive "move" that will, at first, seem unnatural.  This technique of thinking is summarized by his famous dictum "treat social facts as things."  Our first task will be to come to an appreciation of what Durkheim means by "social fact" and "the social."

Logic of selection we read

  1. What is a social fact?
    1. Def 1 : "ways of acting, thinking, and feeling that present the noteworthy property of existing outside the individual consciousness"
      • AND "endowed with coercive power"
    2. Coercive power often invisible until I begin to resist it.
    3. NOTE: lesson we see used frequently in the work of Erving Goffman -- he "detects" the "interaction order" by looking at what happens when it breaks down.  Similarly, sociologists of deviance identify three kinds of evidence for norms : (1) patterns of behavior (people seem to do X), (2) aspirational statements (people say that one ought to do X), (3) societal reactions (sanction when people don't do X).
  2. His examples of social facts include accepted methods of commerce or legal practices and so he worries that we might think that "social facts exist only where there is some social organization" but he disabuses us of this notion by introducing the idea of "social currents."  
  3. DJR: we might wonder if this amounts to re-introducing Hegel's idealism of the spirit (Zeitgeist and all that).  What do you think?  
  4. Social currents are "movements of enthusiasm, indignation, and pity in a crowd" -- a bit like what we call public opinion.  Durkheim's point is that these things feel like they are "one's own business" but "[w]e are victims of the illusion of having ourselves created that which actually forces itself from without..." (64b.8).
  5. Education is "a continuous effort to impose on the child ways of seeing, feeling, and acting which he could not have arrived at spontaneously" (cf. Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (see http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/short/whorf.html -- language as arbitrary lens through which we apprehend reality).  Think about the term "socialization" for a minute.  It's so easy to hear in it just some concept you learned in intro.  But substitute for a minute "Americanization" -- the process of learning to look and sound like an American and to fit in in the U.S.  Think of "socialization" as the process of learning to be in society, learning to see through society's lens.  Consider those people you meet who just don't seem to know that they are annoying, that they are breaking the rules -- they are, in a sense, socially blind, socially deaf.  They cannot see or hear hints. You can't keep them in line with mere suggestions -- you must, in the words of a German saying, give them a wink with a fencepost.
  6. Durkheim looks around at the world and sees invisible force fields and pressures.  Unspoken pressures to conform.  What actually makes us go out of the house in the morning with pants on?  What keeps some of us from getting piercings and what drives others of us to get more and more piercings?  We are fond of saying that it has to do with personal preferences and decisions, but Durkheim is skeptical.
  7. What are some of the social facts Durkheim mentions?
    • family roles, citizen/neighbor roles, contracts, church member, using currency, language, extending credit, styles of dress, styles of houses, structure of organiztaions
    • And some others?  Generic values (fairness, for example).  
  8. When I was taking the SAT I recall solving all the English problems by saying the sentence to myself and seeing which version sounded offensive.  We can do the same in music (though note recent research looking into whether there is a neurological basis for this).
  9. "Cognitive Socialization "impose on the child ways of seeing" (65a.1) -- cf. Zerubavel's Social Mindscapes, Ludwig Fleck's Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact.  Freud -- socialization as the training of the superego.  Mead -- socialization as internalization of generalized other.

-Textbook Quotes of Note
The United States is a society dominated by individualistic explanations of human behavior that seek to understand problems and processes by focusing exclusively on the personality, psychology, or even the anatomy of each individual. (5.7)
[T]he sociological imagination allows us to recognize that the solutions to many of our most serious social problems lie not in changing the personal situations and characteristics of individual people but in changing the social institutions and roles available to them. (9.7)
Lesson : A significant fraction of the behavior of individuals is not individual behavior.
Balancing "blame social structure" with "consider structural explanations"

Supplementary Readings

Collins, Randall
"The Normalcy of Crime" in Sociological Insight
n.a. Durkheim Notes from UChicago Prelims Library [http://www.spc.uchicago.edu/ssr1/PRELIMS/Theory/durkheim.html]
The Emile Durkheim Archive  [http://durkheim.itgo.com/main.html] (Caution -- free website that sends popup window ads with page)
Ridener, Larry
Durkheim @ The Dead Sociologists Society [http://www2.pfeiffer.edu/~Elridener/DSS/INDEX.HTML#durkheim]