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Durkheim, Emile

Page history last edited by Shanti Odell 15 years, 5 months ago

Emile Durkheim was a social theorist who did his primary work in the 1890s and eary 1900s. He was interested in the nature of a society that was beginning to splinter off into many factions and sought to reconcile this idea in his historical context.


Durkheim held that society is constituted by the 'collective consciousness', the shared beliefs and morals that connect individuals.  He defied Hobbes' and Locke's model of society as a contract that unites a group of people.  Durkheim also dismissed the organicist model, which imagined society as an integrated whole that is comparable to a living organism. Durkheim's philosophy was particularly critical of organicism because he imagined that the collective consciousness was greater than all the individuals who lived within it. 


The individual members of society are neither active creators nor passive recipients of these moral ideas that shape the collective consciousness.  Durkheim viewed individuals as both recipients and creators of these moral ideas.


Durkheim believed there was some form of pre-contractual solidarity. He believed every society must have some form of solidarity and this is recognizable through our ritualsReligion was Durkheim's main area of focus and he used this concept to expand on his notions of society. He saw all religions as being able to be divided into a few fundamental categories; church, ritual, and the dichotomy of the sacred and the profane. Durkheim entered the social system in the Industrial Era when capitalism was taking over as the main economic system forcing people to reevaluate their positions in society. In this capitalist society, people were becoming more and more individualized, and Durkheim saw religion as main aspect that continued to hold people in cohesive groups.


He saw solidarity as being broken into two forms: mechanical and organic solidarity. Mechanical solidarity is characterized as moral and religious homogeneity, where there was very little difference in individual labor i.e. early society. People themselves had very little individuation and everyone seemed to be working towards the same common goals. The same families were all involved in the same political units and productive forces. In this kind of society, the thing that bound people together was a high degree of collective consciousness that had a religious basis. Within this collective consciousness, people were kept in check by the shared beliefs of what was considered to be taboo, and it was a great transgression to show any kind of deviance.


This kind of solidarity only worked in smaller, more communal, non-capitalistic societies, and there began to be a shift to organic solidarity when labor became more differentiated. With that individuation the collective becomes weaker and weaker until a new form of consciousness emerges. Durkheim talked of differentiation in which there was an increase of individuals who needed to be catagorized. Since they cannot all be grouped within the same familial, political, and productive categories anymore, the rise of individuals created its own religion. Laws began to be structured towards protecting the individual, since they no longer had the collective consciousness to hold them accountable anymore, and property began to be important in establishing individual power.


As individuals became more and more separate from each other, the lack of cohesion created a phenomenon which Durkheim characterized as anomie.


This rise of individuation results in what Durkheim calls the Cult of the Individual.  In this cult of the individual, people are no longer held together by the traditional moral and religious reasons as in the past, but rather what holds us together is the fact that we're different, and the one thing that is valued is our individuality. So, to keep your own individuality intact, you allow others their individuality.

A counter to this cult of the individual can be argued to be currently on the rise. With the new emphasis on building community and local food movements, people are not seeking the community that was lost with the cult of the individual.


The Collective Consciousness can be separated into four dimensions of analysis:

1. Volume: The degree that attitutes held by individuals are comprable to everyone else.

2. Intensity: The degree to which attitudes held are influenced by emotions.

3. Rigidity: How clearly the required beliefs and practices are defined by the Collective Conscious. If the Collective Consciousness is weaker, rigidity will be weaker which will allow more flexibility. 

4. Religion: In the early stages of Collective Consciousness, the content to analyze is religion. Later, the content becomes moral individualism (the Cult of the Individual).



Durkheim does not talk about divisions that exist in society such as class conflict.

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