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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?
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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?