Émile Durkheim (1858-1917)

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.

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?

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…).

The following quotation is taken from the advertisement filled http://edurkheim.tripod.com/index.html

Durkheim’s Suicide ….No he didn’t kill himself, but he wrote about other people killing themselves.

Durkheim’s Suicide 

Durkheim’s Suicide was the first methodological study of a social fact in the context of society. 

What does that mean?  Well, it means that Durkhiem wanted to look at suicide, a known occurrence in society, and do it scientifically.  He wanted to break the social causes of suicide, back them up with research, and present them to the greater world via this book.

He splits this book into three parts which are outlined below; the most important of which for our concerns is Book Two.  This book explains his theories of the social causes of suicide and the different types he defined. 

Durkheim’s main argument was that suicide is not an individual act, as was previously thought by leading scientists of his time.  Accordingly, his theory was that suicide was a social fact that was tied to social structures.  He defined suicide as a social fact because it was something that happened driven by social causes, however hidden they were. 

In order to test his theory he studied suicide rates across time and place (throughoutEurope, spanning many years).  Once he had completed his preliminary research and analyses, he came to the conclusion that, despite major differences in suicide rates between individual societies, rates within a society remained stable over time.

Distribution of the Different Kinds of Death Among 1,000 Suicides (Both Sexes Combined)

Countries Years Strangulation and Hanging Drowning Fire-arms Leaping from a High Spot Poison Asphyxiation
France 1872 426 269 103 28 20 69
France 1873 430 298 106 30 21 67
France 1874 440 269 122 28 23 72
France 1875 446 294 107 31 19 63
Prussia 1872 610 197 102 6.9 25 3
Prussia 1873 597 217 95 8.4 25 4.6
Prussia 1874 610 162 126 9.1 28 6.5
Prussia 1875 615 170 105 9.5 35 7.7
England 1872 374 221 38 30 91
England 1873 366 218 44 20 97
England 1874 374 176 58 20 94
England 1875 362 208 45 97
Italy 1872 174 305 236 106 60 13.7
Italy 1873 173 273 251 104 62 31.4
Italy 1874 125 246 285 113 69 29
Italy 1875 176 299 238 111 55 22

By looking at this table from page 291 of “Suicide” we can see that over the years, each type of suicide has a relatively stable rate in each place.  The numbers may vary across the places, but for each locale, there is consistency.

Durkheim then proceeded to theorize three different types of suicide that are found in all societies.  These include:

1)      “Egoistic suicide, which results from lack of integration of the individual into society.” (Page 14)

~This means that a person is not included in many things that happen in society, they feel unattached, helpless and useless.  Due to these feelings of inadequacy, the person takes his of her own life.

2)      Altruistic suicide “. . . it results from the individual’s taking his own life because of higher commandments.” (Page 15)

~This means that the individual feels that something larger than himself is causing him to take his own life, such as religious Martyrs or suicide bombers.

3)      Anomic suicide “. . . which results from lack of regulation of the individual by society.” (Page 15)

~This means that the society is going through some sort of change, where the rules of the society are not as clear as they were.  The individual feels confused and does not know how to handle the major changes occurring around him/herself, and thus commits suicide.

The relevance of Durkheim’s Suicide Theory on sociology is seen very well through a series of quotes from the editor/translator:

“his work on suicide remains the prototype of systematic, rigorous and unrelenting attack on the subject with the data, techniques, and accumulated knowledge available at any given period.”  (Page 9, Editor’s Preface of  “Suicide”)

“Le Suicide is among the first modern examples of consistent and organized use of statistical method in social investigation.” (Page 9, Editor’s Preface of  “Suicide”)

“. . . Durkheim is seeking to establish that what looks like a highly individual and personal phenomenon is explicable through the social structure and its ramifying functions.” (Page 10, Editor’s Preface of  “Suicide”)

All quotes and tables on this page taken from:

Suicide: A Study in Sociology by Emile Durkheim, translated by John A. Spaulding and George Simpson, and edited with an introduction by George Simpson.  Copyright 1951 by The Free Press

Chicago has a good site on Suicide

DISCUSSION TOPICS (respond to either 1 or 2):

1. Are “social facts” useful to use today?  The above discusses the social fact of THE RATE of suicide for a particular society during a particular era.  How could such an analysis be of any use to our society today?

2. Is Durkheim’s use of the term “organic” -is his discussion of mechanical and organic solidarity – similar to how we use it today colloquially? What the mechanical and organic solidarity and is such an analysis of any use to our society today?

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  • Jenise  On January 30, 2014 at 2:24 pm

    I think social facts could be relevant only in terms of one specific society, because once you start looking cross-culturally, social “facts” must be thrown out the window. What is a fact for one society (say cannibalism), is mostly a taboo for another. If I am understanding this concept correctly then I can say that social facts may be useful alternative bits of information, if, one is studying one culture independently.

    • TheAnthroGeek  On January 30, 2014 at 3:11 pm

      Indeed, the post modern critique made much hay about researchers trying to use one societies facts against others, albeit unintentionally.

    • jumpinhare-Lyn  On January 31, 2014 at 7:57 pm

      I agree that finding correlations between social facts in order to expose laws of social structure would be very difficult to utilize across the board in different cultures and different time periods. Perception plays a huge role in the information that you would be gathering to make these measurable statistics. Not only perception of the researcher but also of the society and individual that would be giving the information. Perception is always changing and variable. Social facts are difficult to grasp because the behavior of individuals or societies are not black and white. There are so many variables at work it is difficult to quantify and categorize acts.

  • Kaleb Greer  On January 31, 2014 at 8:43 am

    They way that Durkheim uses “organic” is similar and different from the way it is used today. The word organic can be defined as a developing naturally and gradually without being forced. Durkheim was using the word organic referring to dependence on labor divisions within complex societies. I would say that the dependency is forced making it different from how the word is used today. However, one could argue that the relations occur naturally and gradually making it similar to modern use of the word. It can be used today to look at trends within small tribe cultures compared to modern city cultures. Allowing to see how labor effects the kinship patterns and learning about the “norms” of culture. It splits how small societies work compared to larger societies.

  • kimico  On February 2, 2014 at 4:03 pm

    Social facts are useful because they do exist, despite not being “tangible.” The laws that dictate how people function in society (social facts) might be different than the laws that existed in Durkheim’s society, but they are still in place in some form or another. I am unsure of the recent studies that have been conducted regarding suicide in contemporary western cultures but the three types of suicide that Durkheim makes note of still appear to be relevant. Although the context has changed the reasons still endure. I agree that suicide can be viewed as a social act because although an individual is acting alone, Durkheim’s ideas explain that people’s perception of their relationship with society directly contributes to one’s decision to commit suicide. Mental “illness” is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of suicide, however that can be included in either the “egoistic” category or the “anomic” category. In addition, can mental “illness” be considered a social fact?

    Durkheim’s discovery that suicide rates remained stable over time is relevant to contemporary society because it can be applied to more recent data. It might speak to the possibility that there will always be a population of people that belong within one of the three categories. There are social facts that contribute to the feelings that create such classifications. The struggles that people face today, although some might be different than during Durkheim’s lifetime, are still events that are significant enough to contribute to an individual’s decision to commit suicide.

  • Art M  On February 2, 2014 at 9:11 pm

    Social facts are still useful today because a lot of one’s actions around people are affected by the facts that they learn. These remind me of social controls, which might be the same thing, where rules are set formally, like laws, or informally, like codes of conduct, that elicit reactions every time they are followed or broken. Whenever an informal social control is broken, it elicits a negative reaction from others in the culture or society that follow that control, like the example given of one eating filet mignon with your bare hands at a five star restaurant. We are still affected by ideas of what is normal and what isn’t by the social facts that influence it.

    An analysis of suicides in our society can still be used today but it might change from a comparison between religious beliefs to a comparison of people’s mental health, economic means, social standing, or other factors.

  • J  On February 3, 2014 at 1:27 pm

    In my understanding, social facts are the predetermining factors for the creations of a law or ruling. In the case of Emile Durkheim’s studies of suicide, and if the same study would theoretically be conducted in this current era of the 21st century, the results may more or less resemble each other on a larger scale due to population levels.One interpretation of the studies can be that it allowed the current creations of counseling services, anti-depressants, hallucinogenics, psychiatric hospitals, etc. to prevent cases of suicide. Or in some States of North America you are opted to have assisted suicide. So I believe that social facts can be useful in society today.

    • CB  On February 3, 2014 at 7:44 pm

      I feel like have predetermining factors of these “social facts” puts all societies in a box with no leeway. Although, I do believe the same research could be done in different societies, but I don’t see how there can be universal laws and/ or ruling.

      • TheAnthroGeek  On February 5, 2014 at 9:58 pm

        the universality of the law would apply only to the pattern of such things, not what that pattern is comprised of and thus grabs our attention. In other words, as the analogy goes, Durkheim was focused on the wave not the particle.

  • Yolanda  On February 5, 2014 at 7:50 pm

    Social facts are useful today. While our knowledge of their existence in and of its self does not change anything, the information can be used to help understand the society in question. As J said,
    “allowed the current creations of counseling services, anti-depressants,
    hallucinogenics, psychiatric hospitals, etc. to prevent cases of suicide. Or in
    some states[sic] of North America you are opted to have assisted suicide.”
    Our knowledge of the situations in our society can be used as a benefit to the society as a whole. This cannot be used to create universal laws though, only the society being studied. Social facts will change from society to society, maybe even subculture to subculture. More importantly it can be grounds used to treat society rather than individuals for particular behaviors. If a suicide rather within a society is staying the same over time, does this imply that genetics, society or individuals are the cause? Assuming we choose to ignore Malthus and prefer our society to be free from suicide, how can we change the way in which we view and treat suicide?

  • larson1301  On February 6, 2014 at 12:39 pm

    I think social facts are very relevant in looking at how societies work. In the way that we can use them to see how cultures work and societies form. In order for them to be used successfully we must only focus on that society in order to find the social facts useful. Facts are a good thing when it comes to finding things out however if they are used in the wrong context or in reference to a different culture it can become and issue.

  • mech  On May 16, 2014 at 2:33 pm

    Social facts can be useful today. I think their usefulness depends on the intent of the person using them to analyze a society. WE all seem to agree that using them to compare different cultures would be problematic, but we must also consider that this could also be done to achieve results on a subject with a cross cultural approach. An analysis on suicide today, if done on different societies, could possibly provide answers in regards to the reasons behind suicide, or better stats that could provide some type of information that would be beneficial to those who work in or around the subject of suicide.

  • JannetC  On May 17, 2014 at 10:43 pm

    Social facts are useful today because is shows means of what is happening and conclusions could be predicted about how society is changing and works. I don’t see how cross culture is bad in trying to compare every society. This doesn’t make it a bad thing it just shows consistency.

  • TheAnthroGeek  On January 23, 2015 at 1:23 pm

    darn tooting!!

  • veronica tovar  On February 2, 2015 at 11:55 am

    Today Durkheim’s social facts method, helps create away some Anthropologist are able to research the behaviors of groups and individuals in society and research the reasons why people commit suicide. This three major forms help to understand the structure of society and affects it has in society that might play a role in why people chose to take their own life.

    It is one way of trying to understand why things might happen.

  • Lennin  On February 2, 2015 at 12:29 pm

    What is the differentiation of social fact vs. social current? And how did Durkheim come up with them? How did Suicide create Sociology? How is it different than Anthropology?

  • QueenOfTheNile  On February 5, 2015 at 11:48 am

    Suicide created Sociology due to the research that Durkheim worked on. His research made Sociology because it was something that happened driven by social causes, however hidden they were. The way that its different from Anthropology is the way that research is conducted.

  • Jessica Gomez  On February 6, 2015 at 2:39 pm

    Social facts are laws and principles by which society operates from; they are secure even in change and time. While, social currents are spur of the moment feelings, which are short lived. Their overall main difference is the “level to which they are crystallized.” Durkheim came to formulating these theories by anticipating a mimicry in the laws of physics and other sciences. He then developed principles and laws through sociological research.

    Suicide created sociology in such a way that it paved the way for all other sociological research to be done through the scientific method and in methodological fashion. Suicide also set forth an example for all other sociological researchers to strive for validity and reliability.

    Anthropology differs from sociology in that sociology conducts research differently and may rely more on statistical research. Anthropology tends to focus more on distinct groups of people while sociology may tend to do more research on urban groups.

  • Grumpy Giraffe  On February 9, 2015 at 1:14 pm

    Can these types of suicide overlap? The lines between them seem blurry and a suicide could fit into multiple categories. It is not black and white. With how suicide is approached and discussed nowadays perhaps the categories could be changing as well or they could be new categories altogether.

    • TheAnthroGeek  On February 10, 2015 at 9:31 am

      good question. Durkheim’s desire to be precise may have been more of an aspiration than a reality. I would say yes they can overlap because with most things social, there are far too many moderating variables to control or account for.

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