Foundations of Sociology: Durkheim, Mauss and Weber

Emile Durkheim believed that human society followed laws, just like natural laws of physics or biology that could be discovered by empirical observation and testing, sound familiar. He also believed that society was much more than simply a collection of individuals and to discover the laws and principles by which society operated. He began to question the nature of social cohesion. What was it exactly that held societies together?

Marcel Mauss talked much about the “Gift Exchange.” In a gift there is always “three obligations: giving, receiving, repaying.” If this is not done there is a sense of lost of dignity. Has this ever happened to you? The nature of gifts can be ambiguous and political in all cultures. In simple cultures as Mauss suggests, the gift giving is the thing that keeps theses societies together, and maintains social structures. “What power resides in the object given that caused its recipient to pay it back?”

Max Weber talked much about class, status and party and that all this overlapped each other. He looked at the role of the individual and the relation to others. In addition, he believed people’s positions are based on a number of factors. The class is more of economic terms are how much you can gain from the society. The status is the position and prestige of the lifestyle you have. The party is at what political level you are to gain power. He also thought that there were three types of social structure, “the community, the association, and the society”. Is this still true today? Does our society have social structure? If so what might it be?

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  • kmgalvez  On January 30, 2012 at 9:09 am

    Durkheim thought that people in a society created systems of classification in order to understand the world around them. These systems are “social facts”; and “social facts” reflect a society and how it is organized. The idea of social facts relates to Mauss’s study because he believed that the exchange practices of societies reflected how they were organized, and also characterized how the people in that society interacted with each other and those of other societies.

    Mauss’s “Three Obligations” (giving, receiving, and repaying) is interesting in that the concept relates to a wide variety of societies, including American society. There is an obligation to give because the distribution of goods is “the fundamental act of public recognition in all spheres”. One gives in order to show his or her fortune, to be acknowledged by others in society, or to secure their status/position in society. It is important to invite everyone you know and everyone in your social circle so that all can be there to acknowledge your accomplishment or status. An example in American society is: if you get a promotion, you invite everyone you know in order to prevent anyone from feeling left out, but also to “show off” your accomplishment.
    According to Mauss, there is an obligation to receive because failing to do so, “one would ‘lose the weight’ of one’s name by admitting defeat in advance”. If you decline the invitation to the promotion party, the host and others can take it as you being a “sore loser” and resentful of your acquaintance’s accomplishment.
    The obligation to repay is also evident in American society. Mauss found that “the obligation of worthy return is imperative. Face is lost for ever it is not made or if equivalent value is not destroyed.” If you were invited to a party, you are expected in return to invite that person to your future parties. This “obligation to repay” rule also applies to birthday gifts and other gifts given on special occasions and holidays. For example, if a friend gives you a gift on your birthday, you are expected to give them a gift when it is their birthday. It is also important that the gift be of the same monetary value as the one they gave to you. If it isn’t, then the friend will feel slighted and your merit as a friend will decrease.
    The rules relating to these three obligations show how the people in a society view exchanges with one another, and this is apparent by the way they structure their society around the acts of giving, receiving, and repaying gifts.

  • Dale H.  On January 30, 2012 at 11:29 am

    “What is a social fact?” Durkheim asks. The main thing I think Durkheim is trying to do in his article is establish respectability for his field, sociology, which didn’t actually exist yet. Taking the principles and guidelines of science and mathematics and applying them to cultures and social interactions is ONE approach to figuring out and the “whys” and increasing our understanding of human cultures. Another way would be interpreting the world as a giant blender. Who’s to say whether or not in a thousand years, or in ten thousand years, different ethnic groups will have disappeared. His discussions and definitions seem to me to be designed to read like actual “science” rather than “social facts” and “social definitions”, but I guess that is good thing for me because anthropology, a field that didn’t even exist at the time, now falls under the “social science” heading because of Durkheim’s influence. I enjoyed reading his paper!

    I was very bored trying to get through Mauss’ essay. That may have been because I do not agree with taking the principles of potlatch, as practiced by four North-West American “tribes”, the Tlingit, the Haida, the Tsimshian, and the Kwakiutl, and applying these principles across other cultures. Just because he agrees with Durkheim, and therefore chooses to interpret his observations in support of Durkheim’s ideas of “social facts” and “social definitions” (with observations of course being second or third hand accounts because he did not do field work) does not convince me that they are a “discovery” of a foundational underlying human social process. I don’t think the idea that a gift’s importance transcending the actual value of the object is as big a breakthrough as he implies.

    Where, in my opinion, Durkheim had good ideas that I agree with but are hard to prove, and Marcel Mauss had poor ones easily defeated, Max Weber had complicated, hard to follow ideas about class and status. He did think that wealth and economic advantages, although important, were just one aspect of status with respect to power and privilege. I wonder, if he were alive today, would he still believe that.

  • Bryan Swarts  On January 30, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    To me, looking at all three sociologists, I can see the validity of their points. Durkheim explains how different societies have different “laws” that govern over the people. These laws are both formal and informal, which are designed to help society through establishing “norms.” With these I feel that there is an implied notion of punishment, whether you committed murder and you are punished by the state, or you picked your nose and you are punished through embarrassment by those around you. These social facts do of course change over time, which I think what he meant my “social currents,” where these “laws” depend upon the time and place. Very interesting read, especially when he looks into why we put scientific reason in social contexts. I also enjoyed his psychological interpretations of how societies function.
    Mauss is trying to fit these “three obligations” somewhat as expectations for these living in a society. I guess one modern example is that the USA gives us various freedoms, and we accept those freedoms and use them (though we may certainly ignore and abuse them as well), and it is expected of us to serve and contribute to the success and/or image of the USA is some way, be it through business, law, medicine, military, athletics, etc. I do agree with Dale that his use of specific cultures is not very inclusive to the world, but I guess we can find this concept in most other cultures and societies. Perhaps it could be associated with the interactions of different societies as well. For example, Group A gives Group B a gift. If Group B accepts and repays the gift, then peace can develop. But if Group B doesn’t accept the gift or accepts the gift but doesn’t return the favor, then war may break out. I don’t believe that the practice of giving, receiving, and repaying gift is the only social glue that holds people together, and I think that there are other practices and actions that contribute to the relationships of individuals in a group. Though I do somewhat agree with the notion that “gifts are never free,” but that’s just me.
    Oh boy. Weber. I feel like his thoughts on these three parties were well defined for his time period, but today it would be hard to relate to. I mean, yes, class does play a major role today, but it is interesting to see the diversification of jobs in a society and the economic properties of the individual. Back then, owning a farm or a factory was a big deal, but we tend to overlook those today, seeing how big current corporations are (back in the mid-late 19th century, one cigarette factory was the leading force; can we imagine one factory today being that powerful?). Yes, prestige may account for something’s nowadays, but it’s not as important as it was since his time. We have celebrities, but does that really garner that much respect and admiration from us? Especially to those who may disagree with us on some issues? It just seems like most of society is separated from celebrities, so we feel like we are never going to meet them, which lessens our interest in most of them. Don’t get me wrong, celebrities are admired and can influence change or action, but to me they still seem distant enough to where I can’t relate to them. I think we can relate with Weber’s ideas of parties today, and not just in a political sense. Businesses have a huge impact and can be very much inlaid with power from politics (Occupy movement anyone?). Out of the three, I feel like this one is a bit more relatable today, but of course I think he had seen this differently in how we see it. Weber does make sense and can apply to our time period, but it just seems like what he thought was more specific to his lifetime and the turn of the century.

  • Shana  On January 30, 2012 at 4:07 pm

    Although I don’t agree with all the hypothesis of the Sociological Foundations, I felt more comfortable with these ideas than I did with 19th Century Evolutionism.
    Emile Durkheim thought that social facts were what kept societies together. “A Social fact is every way of acting, fixed or not, capable of exercising on the individual an external constraint; or again, every way of acting which is general throughout a given society, while at the same time existing in its own right independent of its individual manifestation” (p.84). In my head, I translated this force into having a similar enculturation process growing up. Even people who come to this country early in life would share in the schooling process, and, therefore, would share some of that external pressure. Each subsequent generation would have more of this force pressed upon them, thus making the force appear less visible, and knitting the society together more closely.
    I found the idea of the group mind (l’ame collective) and collective emotion interesting. At first, I related the collective emotion to mob mentality, but as I began thinking about it, it reminded me of 9/11. I am not exceptionally patriotic or anything, but I remember, for the first time, at the age of twenty-one, actually feeling connect to the rest of the nation after the Twin Towers were hit. I ‘m positive that this was not the sort of collective emotion Durkheim was talking about, but this quote reminded me of the sense of unity that was felt for a short time after 9/11: “If all hearts beat in unison, this is not the result of a spontaneous and pre-established harmony but rather because an identical force propels them in the same direction. Each is carried along by all.”

    • Arlyne Boyer  On January 31, 2012 at 11:01 pm

      Loved reading this Shana! I feel pretty much the same way about the 19th century dudes…they needed to evolve and quickly! But more to your point about that fateful day in September…I think that is exactly the kind of group emotion he may have been referring to. It is intensely powerful to ‘belong’ to something bigger than yourself. I am very patriotic – always have been, and damn proud of it I might add (but I do not confuse this with being ‘political’, which I am not). The spontaneity (sp?) of our collective hearts breaking as one is something I will never, ever forget. America was one – for a short time…

      For me, when I think of collective emotion, I can’t help but time travel back to the massive concerts of my youth…Frampton, Fleetwood Mac, Journey, Doors , Stones, Willie…ahh now that’s some kind of mob mentality and I was always in the FRONT row so being caught in a spur-of-the-moment frenzy of one sort or another was just part of the party and totally expected.

      I often wonder what it must feel like to have that kind of dynamic, charismatic personality that has the power to whip people into a frenzy by merely talking to them….

      That’s all – just wanted to add my 2 cents

  • Fiona  On January 30, 2012 at 5:10 pm

    I found it much easier to find points on which to agree with these articles than those of last week. For instance, I think that Durkheim’s idea of “social fact” is probably applicable to all societies. Within a culture are certain ways of behaving — bowing to show respect, shaking hands with someone you’ve just met, raising your hand in class, etc. If someone goes against these behaviors there’s almost always a nearly tangible awkwardness. That child in middle school who spoke without permission was immediately admonished and told to “raise his hand next time.” I, for one, still feel uncomfortable speaking in class without raising my hand, even though it’s more common in college.

    I also think that Mauss’ ideas of gift exchange are intimately connected with Durkheim’s “social facts”. Gift exchange seems to be a fairly universal idea, though it seems to differ between social classes (a member of the elite, for instance, would be unlikely to exchange gifts with a peasant). But in a society like the U.S., where the lines between classes are perhaps not as solid, the “rules” of gift exchange are understood and practiced by most everyone. If you give someone a present for their birthday, there’s always part of you that expects to get something in return. It doesn’t necessarily have to be of equal value — indeed, people rarely find birthday gifts useful. They’re more of an acknowledgement and confirmation of a relationship. A birthday gift serves as a reminder that two people are friends, and if you don’t get one in return, it’s almost as though that relationship is one sided. Of course, this isn’t necessarily universal. There are people who give without expecting anything in return and there are people who accept without any intention of returning. However, the reciprocal nature of gift-giving seems to be a widely accepted “social fact”.

  • Martha T.  On January 30, 2012 at 7:08 pm

    Durkheim writes that society is held together at the seams by its social facts. These social facts are so strong that they are comparable to laws of the other sciences. Breaking away from these laws lead one to certain shame, ridicule, and disaster. For example, one doesn’t legally have to recognize its society’s gift giving practices, but if they don’t there will probably be consequences (ie; they burn bridges in their relationships by constantly receiving gifts and not reciprocating). Members of a society are conditioned through enculturation to become followers of these laws, to the point that they don’t even realize it and would perhaps staunchly object if they were informed that they were being subjected to cultural laws with practically every breath they take. I think this is understandable, as an equalist and a woman I would certainly not enjoy being told that I live in a man’s world and that I am at the mercy of the male-favored laws of my society (I’m not saying this is true, it’s just a hypothetical). Durkheim states that social facts are so powerful because they are a collective phenomenon. Every member shares them, many of them unconsciously. These social facts control even basic things like what we eat; what is considered food by one culture (ie; pork, insects, raw fish), may not be considered so in another. Today in the United States, sushi has become quite trendy but 20 or so years ago it was very unpopular and considered unhealthy and disgustingly unagreeable to many American palettes.

  • MAlvarez  On January 30, 2012 at 7:35 pm

    Durkheim’s goal was to show that sociology could be a filed of study distinct from other sciences. He would use social facts to propser a subject matter to tell apart other sciences. His arugement was that social facts are real because their effects can be felt . He then goes to refer to social facts as “laws” and speaks of “executing contracts”. I found these terms interesting because as I come to be more observant of my surroundings, I can see how he would come up with “executing contracts”, referring to general rules of behavior that people unconsciously follow ; rules we internalize through growing up in a scociety. I saw this as, we follow the rules within the society we grow up in without questioning it, until we are exposed to something different, and even then not questioning it because of public opinion, and what that would do to their personal. I was not sure if that is what he meant, but that is what I got out of it.
    When it comes Mauss’s idea of gift exchange, I can say the idea is universal, I believe it goes hand in hand with Durkheim’s ideas of social facts. I think that gift-giving can be a representaion of friendship. My mother has always thought me to give but that I shouldnot expect. Even though that saying doesn’t follow Mauss’s idea, I believe she means that I should not rely on a gift to represent my relationship with others. Reguardless, I believe that unspokely everyone knows the rules of gift giving.

  • jesteenburns  On January 30, 2012 at 9:54 pm

    Durkheim really gets into the topic of social cohesion, and throughout this section it is clear that it is the social collective that is responsible for holding societies together. Durkheim’s theory states that there are certain ‘’constraints’’ placed on particular societies, and that these are created by the general pull of society in this direction of thought or agreement. Durkheim’s theory is a little more flexible than authors past, in that he makes sure to add the explicit element of individual right to digress from the greater heard. However the rules and practices of a society are in the greater since determined through society itself, and the common goal that a society seems to share instinctively, albeit not spontaneously. This social cohesion is reaffirmed through social practices, such as religion, which are by their very nature a way for the social structure to strengthen itself.
    The idea of bring social beings more and more in contact with eachother and strengthen the basis of society if also described by Mauss, and while the ideas do parallel, Mauss takes a different emphasis of social building through gifts. Through gift giving and receiving one builds an internetwork of credit among a society. And in reference to the specific aspect in question, which is the motivation or obligation to give back lies in the fact that one loses rank and status (incurs debt) thus revoking his right of being a free man. On a large scale it is important for the sake of keeping up social redistribution. While Mauss has presented us with a number of examples in which this is the case, it has also been shown through many cultural and archaeological studies that gift giving, receiving and the subsequent giving led to a form of redistributions that kept societies alive and fueled cohesion. It has also been found that he who had the most to give usually had the most prestige, and often found themselves in positions of leadership.
    The ideas previously mentioned above lead into the more complex nature discussed by Weber, in that property or lack thereof classify one to a certain social station. Something important about this, that at first in describing this situation I did not catch, is that this is simply a categorical term. Competition between the categories are therefore not focused on, just that they simply exist. It is in the further subdivision that this become eminent and the utilization of one’s property become important and is giving meaning.

  • CorrinaC  On January 31, 2012 at 9:50 am

    Laws and social norms materialize as an existence outside the individual consciousness in place to monitor behavior and keep a social structure within its boundaries, but perhaps that is because society has constructed them to appear that way. They are definitely a component of what makes society and culture flow, but not as its own existence as society and culture is pieced together by numerous factors. They only exist because we constructed them to be, they are by no means essential. Social structures are set in place that allows individuals who take part in it to unconsciously be subjected to these laws because of social facts. However, individual components of society are more than capable of dismantling these constructed laws that are in place. People like to see themselves as individuals who are the way they are because they chose to be. When Durkheim proposes that social factors influence society, and there for individuals it may bring about a feeling of devaluation. No one wants to be told their puppets subjected to system of surveillance that is in place to conform individuals as society sees fit.

    This reminds of the term hegemony which says that society is dominated by one ruling class who manipulates societal culture so that the worldviews of the ruling class are imposed as the social norm. These social norms are perceived to be universally valid and beneficial to all of society when in facts they only benefit the ruling class. Could the laws and social facts be just ideologies that reflect the world views of the ruling class?

  • surey  On January 31, 2012 at 10:32 am

    From what I have read from Durkheim’s essay, what holds a society together is the common values or beliefs that comes instinctively. “It is a group condition repeated in the individual because imposed on him. is is to be found in each part because it exists in the whole, rather than in the whole because it exists in the parts. (pg. 82).” To me, this demonstrates how prevalent these values or beliefs are because they do not come as a whole but pieces. Which an individual acquires and follows it to function in a society because the goal of society is to achieve higher social solidarity. I think this is still better than the 19th century theories evolutionists of society and their explanation of how society may have come to be.
    Mauss’s essay is confusing but I can relate to the “Gift Exchange.” As the comments mentions, there is an obligation to accept the gift, receive, and repay. In my culture, we have these ceremonies, families and relatives are all invited to come and help the host. These ceremonies takes hours, sometimes from morning til evening. I once ask my mother as a child, why we have to attend these. She explain to me that if we have these ceremonies in the future they would come and help us in return, so we have to go. If we did not go , they would not come to our and probably not invite us to their ceremonies anymore. Which to me reflects somewhat of my understanding of what Mauss’s essay was about.
    I think some of Weber’s idea are still present but the details of it are quite different. When he mentions how little the social class or status has to do with economic or wealth. On the contrast, it seems that our present is based on those two. Plus, he also mentions how an individual could affect the societies and change it. I find this happening like the occupied wall street movement but the wealthy seems to keeping a cap on that from the media.

  • Elizabeth  On January 31, 2012 at 8:16 pm

    Foundation of Sociological Thought

    What is a Social Fact?
    Emile Durkheim

    Durkheim’s method on social fact is based on the distinctive characteristics that which Durkheim has listed: acting, thinking, and feeling. Which is external to the individual, or so he says. Durkheim believes that there are different phenomena for human actions, such as biological, psychological and now social phenomena. Durkheim is trying to convey the reader of the time that this new social phenomena exist and that this new existence has these factors. Factors such as, the social facts, which he sees, that exist only where there is some social organization. But… there are other facts that have the same objectivity and same ascendancy over the individual, this is called; “social currents”. I understand more clearly when Durkheim states, “Thus the great movements of enthusiasm, indignation, and pity in a crowd do not originate in any one of the particular individual consciousnesses. They come to each one of us from without and can carry us away in spite of ourselves. Of course, it may happen that, in abandoning myself to them unreservedly, I do not feel the pressure they exert upon me. But it is revealed as soon as I try to resist them. Let an individual attempt to oppose one of these collective manifestations and the emotions that he denies will turn against him. Now if this power of external coercion asserts itself so clearly in cases of resistance, it must exist also in the first-mentioned cases, although we are unconscious of it. We are then victims of the illusion of having ourselves created that which we permit ourselves to be carried along conceals the pressure undergone, nevertheless it does not abolish it” (80).
    In this paragraph, Durkheim gives an example of this methodology to practice, such as imposing everyday life style onto a child. For example, I want my child to eat, drink, sleep, practice hygiene, practice obedience, and later the child will eventually do these on their own without me having to worry that my child isn’t eating properly. Durkheim states that these practices will “give rise to habits and to internal tendencies that render constraint unnecessary” (80).
    Generally all three theorists have this idea of life as a cycle. Meaning, that if an individual teaches one thing to another, that individual will hopefully go on and teach it to another individual. This type of cycle is not only life but also a social cycle. It is these actions that we do to one another is what makes our social society a living breathing working cycle.

  • Arlyne Boyer  On January 31, 2012 at 11:50 pm

    As others have already said, this group of essays were much easier to read and understand. Plus, I enjoyed Emile Durkheim and instantly liked where he was going with his dissection of our human social-ness. I thought it was easy to get onboard with his idea of “laws” and social facts because it basically encompasses everything we humans do.

    The footnotes on page 73 talk about Durkheim’s concern about establishing the reality of these laws as social facts and his essays read with an underlying sense of urgency, and rightly so! He was breaking new ground with his talk of public opinion and social currents, and, in my opinion that old 19th century ground needed to be broken.

    Maybe this is over simplified but all he was doing was simply defining the seemingly unconscious way we pass our culture on to the next generation(s), complete with all the rituals, norms and taboos firmly set in place, concurrent to this individuals emergence into his society.

    At any rate, I was intrigued by his ideas of group mentality and the thought processes of the masses but I am not prepared to fully jump on his bandwagon just yet.

    A note on Gifts…the whole gift giving, receiving and repaying concept may be better understood if it can be thought of as a means of survival for our early Native American ancestors (and some might say they still exist today in the form of Bear Dances, for instance). It really isn’t about the ‘gift’ at all; it is about the mutual giving, which translates into “I got your back and you’ve got mine – no worries – be happy”. And, it should go without saying that the act of receiving gifts graciously is both humbling and powerful at the same time.

  • TheAnthroGeek  On February 1, 2012 at 8:12 am

    Tell us more about this Justeen?:
    The ideas previously mentioned above lead into the more complex nature discussed by Weber, in that property or lack thereof classify one to a certain social station. Something important about this, that at first in describing this situation I did not catch, is that this is simply a categorical term. Competition between the categories are therefore not focused on, just that they simply exist. It is in the further subdivision that this become eminent and the utilization of one’s property become important and is giving meaning.

  • TheAnthroGeek  On February 1, 2012 at 8:16 am

    Elizabeth: Your words below beg the question: Are habits internal or external to human individuals?
    In this paragraph, Durkheim gives an example of this methodology to practice, such as imposing everyday life style onto a child. For example, I want my child to eat, drink, sleep, practice hygiene, practice obedience, and later the child will eventually do these on their own without me having to worry that my child isn’t eating properly. Durkheim states that these practices will “give rise to habits and to internal tendencies that render constraint unnecessary” (80).

  • Kayla M  On February 1, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    After class and our discussion about Mauss’ theory I truly believe that gift giving depends on the person. It has become a social norm that if you give something, most of us would expect something back in return, but we aren’t all the same either. My personal experience with this was just a couple of weeks ago. One of my good friends bought me a birthday gift and I hadn’t seen her for a while so I didn’t get her a gift for her birthday (which was just a week and a half earlier than mine). I wasn’t expecting a gift from her she just kind of surprised me with it and because she had done that, I felt the need to get her something although it really wasn’t much and I was in no position to really spend money. I wasn’t originally going to get her anything but I thought to myself what would she think if she got me something but I didn’t do the same for her? Would one of my best friends be upset with me and take it as a slap in the face if I didn’t do the same for her? I know that I personally like getting gifts but I don’t always feel the need to get other people gifts myself. I just thought that it was interesting seeing what everybody else thought on the topic.

  • ChanSan  On February 4, 2012 at 2:59 pm

    Marcel Mauss
    “The Gift of Giving”

    Mauss “three obligations to gifting is: giving, receiving, and repaying,” if an individual do not follow these fundamental obligation they can feel a lost of Dignity. I can’t speak for generation before us, but the society that we live I today is built around material things. It was taught early in primary school about gift exchange and the need to buy your classmates cards or candy because it valentine day. Once we are surround by the world that value material things, the notion “it’s the thought that counts” is not enough anymore. Once I received a gift from a friend unexpectedly, and of course by the time her birthday or holiday comes around I didn’t see her. Consciously the thought in my head that if I ever see her again she will think about the one gift she gave me and I didn’t get her anything back. So I agree with Mauss because even if you think that can escape from the guilt in buying someone else gift, conscious you’re always aware of your action and the insecurity that you feel resulting from it. But I wonder, 1.)it the feeling of accepting someone gift and never giving anything back? Or 2.) having to reject someone gift because you’re trying to escape from the obligation of buying something in return?
    Personal option number one might look like you’re the bad person, in return it make the other that you’re happily accept the nice gesture. Option 2, not only make you look bad for say no but you have manage to make the giver feel worse about buying a gift you didn’t want. How do one go about this problem and make everyone happy?

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