Durkheim redux

From: Scott Chase (osteopilus@yahoo.com)
Date: Sat 02 Apr 2005 - 21:00:45 GMT

  • Next message: Scott Chase: "Re: Durkheim"

    I'm in the process of skimming back through _The Rules of Sociological Method_ in response to Kate's excellent post where she compares and contrasts socifacts and memes, something I've been asking about for a long time here.

    It appears Durkheim has a little more depth in his approach to where we inherit socifacts from than Kate gives him credit for, but more in a theoretical sense than practical or applied sense perhaps. In addendum to my previous posts about Durkheim's nifty delineation between function and origin, this following quote should add more fuel to the fire:

    (p. 121) [ED] "The religious dogmas of Christianity have not changed for centuries, but the role they play in our modern societies is no longer the same as in the Middle Ages. Thus words serve to express new ideas without their contexture changing. Morever, it is a proposition true in sociology as in biology, that the organ is independent of its function, i.e. while staying the same it can serve different ends. Thus the causes which give rise to its existence are independent of the ends it serves." [ED]

    His treatment of religious dogma is akin to tracing a structure back phylogenetically to see if its function has shifted. He is obviously carrying on the structure versus function debate that made Geoffrey and Cuvier famous previous to Darwin. And he is veering into exaptation territory here, where we might see that a structure might be co-opted to a different function down the road and if we assess present function of an organ, that doesn't give us license to speculate that the organ originated to serve that function.

    Thus, Durkheim has a bit of depth here in the same sense of a biologist looking back through phylogeny for answers about what they see presently. It would seem more than one generation deep.

    As far as Durkheim's assertion of independence for socifacts apart from mentifacts (or individual representations), I'm not too keen on setting sociology apart from other disciplines. I favor a social psychological approach myself that has a foot in both the cultural and individual realms. Being a pioneer of sociology, at that time an infant science, I can see why he would want to set his field apart using a socifact oriented POV. This isn't too much different from Dakwins focusing on genes.

    I'm thinking that Durkheim believed that socifacts had emergent properties, where collective representations are more than a sum of individual representations. This might be a little vague, but he might have looked at collective phenomenon as resulting from the way individual phenomenon were arranged or organized. There's a danger of vitalism when one takes holism to extremes though. His discussion of the ways that biological phenomena are not simply reducible to chemistry and physics leaves much to be desired, but I can see why he's making an assertion of autonomy for sociology and the socifacts he wants to study. Not exactly my mason jar of iced tea.

    Emile Durkheim. 1982. The Rules of Sociological Method. The Free Press. New York, translated by WD Halls

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