Durkheim Social currents are extremely similar to social

Durkheim divided social facts into
two different categories: material and non-material social facts. Material
social facts include laws, architecture and forms of technology which are all
clearly external to the individual (Ritzer, 2008, p.79). Non-material social
facts, however, were found in the individuals mind to some extent. Despite
this, Durkheim believed that they were still external because human actions
were understood through studying complex interactions rather than the
individual. Non-material social facts consisted of norms, values and culture
and were Durkheim’s main focus in his work (Ritzer, 2008, pp.79-80). Durkheim
then identified four types of non-material social facts, these were: collective
conscience, collective representations, morality and social currents. Social
currents are social facts that are not associated with distinct organisations
(Durkheim, 1895, cited in Thompson, 1987, pp.69-70). Social currents are
extremely similar to social facts with the main difference being that social
currents are short lived whereas social facts remain secure throughout changes
and time.

Many social facts cannot be
observed easily. For example, social facts such as the grammar of a language is
difficult to observe because it is invisible and therefore cannot be observed
directly. A way to be able to observe these social facts is to observe a large
amount of people. In this example, observing a large quantity of conversations
can help us conclude that particular rules of grammar exist (Fulcher; Scott,
2011, p.33). Durkheim stated that social facts should not be studied as ideas
but as things and therefore they should be treated objectively and
scientifically. This is supported by (Durkheim, 1895, cited in Thompson, 1987)
“to treat phenomena as things is to treat them as data which provide the
starting point for science.” To study objectively means to study sociology in a
way that you would a natural science, with no influence of personal opinions or
feelings. Durkheim believed that social facts could be studied this way because
they determine human behaviour and that the actions of human behaviour are
therefore predictable. Durkheim also said that social facts should be studied
externally as they are more likely to be represented as objective the more separated
they are from the individual (Durkheim, 1895, cited in Thompson, 1987, p.76).
The approach that Durkheim used to study social facts was positivism which was
invented by Auguste Comte. Positivism is a scientific way of studying sociology
which uses objective, quantitative methodology. Cuff, Sharrock and Francis
described positivism as “an approach seeking to find law-like relations among
phenomena and modelled on the physical sciences” (Cuff; Sharrock; Francis,
2006, p.51). In Comte’s work, “The Course of Positive Philosophy” he mentioned
how society should be studied in the same way as we study nature as it
functions under its own set of laws. He therefore said that society should be
studied like a science, “there can be no real knowledge but that which is based
on observed facts” (Comte and Martineau, 2009, p.3).

Durkheim used this positivist
approach when he studied suicide. Suicide is defined by Durkheim as “the act of
despair of the man who does not wish to live” (Durkheim, 1897, cited in Thompson,
1987). Within this study Durkheim moved away from the role of the individual
and addressed that even in such individualistic acts, there can be external
social causes. To Durkheim, suicide was a social fact, meaning that this can be
studied in an objective manner. “Suicide…is a social fact, and has to be
explained by means of other social facts” (Giddens, 1978, p.42). Durkheim
corroborates his argument of suicide having social factors by considering
“extra-social causes” that may also play a role in influencing suicide
(Bierstedt, 1966, p.140). Some extra-social causes that he acknowledged were
insanity and alcoholism. He indeed recognised that these causes may have been
responsible for suicide but mentioned that these suicides were usually
motivated by hallucinations. He also emphasised the high amount of suicides
which took place by persons who did not experience any hallucinations.
Furthermore, Durkheim therefore “denies that there is such things as a suicidal
insanity” and backed this up by addressing that insanity is reasonably high
amongst Jews compared to Protestants and Catholics, yet the suicide rate
amongst them is very low (Bierstedt, 1966, p.141). Studying social facts can
therefore be seen as significant in society because they offer wider explanations
for the most personal of acts. However, treating suicide as having social
causes would not be as relevant in society today with the increased awareness
of mental health. Today, we recognise that suicide is most likely provoked by
mental health and this is a matter which is taken more seriously in
contemporary society.

A quantitative method of official statistics was used for Durkheim to
support his argument. In this study, suicide was the social fact and the
statistics were the social current. Durkheim compared the suicide rates between
the Catholics and the Protestants and found that the rates of suicide were
significantly higher amongst Protestants. He believed that the social cause for
this was to do with levels of social integration and that Catholics had a
stronger degree of social control between them. He also found that suicide
rates were higher amongst men, those who were single and those without
children. Durkheim’s use of methodology could be criticised because statistics
can be faulty. Although statistics were useful in showing patterns of suicide,
many suicides may go unreported, so they lack validity. Also, Durkheim’s
suicide statistics were only based in the European countries: France, England
and Denmark and had Durkheim studied the suicide rates more globally, the
results may have read differently. The French Revolution may have also had an
impact on these suicide rates as the aftermath would have caused a disruption
in France, leading them to suicide.

He distinguished that there were
four types of suicide: anomic, fatalistic, egoistic and altruistic. Anomic
suicide occurs simply when somebody experiences anomie; this means a sense of
normlessness. Durkheim claimed that anomic suicide strikes when there is a lack
of regulation of individuals to society. This could happen when there is social
or economic crisis which leads to dramatic social change and individuals can’t
adapt to these new norms. For example, this could occur to somebody who has
suddenly lost all their money. However, Durkheim stressed that it is not
because these crises cause poverty but because they disturb the collective
order (Durkheim, 1897, cited in Thompson, 1987). This type of suicide can, in
fact, occur in positive situations such as somebody winning the lottery because
they are still experiencing a sudden change of routine. Fatalistic suicide is
the opposite of anomic and takes place when where is too much regulation. If
there is too much control in somebody’s life they may turn to fatalistic
suicide because of a sense of no individuality. An example could be a slave
because they are under a repeated routine abiding strict rules. Egoistic
suicide is the type of suicide “that results from excessive individualism”
(Durkheim, 1897, cited in Thompson, 1987). When individuals lack social bonds,
they are more likely to commit suicide because they feel that it would not
affect society. An example here could be a drug taker. The last type of suicide
is altruistic. This type of suicide is when somebody is so integrated to
society that they have no life of their own. These individuals may feel that it
is their duty to commit suicide and that it’s the only way to gain their life
back. Somebody killing themselves after a death of a partner would be an

Interpretivist sociologists such as
Max Weber would disagree with Durkheim’s work of social facts and the way that
he studied suicide. Interpretivism is the opposite approach of positivism and
studies sociology subjectively. This means that research is based on personal
feelings so that they can receive in depth details and attach meanings to the
individuals. Interpretivists believe that the individual shapes society and
therefore social facts cannot be what causes individuals to act the way they
do. Instead, they believe that individuals do have the choice of how to behave
and so there must be personal reasons for why a person would commit suicide.
Weber came up with the concept verstehen which is when the researcher studies
people’s interpretations of the world by putting themselves in their shoes.
Durkheim, on the other hand, ignores individualism when studying society and
instead states that a human science should be studied like a natural science.
Unlike Durkheim, Weber was interested in “intentional acts of meaning” meaning
that individuals are conscious of the actions they make. (Craib, 1997, p.46).
Alternatively, Durkheim said that social facts which individuals are unaware of
influence human behaviour and that we are “socialized into ways of thinking”
(Craib, 1997, p.46). Methodology that would be preferred by interpretivists to
statistics would be interviews. In the case of suicide this could be with that
individual’s family member. This would allow them to get an idea of why this
act was committed. This is disregarded by Durkheim as he was only interested in
why the suicide rates were so stable, not why people commit suicide.

Another sociologist that differs
from Durkheim is Karl Marx. Similarly, to Durkheim, Marx argued that
individuals are shaped by society. However, Marx strongly focused on conflict,
believing that society is oppressive to the working classes, whereas Durkheim
believed that everything in society is functional. Durkheim explained how
society evolves organically. Marx rejected this idea and claimed that
individuals have fixed positions that are based on the economic system. Due to
institutions spreading capitalist ideologies, the working class are forced into
thinking that they cannot change their social status. This is supported by
(Callinicos, 1983, p.98) “Marx believes that ideologies prop up class societies
by misleading the exploited about their position in society”. Furthermore,
Durkheim would say that society is stable, yet Marx would oppose this idea and
say that the working classes only need to realise their class consciousness to
revolt. Marx also dismissed social facts as being the cause of human action and
says that it is controlled by economic forces that we are unaware of (Craib,
1997, p.46).

Durkheim can further be criticised
as being outdated in contemporary society. Today, personal, feelings and
emotions are recognised in influencing the ways that we act and interact with
other people.  Arlie Hochschild stated
that one’s feelings are considered before any actions take place. Durkheim
ignored the emotions and feelings of individuals and argued that the actions
and interactions of individuals are understood by social facts. Hochschild, on
the other hand, claimed that it’s the “emotional attachments to others and
affective commitments” that influence human behaviour (Etzioni 1988, Hochschild
1975, cited in Thoits, 1989, p. 317). Hochschild also declared that we can
manage our emotions so that they are socially desirable to our audience and we
do this by acting. Durkheim would say that we do not act in this way through
choice because actions are controlled by social factors. Hochschild did
however, take into consideration that emotions are in most part social. This is
supported by (Hochschild, 1979, p.555) “social factors affect how emotions are
elicited and expressed.”

In summary, Durkheim contributed an
objective way of analysing human behaviour to sociology. His work on social
facts have helped explain why individuals commit acts, even ones as personal
and traumatic as suicide. Social facts are therefore important to study as they
can explain the unexplained. He stated that social facts are external to the
individual and that they are constraining. This is significant to our
understanding of human behaviour because it gives an explanation of why so many
people follow laws and behave in the way that is seen as desirable. Finally, he
also analysed suicide statistics and discovered four types of suicide to
explain the stability of these suicide rates. Durkheim’s work on social facts
and suicide has therefore been a huge significance in sociology and he is
remembered for his work today.


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