Émile Durkheim is one of the founding figures of sociology and has had a tremendous influence on its development. However, he is often taught in a way which, I feel, does him a disservice. There is an emphasis on his “functionalism” and use of an “organic analogy” for society both of which suggest a concern for social order and the status quo and an implication of conservatism. There are, however, more radical aspect of his work which the sociologist Stjepan Meštrović has done a lot to draw out.
I think this through best in his later work, particularly The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. It is here where he provided a thorough and wide-ranging critique of categories of thought. He claimed that society influences not just what we think (our opinions) but the way we think. How we categorise aspects of the world, understand cause and effect or measure time and space are all produced by the particular social context from which we emerge. Crucially, there is also a moral foundation to all of these things.
For Durkheim, morality is the basis of all society. By morality he doesn’t just mean what is considered to be good or bad but the broader question of how we live with one another and the very fact that we live with others at all. Human beings need (and want) to live together in groups. This means that we can’t simply do whatever we (as individuals) want all the time. To live in groups with other people means we have to think about others and what they want; there needs to be some system of morality. For Durkheim all of the moral things we do are to do with thinking about others rather than ourselves.
What religion offers is a way of bringing people together physically and emotionally. This is why all religions have some central spatial focus to them such as a church, temple or mosque. What this does is to take us outside of ourselves for a short time and make us feel part of the group and to lose our sense of individuality for a while. However, this does not have to happen in a religious context. Today it can also be seen in groups of football supporters, at music festivals or just amongst friends or family.
In the process of being brought together people develop shared ways of understanding their worlds and lives. Our sense of morality, of what is wrong and right is derived from these kinds of group activities, particularly (but not only) religion. So we get morality from religion but not because it is transmitted from God(s), rather morality is created in the process of people coming together.
This is a highly profound insight but Durkheim pushes this analysis even further. He claims that it is not only morality that is produced through communities but all ways of thinking and understanding the world. All of our categories of thought are actually the products of group understanding.
The ways in which we classify plants, animals and people are not natural but socially produced. Similarly, the ways in which we measure time, distance and speed are all contingent on the specifics of our social situations. These categories of thought are what Durkheim calls “social facts”; they are objective (because they exist outside of individuals) but they are not universal nor would they exist without human beings.
The radical character of this insight from Durkheim could come as a shock to someone who has been told Durkheim is an empiricist, positivist, functionalist. What Durkheim has always made clear, however, is not that social facts universal and entirely objective but that they can be treated as if they are. Social facts should be treat “as things”. What this means is to
observe towards them a certain attitude of mind. It is to embark upon the study of them by adopting the principle that one is entirely ignorant of what they are, that their characteristic properties, like the unknown causes upon which they depend, cannot be discovered by even the most careful form of introspection (Durkheim, 1982:36).
Durkheim does not question the existence of objective reality as such (like, for instance, Descartes) but claims that there is no way for us to understand the world except through the mental categories available to us which are socially produced.
These categories of thought (or ways of understanding) are produced by people coming together in groups which, for Durkheim, is always a moral act. Having ways of understanding and talking about distance or time are crucial for living in groups with other people so that we can communicate and work together.
If I were to live an entirely solitary existence (if this were even possible) then I could simply use ways of measuring and interpreting the world which are only relevant to me. I could divide the physical world up into things which are on my right or my left. Or I could think about the passage of time only in relation to things which happened before and after important moments in my life. If I want to live with other people I need categories which are common to other members of my group and meaningful to all of us.
Categories of thought are, therefore, moral categories even when they seem to be referring to things which we consider to be objective or morally neutral such as time or distance.
Durkheim, E. (1982) The Rules of the Sociological Method. New York: The Free Press.