Emile Durkheim, regarded as the father of sociology, was a very influential French sociologist. He is also considered one of the primary founders of modern social science together with other notable academicians, such as Max Weber and Karl Marx. Durkheim influenced many theorists, such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Clifford Geertz, Ferdinand de Saussure, Jean Piaget, Michel Foucault, Peter Berger, Robert Bellah, Robert K. Merton, and Talcott Parsons (Parsons 71). This excerpt will identify how Durkheim influenced Talcott Parsons as well as provide a comparative analysis of how Durkheim's theory is incorporated within the theoretical assumptions made by Parsons.
A brief history
Born in 1858 to a rabbi father in Lorraine, Durkheim began education at a rabbi school, but later abandoned the Jewish religion and led a secular life. He then advanced the argument that religion originated from a social rather than a divine outlook (Parsons 70). Being a student of Numa Dennis Fustel De Coulanges, and inspired by the works of such sociologists as Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer, he become very interested in social structure from a scientific standpoint. For two years, starting from 1885, he studied sociology in Germany, why visited the universities in Marburg, Berlin, and Leipzig; he also published several articles on science and philosophy while in Germany. At the time, his firm view that morality and religion were just different incidences of the social interactions put him in the height of criticism, and in 1892, he was able publish his work titled The Division of Labor in Society.
In 1895, he published Rules of the Sociological Method, which lay the foundations of his view of sociology, its definition, and how it should be practiced. He founded the sociology department at University of Bordeaux; he also pioneered several journals, articles and even did a study in criminology. These contributions, together with a proper alignment with the Third Republic, earned him fame, thus he becomes a professor of the science of education in 1906 (Calhoun 93). Sociology studies were largely unwelcome in France and throughout Europe, but Durkheim advocated for the advancement of sociology and this earned him a good academic standing. His last major work, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, was published in 1912. The start of World War I deprived him of his son in 1915, and this started a lengthy battle with deteriorating health; two years later he died of a stroke in 1917 (Fish 101).
Durkheim’s sociological theory
Durkheim’s theory was held together by three objectives; to establish sociology as a discipline, to analyze how societies could remain organized if such fundamental aspects as religion and ethnic ties were removed, and to study the implications of science in social integration (Chew 15).
According to Durkheim, a social fact is a way of acting that applies generally across a society, though he later looked at it as a way of acting which exercises an external constraint on an individual. It is notable that these social facts explain the social phenomena that surround individuals, and an example of the way in which a social fact would exert external influence on the members of a society is through social laws and court procedures. He argued that social facts can be material or immaterial and that they cannot be reduced to biological or psychological concepts. As an example, a social fact that combines both material and immaterial aspects is a flag, or coat of arms, which both represents the material (flag itself) and the immaterial (the ideological significance) aspects of the society.
Social facts that are immaterial are embodied in areas connected to human emotions, such as love, sympathy, hate, guilt, freedom, and suicide, which he collectively named as the objective social facts. To emphasize the element that social facts exist independently in a society, he used the idea of suicide. He argued that suicide will always be a part of the society and that by one person committing suicide and leaving the society, the idea of suicide itself does not leave the society but remains incorporated in the society. No number of suicides committed can remove this fact, thus social facts are coercive as other natural laws (Chew 17).
Primary elements of Durkheim’s theory
Durkheim looked at the society as a set of social facts (Calhoun 98). He assumes that human beings are inherently egocentric. However, beliefs, values, and norms, which he termed as collective consciousness, hold humans together and form a moral basis of the society. Collective consciousness forms and unites the society, and individuals of the society through their social interactions produce this collective consciousness. This allows people to see each other as humans, not just as animals (Fish 109). He argues that a society adopts its standards, average human beliefs, and sentiments held by the majority of the members to be its collective consciousness. He was convinced that emotions override ego and that any social interactions between people would culminate in the formation of a society.
Another important element of the society, according to Durkheim, is the culture. He stated that through group interactions members of the group show strong emotive bonds to the culture. About the diversity of culture, Durkheim stated that all the cultures in a society are ultimately overridden by law (Allan 51). Concerning the evolution of society, Durkheim observes the creation of solidarity, which he classifies into mechanical solidarity and organic solidarity. Mechanical solidarity focuses on a society whose members are self-sufficient and in which remarkably few social interactions emerge. He observes the need for use of force to keep such a society together. In organic solidarity, a society is closely knit as well as bound by forces like mutual need, cooperation at the work place, specialization, and increase in population. He observes the use of punitive law in a mechanical society and, at the same time, corrective law in organic society. He states that, as population increases, social interactions increase, thus the society finds more importance for law, the state, and the individual, though respect for religion and moral solidarity decreases.
Crime and Pathologies
Social integrations, as Durkheim stated, were threatened by several pathologies. The major ones, as he noted, were forced division of labor and the separative aspect of rapid population growth. An increase in population is an indicator that people are geographically separated and this leads to a breakdown of common norms and the cultures. Forced labor results from greed for power and wealth, thus giving rise to dissatisfied people who wish to re-organize the society (Parsons 89). Concerning crime, he believed that, crime is an integral in every society and plays a major role. He argued that crime prepared humanity to changes in the society, and sometimes, it brought about the change. He viewed crime as a means to release certain social tensions in a member of the society, therefore an essential part of the organized community. Authority of moral conscience should be moderate and open to challenge, lest it becomes immutable.
Durkheim treated suicide as a social fact, arguing that it was more as a result of societal phenomena, such as the presence or lack of group attachment and behavior regulations, rather than a result of individual emotions or feelings. He asserts that the society met human sentiments with unequal forces, a factor that easily led to emotional imbalances and feelings of self-worth among the members of the society (Hilbert 8). He cites economic hardships as a possible cause of a significant number of suicides, as evidenced in France and Vienna during periods of increased bankruptcies, where there was a corresponding increase in the number of suicides. However, he is quick to put it that poverty, in itself, is not a cause of self-murder. The real cause of suicides was the disturbance in collective order that resulted from financial crises. During a crisis, which is a disturbance of the social equilibrium, men tend towards self-destruction. According to Durkheim, when the society is going through periods of deep crises, it becomes incapable of exercising a regulatory influence on its members, creating a void, which may result in an increase in self-destructive tendencies like suicide. Though largely criticized, his work on suicide has served a vital role in the control theory.
Emile described religion as a set of beliefs, theories, and practices relative to certain sacred things. For example, all churches are bound by these beliefs and constitute a moral community (Tiryakian 63). He attempted to separate supernatural (that cannot be naturally explained) from the natural (that can be naturally explained). Discrediting the existence of a common deity, he notes that the three fundamental aspects of all religions are the sacred entities, the practices (collective effervescence), and beliefs and practices. He viewed religion as the most fundamental human social institution, and believed that there was something beyond modern expression of religion. It is important to indicate that the present state of religion was just a transition into something stronger and is fundamentally uniting.
Division of labor
Durkheim held the concept of labor division as a very powerful tool in the creation of a society. He viewed it as a process of role formation and specialization that increases the output of individual member of the society while at the same time leads to intellectual and material development. Far from just economic interests, division of labor establishes a social and moral order sui generis. Division of labor is the source of social solidarity, and complex societies cannot maintain themselves, except by virtue of specialization of roles (Fish 115).
Durkheim views law as the most visible form of social solidarity and as the most stable and precise organization of social life. He categorizes law into criminal law and procedural, or civil law. The major element of repressive or penal law is to punish an offender. It establishes order and balance in the society by introducing the element of regret when an offender is punished. On the other hand, restitutive law does not aim to punish an offender; it simply seeks to restore the balance that was there between the parties before an offence happened. The collective conscience of a society gives rise to an enforcement body that oversees the enforcement of laws. He views punishment as a reaction born of passionate feeling of varied intensity, which the society exerts through an appointed body to those of its members who go against certain rules. Crime against society is avenged through punitive law (Poggi 44). A part of the restitutive law consists of negative solidarity. This is the part on real rights or the right to property. Negative solidarity, he argues, can exist between people and things (as in property ownership). However, negative solidarity can also exist between people where the aim is not to bring them together but to mark barriers that separate them. A good example is in a contract entered into by two individuals, restitutive law, in this case, binds the parties with an aim to prevent damage to either party in the event that the other person fails to honor their pledge, but it does not make them positively bond. This clearly shows negative solidarity – a union born as a result of fear or differences (Parsons 66).
Talcott Parsons (1902- 1979) was an American sociologist who was most famous for formulating a social theory called The Action Theory. The major element in his theory was voluntarism, which served to balance the traditional views of positivism and idealism. His theory depended on the principle of analytic realism. Talcott was born in Colorado to an English professor, Edward Smith Parsons, who largely contributed to his sociology studies. Talcott Rarsons studied biology, philosophy, and sociology in Amherst College and obtained his Bachelor of Arts in 1924; he later attended the London school of economics for one year.
Thereafter, he went to the University of Heidelberg, where he received his PhD in Sociology and Economics. It was during his term in University of Heidelberg that he translated a work written by Max Weber into English. His PhD thesis focused on the work of Werner Sombart on the concept of Capitalism in German Literature. During his career, Parsons was profoundly influenced by the works of Emile Durkheim and Vilfredo Pareto, particularly, by their contributions to the voluntarism aspect of sociology.
Parsons’ sociological theory
Parsons is the one who came up with the theory of action, where he assumed voluntary action in his principle of analytical realism. He asserted that humans relate with objective reality only through encounters with such reality and that human understanding was only created through theories and conceptual schemes. According to Parsons, the social setting is made up of activities of individuals and that the voluntary human interactions are governed by the accepted norms and values (Poggi 48). He maintained that a ‘fact’ is only a fact in a certain concept and that facts in one concept may become mere approaches in another concept. Further, he was for the view that knowledge presupposes the object of such knowledge and the knower; besides, he claimed that knowledge, as understood by one person or a group, was not a universally accepted phenomenon (Tiryakian 18). In his 1937 book The Structure of Social Action, Parsons thoroughly discussed the dangers of behaviorism as a social trend, observing that Americans had little tolerance for scientific verifications for beliefs generally adopted in the society. He attempted to advocate for analytic realism in place of fictional beliefs. Parsons believed in the social integration and sort it to find a reference point for complex social systems, which were more complex than the sum of their individual parts.
He tried to unite the three theories of Utilitarianism, which focused on positivism, rationalistic, and individualistic elements of social behavior and aimed at reducing social interactions. Further, there has been the use of the fundamental scientific laws and idealism, which focused on social life because of cultural bonds. In his social action theory, Parson adopted the views that society was held together by complex interactions, the scientific or analytic proof was necessary to explain elements of society and the society being more complex than its individual parts (Hilbert 27).
Parsons argued that there were two dimensions to the society: the expressive and the instrumental. He observed that people could have personalized and detached relationships in the society, which depends on the role they play. Personalized relationships grow in the context of population increase tending to high degrees of social interactions, especially where fundamental emotions like trust, freedom, and group bonds form. Expressive societies include churches, families, and crowds. Detached relations are common where individuals are oppressed, geographically separated, or even where forceful labor is evident. Examples of instrumental societies include markets and bureaucracies among others. However, Parsons did not lay a methodological approach to studying sociology and focused mainly on the theoretical aspects of the evolution of the society (Calhoun 90). On the structural functionalism, Talcott advanced the idea that every society must fulfill the four functional operatives as indicated below:
- it must adapt to the social environment;
- must achieves the goals set for each individual members;
- must establish cohesion as a collective whole;
- must have proper motivational tools for all members as they perform their role.
Theory of the Organization
In his work Suggestions for the Sociological Approach to the Theory of Organizations, Talcott looked at an organization as a social system dedicated to achieving a specific goal, which leads to the attainment of a key function of the society. In defining the core elements of the organization, such as its values, procurement modes, its service to the society, and the institutional patterns, he borrows extensively from Durkheim’s social order, especially the elements of collective norms.
Parsons studied the role played by the members of a society and the importance of these roles. In this regard, he observed that the role gives rise to one’s personality, hence, a member’s role governs the individual participation in a collective or a system.
Talcott pushed for the use of analytic tools in the context of the society integrations for verification of beliefs, norms, and other collectives, which the society took as fictional truths
Talcott views the idea of social differentiation as profoundly reliant on kinship, or the relations between social structure and biological trees. Of emphasis was the basic categorization, such as male or female, old or young, or other more complex variables, such as the political and economic responsibilities associated with certain groups.
Effects of money and power
Parsons studied the effect of social equilibrium in the society and the four factors of production, namely, land, labor, capital, and organization. As a result of the social strata generated by the influences of money and power, he studies the elements of conflict and control (Tiryakian 100).
Talcott analyzed the issue of division of labor under role formation in a society. He emphasized the institutionalization of the society with different roles and also getting different facilities and rewards. Besides, Talcott borrows from Durkheim the model of social law as it applies to social solidarity. He discusses the fundamental structure of social solidarity and the importance of social law as a regulatory factor. Therefore, he explains repressive law, which is punitive on the perpetrator, and restitutive law, which does not necessarily punish the offender but just restores both parties to their initial state. His discussion on the collective conscience is also an extension of Durkheim’s social theory (Allan 69).
Comparison between Durkheim’s and Parsons’ social theories
Durkheim’s influence on the Parsons’ work was immense. Parsons synthesized significant quantities of Durkheim’s work into his action theory and translated it into English, all of which was an attempt to study the work of Durkheim. He was one of the most notable interpreters of Durkheim's work in America. Most of the influence Durkheim had in the country can be attributed to him. Parsons, a liberal, used the models and concepts by Durkheim to establish a sociological approach that contradicted the Marxian view. This approach emerged as the predominant sociological theory in America since the Marxian approaches were not present in most sociology textbooks (Hilbert 23). It is notable that, unlike the Durkheim’s approach, Parsons' sociology was mainly theoretical, thus offered little empirical content.
Parson’s theoretical treatises integrated concepts and theories from Durkheim and other classical sociologists. Unlike Durkheim, he did not lay out a methodology for studying social sciences or sociology. Instead, his work focused on establishing large theoretical frameworks that merged all concepts of social sciences. The main ideas that Parsons borrowed from Durkheim include concepts, such as solidarity, order, and integration as well as certain aspects of sex and family roles (Tiryakian 103). Based on Durkheim’s work, he built a model of the elements of solidarity and modeled various types of solidarity and their sources.
It is important to note that Parsons highly valued Durkheim's broad comparative studies. Parson indicated that Durkheim’s texts contained emergent significance, which guided and validated his own theoretical development. While developing “action” frame of reference, Parsons drew heavily from Elementary Forms and Division of Labor by Durkheim that was based on his theory of functionalism (Poggi 40). Durkheim theorized that social facts like church attendance or suicide rates were not determined by institutions or individuals and as such formed the most dynamic focus for empirical research in sociology. Analyzing the findings obtained after measuring, interpreting, and testing these facts can be used to clarify social functioning as well as to measure the social effects within the scope of larger social environments. His work aimed at determining how modern societies in a time where matters like education, religious and other forces cannot be assumed and are able to maintain their coherence and integrity.
Parson’s view of order and action owed most of its validity to Durkheim’s theory. Normative regulation is essential for rational action to have direction and not merely a pursuit of random ends by individuals. Society needs this normative regulation to bind the commitments of its members as well as create long-term coherence and identity. In this sense, possibilities of actions are selected by such regulation. However, this also requires other social structure components to be activated. As a result of revisiting Durkheim, the issue of the human condition emerges as the main integrating subject of social sciences and the main focus for Parsons in his theories (Allan 68).Like Durkheim, Parsons believed that socialization, or social interactions are the channels through which the society’s norms or values are passed on. However, he maintained that there is no perfect socialization, asserting that any interaction is incomplete and partial from an exhaustive point of view. To this end, he believed that social order was bound to evolve continually in order to incorporate the varying aspects of collective norms.
Durkheim had a lot of influence on Parson, especially as he was developing his theoretical framework. Most of Durkheim’s influences can be seen in Parsons’ understanding of such concepts as solidarity, order, and integration. This can be attributed to them being complementary theorists, even though they lived years apart. Most of the basic concepts and assumptions made by Parsons were influences of Durkheim, such as the presence of complex structures in the society and the belief that the society was more complex than its individual parts. Although the development of sociology as it is today has experienced numerous contributions from other distinguished sociologists like Max Webber, Auguste Comte, Kant, and many more. It is relevant to note that primary foundations, especially the advancement of social studies as a scientific and academic discipline, can be attributed to both Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons. Their views were not without challenges, but they also found numerous supporters in the contemporary development of sociology (Tiryakian 103).