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The Rules of Sociological imagination (1895) by Emile Durkheim | Analysis

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 2294 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Critical analysis of Emile Durkheim’s, The Rules of Sociological imagination (1895), specifically chapter five: Rules for the explanation of social facts, the literature is one of Durkheim’s major works. Succeeding Comte, Durkheim was particularly attentive to establishing sociology as an academic scientific discipline. Durkheim aimed to demonstrate, that with its own object of study, varied from those of other sciences, sociology could be studied scientifically by universal methods. Therefore, sociology’s job is to study external social facts, not dependant on individual will but on the types of society in which they live (Thompson, 2002).  Social facts being the objects of knowledge gathered through observation and experiments, a collective entity regularly dismissed from standard interpretation. Durkheim’s definition of social facts demonstrate how they constrain and regulate human action through manifested forms and therefore are internalized by the individuals and form an intrinsic part of self. In this essay Durkheim’s main rules for the explanation of social facts will be specified and critically analysed through discussion of the main points of argument and remonstration from other sociological perspectives (Swingewood, 2000).

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In Rules of the explanation of social facts Durkheim is outlining the method he believes as appropriate for explanation of social facts. Durkheim’s argues that both Comte and Spencer were guilty of explaining social facts just by their function and the social needs they meet accuses them of being teleological.  Comte believed the preponderant fact of social life was the tendency towards progress and for Spencer it was utility maximisation. Durkheim argues that because the usefulness of a social fact has been shown does not mean we know where it comes from or ‘indeed how it is what it is’ (p120). Further arguing that social facts cannot come into existence from need or desire, the function it fulfils and efficient causes not the final causes of social phenomena must be investigated separately. When studying phenomena, it is logical to look for the cause before aiming to verify the functions as knowing the cause makes it easier to determine the function or as Durkheim declares ‘to provide a satisfactory explanation of social life we need to show how the phenomena, which are its substances come together to place society in harmony with itself and with the outside world’ (p125).

Durkheim initial argument is that an adequate explanation of social facts must see causal and functional analysis coalesce, with causal analysis accounting for the succession of the social fact and functional analysis evidence of the persistence of social practices that express the ‘general needs of the social organism’, of which the social practices are an integral part (Baert). Causal analysis was seen, by Durkheim, as pertinent to sociology, if it were to be accepted as a science.  Arguing against teleological explanation Durkheim is resistant to teleological confusion between the function of a social facts and its cause. Evident in that social fact can and do exist without being desired or having a particular need (Jones, 1986). Durkheim’s makes numerous references throughout the chapter of the important of causal explanations and inadequacy of teleological explanation.

A critique of Durkheim is that he failed to develop a functional model and the use of the term was extremely flexible (Thompson, 2002).Function was presented as a teleological character, inferior in the search for the efficient cause, according to Aristotle the ‘efficient’ and ‘final’ cause which is replaced in Durkheim’s argument with the term ‘function’ which Durkheim defines in causal terms, needs to be kept separate (crepso). In Turners view, this is specifically to avoid any criticism that he was indeed using teleological explanation however, when using language such as ‘general need of the social organisms’ there is a suggestion of teleology (Turner, 1983). As Ritzer claims arguments that view the social world as having goals that bring needed structure into existence, are teleological. Furthermore, Parsons argues against Durkheim’s critique of teleology by suggesting that a rejection does not generate factual causation as the only acceptable alternative.

However, Durkheim asserts that the relationship between cause and function is reciprocal as the effect cannot exist without its cause. But also, the cause requires its effect, as it is from the effect, that its energy is obtained. ‘Function consists…….in a number of cases at least, in maintaining the pre-existent cause from which the phenomena derive’ (p124). Therefore, it can be argued that maintenance is an essential characteristic of the aforementioned relationship between cause and effect. Furthermore, the social facts maintained by the cause are the goals in which these cause function to create, therefore teleological explanation are not needed to explain the maintenance of social facts (Turner, 1983). Turner claims that Durkheim is expelling teleology by demonstrating ‘that the facts which the teleologists attempt to explain may be explained, and explained better, by causal explanations’ (Turner, 1983). ‘Thus, to explain a fact which is vital, it is not enough to show the cause on which it depends. We must also – at least in most cases – discover the part it plays in the establishment of that general harmony’, harmony with the external environment and itself.

Durkheim claims that the social is order Sui generis, in that it is unique and not reducible to psychological or biological explanation. Again, Durkheim is opposing Comte and Spencer who believed everything in society can be explained individualistically, he claims that social facts exert their power externally on the individual consciousness therefore social facts cannot come from inside the individuals. ‘It is not from within himself that can come the external pressure which he undergoes: it is therefore not what is happening within himself which can explain it’. Thus, remove the individuals from the equation and society is the only remnant, society is not just the individuals but a system that arises from interaction, a specific reality with its own characteristics. It is therefore the association of the individual consciousness and their combination from which social life emanates. Durkheim argues that society is made up of properties that do not exist prior in the individual components but only emerge after combination. Coming together of people into groups and society we get emergent properties that exist outside the individual, social facts act like that. He further claims, that the existence of individuals is a necessary but not sufficient condition, so society couldn’t exist without individuals, but they aren’t sufficient to give us social properties.

Durkheim further criticised the use of methods that were teleological or psychological, insinuating that they were both different depictions of the same methodological error as both were closely associated (Jones, 1986). Comte and Spencer are two sociologists with whose methods Durkheim finds faults, he argues that Comte and Spencer were mistaken when they portrayed society as emanating from individual ideas and needs. Every individual is birthed into society already in existence which shapes his growth and every individual is only a single element in an extensive system of social relations. Therefore, this reality cannot be understood by concepts pertinent to psychology which refer to individual consciousness (Giddens). To distinguish sociology from psychology, Durkheim claimed that ‘social facts were external to and coercive of’, the individual, thus sociological phenomena cannot derive from the individual consciousness. Studying social facts was sociological whilst psychological facts were seen as internal phenomena (Ritzer). Durkheim argues that once the individual is removed society is the only remnant and so it must be in the structure of society that the explanation of social life is sought. The sum of the whole is greater than that of its individual components, the characteristics of the whole are different from those components from which it is formed. Durkheim does not deny that without individual consciousness, collective entities cannot be made, by it is the fusing and aggregation of these consciousnesses that social life emerges and effectively provides an explanation. Accordingly, aiming to understanding individuals in isolation nothing will be understood regarding the happenings within the group. Therefore, whenever psychological phenomenon is used to explain sociological phenomenon we can expect it is false (129).

The ulitarian view of society however ignored social facts and their constraint on individuals by claiming that individuals were entirely autonomous and only entered exchanges with society as it was in their interest of self-satisfaction and economic gain. Similar to Tarde, Weber adopted a nominalist argument stating that the holistic and collective concepts, such as those from Durkheims work, cannot be analysed without taking into consideration ‘results and modes of organisation embodied in human action’ therefore arguing that society as a structure cannot be analysed studying without studying the motivational actions of the individuals (Swingewood). Furthermore, Tarde debated that the ‘laws of imitation and imitative acts were responsible for social facts’ (morrison) and that ‘society could be reduced to and explained by individuals’ (lukes). Durkheim responded to Tarde suggesting that if individuals were not influenced by external forces then by that argument society does not exist and sociology has no explicit subject-matter.

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Social facts therefore play a prevalent part in the collective life and their sociological explanations; therefore, the origin of any important social process must be looked for in the structure of the inner social environment. The main aim of sociologists is to find which properties within the environment is able to affect the course of social facts and as the structure of association varies so too does the social phenomena. Durkheim argues that the two main set of characteristics able to do this are the ‘volume’ of society and the ‘dynamic density’. Volume being equal to the number of social units and dynamic density being the purpose of the number of individual units effectively engaged in both commercial and moral relationships if the volume stays constant. With every increase in volume and dynamic density within societies the fundamental conditions of collective life are altered. This definition of social environment is important, and Durkheim argues causal relationship cannot be determine without it. The external social environment is also capable of exerting influence but only through intervention of the inner social environment and because social facts are not determined by past events. Durkheim insisted that any relationship between the past and present was due to chronology and causal entirely by excessive assumption. Only in association with the inner social environment could the function of social phenomena be measured, the useful changes caused by the environment, a fundamental necessity for collective existence, are those that are in unity with present state of society. Only the inner social environment can account for the useful nature of social facts without an alternative to the erratic and impromptu causal hypotheses which indicates how the structure distinct social types is related to their explanation by different complementary conditions (Jones, 1986).

Durkheim argues that inner social environment is measured by the degree of moral concentration or the dynamic density is essential for explanation of social facts, it consists of things and persons. This makes for more intense relationships of social life, modifies the conditions of collective life. For the inner social environment is the ‘determining factor in the collective evolution of the social organism’, without referring it would be impossible to determine causal explanations. It is in the social milieu is where social facts that are the cause of other social facts are to be found, in the present not in the antecedent states of society, this for Durkheim is the very existence of sociology (aron).

Durkheim has been accused of reitfying society, Lukes

 Finally, Durkheim compared his conceptualization of collective life with those of Hobbes and Rousseau and Spencer. Hobbes and Rousseau see the individual as stubborn and only willing to change his action when forced, the individual is ‘real’ whereas society is ‘artificial’ and only designed, by men, to constrain them. On the other hand, Spencer sees collective life as spontaneous and society as natural. Durkheim agrees with Hobbes and Rousseau that constraint is the typical features of every social fact and agrees with Spencer that society is a component of nature, however

  • Jones, R. (1986). Emile Durkheim. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, pp.60-81.
  • Swingewood, A. (2000). A short history of sociological thought. 3rd ed. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
  • Thompson, K. (2002). Emile Durkheim. London: Routledge.
  • Turner, S. (1983). Durkheim as a Methodologist Part I—Realism, Teleology, and Action. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 13(4), pp.433-442.


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