Emile Durkheim and the Growth of Functionalism

Durkheim and Functionalism

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) is certainly the most important sociological forerunner of modern functionalism. Comte’s influence on Durkheim and, in turn, Durkheim’s impact on Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski were of crucial importance to its development. Parsons said that Durkheim was one of his most important intellectual role models. Similarly, Robert Merton states that Durkheim was, besides those under whom he studied directly, one of the two from whom he learned most.

However, Durkheim’s theoretical influence extends beyond functionalism. Erving Goffman and Peter Berger have also incorporated some of Durkheim’s ideas into their own symbolic interactionist and phenomenological perspectives. Randall Collins, a conflict theorist, incorporates Durkheim’s ideas on ritual into his work.

Emile Durkheim was born at Epinal in Lorraine, France. His father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had been rabbis, but though he studied for a time at a rabbinical school, Durkheim decided not to follow in their steps. Family finances and his father’s illness made Durkheim’s early days as a college student difficult, but he finished his degree at the Ecole Normale Superieure, and because of his many publications in philosophy and social science, he was invited to teach at the University of Bordeaux in 1887. In 1902, he moved to the University of Paris, where he taught until his death.

Durkheim viewed teaching as almost a sacred duty, for many of the students in his courses were the future secondary teachers of France. In addition to teaching and research, Durkheim found time to establish, with a small number of colleagues, the first French sociology journal, Annee sociologique. He was also fiercely patriotic, and during World War I helped to organize a committee for the publication of studies and documents on the war to explain the French position to other countries. Durkheim’s only son, Andre, was killed while fighting for the French cause in 1916. That blow, combined with overwork, led to a stroke and Durkheim’s subsequent death in 1917, at the age of 59.

Some of Durkheim’s most important functionalist ideas are a result of his lifelong interest in the concept of integration, the incorporation of individuals into the social order. Integration (or social solidarity) is important for the maintenance of social equilibrium. The Rules of Sociological Method and his works on religion and education are most often cited as his most important contributions to functionalism, but even in his first great work, The Division of Labor in Society, he was examining the function of the division of labor.

Durkheim viewed social evolution as a movement from the mechanical solidarity of tribal societies to the organic solidarity characteristic of industrial societies. He argued that primitive societies were characterized by a strong collective conscience, which he defined as “the totality of beliefs and sentiments common to average citizens of the same society.” As the division of labor increased, so too did individualism. As a result, there was a corresponding decrease in collective conscience and a shift to organic solidarity, characterized by the interdependence of roles and a lack of self-sufficiency that held people together.

Durkheim set out to create a proper subject matter for sociology, the realm of social facts. He defined a social fact as that “which is general over the whole of a given society whilst having an existence of its own, independent of its individual manifestations.” His examples of social facts are laws, morals, beliefs, customs, and fashions. Durkheim later elaborated on the meaning of social facts and used the term institution, meaning the “beliefs and modes of behavior instituted by the collectivity.” He defined sociology as “the science of institutions, their genesis and their functioning.” Durkheim thus made it clear that he viewed macrostructural (large-scale or society-wide) phenomena as sociology’s proper subject matter.

In The Rules of Sociological Method, where he discusses social facts, Durkheim sees functions as “general needs of the social organism.” He then proceeds to make his case for the explanation of social facts by social rather than nonsocial causes. He applied his method in his well-known study Suicide, where he focused on suicide rates, a social fact, rather than on individual suicides.

Durkheim’s discussion of punishment provides an excellent example of the strengths and weaknesses of both his and much later functionalist analysis. Punishment is, he argues, a social reaction to crime. It serves not simply the obvious functions of retribution for the criminal and general deterrence of crime; it also fulfills the generally unrecognized but critical function of maintaining the intensity of collective sentiments, or what modem functionalists call shared values (in this case, the objection to criminal activity). Punishment, Durkheim argues, “has the useful function of maintaining these sentiments at the same level of intensity, for they could not fail to weaken it if the offenses committed against them remained unpunished.”

However, Durkheim’s explanation of what causes societies to adopt punishment is less satisfactory. He points out, quite correctly, that the function something performs does not explain its existence in the first place, and he states, “We will, therefore, discover more easily the function if the cause is already known.” However, he then goes on to engage in exactly that circularity of reasoning he attempted to avoid in distinguishing cause from function; he argues that punishment exists because of the function it performs in maintaining collective sentiments, which then in tum “cause” punishment. In other words, at first Durkheim says that punishment is a consequence, or dependent variable.

Thus, in Durkheim’s argument, the cause is, after all, the function, as we can see in the illustration. One could ask the chicken or the egg question of Durkheim. We shall find that this problem of circularity and “explaining” things by the functions they perform recurs throughout functional analysis.

Durkheim’s most famous concept, anomie, is central to his study Suicide. Literally translated from the French, anomie means normlessness, a situation where rules or norms are absent. Besnard defined an anomic situation as one “characterized by indeterminate goals and unlimited aspirations, the disorientation or vertigo created by confrontation with an excessive widening of the horizons of the possible.”18 Durkheim described two types of anomie: acute anomie, which is the result of an abrupt change, like a business crisis or a divorce; and chronic anomie, a state of constant change, characteristic of modem industrial society. Durkheim focused on chronic anomie, for he was concerned about what was going on in his own country and in other industrialized countries.

Durkheim did not take a neutral position regarding suicide; he saw it as a social problem and was concerned about the increasing rates of suicide in industrialized countries. He had also been touched personally by this phenomenon, for it was the suicide of his closest friend, Victor Hommay, which prompted him to embark on an empirical study of suicide.

A description of the central argument of Durkheim’s Suicide may clarify the deductive (or natural science) approach. Durkheim’s study does not simply describe the suicide rates in Europe in the nineteenth century. Instead he begins with the basic assumption that too much or too little integration or regulation (cohesion) is unhealthy for a society, and from this he derives specific hypotheses about suicide. To demonstrate Durkheim’s approach and clarify what “middle-range” theory is about, Robert Merton restated Durkheim this way:

  • 1. Social cohesion provides psychic support to group members subjected to acute stresses and anxieties.
  • 2. Suicide rates are functions of unrelieved anxieties and stresses to which persons are subjected.
  • 3. Catholics have greater social cohesion than Protestants.
  • 4. Therefore, lower suicide rates should be anticipated among Catholics than among Protestants.

In typical functionalist fashion, Durkheim bases his theory on social cohesion or solidarity and on two specific societal “needs,” integration and regulation. His major hypothesis is that societies characterized by too much or too little integration or regulation will have high suicide rates. The corresponding types of suicide are altruism (too much integration), egoism (too little integration), fatalism (too much regulation), and anomie (too little regulation). Durkheim is deeply concerned about the effects of the latter type of suicide. Anomie, he says, is a pathological state for society, one aspect of which is a rise in suicide rates. As we shall see later, in his concern for the state of society, Durkheim is similar to Marx. Whereas Durkheim saw modem society as afflicted with anomie, Marx described it as marked by alienation. The concept of anomie holds an important place in modem functionalism, as does alienation in conflict theory. However, whereas Durkheim emphasizes people’s need for firmly established and common social norms, Marx sees alienation as the pernicious result of a social order that tightly controls its citizens, and he argues that mankind needs far greater freedom from regulation.

Again unlike Marx, Durkheim attempted to make his theory of suicide empirically verifiable by further defining and operationalizing his concepts. For instance, he considered a situation clearly anomic when a crisis or a sudden social change causes discontinuity between people’s actual experiences and their normative expectations. Events of this type, which Durkheim suggested will create anomie and on which empirical data can be collected, include the sudden death of a spouse and economic depressions. Anomie, Durkheim hypothesized, will in turn lead to high suicide rates. Using the deductive approach, Durkheim not only made his hypotheses testable; he actually tested some of his hypotheses with data that had been collected by government officials. He found, for example, that widows and widowers did indeed have higher suicide rates than married people and that suicide rates were higher during a depression than they were during periods of economic stability.

Durkheim’s most important contribution to functionalism is The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Here he shows how in the most primitive tribes religion was a strong integrative force through its instillation of common values and identification. We have already referred to the central role values play in functionalist explanation; functionalism again closely follows Durkheim’s approach, referring to values as “widely shared conceptions of the good” or “beliefs that legitimize the existence and importance of specific social structures and the kinds of behavior that transpire in social structure.” Smelser presents the example of belief in free enterprise as a societal value that “endorses the existence of business firms organized around the institution of private property and engaged in the pursuit of private profit.” Another of the hallmarks of functional analysis, the persistent search for integrative forces, is an aspect of the general stress on interdependence and equilibrium, which we mentioned above. Durkheim, who again shared modem functionalism’s concerns, was interested in religion largely because he considered religion to be especially effective in developing common values-and so a very good source of integration. Durkheim’s search for an equally strong integrative force in modem society led him to see the public school system as the functional alternative to religion for the transmission of values in modem society.

Two anthropologists who adopted Durkheim’s functional analysis in their work were Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) and Arthur Radcliffe- Brown (1881-1955). Both were interested in Durkheim’s work, and it was Malinowski who first used the term functional for this type of analysis. One of the links between their work and modern functionalism in sociology was forged when Talcott Parsons studied under Malinowski at the London School of Economics.

Malinowski’s and Radcliffe-Brown’s levels of analysis differed, however. Malinowski was concerned with psychological needs and functions, which he believed all societies developed ways of fulfilling; Radcliffe-Brown was concerned with sociological ones-the functions of institutions in the social system. For instance, on the question of the function of magical rites, Malinowski believed that the individual’s needs are the causal factor. He argued that magic was used more in open-sea fishing than in inland fishing because of the individual’s feelings of danger and insecurity on the open sea. Magic both developed and functioned to reduce these feelings. Radcliffe-Brown, on the other hand, treated magic in terms of its social functions. He believed that societies define what is dangerous and threatening, and individuals are taught by society to have appropriate responses to these situations. Thus, according to Radcliffe-Brown, magical rites exist to maintain an orderly society; their function is social, not individual. When Parsons developed his functionalist framework, he borrowed more heavily from Radcliffe-Brown, who emphasized social needs and social explanation, than from Malinowski. Although modem functionalism has roots in the work of Comte, Spencer, and Pareto and is also indebted to Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown, it owes its greatest debt to Durkheim. We now tum to Durkheim’s most important heirs, Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton.


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