Émile Durkheim on Suicide & Society: Crash Course Sociology #5

So, the fact that we have society at all is
kind of amazing. Think about it: People with different interests, different
amounts of money, members of different subcultures, races, and sexual orientations, somehow all
manage to hold together, in this thing we call society. A thing that, at least kind of, works. But it doesn’t just hold together. Society has to somehow endure periods of intense
change without falling apart. Political change, technological change,
population growth, economic crises – all these
things can be massively disruptive. Sometimes we might even worry that the fabric
of society won’t be able to take the stress. And it’s these questions of how society holds together, and how to understand when it goes wrong, that Émile Durkheim, one of the founders of sociology, tried to answer. [Theme Music] You know who knows a thing or two about social
disruptions? France. Émile Durkheim lived in France from 1858
to 1917, which means that he lived almost his entire life
under France’s Third Republic, founded in 1871. But, despite being the third republic, it was
the first stable republic in France’s history. Between 1800 and 1871, France was governed
by two republics, two monarchies, and two empires. But the turmoil wasn’t just political. France was also dealing with major economic,
technological, and cultural changes, as industrialization
took hold, and the traditional authority of the Catholic
Church weakened. Given all this, it should be no surprise that Durkheim
was concerned with the question of what kept societies
together, so that he could make sure that his didn’t fall
apart again. And this was the task of sociology, as he
understood it. Sociology was to be a truly scientific study
of society. With it, we could understand its normal and abnormal
functioning, we could diagnose how it was changing,
and we could deal with the consequences. To Durkheim, sociology was to society what
biology and medicine were to the human body. He actually thought of society as a kind of organism,
made up of different parts, which all had to function well
together in order for that organism to be healthy. This basic understanding of society in terms of structures that fit together, and which function either well or poorly, makes Durkheim the founder of the structural functionalist paradigm that we discussed in episode 2. Now, if sociology was to be a true science,
then it needed well-defined methods. And Durkheim focused a lot of his effort on
this problem. He was committed to sociology as an empirical
endeavor. And his ambitious book, called “Suicide” is really
the first piece of sociological work to use statistical
methods as its primary mode of argument. Durkheim was also the first in the field to think in
terms that we now consider standard in sociology. Like, thinking about the problem of operationalizing variables, and puzzling over how intangible concepts, like social integration or solidarity, can be reflected in things that we can actually measure. And beyond this question of method lies an
even bigger question: If sociology is a science, then what does
it study? Durkheim thought that any science needed a
well-defined object of study. And the object for Durkheim was the social
fact. In his book, “Rules of Sociological Method,”
he defines social facts as “consist[ing] of manners of acting, thinking and feeling external to the individual, which are invested with a coercive power by virtue of which they exercise control over him.” OK, there are three things to highlight in
this definition. First is the fact that it’s really broad. Social facts include everything from political
systems, to beliefs about right and wrong, to suicide rates, to holiday celebrations,
and architectural styles. Second, notice that social facts are external
to the individual. This might seem a little confusing; I mean, how
can a way of thinking be external to a person? But what Durkheim means here is that social
facts have a life outside of you or me. For instance, if you give gifts at Christmas,
think for a second about why. That’s not something that you came up with
on your own. Giving gifts at Christmas wasn’t your idea. It’s a social fact, with an existence that’s
external to you. If you don’t celebrate Christmas, the strength
of Christmas as a social fact in the US means you’ve probably already experienced the
third thing I want to highlight: The idea that social facts are powerful, and
coercive, and they can make you do things
you otherwise wouldn’t. Don’t believe me?
Let’s go to the Thought Bubble. Imagine a hypothetical family at a hypothetical
Christmas. None of them want gifts, and all of them have
better things to do than spend money buying
gifts for anyone else. In fact, none of them are even that committed
to celebrating Christmas at all. And yet, come Christmas morning there’s
a pile of presents under the tree. And there’s a tree there in the first place!
Why? Well, maybe no one was willing to say that
they didn’t want a gift. Or maybe they all said that, but they each
bought gifts anyway, because they were afraid
that the others would too. The point is, the specific explanation for the
behavior in this family doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that we can see here the
power of a social fact, even in a situation where
no one directly involved believes in it! If that’s not an external coercive power,
I don’t know what is. But this doesn’t just happen with gift giving
at Christmas. Social facts include all kinds of things. They help dictate how you interact with your
neighbors and how you relate to society. Social facts and their coercive power represent
a form of social cohesion, which points us
back to our original question: how societies hold together
and how they can go wrong. Thanks, Thought Bubble! Durkheim’s answer to the question of
social cohesion is what he called the common or
collective consciousness. The common consciousness is basically the
collection of all the beliefs, morals, and ideas
that are the social facts in a given society. And, like with gift-giving at Christmas, these
beliefs aren’t necessarily held by everyone. They’re just the beliefs that hold coercive
power. They’re the ideas that people give life
to, in their interactions with one another. So, common consciousness holds a society together. But what are the problems?
What is social dysfunction? For Durkheim, if society is an organism, then
dysfunction must be thought of as a disease. Now, you might think that something like crime
would be a social dysfunction. But, by Durkheim’s thinking, crime can’t
be a disease, because every society has it. So, you might not like crime, but some amount
of crime is normal. In the same way, you might wish you didn’t
have to sleep, but that doesn’t make sleeping
a disease. It’s just a normal part of the way the human
body works. And just like sleep, Durkheim argued that
crime serves a purpose. For example, he said that crime helps strengthen
the common consciousness. To him, crime and punishment were a kind of
public lesson in right and wrong: When someone is judged and punished, that
shows us both society’s morals and how strong
those morals are. Crime can also point to possible changes in
the common consciousness. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat
and move to the back of the bus, she committed
a crime. But her crime set off a city-wide bus boycott
that resulted in the law being struck down. So crime in and of itself isn’t necessarily a
dysfunction, but, just like how sleeping 18 hours a day,
every day might be a sign of disease, if the level of crime in a society becomes excessive,
it would eventually stop serving these functions,
and the society could no longer function normally. And that’s what social dysfunction is for
Durkheim: something that impedes the normal
functioning of society. Since Durkheim is a structural functionalist, social
dysfunctions always have larger structural causes – they’re created by some underlying
problem with the social organism. Durkheim applied this idea in his famous book
on suicide. Now, it might be strange to think of suicide
as social at all, but Durkheim argued that there was actually
a very strong link between societal structure
and people taking their own lives. And he found this link in a dysfunctional
aspect of his society: namely, in a lack of
social integration. When Durkheim looked at the statistics on suicide
in Europe over the 19th century, he saw a massive
increase, one that coincided with the shift from
traditional to modern society. Durkheim argued that traditional societies
– like, those of feudal Europe – were highly
socially integrated. People knew their place in society, what that
place meant, and how they related to other people. But modern society, over the preceding century,
had suffered from a loss of social integration. The decreasing importance of religion, and of other traditional ways of thinking, resulted in a smaller, weaker common consciousness and a less intense communal life. As a result, people were less strongly bound
to their society. They didn’t necessarily feel they had a place
in it and couldn’t understand how they fit. This, Durkheim argued, resulted in a dramatically
increased suicide rate. Now, suicide is certainly a personal act,
motivated by personal feelings or psychological
conditions. But Durkheim showed how these personal
feelings were not purely personal, and that they
were influenced by the structure of society. In this case, he argued that the values holding
society together were being pulled apart,
and so people lost their sense of place. Feelings of isolation or meaninglessness could
be traced back to large social changes. And Durkheim, in diagnosing the problem,
believed he had a solution. If a high suicide rate was a disease, Durkheim’s
prescription was to strengthen social organizations – especially those based around the
workplace, because that’s where people were
spending more and more of their time. He figured that these organizations – sort of like
workers’ guilds – could help provide people with that
sense of place that they were lacking. Now, many sociologists today see that Durkheim’s
work on suicide was undermined by the poor
quality of statistics at the time. But still, he used those statistics in new ways,
as evidence and tests for theories of society. And you can see in his research how Durkheim
tried to answer big questions. Society is composed of social facts, and bound
together by common consciousness. This normal functioning can evolve, but it
can also be disrupted by rapid change. And that, Durkheim believed, is where
sociology steps in. By studying society scientifically, and
understanding social facts, sociologists can
diagnose the disease and prescribe the cure. Today you learned about Émile Durkheim, and
some of his major ideas. We talked about social facts and how he framed
sociology as a science. We introduced the idea of common
consciousness and tried to understand how it
binds society together. And we looked at suicide as an example of
how Durkheim applied his concepts to a specific
social problem. But there are lots of other ways to understand
the purpose of sociology, and we’ll see a very different understanding
next week as we continue our whirlwind tour of
the founding theorists with a look at Karl Marx. Crash Course Sociology is filmed in the
Dr. Cheryl C. Kinney Studio in Missoula, MT, and
it’s made with the help of all these nice people. Our animation team is Thought Cafe and Crash
Course is made with Adobe Creative Cloud. If you’d like to keep Crash Course free for
everyone, forever, you can support the series at Patreon, a crowdfunding platform that allows
you to support the content you love. Speaking of Patreon, we’d like to thank all
of our patrons in general, and we’d like to specifically thank our Headmaster of Learning
David Cichowski. Thank you for your support.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *