Re: Durkheim on historical origin versus current utility

From: John Wilkins (
Date: Fri 13 Feb 2004 - 04:48:45 GMT

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    On Friday, February 13, 2004, at 03:11 PM, Steven Thiele wrote:

    > Durkheim spent his entire academic life arguing against individualism,
    > which is precisely why he is so important in sociology. Besides, what
    > might it mean to say that an idea can be applied without agreeing with
    > it? Why is it that whenever supposedly scientific minds begin to look
    > at social life that they turn to water, that they begin to repeat all
    > the mistakes that sociologists have fallen into? The only way to
    > understand social life is to study it, which memeticists (and most
    > sociologists - including Durkheim) simply refuse to do. For both,
    > inquiry amounts to little more than the collection of bits and pieces
    > of information to back up taken for granted assumptions about how the
    > social world works.
    I meant that one need not agree with his ideas on individualism to agree with his ideas on functionalism, or vice versa (it was exemplia gratia). Likewise, one can agree with Durkheim on many topic without having to agree with his view of the biological influence on social evolution or behaviour. So he thought it was wrong to derive social laws from biological facts or evolutionary ideas. So what? He was not god. At that time, social evolution was founded on some truly abysmal social theories (e.g., Benjamin Kidd) and a false, as it turned out, view of what evolution was in either domain, owing much more to Lamarck and the Great Chain than to Darwin. Durkheim was right to reject it. But not to reject all evolutionary models.

    I was merely disputing the claim that if we make use of Durkheim's sociological ideas we must therefore be opposed to memetics. As it happens, I think memetics has some underlying problems, but they do not arise out of the analogy of cultural evolution to biological evolution. They arise out of a philosophical tendency to objectify abstractions such as "gene". I have already argued in my major JoM article that what counts in evolution of culture is any entity at any level, above and beyond the individual if necessary, that is subjectible to selection. Memes can be social institutions in my opinion. Or they can be fragments of ideas in single heads.

    You are completely correct that we must study social life rather than dictate a priori what it must be. Folk sociology is no better than folk psychology, physics or taxonomy...

    John S Wilkins
    Head, Communication Services
    The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research
    Parkville, Victoria, Australia
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