Reading Guide to: Lukes, S (1975) Emile Durkheim, His Life and Work: A Historical and Critical Study, Harmondsworth: Penguin

This is a rather selective reading of this famous work, and I have concentrated on some of the more 'applied' aspects of Durkheim's sociology.

Moral Education

The aim of moral education is to constitute the collective, the 'system of ideas, sentiments and practices which express in us... the group and different groups of which we are part;... the religious beliefs, moral beliefs and practices, national or occupational traditions, collective opinions of every kind' (111). These offer rational substitutes for religious notions, and are rational in the sense of not being merely symbolic or allegorical. They reveal the moral forces latent in social forms. Key elements include discipline and moral rules to regulate societies and individuals, which are a precondition to social and individual liberty; a sense of attachment to social groups, since morality is about the collective interest and how the social emerges; autonomy, in the sense of providing an awareness of the reasons for acting, a sense of understanding morality.

There are detailed implications for pedagogy. For example, punishment should take place in the name of the collective, and student should be always reminded they are living a collective life, whether studying science, art, or history. Pedagogy should also increase awareness of the reasons for acting, as above.

The best curricula contained definitely collective ideas anyway. Categories such as cause and substance, general ideas of the physical world and so on are shared. This implies quite specific practices in pedagogy and educational psychology [details are provided 122f].

The education system should therefore be an 'image and reflection of society' (129). It should be alive to the contradictions and tensions in society, and the different effects of social divisions, and express combinations of 'dependence and dignity, of submission and autonomy' (131). This 'reflection' is not to be seen as evidence for education beeing the instrument of class rule, however. The whole of society and a number of diverse groups from different specialisms should all be reflected. The education system is best seen not as an engine of social change, but as a major mechanism to adapt to it.

Lukes points out that Durkheim has offered a rather formal and abstract analysis only here, with little attention paid to conflicts in schools, class conflicts, or conflicts between homes and schools, for example.

On Solidarity

Durkheim 's views on solidarity show clear connections with earlier thinkers, including Tonnies [who saw the changes from pre-industrial to industrial societies in terms of the shift between Gemeineshaft and Gesellschaft, normally translated as from community to formal organisation]. Durkheim wants to stress in contrast the positive role played by moral commitments in social solidarity, instead of just mechanisms of integration developed by the state and so on. Mechanical solidarity was also regulated by penal repressive laws and spectacular social punishments. It is also the case that even mechanical solidarity showed some social variation, according to the different impact of the conscience collective and variations in its intensity (151). Durkheim criticised mechanical solidarity as failing to allow for sufficient individual autonomy, which could be seen not as a threat to solidarity but as a way of increasing new kinds of interdependence: indeed, it is required by organic solidarity. In the shift towards organic types, an important part is played by the development of civil and administrative law. The conscience collective diminishes, although, paradoxically, the cult of the individual still 'derives all its force [from society] but it is not to society that it attaches us' (Lukes quoting The Division of Labour, his page 156).

It is possible to criticise Durkheim's work on the basis of empirical evidence showing that the hold of traditionalism was probably not as great as he imagined (159) [and see Bourdieu's work on the importance of practice to actualise traditions among the Kabylia]. Certain ambiguities are also detectable concerning the regulation of organic solidarity (164f). It is not clear whether organic solidarity is to be seen as a 'normal type' rather than as a description of actual industrial societies. Further, it is not clear whether the cult of the individual alone can serve as an effective social bond, or whether we need some new kind of secular religion as well [such as nationalism]. Finally, evolutionary trends seem to be behind the growth of specialisation, but yet these seem to be not strong enough to guarantee re stabilisation on their own. Durkheim sees class exploitation as another problem of abnormal forms, which also include anomie and inadequate forms of organisation, yet he is aware of risks in market - oriented societies, where workers tend be separated from both bosses and families. These problems are seen as abnormal, however, and there is a faith in long-term functional adjustment [and something that looks like the development of meritocracy]. Even here, though, some sort of active politics is required.

The Sociology of Knowledge

Concepts are seen as 'collective representations', but Durkheim tries to avoid relativism by partially exempting the categories of science -- scientific categories are also seen as natural. Social life itself is also heading towards some universal agreement and understanding. Durkheim saw some underlying similarities between scientific thinking and 'primitive thought': he denied that any humans engaged in pre-logical thought.

Thus thought is socially determined, but there are some ambiguities here. Do concepts arise from social organisation specifically or from some operation of the conscience collective more generally. In the worked examples, he is not clear whether clan organisation itself produces systems of classification or the other way around.

It looks like specific classifications arise from specific social forms, so that, for example cosmic space is constructed on the models of social space (Lukes 442). As a result, categories are seen to be functional, helping to unify societies, spread social discipline, and promote solidarity. Belief systems more generally can lead to whole cosmologies, as in the discussion of the conceptions of the world produced via totemism (444). However, categories evolve, so that science must have a religious origin (which seems to link to earlier themes, in Comte, of stages of the evolution of social thought).

Again a number of objections are possible, including empirical work which suggests that there are no such tight associations between social divisions and religious classifications. Durkheim tended to assume that only one set of classifications was available in any one society, which ignored diversity (and offered some kind of evolutionary tautology) (446). [And see Lockwood on this]. There are doubts about the social determinism of scientific categories of thought: not only is logic autonomous, but there is no way to test social influences without circularity [so the one can 'recognise'connections between them, but only post hoc -- cosmic categories look like social categories, but only because we suspect there is a link already]. Durkheim tends to confuse specific classifications with classificatory schemes as such. It is certainly impossible to show patterns of social causation using sentiments and values, which do not tightly correspond to specific divisions of categories -- see note 75, page 448).

Sociology of Religion

Durkheim owes debts to early ethnographers, although he criticises them for being over descriptive. He chose the Australian evidence as the best example of 'primitive religion', where thought was 'imprisoned' in the view of totemism: this became the most primitive religious form. 'Primitive' meant both earliest and simplest, offering some kind of 'germ theory' of more 'advanced forms'.

The main theme is that unanimous sentiments reflect a social reality underneath, but there are three specific kinds of social influence. First, social situations generate religious belief in the form of rituals, so there are causal links between social morphology and categories, as in the sociology of knowledge section above -- thus early religious universalism arises out of trends towards social universalism. Secondly, religion is formed of representations, and thus it offers dramatised or symbolic social relations, and thus helps to re-present notions of the social to the cognitive, to help to understand it (465). Thus the totemic principle was the class personified, and religion became a mythological society (467). Scientific sociology is only different because it's more critical -- there is a necessary mystification in religious categories. Finally, religion symbolises the social in its rituals, and religious feeling arises from the excesses and exuberance of religious categories. Thirdly, religion functions to strengthen social bonds. So embolisation is necessary in order to understand society and to renew the faith, and it serves to raise human beings above spontaneous desires and so on.

Certain implications follow. The functions of religion must remain in industrial societies, but the cognitive functions need to be replaced by sociology. Durkheim is a secularisation theorist here, seeing sociology as finally dominating over religious thinking, and possibly even helping to construct a new civil religion.

Pragmatism and Sociology

Durkheim offers a pragmatic denial of the dogmatic truths of Western philosophy, and aimed instead at relative historical truths. Of course this is problematic [and self contradictory]. The project really is to inquire why some troops appear to conform to reality through collective representations, and, conversely, collective representations must appear to respond to reality. Scientific representations are seen as true though, enabling us to adopt a purely objective sociological perspective. So Durkheim offers a mix of correspondence theories of truth, and an analysis of social origins and functions in order to manage the effects of a pragmatic conception.