Is Society Really a Thing? – Emile Durkheim and The Rules of the Sociological Method – Part 1

Is Society Really a Thing? – Emile Durkheim and The Rules of the Sociological Method – Part 1


What is society? Is it a real thing that
exists out there in the world? Or is it just an abstract label we put on a
collection of other people out there? If so what do we mean when we talk about
different societies? And what do people mean when they say Society says X or Y is wrong? sometimes people say that we live in a sick society but can society
really be sick or healthy? It sounds like people are talking about a person or
some entity with a will of its own that is capable of influencing, or even
forcing people to do what he wants. So the question is: Is society a thing? One man who had answers to those questions was the French Sociologist Emile
Durkheim, who lived and worked around the turn of
the 20th century. this video series is an introduction and overview of The Rules
of the Sociological Method, written by Emile Durkheim in 1895. It is one of my
favorite sociology books because it was one of the first and most comprehensive
attempts as defining Sociology as a science. It is fairly easy to read,
systematic, and it’s written with a great passion that you don’t always find in the
often dry styles of social theory writers. When that is said, it is by by no
means an easy book. Granted, Durkheim’s style is much more to the point than many other important Sociologists. But the thing is, Durkheim delves into some
fairly deep and fundamental questions, and the book may be a challenge for
beginner Sociologists. I’m not gong to comment on the book line-by-line, but
rather present its general ideas in roughly the same order as Durkheim
writes about them. I will recommend that you go and get a hold of a copy for yourselves. Links will be provided the description. Now, Durkheim was a believer in
Science. He wanted to make sociology into a real science, And not just
philosophical speculation on society. For Durkheim, science meant having a
rigorous methodology, making theories based on the observation of the world,
and testing your theories by subjecting them to empirical data. But most importantly, he treats society as a fact. In fact Durkheim saw Sociology as a part
of the life sciences: Biology, Psychology and Sociology would each study different
aspects of human life, or rather, they would study life on different levels of
complexity. This idea of Sciences studying different layers of complexity, is sometimes referred to as General Systems Theory. Let me talk about that
for a minute. For Systems Theorists like Durkheim, the whole is more than the sum
of its parts. Think about it this way: a rabbit bouncing around in the meadow
is clearly a living thing. But if you put that rabbit into a blender and push the
button, it is not longer alive obviously. It is simply difficult to even call that
bloody smoothie a rabbit at all, although it might still taste delicious. But the point is, even though it contains all the same material of a rabbit, it’s
“rabbitnes”, so to speak, has more to do with how those parts are organized in
relation to each other, than the parts that it’s made up of. The rabbit is therefore an emergent property, because it is something that emerges from the
interactions of the cells and organs: A biological organism. speaking of blood
and gore, The words “organ” and “organism” are interesting here, because When Durkheim talks about society, he sometimes uses the organic metaphor. Different institutions in society are like organs of a body: Each one having separate
functions needed to keep society together. We will come back to the
organic metaphor when we start talking about one of Durkheim’s other books, which is called The Division of Labor in Society. Going back to general Systems
Theory. Let’s do a thought experiment: Imagine a set of concentric rings,
where the inner layer is Physics, Then the next layer is Chemistry, followed by Biology, then Psychology and finally Sociology. You can see these aspects of
the world as a ladder of increasing complexity. Chemistry ultimately reduces
to Physics, and physical interactions give rise to chemical processes. Likewise, Biological life emerges from Biochemical processes, and brains create individual
personalities. The interactions between individuals create families, organizations and countries. So you see, each science has an object of study
depending on the level of complexity it analyses. For Durkheim’s three life
sciences, these are as follows: Biology studies biological facts; cells, organisms, ecosystems. Psychology studies psychological facts; cognition, behaviour, personality. And so; Sociology studies social facts; roles, norms, the law, institutions. For Durkheim therefore, the study of society was of social facts. Social phenomena have a different qualitative characteristic than
psychological and biological facts. Of course these three sciences have things
in common. Sociologists can learn a great deal from
psychology and biology, especially social psychology, evolutionary psychology and neuroscience. but you can not reduce downwards; you can not explain norms, legal
codes, family structure, nation states, crime and punishment, political parties,
patterns of migration or social evolution from psychological models. Social facts are irreducible to psychological and biological phenomena. The evolution of societies follow different rules than the evolution of
animals or the history of ideas, because it operates on a higher level of
complexity. But how does this make Sociology a science with a “capital S”? And yes, Durkheim was being very insistent that social facts were real. “Real”, as in “objective” and as “things”. They’re not just subjective representations depending on
anyone’s opinion. They exist out there in the World. Of course they do not have an
“essential” existence. They’re not unchangeable, universal substances. If all humans died out tomorrow, there would no longer be any social facts. nevertheless,
social facts have an objective reality. And yes, society does depend on there
being individuals to create it. But then again, individual personalities can only exist if there are biological brains to create them. But as we learned from General Systems Theory, the higher level of complexity is an emergent property which is something different than the parts which they are made up of Now, when I say objective I don’t mean tangible or material reality. They are not material
things. But a real thing does not have to be made up of matter. A national border is obviously a social thing. It is arrangement that is created by society, not some arbitrary geographical features, (although they may have played some part in the genesis). But who would dispute that a National border is a real thing? if you think it is, then why not try to go through a border control with a shopping
cart filled with a hundred cartons of cigarettes? But before we look at what
makes social facts real and objective, we have to ask the question: What is a
social fact? What makes certain phenomena “social”? is everything that happens in
society a social fact? Is a person going to the bathroom a social activity? Clearly not. Acts like these are more biological than sociological Yes, everybody poops, but pooping is usually a solitary activity, at least in my experience. What makes something social has to do with the interaction between people. People do things in relation to each other. Durkheim’s first example is the notion of duties and roles People act only duties as a sister, as a father, as a part of an organization, or as a citizen. if we look at the three life
sciences again: Biological facts are certainly objective, psychological facts seem less so, and social facts appear to be the least objective of all. “Duties” on
the face of its seems kind of subjective: something going on in your
mind. But what is it really mean to be objective? The opposite of objective is
subjective. Social facts are forces outside the subjective mind of the individual. it is something external to the individual that compels them to
conform, or face sanctions from the collective society around them. Social things are real and objective because they exist outside of, and have
consequences on the individual. Oh, you may think that this sounds
kind of arbitrary, like some kind of linguistic trick. Just because something
isn’t a purely solipsistic phenomenon of the individual mind, does that mean that
it is objective? Let’s dig deeper and look into another social phenomenon: Crime. The proper way of understanding what makes crime a social fact is, thus, not to look inward into what you yourself think should be a crime. In some societies, adultery or homosexuality is a crime. You might disagree with that, but as long as it is being punished in some societies, it is objectively a crime in that society. Durkheim applies the same to morality. Sociologically speaking, what is moral is not up to the opinion of the researcher. She is a product of her own
society. What is deemed moral or immoral depends on which part of the world you
are in, and what historical time period it is. Social facts are a product of
the societies that they arise from they’re indeed real things but they’re
not eternal or unchangeable. The point is that, as a sociologist, you have to be kind of a moral relativist, even though you don’t have to be that personally. But you have to understand society as a scientist, where you don’t let your own
opinions influence what you see and study. The trouble with understanding how
social facts are real is because you yourself live in society. People everywhere have an everyday experience of society, and they have interests and
agendas of how society should run. The point of sociology is to take a step
back from your own subjective experiences and interests and see what
society really is: it is a collective phenomenon, and it exists independently
of you, whether you like it or not. You have to leave your personal feelings
behind, and study society like a scientist would study a colony of bacteria. Social facts are around us and compel us to do things, but they are at
the same a time part of us, and we are a small piece of an enormous network of
social relations, communicating with each other, creating this thing we call
society. the fact that you don’t always notice these social forces is because
you have been conditioned throughout your life to act according to what is
expected of you. Durkheim contends that people, through their education, and their
interactions throughout life, attain habits of interaction, that helps society
function smoothly. it is when you try to go against these duties, norms, roles and laws that they will feel like real things. If you actively try to breach a
social norm, or act in defiance of the law, you will quickly be struck down by
society. So, what characterizes social facts, are coercion and conformity. And you only really feel the coercion when you try to deviate from them. Deviant actions are punished by society. Crimes are a good example of social things: They exist independently of the will of individual persons. Yes, legislators and
judges might have something to do with their creation, but in society they have
a life of their own. But of course, not all deviant actions are considered
crimes. Every individual goes through society with constant surveillance made
by the public conscience. Punishment may be more informal. Sometimes you may be
ostracized by your family and friends. Sometimes merely ridiculed, like that time you walk naked around in street. Social distance can be as bad as any
penalty by the law. The reason is that society is also something that enables people to do things, and fulfil their individual desires. The sociologist Anthony Giddens stated that; The social structure from the perspective of individuals, are rules and resources. You have to follow the rules, but you can
benefit from its resources. in order toget food, you have to go to the shop and
bring money, and behave according to the norms of your role as a shopper. There has to be a network of logistics, transportation, employment relations and
economic transactions, already there in place, to make the food available for you
to buy. And of course you have to speak the same language. Indeed, there has to be
a kind of social structure already there for you to use its resources, and that
social structure is dependent on there already being
conformity in society. there are also more informal relations that you can benefit from: friends, family, business contacts; They can help you find the
right people to talk to when you need something done. To sum up: Sociology is
the study of social facts. social facts arise from the interaction between people. So they are created by people: They are not dependent on individuals, there are a collective phenomenon, and have an existence of their own. Just like molecules have different properties than the atoms that make them, societies have a
life of their own independent of the people that create them. Social facts are objective because they are forces outside your individual consciousness, that drives people to conform with the rest of society. But, in the end, it
doesn’t really matter if you don’t like to use the word objective when dealing
with social facts. you should treat Durkheim’s worldview like one of many useful ways of understanding society. Maybe sociology will never be a Science
with a “capital S”, because people’s desires, intentions and individual wills are difficult variables to isolate and control. But Durkheim at least teaches us
some humility in face with such a great force as society. It lives its own life and doesn’t always do what you want it to do, so we treat it as such. think of
society like the weather. It’s volatile and unpredictable. It is much greater than you, and impossible for anyone to control. But there are methods in place
to at least understand to some extent how it works. That, my friends, its what
sociology is all about. See you next time. Oh

Author: Kennedi Daugherty

7 thoughts on “Is Society Really a Thing? – Emile Durkheim and The Rules of the Sociological Method – Part 1

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *