In Durkheim's concepts, what does sui generis mean?

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Durkheim argues that the study of a society should be carried out in a way that acknowledges its uniqueness, its individuality. Far from seeing society in mechanical terms, as many of his functionalist contemporaries did, Durkheim conceived of society as a vast organism.

He viewed society as almost like a...

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Durkheim argues that the study of a society should be carried out in a way that acknowledges its uniqueness, its individuality. Far from seeing society in mechanical terms, as many of his functionalist contemporaries did, Durkheim conceived of society as a vast organism.

He viewed society as almost like a giant onion, with layers of meaning that needed to be peeled back in order for us to gain an understanding of the whole. Each individual layer (e.g., family, social class, professions) consists of members of society and their often complex interactions with one another; and each layer in turn contributes to the overall makeup of society.

Cohesion and integration are important concepts in Durkheim's sociology. And in examining each layer of society, Durkheim sought to discover their unique cohesive properties and how they contributed to the overall stability of society as a whole. Durkheim recognized that if these individual layers did not cohere, the society on which they were built would weaken and eventually dissolve.

To return to our metaphor of the onion, the core of the onion needs the layers in order to be protected and nourished, just as the layers would not exist in the first place without the core. Every part of the onion, like every part of society, is linked together, and in order to understand how they link together, we need to treat them, from a methodological standpoint, as sui generis, or unique.

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In Durkheim’s sociology, sui generis is generally used to refer to something that is unique and specific to a particular social organization but that cannot be isolated within any one individual that makes up that organization. In other words, societies possess specific, emergent properties that are unique (sui generis) only when these properties are considered at the level of society itself, not the level of the individual.

Central to Durkheim’s thought is the proposition that social reality is conditioned by mutually held, collective representations, each of which is independent from any individual. Human social reality cannot be reduced to the mere epiphenomenon of organic life. The biological and physical principles that determine the organization of life in the nonhuman realm are insufficient to understand the peculiarities of human society. This society is composed of individuals that observe rule-based modes of behavior and semiotic mechanisms of communication and the passage of knowledge which have no analogues in any other realm of scientific inquiry. Thus, these particular forms of human expression, which are only realized in a society (i.e., not at the level of the organic, biological, or individual), are unique to society, constituting the definition of what Durkheim means when he uses the term sui generis.

Sui generis phenomena can be illustrated with an example from one of Durkheim’s works, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. In very brief terms, the core argument of this book is that in order to isolate the most basic principles that underly any organized religious expression, one cannot study higher level religious beliefs, because of their incomprehensibly convoluted connection to other forms of social reality.

Durkheim takes the aborigines' Australian totemic religion as the most basic form of any religious belief system. He observes that various Australian tribes identify with a specific totem, usually an animal, that is unique and distinct from the totem of other tribes. The totem is embedded so deeply in indigenous religious thought that individuals in these tribes literally believe themselves to be the totem itself—its living manifestations. Durkheim argues that the incredible demand placed on human reason to project one’s own being onto that of the totem is only possible because of the collective social obligations that support that kind of religious thinking. In other words, individuals alone would never make the kinds of ontological leaps that are associated with the totemic religions: it is only because these beliefs are supported by a unanimous social fabric that individuals within that society are able to do so.

Thus, totemic beliefs and practices are sui generis, or only possible and specifically unique to the Australian aborigines, and furthermore, they are only given meaning at the level of society, not of the individual.

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According to Emile Durkheim, society existed before any individual was born and would continue to exist even after the individual is gone. This basically meant that, although society is composed of a number of parts with people representing one of the parts, it cannot be defined by reducing it to the sum of parts that interact to create its unique nature.

He explained social facts as “sui generis” meaning social facts are unique to the society that establishes those facts. This asserts that social facts are pre-existing and not a product of the current population. Thus social facts shape the way the present generation behaves or interacts with their society, making their interaction and behavior predictable. Further, social facts cannot be changed by individual alterations, in their belief system or actions.

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The Latin phrase "sui generis" means something like "unique" or "of its own kind."  Durkheim uses the phrase to describe social facts about societies.  He argues that social facts about a society are sui generis.  He says that they are created by the society and are unique to that society.

Durkheim is arguing that social facts are not things that we can control.  Rather, they have been built up by the cumulative experience of all that has come before us.  Because of this, they are sui generis.  They are unique and they are not things that we can change.

So, to Durkheim, the phrase "sui generis" refers to things that are outside our control.  He uses the phrase to refer to social facts about our society that act upon us but which we cannot ourselves change.

 

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