EMILE DURKHEIM by Anthony Giddens


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Durkheim clearly belongs in a series entitled ""Modern Masters""; together with Max Weber he gave form to the then new discipline of sociology, presaging the functionalist school which also influenced anthropology and dominated Anglo-American sociology for half a century. Just as clearly, Giddens, the foremost young authority on social theory, is as qualified as anyone to write on Durkheim. Unfortunately, the format of the series cannot contain the talents of either author or subject. In 125 pages, Giddens tries to give an exegesis of Durkheim's major works, together with a biographical sketch, and then provide a critique besides. He does as well as he can: taking Durkheim's earliest book on the division of labor as a starting point, Giddens shows that his basic perspective remained fixed, and that his later work extended and deepened his original conceptualization of society and its proper study. The implications of a transition from ""mechanical"" to ""organic solidarity,"" in which an immediate traditional moral framework gives way to a mediated one established through the division of labor--a counter-argument to the ""atomization"" thesis of classical liberalism--formed the backdrop to his studies of the moral socialization of education, the cohesive functions of religion, and the role of the modern state in safeguarding the realm of individual moral autonomy. Giddens' critique centers on Durkheim's excessive emphasis on social cohesion and consequent disregard of structures of power and conflict. In discussing Durkheim's famous Suicide--intended to be the example of his empirical research--Giddens notes that in treating social facts in a context of impersonal social causation, Durkheim undervalued the importance of ""pre-interpretation"" of the social world by the individuals who act in it. But these criticisms have no room to develop and will remain cryptic to those unfamiliar with Giddens' other work--while they may discourage readers unacquainted with Durkheim from reading him for themselves. On the other hand, Robert Nisbet's non-evaluative introduction suggests that Durkheim is unassailable. A less than satisfactory choice, either way.

Pub Date: March 29th, 1979
Publisher: Viking/Penguin