Author Archives: TheAnthroGeek

TheAnthroGeek has a phd in anthropology from Columbia University in NYC. But don’t assume that means he knows anything!

Symbolic and Interpretive Anthropology

Symbolic and Interpretive Anthropology Summary

            To summarize the week’s reading on symbolic and interpretive anthropology, I believed it would have been important to include a short description of the fore mentioned subject. Defining the subject as a methodology to studying symbols or symbolic actions; a field of study that takes an interpretive perspective to cultures using psychology, history, and literature rather than the use of mathematics and logic. However, since the field of study does not use logistics per say on cultural studies, it has been the duty of the anthropologist to interpret their studies that could be understood to their peers and colleagues. Thusly the subject is up to criticism because it is only up to the skill of literary interpretation that the anthropologist has in order to display their studies. Since that explanation is complete I will transition to the first reading that focuses on Mary Douglas.

To start the new topic, will be a short biography about Mary Douglas. Born in 1921 and passed away in 2007, Mary Douglas was a social anthropologist. She went to school at the University of Oxford in the years of 1939-1943. She later went to school in the early 1950’s to receive her doctorate. She later went on to teach at the University of England for 25 years. Her work Purity and Danger is well known and also featured in the book.

Mary Douglas focused on symbolic actions of purity that was associated with the human body. She sought to find universal patterns of such purity and used two examples to prove her theory in her chapter of External Boundaries. The first example is the Coorgs fear of impurities, and their fear of anything that has left the body and reenters is repulsive, Douglas shares a myth about their fears. The second example focuses on the Caste system, of the idea as the Coorgs, anything that leaves the body is repulsive, and thus the lowest members of the caste society are tasked to clean up the human impurities, such as poop. The symbolic natures of impurities create a sense of reality to culture.

Victor Turner born in 1920 and died in 1983. Attended University College of London in 1938-1941 for English and Literature. He went back to school to receive a B.A. in Anthropology; hence he was trained with British structural functionalism.

Turner’s work was based on how symbols are used to create a social action. He uses the Ndembu tribe and their symbol of the Mudyi tree to represent his ideas of how a symbol can create social transformations. The Mudyi tree is viewed as a motherly figure to the tribe, as such a figure, girls who are about to embark on the journey to be a mother are placed under the tree. This rite of passage is shared amongst women and young girls. This represents a linkage in their society however it separates the women from the men because the tree is more towards women of the society.

Clifford Geertz was born August 23, 1926 and died on October 30, 2006. He joined the US navy prior to receiving his degree in Philosophy. He earned his degree in Antioch College in 1950 and after went to Harvard University as a student in Social Relations. His first wife Hildred Geertz trained him as an anthropologist. He taught at many schools before becoming a faculty in the Department of Anthropology in University of Chicago. Here, Geertz started to expand his research on culture anthropology on cultures such as Java and Bali to name a few examples. In his Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight, he talked about how the culture interprets symbolic meaning with cockfights. Geertz believed that “symbols operate as vehicles of culture.” He uses the cockfights in Bali as an example because cockfights in their culture symbolisms a lifestyle. It is compared to the men of Bali and who he is as a person. They are compared to their cocks and their cocks represent them.

Slides on the Subjsect


Quotes to Ponder

Quotes to Ponder

In a way,
culture substitutes itself to life,
in another way
culture uses and transforms life
to realize a synthesis of a higher order.

Who said this quote and why?

Another way to look at this:

In a way,
[NUrture] substitutes itself to [nAture],
in another way
[NUrture] uses and transforms [nAture]
to realize a synthesis of a higher order.

The full context is here (thanks to Herve Varenne):

Claude Lévi-Strauss (1949):

Man is a biological being as well as a social individual. Among the responses which he gives to external stimuli, some are the full product of his nature, and others of his condition… But it is not always easy to distinguish between the two… Culture is neither simply juxtaposed to nor simply superposed over life. In a way, culture substitutes itself to life, in another way culture uses and transforms life to realise a synthesis of a higher order. (1969 [1949]: 4 )


Another illustration of the nature/nurture conundrum is as two blades of a scissors. But I do not recall who thought this one up.


Sociobiology, Evolutionary Psychology, and Behavioral Ecology


-Edward O. Wilson, “The Morality of the Gene” (1975)
-Jerome Barkow, “The Elastic Between Genes and Culture” (1989)
-Rebecca Bliege Bird, Eric Alden Smith, and Douglas -W. Bird, “The hunting handicap: costly signaling in human foraging strategies” (2001)

Presentation slides for Sociobiology 

Discussion Items based on -Edward O. Wilson, “The Morality of the Gene” (1975)

In what ways do you think that Wilson’s quote, “A chicken is only an eggs way of making another egg” is accurate? In what ways does it seem inaccurate? Provide examples.

What do you think the purpose of forming religious groups and tribes is relating to gene flow? Do you think Wilson is correct, in that we cooperate in these groups in order to pass on our genes?

Discussion Items based on -Jerome Barkow, “The Elastic Between Genes and Culture” (1989)

Central to this article’s arguments is a conception of culture transmission and of biological evolution as intimately linked yet conceptually distinct. I view culture transmission and biological evolution as the two ends of an elastic band. Each pulls on the other. Processes at one end tend to generate fitness-reducing, socially transmitted information; processes at the other tend to eliminate such information. Because both the “stretching” and the “pulling back” take place continually, at no time is any culture likely to be entirely fitness enhancing for all of its participants, nor is any culture likely to be entirely genetically maladaptive. I will refer to culture’s tendency to move in fitness-reducing directions as culture stretch. Processes tending to alter culture in fitness-enhancing ways will be termed culture revision.


Do you think that genes and culture is like an elastic band as Barkow claims?

Is culture dependent on genes?

Ethnoscience and Cognitive Anthropology

Powerpoint on the subject

Mercedes & Arturo

1. Is “thinking like a native” an achievable goal? Would this way of seeing a culture truly create more accurate ethnographic descriptions?

2.  Is it valid to claim that data collection by ethnoscientists is “more scientific?”

3. Conklin’s research with the Hanunoo set out to prove that color vocabularies influence color classification and they way people define color, contrary to the implication of the Sapir Whorf hypothesis which implies that color vocabularies determine color perception. To what extent was he able to prove his theory?

4. “Color terms are a part of the vocabulary of particular languages and only the intracultural analysis of such lexical sets and their correlates can provide the key to their  understanding and range of applicability. The study of isolated and assumed translations in other languages can only lead to confusion.” What does Conklin mean by this?

5. Would the “psychic unity of mankind” be correctly hypothesized if cognitive anthropology refuses the belief of a unitary theory of culture?

6. Is studying language and its connection to thought processes useful in correctly understanding a culture? Can it be done without it?


In Sherry B Ortner’s article, Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture? , the main topic presented is the universal fact of culturally attributed second-class status of women. To help support her claim of universal female subordination Ortner uses techniques of Structuralism to develop arguments. She starts by defining the data types that would suffice in proving her claim which include: 1) cultural elements that devalue women 2) symbolic devices making women appear inferior 3) social structural arrangements that exclude women. At the begging of her paper Ortner takes the universal secondary status of women as a fact and leaves the opposition to disprove her claim. Through the paper the use of structural relations between man and woman compared to nature and culture are used to support the idea of her universal constant. Ortner views culture as being universally of greater importance than nature in the human mind. She then relates women being connected to some level closer to nature than man. This in turn leads to her claim that if man is closer connected to culture, which is dominant over nature then women will be universally at a lower status than man.


We must attempt to interpret female subordination in light of other universals, factors built into the structure of the most generalized situation in which all human beings, in whatever culture, find themselves. For example, every human being has a physical body and a sense of nonphysical mind, is part of a society of other individuals and an inheritor of a cultural tradition, and must engage in some relationship, however mediated, with “nature,” or the nonhuman realm, in order to survive. Every human being is born (to a mother) and ultimately dies, all are assumed to have an interest in personal survival, and society/culture has its own interest in (or at least momentum toward) continuity and survival, which transcends the lives and deaths of particular individuals. And so forth. It is in the realm of such universals of the human condition that we must seek an explanation for the universal fact of female devaluation. Pg 349

Returning now to the issue of women, their pan-cultural second-class status could be accounted for, quite simply, by postulating that women are being identified or symbolically associated with nature, as opposed to men, who are identified with culture. Since it is always culture’s project to subsume and transcend nature, if women were considered part of nature, then culture would find it “natural” to subordinate, not to say oppress, them. Pg 351


One can easily imagine political action designed to improve the conditions of women in a society, but how can one ever change a culturally universal pattern of thought?

If the categories of “nature” and “culture” are conceptual categories in which no boundary in the actual world can be drawn, should they be used in a Structuralism view to define an argument?

Structuralists believe that cultural phenomena are the products of universal logical processes that organize human thought. According to structuralists, a fundamental characteristic of human thought is to sort data into binary oppositions. What are some examples in which this methodology succeeds and fails?

In the article, Four Winnebago Myths: A Structural Sketch created by Claude Levi-Strauss, Levi-Strauss structural analyzes myths. He tries to understand the unconscious structure of the human mind and thought process. Levi-Strauss examines the logical relationships between the elements of the myths trying to find the unconscious message the myth conveys. Levi-Strauss takes the myths presented by Radin and finds what he believes to be the underlying theme in all four of the myths. He concludes that there are ordinary people that live their full life and die a full death. There are those that are “positive extraordinary” people that die early but live more through reincarnation. Lastly, there are “negative extraordinary” people that can neither live nor die.


“To uncover the unconscious meaning of myth, the structuralist must break myth into its constituent elements and examine the rules that govern their relationships. This hidden structural core will reveal the essential patterns and processes of human thought” (321).

“Language is not a function of the speaker, it is a product that is passively assimilated by the individual. It never requires premeditation, and reflects enters in only for the purpose of classification. Speaking, on the contrary, is an individual act. It is willful and intellectual” (Ferdinand de Saussure).


What exactly is structuralism?

Can structuralism be utilize in the analysis of modern day cultural problems?

Is there any evidence of Marxism or Darwinism or any other previous theories?


Bonus Question:
What’s the deal with this picture?
Other Questions to ponder:
Fried believes that the force that drives political evolution is the control over production and distribution of resources. He proposes an evolutionary model Stage A (Egalitarian Organization) -> Stage B (Rank Society) -> State C (Stratification society)-> State D (State Society).

His observations have been made but no one has been able to follow the model as it says in all stages. Instead a variety of unrelated societies are selected and each represent one or another of the several transitions. Why has his observation not been able to be proven as a theory. What elements or considerations did he miss?

Bourgois is considered Neo-Marxist in his writing he covers conflict and tensions between classes topics found in Neo-Marxism.

In comparison of Marx study of subjects and their relation to work is demonstrated in Bourgois’ analysis of street level crack dealers.

Is the environment and lack of acceptance a excuse or turn out of certain individuals who seek drugs and illegal activities to survive ends meet?

Cultural Ecology and Neo-Evolutionary Thought

Like this post, the era of Cultural Ecology and Neo-Evolutionary Thought is dominated by depictions of Darwin both vulgar (above) and refined (below).

“Atheists prefer certainty and use Darwin’s theory of evolution to state categorically that God does not exist, overegging Darwin in their argument in a way that Darwin himself would be uncomfortable with,” Charles Darwin's great-great-great-granddaughter says.  

I don’t mean the vulgar meaning of vulgarity; rather, I’m using the refined use of the term.  At this point, you may be very confused.  If so, good, because that is a great place to start learning! If you read the definition of vulgar below, you will agree that the vulgar interpretation of “vulgar” is obscenity. Vulgar means “common” or “pertaining to ordinary people”, and can refer to:

Vulgar or common language, the vernacular speech of a region or a people Vulgar Latin, common Latin as distinguished from literary or Classical Latin Vulgarism, an instance of non-standard or non-elite usage in a language, not to be confused with “vulgarity” as a synonym for “obscenity” or “profanity” A vulgar fraction in mathematics, one written in the common way and not as a decimal fraction.

We have swung on a pendulum from armchair anthropologists who took “vulgar interpretations” of Darwin too literally while describing humanity to Boas’ opposite extreme where the notion of social evolution is itself obscene. But the armchair anthropologists’ passion to apply Darwin’s then “new ideas” was very refined in the era that it occurred.

Note the dates of the publications below. Darwin’s _The Origin of Species_ was published in 1859.  Soon after, the notable publications of the “armchair anthropologists include.
-Herbert Spencer, The Social Organism (1860)
-Lewis Henry Morgan, Ethnical Periods (1877)
-Edward Burnett Tylor, Science of Culture (1871)

Boas’ response to these armchair anthropologists is so violent that it would would have been natural for Boas to refer to them as “vulgar Darwinists”. But happily, Boas had more class than that.  In fact, Boas agreed with his reading of Darwin well illustrated here:

The notion of evolution that the Boasians ridiculed and rejected was the then dominant belief in orthogenesis—a determinate or teleological process of evolution in which change occurs progressively regardless of natural selection. Boas rejected the prevalent theories of social evolution developed by Edward Burnett TylorLewis Henry Morgan, and Herbert Spencer not because he rejected the notion of “evolution” per se, but because he rejected orthogenetic notions of evolution in favor of Darwinian evolution.

In fact, Boas thought highly of Darwin as is illustrated below:

I hope I may have succeeded in presenting to you, however imperfectly, the currents of thought due to the work of the immortal Darwin which have helped to make anthropology what it is at the present time. (Boas, 1909 lecture; see Lewis, Herbert 2001b. “Boas, Darwin, Science and Anthropology” in Current Anthropology 42(3): 381–406.

It is funny that it only took one “educational generation” for Darwin to resurface. Two of the dominant voices of neo-evolutionary thought, Julian Steward and Leslie White, both trace their ancestry back to Boas.  Boas taught Sapir who taught White. And Boas taught Kroeber who taught Steward.  Although George Murdock was not part of this lineage, he became Chair of Anthropology at Yale following Sapir’s death in 1938 and so could be considered a Boasian step-child in a sense.

QUESTION: When we speak of Steward, White and Murdock today, should we consider them vulgar Darwinists?

see student slides here

Culture and Personality

LINK: Culture and Personality presentation Slides

Mead argues social conditioning is what forms individuals in society:

“Only to the impact of the whole of the integrated culture upon the growing child can we lay the formation of the contrasting types.”
“We are forced to conclude that human nature is almost unbelievably malleable, responding accurately and contrastingly to contrasting cultural conditions.”
“The differences between individuals who are members of different cultures, like the differences between individuals within a culture, are almost entirely to be laid to differences in conditioning, especially during early childhood, and the form of this conditioning is culturally determined.”

Think of an example of cultural morality and explain how it can be viewed as relative.

In discussing differences in ethical morality we can clearly see that what is taboo for one culture is honorable for another. In her paper, ” A Defense of Ethical Relativism” Benedict gives the example of homosexuality as a cultural aspect one of these taboo/honor complexes; state, in your opinion, why or why not you think this form of relativism is important to anthropology today.
Think of an instance when you have experienced ethnocentrism toward some aspect of your culture or sub-culture.

Quotes to Ponder

An animal organism is an agglomeration of cells and interstitial fluids arranged in relation to one another not as an aggregate but as an integrated living whole. The system of relations by which these units ate related is the organic structure. As the terms are here used the organism is not itself the structure; it is a collection of unites (cells or molecules) arranged in a structure, i.e., in a set of relations; the organism has a structure. The structure is thus to be defined as a set of relations between entities. Over a period its constituent cells do not remain the same. But the structural arrangement of the constituent units does remain similar.

Who said this?

How can you apply the relevance of this author’s theoretical approach to a contemporary issue or problem?


A.R. Radcliffe-Brown (1965b [1935]:178-179)

Radcliffe-Brown was an English social anthropologist who developed the theory of Structural Functionalism and studied anthropology at Cambridge under Haddon and Rivers. Radcliffe-Brown carried out extensive fieldwork in the Andaman Islands, Australia, and elsewhere. On the basis of this research, he contributed extensively to the anthropological ideas on kinship. Radcliffe-Brown argues that by studying kinship than individuals in a society it is more useful because the structure of kinship remains the same from generation to generation. Radcliffe-Brown argues that structural relations between people in certain positions in kinship systems lead to conflicts of interest. It is solved by joking or avoidance in relationships.


Why would Radcliffe-Brown argue that, “studying kinship in a society more prevalent than studying individuals in the same society”? And why is that “joking” a way of avoiding conflict from certain relationship?

Max Gluckman

Max Gluckman was a South African and British social anthropologist and was educated at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is known for his analysis of political systems among different groups of Africa, especially the functions of feuds and conflicts. In his studies of South and Central African societies he realized how deeply the colonial regimes and the global economy affected every aspect of peoples’ lives.  In the “Licence in Ritual,” describes how ritualized reversals of social roles, seemingly acts of rebellion, act instead to support a society’s of social order and political systems (McGee and Warms: 153).


Does our modern society exercise African rituals?

Bronislaw Malinowski

Bronislaw Malinowski was born in Krakow, Poland on April 7, 1884 and became influential in British anthropology and is the founder of Functionalism. His first field study came in 1915-18 (Trobriand Islanders of New Guinea in the southwest Pacific). He used a holistic approach in studying the native’s social interactions including the annual Kula Ring Exchange, (to be associated with magic, religion, kinship and trade). He died in 1942.

Functionalist approaches understand society and culture to be like living organisms. Parts of a culture can only be studied adequately as they function within the whole. At the same time, elements of culture are assumed to be part of deeper processes and systems that need to be uncovered if the individual elements themselves are to be properly understood.

Presentation Slides

Historical Particularism

Historical Particularism

Franz Boas

Franz Boas, born in 1858 to a German Jewish family, pioneered and labeled historical particularism. His father was a merchant of liberal political views and his mother was a radical freethinker. With Boas’ parents he had ideas and beliefs of equality and freedom for everyone, which shows in the work he does. Boas’ idea of historical particularism is a research method that “is widely considered the first American-born school of Anthropological theory, and he [Boas] is considered one of the founders of American Anthropology” (McGee and Warms: 116).

After moving back and forth from Germany to America, Boas permanently ended up in America. Boas ended up as a professor of anthropology at the University of Columbia. Through Boas’ experiences studying the Baffin Islands on the study of the Inuit people, he found great interest in anthropology, which led to historical particularism. He argued that historical events were important factor and that all cultures must be viewed on their own terms. His students include A. L. Kroeber (1876 – 1960), Paul Radin (1883 – 1959), and Benjamin L. Whorf (1897 – 1941).

Discussion Questions:

Boas’ discusses the difference between what people do vs. what people say they do. Why is it so important to personally observe cultures other than being the “arm-chair” anthropologist? Since Kroeber relied on a lot of information through Ishi (individual from the Yana people), is that information tainted?

Boas argues that cultures are not fixed or static and that they have their ways of reaching the same cultural development as modern societies. What did he mean by that and if possible, provide some of the evidence that supported this argument?

Alfred L. Kroeber

Kroeber’s essay focuses on the explanation of his eighteen stances of what he believes about culture and civilization. Kroeber agreed with Boas on most things but did disagree on a couple topics. The first was the “idea that anthropology was ultimately a discipline devoted to the study of humankind’s origins” (McGee and Warms, 119). Boas believes that the individual plays a huge role in how the culture is made but this is not Kroeber’s belief. Kroeber’s belief is that “…although culture came from and is carried by human beings, it cannot be reduced to individual psychology” (120 McGee and Warms). Kroeber was more interested in the connections of geographical cultural traits. But Kroeber did agree with Boas’ cultural history, that you need to know the history of cultures to know the culture it is today.

Paul Radin

Paul Radin, a true follower of Franz Boas, believed that all cultures are different in their own ways based on particular historical events. To understand them is to study them on their own terms and within their context, which may require participant observation and learning the language. Radin provides an insightful example in his article, Right and Wrong, that was based on his study of the Winnebago Indians to convey that they too are just as complex and socially modern like Western Europeans. Their “primitive” way of thinking was found to be more superior than of modern Western societal way of thinking. What the writer is trying to say is that why should we be so quick to judge when all it is is a misunderstanding and misperception of these people who we associate the word savage with. There is in fact more to learn from them as seen in Radin’s account of Winnebago individuals who describe their understanding of their lives based on several precepts.

Discussion Questions:

Why did Radin go to such great lengths in trying to convince his readers that the “primitive” mind is just as abstract as modern civilized people?

It seemed as if Radin was expressing the fact that these natives’ way of thinking was more superior than civilized people. Do you think that was his intention? Explain your answer.

Make Sense of this Quote

Individual vs Group

The challenge of the individual vs the group has been a perpetual consideration of humans for a long time.  In medieval times, the debate appeared as “Free Will vs God”.  After Freud’s influence, the focus shifted to the “Ego vs the Superego” or the “Individual vs. the Group”.  In sociology, the debate appears in the form of “Agency vs Structure”.

Our discussion should revolve around the following:
Q: What is more important, the individual or the group?
Q: Should one just focus on one of the two?
Q: Can one do effective anthropology be balancing the two?

TASK: Read the following quotes and reread our readings for this week with these questions in mind. Then respond to these issues.

What is Culture?

Culture may be defined as the totality of the mental and physical reactions and activities that characterize the behavior of individuals composing a social group collectively and individually in relations to their natural environment, to other groups, to members of the group itself and of each individual to himself. It also includes the products of these activities and their role in the life of the groups. The mere enumerations of these various aspects of life, however, does not constitute culture. It is more, for its elements are not independent, they have a structure (Franz BoasThe mind of primitive man 1911:149)

What’s an Individual?

We do not discuss the anatomical, physiological, and mental characteristics of man considered as an individual; but we are interested in the diversity of these traits in groups of men found in different geographical areas and in different social classes. – Franz Boas from a 1907 essay entitled, “Anthropology”.

What is the Superorganic?

The reason why mental heredity has nothing to do with civilization, is that civilization is not mental action but a body or stream of products of mental exercise. Mental activity, as biologists have dealt with it, being organic, any demonstration concerning it consequently proves nothing whatever as to social events. Mentality relates to the individual. The social or cultural, on the other hand, is in its very essence non-individual. Civilization, as such, begins only where the individual ends; and whoever does not in some measure perceive this fact, though as a brute and rootless one, can find no meaning in civilization, and history for him must be only a wearying jumble, or an opportunity for the exercise of art. [FROM: THE SUPERORGANIC By A. L. KROEBER page 93, Vol. 19 April-June, 1917 No. 2]

Make Sense of this Quote

Make Sense of this Quote 
FROM P. 310 of Suicide:
First, it implies that collective tendencies and thoughts are of a 
different nature from individual tendencies and thoughts, that the 
former have characteristics which the latter lack (Tïow can this be, it 
is objected, since there are only individuals in society? But, reasoning 
thus, we should have to say that there is nothing more in animate 
nature than inorganic matter, since the cell is made exclusively of 
inanimate atorns^Ç'o be sure, it is likewise true that society has no 
other active forces than individuals; but individuals by combining 
form a psychical existence of a new species, which consequently has 
its own manner of thinking and feeling). Of course the elementary 
qualities of which the social fact consists are present in germ in indi- 
vidual minds. But the social fact emerges from them only when they 
have been transformed by association since it is only then that it ap- 
pears. Association itself is also an active factor productive of special 
effects. In itself it is therefore something new. When the conscious- 
ness of individuals, instead of remaining isolated, becomes grouped 
and combined, something in the world has been altered.

Who said it?

What's it mean?

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

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?

Nineteenth-Century Evolutionism

Nineteenth-Century Evolutionism

This was a period in science and human thought that affected great changes in how people understand the world and human development.

Notable people of this era include:
Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace,
Herbert Spencer,
Sir Edward Burnett Tylor,
Lewis Henry Morgan,
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

Notable publications include:
-Herbert Spencer, The Social Organism (1860)
-Lewis Henry Morgan, Ethnical Periods (1877)
-Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Feuerbach. Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook (1845-1846)
-Edward Burnett Tylor, Science of Culture (1871)

The readings from this section share some similar tendencies, one among these is the idea of human interaction as an evolutionary process.  Spenser’s theory is very unilateral in suggesting that civilization progress, or evolve.  His writing gives an analogous view of civilization and human interaction as a biological organism, suggesting that the social factors of human interaction have evolved from simplistic to more complicated.  This is also intertwined with  authors such as Taylor, who also compare anthropology with the natural sciences, echoing the sentiments of Darwinian theory by applying the idea to human civilization.  Feuerbach takes this idea a step further with the productions of intercourse, adding more specific elements of human interaction into what is basically the same idea presented by Spencer and Taylor.   It is important here to focus on material and its role as a driving force in this evolutionary theory.

Based on this idea, and the more in-depth literature that supports it, we would like to discuss the following:

In the spirit of 19th Century Evolutionism:  Explain the evolution of culture in the terms of the evolution of life, or as an analogy of a living organism or body, or a progressive process of change, or as the development of mental capacities.  You may want to consider: the evolution of simple to complex societies, interdependency, class structure, religion, materialism, technology innovation or art, knowledge/ education, subsistence, roles and structure of the family, government,  division of labor, or speech.  How are all these ideas related, or how are all societies related to one another?  Is there a progression of society, and if there is, what is the ultimate goal of society?