Durkheim & the Structure & Function of Society Research Paper Starter

Durkheim & the Structure & Function of Society

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This paper highlights the scholarly work of the renowned French sociologist, Émile Durkheim. An introductory section touches upon Durkheim's sociological motivations for integrating religiosity into his theories. An analysis of his hallmark creation surrounding the Division of Labour, including the differentiation between mechanical solidarity found in primitive cultures, compared with the organic solidarity of advanced civilization is provided. Deviance, which according to Durkheim is a necessary and functional component of society, is introduced, followed by a discriminating account of suicide. According to Durkheim, there are four types of suicide (i.e., egoistic, altruistic, anomie, and fatalistic), each of which is described, along with his somewhat hopeful and convoluted views on educational advancement. Finally, concluding thoughts which include contemporary implications related to Durkheim's theories are presented.

Keywords Deviance; Division of Labour; Mechanic Solidarity; Organic Solidarity; Repressive Law; Restitutive Law; Suicide

Sociological Theory: Durkheim: The Structure


Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) was a French sociologist who dedicated his life to establishing sociology as an indispensable contributing force that elucidates information about individuals and the communities that they inhabit. Durkheim claimed that sociological influences were both all-encompassing and potent, superceding that which could be understood through the individualized reduction of psychological paradigms. Indeed, in the grand scope of human existence, if each person were represented by a grain of sand that constituted the seashore of an entire beach, Durkheim would declare that while each particle is indisputably important, the sum is surely greater than its individual parts; hence, his differentiation between sociology and psychology in the pursuit of meaning. Moreover, during a person's individual existence, he progresses through many different developmental stages, acquires a variety of interests and companions, and retroactively classifies his life by these assorted phases and eras. As such, the individual is always in a state of flux, and borrows cultural norms from the larger, more stable society to assist his transition between these fluctuations, a society that transcends the life of man since it predates his lifetime, and will also succeed him (Fenton, Reiner, & Hamnett, 1984; Jones, 1986; Nisbet, 1965; Thompson, 1982; Wallwork, 1972).

Throughout the course of his life, Durkheim proposed several provocative theories that significantly contributed to the fabric of contemporary sociological design. A prominent ideology that he established was the notion that in terms of sociological inquiry, "The first and most fundamental rule is consider social facts as things" (Durkheim, as cited in Thompson, 1982, p. 101; Vowinckel, 2000), similar to the conceptions that people hold toward the data that is derived in "hard" sciences such as biology or physics, which is generally considered indisputable and objective. Such a premise does not mean that sociological facts are necessarily fixed and unyielding, but that their properties share similar dimensions to other scientific methodologies, in that there are specific causalities that mold their development, effects that are imparted by their existence, various functions that they seek to fulfill, and that they should be approached with a healthy amount of skepticism and few preconceived assumptions.

Despite his religious lineage and the rabbinical expectations that were placed upon him by his family, Durkheim abstained from a pious lifestyle, although he studied religion from a scholarly perspective and found it a meaningful sociological tool to help unveil significant information about collective groups of people (Alexander, 1986; Fish, 2002; Rawls, 2001; Robertson, 1004; Stark, 2003; Thompson, 1993). Durkheim claimed that it was not only beneficial to study religions of the world, in terms of their current practices and contemporary ramifications, but also their historical and evolutionary development, which contains a revealing cauldron of information. According to Durkheim, an accurate method of understanding sociological archetypes was to study primitive religions since they were socially-constructed belief systems that subsequently evolved into more elaborate scientific and philosophical hypotheses: "If philosophy and the sciences were born of religion, it is because religion began by taking the place of the sciences and philosophy" (Durkheim, as cited in Thompson, 1982, p. 125). He felt that despite the various ceremonial customs unique to each respective creed, there existed a thread of commonality that each religion shared, which was carried out through rites of passage that helped deliver universal goals. These goals were usually more transparent among primitive religions, since the sacramental practices of such groups were typically genuine and unrefined, and therefore held the most accessible elements of sociological truth.



Durkheim weighed primitive societies against advanced societies in order to gain insight toward both individualistic and group morale (Merelman, 1988). In primitive societies, members forged a sense of shared ideals and camaraderie, which were based upon similar value structures and intellectual frameworks, as well as comparable methods in which time was structured. Indeed, the daily undertakings and overall schedules that those from primitive societies maintained included similar missions and philosophical endeavors with regard to obtaining food sources, as well as pursuing family relations and entertainment activities. As such, Durkheim coined the term mechanical solidarity (Chang, 1989; Downey, 1969; Tiryakian, 1994) to describe the collective conscience that pertained to such a fused existence; not because they were robotic per se, but because the homogenized standardization of such "group think" and behavior was analogous to that of a mechanical device, such as a watch, including parts that act in repetitive unison with each other in order to uphold its functionality.


Quite conversely, advanced societies (Perrin, 1995) are the antithesis of primitive group ideals and identity, and instead revere individualistic ambitions and focus on the unique characteristics that make each human distinct. In such a system, diversity is highly regarded, and taps into one's notable contributions that will allow him to forge a marked pathway in the world, including refining his particular skill set and eventual profession of choice. Rather than societies who perform routine tasks in synchronized concurrence, such as primitive societies that wake up at the same time, eat together, hunt-and-gather accordingly, and celebrate together, advanced societies have the distinct feature of specialization. A specialized society consists of individual members, each of whom has dedicated their lives around their specific strengths and interests. Incidentally, the binding force of such advanced communities relies on their established differences, or the complementary elements that contribute toward the larger social scheme.

For example, in "Smalltown, USA," the following residents are employed in their own respective careers: Jane Doe is a medical doctor, John Smith is a computer technician, Bob Riley is a plumber, and Sally Jones is a musician. It is likely that each community member came from different backgrounds, found inspiration in miscellaneous sources, and pursued divergent educational training; it is also safe to postulate that they currently have varied salaries, job duties that necessitate proficiency in separate arenas, and daily schedules that are highly dissimilar. Nevertheless, in an ideal sense, each person relies on each other to perform duties in the concentrated areas that they themselves lack: Jane would be sought after by John, Bob, and Sally to cure the physical afflictions that ail them; likewise, John would be called upon to repair faulty PCs, while Bob would unclog congested lavatories, and Sally would shoulder the entertainment responsibilities.

Division of Labor

The conglomeration of such individualized compartmentalization is what constitutes as Durkheim's division of labour, which Durkheim referred to as organic solidarity (Pope & Johnson, 1983; Sil, 2000). Organic suggests the complimentary nature akin to human anatomy, in that each biological organ specializes in its own independent domain (i.e., the heart, brain, lungs), but shares an overarching function of sustaining human life. In advanced societies, the division of labour not only focuses on separate careers and corresponding economic classifications, but also partitions a range of categorical ideologies that pertain to politics, religion, values, as well as science and the arts. Interestingly, although it is common for people in advanced societies to establish practical relations with those whose opposing specializations maintain an equilibrium toward their own respective areas of expertise, people nevertheless seek to initiate friendships and other personalized contact with those whom they deem like-minded, which is a primitive characteristic that has persevered.


Durkheim felt that there was a functional element to deviant behavior (Cohen & Machalek, 1994; Kidd, 2007; Liska & Warner, 1991). In fact, felonious deeds helped clarify an outlined value structure within society, because people would otherwise struggle with the ability to specifically delineate that which is "good" and "moral" against that which is "bad" and "amoral;" such determinations are facilitated by witnessing conduct that is unsavory or unscrupulous. For example, Mary inherently seeks to be a kind, law-abiding citizen. In order to construct her mannerisms in alignment with that of a conscientious, upright person, she would have to be exposed to positive role models whose behavior she might replicate. Likewise, she would have to conceptualize how not to act, perhaps by accessing examples of morally bereft offenders, such as her classmate Steve who initiates physical altercations as a means to resolve conflict, and her next-door neighbor, Alan, who has been convicted of drug possession. The parameters that define such legally and morally sanctioned ideals can vary between generations, and are culturally contextual as Durkheim contends, "In other words, we must not say that an action shocks the common conscience because it is criminal, but rather that it is criminal because it shocks the common conscience. We do not reprove it because it is a crime, but it is a crime because we reprove it" (Durkheim, as cited in Thompson, 1982, p. 77).

Deviant acts can, ironically, serve as an unpleasant adhesive that unites people together, as is witnessed during times of social calamities such as the tragic events that unfolded on September 11, 2001, during which many U.S. citizens found solace in national solidarity (Davis & Silver, 2004; Kennedy, 2001). Additionally, deviance can serve as an agent for positive social change, such as the civil rights movement, the women's movement, and the gay liberation movement (Miroff, 2006); each of which spawned progressive social strides based upon unsettling and exploitive norms that were rooted in deviance, discrimination, and exclusion.



(The entire section is 5044 words.)