Émile Durkheim: Suicide, Structure, and Social Control
For the pioneering sociologist Émile Durkheim, modern society is wracked by a seeming paradox: the more “free” the individual becomes, the more she depends on society and the moral bonds that unite its members. But, what happens when modernity erodes the traditional social ties that previously connected families, neighbors, and strangers? What fills the void in social life? In answering these questions, Durkheim devised a wholly new framework and methodology for understanding society as an operating force, treating social norms, objects, and structures as social facts that, existing externally to any individual, exercise a powerful force over individual and collective behavior. 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 (resulting, among other things, in an increase in suicide). But, what does it mean to treat social phenomena and norms as things—as objective forces 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. And we’ll explore in detail Durkheim’s effort to present sociology as a science and a method. How can we understand society as something external to and independent of the individuals who compose it? What sorts of social ties are more important to the reproduction of society: the strong ties uniting family and close friends; or the weak ties that connect acquaintances and strangers (for example, buyers and sellers)? What are the responsibilities of the individual to society and vice versa? How can Durkheim help us parse contemporary debates about social disfunction and fragmentation—from racism to resentment to political polarization? In addition to Durkheim’s major works, we’ll read from articles by authors close to the famous 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