Thursday, June 11, 2015

Emile Durkheim and Structuralism (c. 1900)

“The totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average members of a society forms a determinate system with a life of its own. It can be termed the collective or creative consciousness.”

Structuralism was an influential approach to the study of man and society in the first half of the twentieth century, which postmodernism (also called post-structuralism) took as its point of departure. Structuralists such as Karl Marx (1818 – 1883), Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939), Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917), and Claude Levi-Strauss (1908 – 2009) shared a belief that a scientific approach to the study of man and society should aim at revealing the relationships (or structures) between material factors and human thought and action. These structures could, in principle, explain all human phenomena, much as the laws of physics do all physical phenomena.

Although, like physical laws, structures were objectively knowable and constituted the hidden reality behind all that was merely apparent, unlike physical laws they were variable across time and space. Structures were also different in that they made the conscious decisions of individuals irrelevant. Marx, Freud, Durkheim, and Strauss all agreed that individuals should be understood as points of intersection between elements of the structures they inhabited, not as self-directed agents in their own right.

The French sociologist Emile Durkheim can provide a good example of Structuralism in action. Durkheim believed that society should be understood as a kind of organism, institutions as the individual organs which composed it, and individuals as the cells of the organism. Just as in living things the organs all serve different functions, yet rely on each other for their own existence, and as the harmony between them is the health of the organism, so too the harmony between social institutions makes for the health of society. Similarly, just as a sudden shock can disrupt that harmony in the one, so too it can in the other.

As a scientist, Durkheim valued rigorous examination of empirical data. He therefore turned to statistical analysis of court records, because these institutions which, since they were based on meticulous record-keeping (statues, decisions, minutes, etc.), provided access to a large sample of quantifiable and socially relevant data. They also facilitated a holistic treatment of man and society, since they were both acted upon, and actors in their own right, in relation to society as a whole. From these records, he argued that industrialization should be understood as a transition from mechanical to organic solidarity.

Mechanical solidarity was based on an agricultural or pastoral economy, where divisions of labor were simple and not particularly numerous, standards of right conduct were derived from tradition, and authority was based on personal charisma. People in such societies were, comparitively speaking, unsophisticated and similar to one another. As a result it was easy for them to understand each other and to coordinate their activities. Organic solidarity, on the other hand, was based on commerce and industry, where divisions of labor were complex and numerous, standards of right conduct were derived from contract and law, and authority was based on formal institutional arrangements. People in organic societies were far more sophisticated and productive, but their differences created friction that made understanding and common action more difficult.

Although this transition was clearly beneficial, as it facilitated economic and scientific progress, it was not without costs. It was not always clear to people what, exactly, the rules of the new society were. Different ideologies, political parties, religions, and so on, all made competing demands on them, and at the same time laws were complicated, and inconsistently enforced, while the anonymity of the city created an unprecedented degree of freedom, both exhilarating and bewildering. Durkheim called this situation anomie (normlessness) and identified it as a pathological condition, both for the individual and society.

Durkheim’s proposed to cure this pathology with regulation. Only the state, which alone held coercive power over all other institutions, was in a position to establish and enforce the necessary norms. Clearly, it was important to the health of society that these regulations should be based on a sound scientific inquiry into social conditions, and not special interests, personal whims, or popular prejudices. Unwise or excessive regulations could become a source of the pathology opposite to anomie - fatalism. Under this condition norms left too little scope for individual action, and therefore diminished the sense of responsibility which both the individual and society required to remain healthy.

Durkheim’s analysis was conservative in the sense that it affirmed and reinforced the status quo, and looked suspiciously on projects for radical change. Change for society, just as for a living thing, must come gradually and organically, otherwise the health of the whole would be endangered. Not all Structuralists agreed with his cheerful assessment of existing institutions, or were interested in sociological analysis at all. Sigmund Freud, Ferdinand de Saussure, and Claud Levi-Strauss, applied Structuralism to individuals, language, and tribal societies respectively.

Though internally diverse, and not without its critics, Structuralism was probably the dominant trend in the study of man and society during the first half of the twentieth century. Post-modernism was in some ways a continuation of, and in other ways a departure from, this ambitious project.

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Part of a Series on Post-Modernism (II of XV)

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