The Foundations of Sociological Thought – Durkheim, Mauss, and Weber

The Foundations of Sociological Thought – Durkheim, Mauss, and Weber

All subsequent quotes refer to the corresponding text.

Sociology, a close sibling to Anthropology is based on many philosophical and scientific literatures. Therefore, both of these disciplines share many tenets of their basic theories and structures.

Émile Durkheim (1858-1917)

As a student of August Compte (the positivist philosopher) and Herbert Spencer (author of  The Social Organism), Durkheim believed that there existed certain laws that governed human society, anticipating a mimicry of those laws noted in physics and other hard sciences. After working in the psychological research labs of renowned German Psychologist, Wilhelm Wundt; Durkheim sought to scientifically study society.

A Breakdown of the Reading

Durkheim sought to carve a niche in that was imprecisely called “social” in order to fashion a study of what was truly sociological, defining its borders separating this area of study from that of the psychologist and biologist. In order for Durkheim to pose Sociology as a science, there needed to be laws that were the impetus for social activity. He calls these impetuses, “social” facts.”Social” facts as a tangible force has not been proven, though you cannot experience them in a vacuum, they can only be experienced through their effects. In the same vein the laws of magnetism, gravity and the force of wind may not be seen or held in your hand, but their effects are readily visible. Unlike these physical laws, “social” facts have repercussions for their violations. You may not even realize that they affect you until you eat filet mignon with your hands in a five-star dining establishment, or break some other social taboo at your peril. In this context we can see what begins as an adhesive force that forms what Durkheim terms “Social Solidarity”, coalesces through what he calls “Social Condensation” into a collective conscience. L’âme collective, embodies the concept as “soul”, “spirit”, “sentiment”, or “sensibility” of the superorganic group in question.

Returning to the concept of Social Facts, they are one of two influences that hold sway over the individual. The second influential factor Durkheim notes are “social currents.” These are the spur-of-the-moment feelings that power a mob, even overriding some “social facts”. A good example of this is the riots in Egypt, particularly in Cairo and Alexandria; poor, frightened Anderson Cooper. A historic example would be the French Revolutions, particularly The Reign of Terror. The only difference between “social facts” and “social currents” are the level to which they are crystalized, a  “social current” is strong but short-lived, whereas a “social fact” is much more secure through time and change; which is not to say that a “social current” may not solidify into a “social fact.”

Both “social” facts and currents are imposed on the individual, their influence can be readily seen in legislation (recently with the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”), customs (fear from dreaming that you are late for your University of Mars doctoral review board and realize that you left your clothes at home, thank you Futurama), religious practices (perhaps the golden rule is a good universal…).

Marcel Mauss (1872-1950)

Nephew of Durkheim…that pretty much sums him up as being in the same vein in more than just through lineage. It is also important to note that he is one of the students of Durkheim to survive World War I. and according to our reader, he “was considered one of the school’s leading thinkers.”

A Breakdown of the Reading

Mauss’ contribution to this section is notably an extension of his uncle’s previous work. The practice of gift-giving is, as he believes, a product of what he calls “total social phenomenon.”

Through his explanation of the potlatch of the American North-West, Mauss shows that the act of gift-giving in this context is not necessarily inspired out of the goodness of the heart, but as a cultural requirement of the individual that calls for a three step process:

1.) The Obligation to Give

As the essence of the potlatch, giving shows the society that the person holding the potlatch is favored by the deity/ies of that society. Favor is perceived by the amount of amassed fortune and how it is given away. The purpose of this giving is to humiliate those on the receiving end of the person providing the gifts, to put them “in the shadow of his name.”

2.) The Obligation to receive

It is a cultural imperative to accept the gift offered through potlatch, to refuse would be an insult that has the potential to incite war, in most cases it causes one to “lose face” in the eyes of the community. The instance where a refusal is permissable entails a previous potlatch given by the intended recipient as well as another potlatch to be performed and a ritual performed, in this way a refusal is seen as an assertion of victory and invincibility.”

3.) The Obligation to Repay

In addition to having to receive a gift through potlatch, the value of the gift must be returned to the original gifter. The return gift must also be accompanied with interest of sorts, a gift of a blanket requires two blankets in return. An inability to repay this kind of debt may do so through the loss of his status as a free man.

These kinds of gifts are often seen as members of the family, and their being given can be seen as the movement from one household to another. Some of the “most important articles” that can be given in the potlatch ar “decorated coppers.” Copper itself has significance as a central figure in myth and cult (in the anthropological sense, i.e. religion). The “coppers” are also seen as having “a virtue which attracts other coppers to them…wealth attracts wealth.”

Mauss shows that “‘total’ social phenomenon” are far-reaching and have many ways in which they affect the individuals in the society.

Karl “Max” Weber (1864-1920)

Fatima did a wonderful job with her presentation. So, I won’t insult her or bore the rest you by beating a necrotic horse.

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  • TheAnthroGeek  On February 6, 2011 at 9:05 pm

    Love what you are doing with the site Josh.

  • Martha  On February 9, 2011 at 10:06 am

    in talking about Marcel Mauss its intresting to see that giving as you said doesnt come out of the goodness of someones heart that their is always gratitude and acceptance from the recieving person, which putting it in current context is completley true…if you give your friend a super expensive present and she rejects it saying its too much…the giver get upset for the rejection causing hostility with that friend because of the rejection. However if the friend does accept the gift…the giver expects the friend to hold her in high regards, not only that but when her birthday comes that the friend do the same, and if the gift she recives in return does not match up…lets just say that the next present if their is one at all will not be as great! This passes the notice of people as simply being superficial but when you put it in Marcel Mauss context you can see that in fact this simple act just reinforces what he has suggested happens.

  • Dennie Harris  On February 13, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    Durkheim sought to make Anthropology and Sociology accepted as a “hard” science. Many people refer to these fields as “soft” sciences in a derogatory way. By this I mean that they try to portray Cultural Anthropology and Sociology as having no scientific methods or concrete answers. Durkheim, along with others, strived to prove that society could be studied scientifically. By giving social constructs names and backing their theories with research, I believed they have succeeded.

  • JackieC  On February 15, 2011 at 10:30 pm

    So true. Each culture shares and engages in some sort of gift giving ritual. I believe that what Anthropology is continually trying to express that we are more alike than we are different. I really like what Martha was saying above, our society parallels that of others. What I find so refreshing and challenging about Anthro Theory is that there is something (ideals, point of view) that one can identify with and relate to something else. Also I would like to add to Dennie’s post, I believe that Anthropology is indeed a hard science. Anthro Theory is a way for us as researchers, thinkers and so forth to create an elaborate “string theory” of culture rather than particles.

  • Pianomist  On February 23, 2011 at 5:52 pm

    On Emile Durkheim and on cultural norms, Durkheim suggests that indeed there needs to be deviance in order identify what is deviant from what is not. Within this context, deviance is perceived as a somewhat double-edged sword. You have what is considered deviant in a society and then the means to somehow correct it. You have small cases of deviance such as farting in public and more extreme ones such as murder. Of course, those have consequences that deem them deviant such as laughing and pointing to someone when they farted or prison time for the murder. Then, you may have the unforeseen… if they are reacted to as deviant, that is negative deviance, then they’ll have a “correctable solution”. Durkheim also suggest that there are cases of positive deviance. In cases such as Martin Luther King Jr., he was considered a deviant at the time, but his deviance was a positive one and changed society for the better. So, there does need to be deviance, whether positive or negative… and depending on the reaction of the culture that deems them positive or negative.

    • Pianomist  On February 23, 2011 at 5:53 pm

      Oh, this is Rene, by the way.

      • Pianomist  On February 23, 2011 at 5:56 pm

        One last note, the example of MLK was, of course, my own and not of Durkheim’s.

  • saurav kumar  On October 15, 2012 at 11:11 am

    Actually your definition of social currents is a little erroneous. Social currents are also social facts since they are external to and coercive of an individual. Since they are transitional phenomena, they are not well entrenched in society and hence not a part of the collective conscience.

  • K  On February 1, 2014 at 4:23 pm

    One of the most fascinating concepts that peaked my interest in class is the idea of no free gifts. If there is an exchange of an item, in the end, a person is receiving something in return. This is an interesting concept because it seems to be rooted in the same ideas as karma, “What comes around, goes around.” By gifting something like money to support a cause, you are putting out good karma which in theory can come back to you. In the end, you are not only receiving immediate positive emotional feedback, but possibly gaining assistance from a stranger in the future.

    For example, if you help a family who is stranded on the side of the road in the middle of the night you put out good karma. Four months later when you are in another city and your car brakes down a random stranger can help you get back on the road, which is the effect of karma making it’s way back to you. Because of this, helping a person does not mean that that same person will help you in the end, but it means that in the future there is a chance that you will be taken care of, which would be repayment manifesting itself in karma.

    I know this is a tangent of our sociology idea, but I was thinking about it in class, so I wanted to post it.

    • K  On February 1, 2014 at 4:30 pm

      One interesting idea that was brought to my attention is what happens if you pass and someone inherits your money naturally. This would allow a person to give a gift, but not experience the physical positive feedback from the situation. Just a thought…. that is a selfless gift (but not free).


  • […] February 8, 2011 All subsequent quotes refer to the corresponding text. Sociology, a close sibling to Anthropology is based on many philosophical and scientific literatures. Therefore, both of these disciplines share many tenets of their basic theories and structures. Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) As a student of August Compte (the positivist philosopher) and Herbert Spencer (author of  The Social Organism), Durkheim believed that there existed certain laws that gov … Read More […]

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