Sociology and Social Control: an Introduction to Émile Durkheim
For the pioneering sociologist Émile Durkheim, modern Western society was wracked by a seeming paradox: the more autonomous individuals become, freed from old forms of social control, the more they come to depend on society and the bonds that unite its members. But, what makes a society cohere, particularly one in which so much human interaction is transactional? And, what happens when the old bonds eroded by market society go un-replaced by new norms? Dissatisfied by merely psychological explanations of social phenomena, Durkheim devised a wholly new explanatory framework and methodology, treating social norms, objects, and structures as social facts that, existing externally to any individual, exercise a powerful force over individual and collective behavior—inventing, in the process, the discipline we now call sociology. The concepts Durkheim devised are by now hallmarks of modern discourse, from solidarity to collective consciousness to, perhaps most famously, anomie, Durkheim’s term for the “derangement” that arises when old norms no longer correspond to new material conditions. But, what does it mean to treat social phenomena as things? And how can we understand the functional relationships, and relative freedoms, of the individual to the social facts that, in Durkheim’s view, exert a controlling force over individual thought and behavior?
In this course, we will explore the principal methods and concepts of Durkheim’s groundbreaking sociological work, reading from excerpts from Durkheim’s four book-length studies: On Suicide, The Division of Labor in Society, The Rules of Sociological Method, and The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. We’ll analyze the importance Durkheim attributes to the division of labor, his assessment of the forces capable of generating social solidarity, and his characterization of moments of anomie. We’ll investigate the meaning and nature of social facts, and why, for Durkheim, society is predominant over the individual, shaping our representations and the way we apprehend the world. And we’ll explore in detail Durkheim’s effort to present sociology as a science and a method. How can we understand society as external to the individuals who create and compose it? What sorts of social ties are more important to the reproduction of society: strong ties between close-knit members with frequent interactions, such as family and close friends; or weak ties formed through distant social relationships and infrequent interactions, such as those between acquaintances and strangers? In a complex world, what are the responsibilities of the individual to society and vice versa? Is Durkheim attesting to the limitations of capitalism and a crisis of modernity? How can Durkheim’s theory help us parse contemporary debates on social division and conflict? In addition to the texts mentioned above, we’ll consider articles published by Durkheim himself, works by authors close to the journal L’Année Sociologique (such as Marcel Mass and Henri Hubert), and analyses by contemporary commentators on Durkheim’s work (such as Anthony Giddens and Pierre Bourdieu).
Course ScheduleMonday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
October 18 — November 08, 2021