Anthony Giddens, in Capitalism and Modern Social Theory, reintroduces us to the first self-described sociologist, Emile Durkheim. Giddens, analyses the three areas of importance that Durheim fixated on: 1) He worked to establish sociology as an academic discipline in order to advance his belief that sociology has value and that it should be studied, 2) He analysed society, its potential social integration, coherence and integrity in the modern era when individuals in society no longer saw themselves as separate from the larger society and apart from their religious and ethnic background, and 3) the practical study social facts, constraints, or norms.
Durkheim did not create sociology out of thin air. Comte was especially influential in his belief that the scientific method ought to be applied to the social sciences. Durkheim studied society as a science of institutions in order to discover structural social facts in order to formalize and create space for sociological study. He did this especially through his formal study of suicide to establish a justification of sociology, a need for social regulation, a need for norms.
Modern society in Durkheim’s era was beginning to move from what he believed to be a mechanical solidarity with a collective conscience to an organic solidarity with a functional interdependence in the division of labour where individuals are responsible for their own fate. However, several scholars at the time of Durkheim and well into the early 20th century were obsessed with these masses of individuals. While the establishment of sociology was a noble goal, some that were studying it were not interested in such academic pursuits. These individuals represented government and business leaders and their advocates who lived in fear of these mass movements.1 From such studies, modern crowd control and propaganda techniques were developed, from which public opinion, marketing, and advertising gave birth (and later on Neuro-linguistic programming).
Durkheim believed that social facts or phenomena that have an independent existence are not bound by the actions of individuals but have a coercive influence on them are the key to the study of society. Accordingly, he believed that observation must be as impartial and impersonal as possible. However, he also realized, unlike many of those in journalistic media, that a “perfectly objective observation” may never be realized. This subject of social facts deserves further study because it involves the social scientist as part of the social phenomena in question being influenced by the same social phenomena and attempting to separate himself or herself into an “objective” role.
Durkheim tireless worked to establish sociology as an academic discipline and, along with Marx and Weber, is usually cited as the principal architect of modern social science and father of sociology. While modern ideas of society and sociology have evolved, Durkheim paved a way for us to study our collective past and present that warrant further research.
Source: Giddens, A. (1981). Capitalism and Modern Social Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
1. Crystalizing Public Opinion (Edward Bernays), The Crowd and The Psychology of Peoples (Gustave Le Bon), and Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War, among many others.