Tag Archives: and Weber

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

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

All subsequent quotes refer to the corresponding text.

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

Émile Durkheim (1858-1917)

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

A Breakdown of the Reading

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

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

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

Marcel Mauss (1872-1950)

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

A Breakdown of the Reading

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

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

1.) The Obligation to Give

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

2.) The Obligation to receive

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

3.) The Obligation to Repay

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

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

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

Karl “Max” Weber (1864-1920)

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