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Latest update: October 8, 2000
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"Emile Durkheim: Approach to Theory"

Review and Essay by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata
Part of Teaching Theory Series
Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata, September 2000. "Fair Use" encouraged.

This review is based on Readings in Social Theory, edited by James Faraganis, pp. 58-90, Chapter 2. McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2000. ISBN 0-07-230060-4.

Emile Durkheim (b. 1858, France), started out teaching philosophy. Like W.E.B. Du Bois (b. 1868, USA), he was fascinated by the study of society and how it "exercises control over our behavior, as rules of conduct, as laws, as customs, and as norms and values that we believe in and that shape our conscience and make us part of a [collectivity]." In 1913, Durkheim became the "first official sociologist" in France, when his professorship at the Sorbonne was renamed: "Professor of the Science of Education and Sociology." (op. cit., pp. 58-59)

Durkheim's "General Approach" by Larry R. Ridener. "Rejecting biologistic or psychologistic interpretations, Durkheim focused attention on the social-structural determinants of mankind's social problems." This harks back to Faraganis' statement about the ways in which society "controls" individuals. Durkheim, at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, was entering a whole new field of inquiry in insisting that we could understand human behavior as much by the "controls" exercised by society as we could by trying to understand individual psychological and physiological responses.

Now, think of this in terms of Fellman's adversarialism and mutuality. Recall that Fellman speaks of compulsive adversarialism and compulsive mutuality as assuming, unstated, that the world as we see it, is inevitably the way it is. How does Durkheim's insistence on social control fit into our attempt to understand Fellman's paradigm of adversarialism AND mutuality?

Consider that Durkheim's focus on social controls and the way they shape us is one aspect of the problem. Social controls, laws, norms, the expectations of others, do explain much of our behavior. (Social constructionism.) Psychology, biology, genetics, feminism and ecology offer other aspects of how we grow interdependently. The interdependence is an aspect of postmodernism, which has only appeared nearly a century after Durkheim's era.

Why would we still read Durkheim today? Consider again what Fellman says: We don't need adversarialism OR mutuality. We need adversarialism AND mutuality in balance. In other words, Fellman is suggesting that we recognize the compulsive responses, and that we recognize that little in our world is "inevitable." This is a variation on Lear's appeal that we recognize that we do not "know" in all instances, and that we be open in good faith to receiving new knowledge.

and How would it help us to understand the perspective of postmodernism today? i.e. Is Durkheim missing the balance?

Exam Question: The Significant Part of Social Theory that Durkheim Saw

Contemporary Social Theory emphasizes the loss of metanarratives and the promised Enlightenment of modernism. Postmodernism speaks of interdependence. Fellman speaks of our need to merge adversarialism and mutuality in a new paradigm that does not compulsively assume that the way things are is invevitably the way they must be. Lear speaks of "knowingness" and the dilemma which such obsession confronts us. Where in all this contemporary theory can we trace the contributions of Durkheim?