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or functions. The more significant variations

will probably be associated with different

types of society. These types are to be constructed

in the first instance by the morphological criteria

already developed in Division, which emphasize

the complexity (or lack thereof) of a given society

or group.

Durkheim continued teaching at Bordeaux

until 1902, when he was appointed to a chair of

science of education at the Sorbonne, in Paris.

However, he had already become identified as

the most authoritative practitioner and promoter

of sociology. He was committed to the discipline

also on moral grounds, expecting it to attain

valid scientific results regarding the conditions

Durkheim, E´mile (1858–1917) Durkheim, E´mile (1858–1917)

152

obtaining in his beloved France. Such results



could in turn find practical and political use in

the construction of new and more appropriate

public institutions by the Second Republic. Durkheim

sought to accomplish this, among other

things, by acting as a consultant to ministerial

authorities. He also worked hard at selecting and

training young people who shared his own view of

sociology’s scope and method, and subsequently

sought to have them appointed to the positions

which were being created in that discipline and in

neighboring ones.

Most of Durkheim’s tireless energy, however,

was expended in strictly scholarly tasks. In 1896

he began editing, in Paris, L’Anne´e Sociologique, a

journal devoted to reviewing, year by year, the

most significant publications which had appeared

in sociology and in neighboring disciplines, in

several European languages, over the previous

year or two. It also published original contributions,

including essays by Durkheim himself and

by his students.

In 1897 Durkheim published his third major

sociological book – Suicide: A Study in Sociology

(trans. 1951). The phenomenon the book addressed

was, and remains, of considerable public significance.

It was relatively well documented, and

had already been discussed by many scholars from

various European countries. Durkheim’s treatment

of it focused on a particular aspect. Suicide

is, on the face of it, a most private act, a peculiarly

individual undertaking. Yet the data concerning

its occurrence, which Durkheim painstakingly

assembled and analyzed over years of research,

showed remarkable regularities in the suicide

rate, that is the frequency of the occurrence of

suicide relative to the size of the population.

The suicide rate varies, sometimes widely, from

country to country, or from one to another subunit

of a country’s population, and does so consistently,

year in, year out. Furthermore, the

differences between subunits (for example, city

dwellers versus country dwellers, women versus

men) are remarkably similar from one country to

another, and are stable over time. Finally, over

longer periods of time, one may detect consistent

trends in the suicide rate, the most significant

trend being its increase in modern times.

These data, Durkheim argued, suggest unequivocally

that a certain propensity to suicide is a

significant collective property of a given population

or population subunit. That property manifests

itself through a number of suicidal

occurrences, each the product – we may well

assume – of the particular circumstances of the

individual in question, the final episode in a

unique biography. The attempts other students

have made to account for the regularities in the

suicide rates by referring, for instance, to the geographical

environment of a national population,

or its ethnic composition, are demonstrably inadequate.

The reasons for such regularities must then

be found in the “moral constitution” of a given

population or subunit, in the varying nature and

intensity of the “suicidal currents” associated

with that constitution.

The prohibition or the strong disapproval of

suicide is common to all such constitutions. In

this perspective, the universality of the suicide

phenomenon (for all its variation) suggests that

it should be interpreted by reference to two

aspects of all societies. These are, on the one

hand, the extent to which in a given society individuals

are induced to interact, to take each other

into account, and to form more or less cohesive

bonds with one another, and, on the other, the

extent to which societies address individuals with

rules, and with normative guidance about how

they should conduct themselves and think. Each

aspect, however, may impinge on the suicide rate

(or on the occurrence of other forms of deviance)

both when the moral constitution of a society

emphasizes it excessively and when that emphasis

is too weak.

According to Durkheim’s analysis, many of

these data point to high suicide rates that correspond

with a low significance of one (or both) of

those aspects, namely bonding or regulating. For

instance, Protestants show much higher suicide

rates than Catholics. He attributes this difference

to the lower social cohesion the Protestant

denominations generate by stressing the autonomy

of the individual believer, by their less pronounced

and authoritative hierarchical structure,

and by the lower frequency and intensity of their

ritual occasions. Alternatively, the suicide rate

is lower among married than among unmarried

adults, lower among those married and with

children than among those without children.

This last instance shows the untenability of

what could be called a utilitarian understanding

of differential suicide rates, which would associate

higher rates with situations more likely to put

people under pressure, or to confront them with

greater hardships. Memberships which impose

demanding responsibilities upon those holding

them, by the same token, put in place support

structures which may support them if they find

themselves in those desperate circumstances

which tempt them to suicide.

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153

Looser, less demanding, but by the same token,



less cohesive memberships are less likely to offer

such support. This, paradoxically, may take the

form of reminding individuals of their responsibilities

and obligations towards other members,

for to fulfill such obligations requires them in the

first instance to remain alive. Without such

reminders, individuals who face a particularly

harsh crisis may well succumb to that “suicidogenic

current” Durkheim calls “egoistic,” for it

results from the supremacy in their own minds

of considerations relating exclusively to their own

well-being, which is now seriously threatened.

Lack of regulation, of morally authoritative criteria

by which to judge one’s circumstances and to

orient one’s conduct, exposes individuals instead

to the threat of “anomic” suicide. Anomie may

derive from the accelerated pace at which social

and cultural change occurs, from the individuals’

exposure to a multitude of diverse stimuli, inciting

them to seek ever-new experiences, new horizons,

or new occasions of pleasure. Insofar as they

yield to such entreaties, individuals place themselves

outside the reach of established, sanctioned

expectations. By the same token, their continuous

effort to respond to those stimuli, to challenge the

current boundaries of their existence, becomes an

end in itself. Supposing again that a serious crisis

befalls them, they cannot overcome it by appealing

to norms and values which confer significance

on what they have and who they are. The

conventional sources of meaning may no longer

suffice, and have not been replaced by new ones.

The suicido-genic effect of anomie is proven

according to Durkheim by the high suicide rates

of such people as divorcees, especially male divorcees.

The bounding of desire, the framing and

shaping of conduct previously afforded them by

marriage, is no longer available, leaving them at a

loss. Also, variations of the suicide rate over time

suggest this circumstance, for it rises during periods

of accelerated economic change – and that not

only, Durkheim claims, at times of bust, but also

at times of boom. Economic booms engender a

general feeling that one must improve one’s position,

devalue old possessions and associations,

strive for continuous improvement. People who

act upon that feeling are out on a limb; should

any misfortune befall them, it may find them

unable to attach to their identities and possessions,

to whatever they had accomplished in the

past, a value which may sustain them, justifying

the effort to remain alive and the related burdens.

Egoism and anomie together, according to

Durkheim, increasingly characterize the moral

atmosphere of modern society, the one amounting

to a deficit of cohesion, the other to a deficit

of meaning. But Suicide also points to the suicidogenic

effects of an excess of cohesion. Under certain

conditions, people may have such a sense of

their own dependence on society, of society’s

entitlement to their devotion and sacrifice, that

they become prone to a third, “altruistic” type of

suicide. In some cases, society positively expects

them, in certain circumstances, to dispose of

themselves. In others, it gives them such a diminished

sense of their own significance, of the

value of their own survival, that if (again) a

deep crisis occurs in their existence they easily

surrender to it.

This phenomenon is much more in evidence in

Oriental societies than in western ones, but is

echoed here, Durkheim claims, by the relatively

high suicide rate characteristic of a specific constituency

– the members of the military profession.

The army teaches the individuals that

compose it to attach much less significance to

themselves, qua individuals, than they attach to

the group of which they are part, be it the fatherland

or a specific military unit. It thus predisposes

them to a suicide flowing not (as with egoistic

suicide) from their acute sense of their own importance,

but from a heightened sense of their

dispensability.

All three suicide types (egoistic, anomic, and

altruistic) are connected with universal social

norms – respectively, that enjoining the individual

to take some responsibility for her/himself;

that encouraging her/him, under certain circumstances,

to seek experiences “unprogrammed” by

conventional culture; finally, that urging the individual

to consider and to place her/himself at

society’s disposal. It is the priority among these

different, though equally significant, commandments

that varies from society or group to society

or group – and unavoidably so, because of their

mutual incompatibilities.

There is, however, a certain affinity between

egoism and anomie (Durkheim acknowledges the

difficulty of clearly distinguishing them), which

together, as we have seen, characterize modern

society. This is largely because egoistic attitudes

and anomic dispositions are intrinsically connected

with that society’s economic arrangements,

currently dominated by industry and

centered on the market and on technological

innovation.

The growing hold of such phenomena on society

at large increasingly worries Durkheim, who in

Suicide (as in other writings) suggests how to

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154

moderate the damage it can do to the society’s



moral temper. Again, public action is called for –

but not directly that of the state. This (as Durkheim

conceives of it) is an organ for the formation

of general norms and of broad, durable

policies, incapable as such of attending competently

to the highly diverse and dynamic processes

of economic life. Rather, public action on economic

phenomena should be entrusted to corporate

bodies organizing all those who are

professionally involved (as employers or employees)

in the various branches of industry. Such

bodies can identify the potentialities and needs

of each branch, regulate its activities, moderate

the conflict between employers and employees,

and generate among their constituents both a

feeling of fellowship towards one another and a

sense of responsibility towards the broader public.

The concern over the current tendencies of

modern society that motivates such proposals is

to an extent sublimated away in Durkheim’s last

great book, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life

(1912 [trans. 2001]). The theme of religion had

attracted him before, possibly because of its close

connection with morality. For Durkheim, it had

long been axiomatic that society was at bottom a

moral reality. Its continuing existence and welfare

depended on the willingness of individuals to consider

each other not as instruments, but as fellow

beings equally entitled to respect and solidarity,

and society itself as demanding not only obedience

but devotion. Society, furthermore, was not

just the addressee, as it were, of moral conduct,

but the source itself of morality. Durkheim argued

that morality, in all its forms, is only encountered

in society, and only varies in relation to social

conditions. Society imparts to its expectations a

quality of moral obligation that its own sanctions

are meant mainly to symbolize, rather than

to engender, and that is the essence itself of

morality.

Morality refracts itself, as it were, in a plurality

of social institutions. For all the variety of the

social interests they guard and they discipline,

all institutions, at bottom, impart to their own

commandments, more or less openly, that same

quality of intrinsic dutifulness. (Although it has

its own institutions, the sphere of economic life is

least likely to orient to such considerations the

conduct of those taking part in its activities –

and that is what worries Durkheim about it). The

relationship of the whole institutional realm to

religion is revealed in the close affinity between

the quality in question – the particular prestige

moral facts enjoy in the mind of a society’s

members – and the distinctive sacredness of religious

beliefs, norms, and practices.

According to Durkheim, all institutions, mundane

as their themes may be, have arisen as articulations

and differentiations of a single, great

institutional matrix – religion itself. For, as Durkheim

sees it, religion, in all its varieties, rests on

and affirms the very distinction between its own

realm – that of the sacred – and the contrasting

realm of the profane, which encompasses all

that must be kept at a distance from the sacred,

acknowledging its unique powerfulness, awesomeness,

dangerousness. The noli me tangere of

all social institutions – their projecting themselves

as public realities which individuals must

not tinker with in their private pursuits, but

accept and continuously validate as legitimate

constraints upon them – is a derivation, however

remote, of the sacred so understood.

But the question becomes – what engenders the

division itself between the sacred and the profane?

Durkheim holds that such a primordial

and universal distinction must be rooted on an

equally primordial and universal experience, best

conveyed by the most primitive form of religious

life one can find, which he claims to find in the

totemism of Australian aboriginal populations.

Here multiple, diverse bodies of beliefs and ritual

practices, different as they are, agree on two

points. Each celebrates the unchallengeable sacredness

and the unique significance of an object

(generally a biological species). Each asserts the

identity between that object – the totem – and

the tribe itself, among other things by attaching

to both the same name.

This assertion provides Durkheim with a critical

cue. As it worships the totem, the tribe worships

itself. Quite generally, in fact, it is the confrontation

with the superiority, the powerfulness, the

generosity of a group, that generates in its members

the experience of the sacred itself – an experience

which myth and ritual continuously revisit

and reproduce. When religions attain an idea of

God, that idea symbolically represents society

itself. Other religions may convey a less distinctive

notion of a sacred force. All of them, however,

partition reality into a sacred and a profane

realm, assert an asymmetry of significance

between them, and design collective activities

which celebrate that asymmetry and align the

participants with the higher realm. As they do

so, the participants draw new strength and assurance

from that part, rededicate themselves to the

myths and the rituals of the group, many of which

affirm the intrinsic obligatoriness of its manie`res

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155

d’agir et de penser. At the same time (dialectically,



one might say), the participation of the faithful in

the worship of that superior force posits and

reconstitutes its existence (and thus the unique

validity of those manie`res).

All religions do this, though perhaps none as

clearly as the totemic ones. Even these, of course,

do so in varied and contrasting ways. Each tribe

attributes sacredness to a different totemic being,

and thus implicitly to itself. Each celebrates it

through a different ensemble of myths and rituals.

This very diversity may suggest to the observer that

religion itself is at bottom an arbitrary exercise in

self-delusion, a delirium.

Yes, Durkheim agrees – “but it is a wellgrounded

delirium.” In all its forms, religion

asserts symbolically a basic truth. The individual

owes everything to the society. Reciprocally, only

the individual’s respect for and devotion to society

itself, asserted more directly through religious

practice, less directly by dutiful submission to varied

institutional commands, confirms the very

existence of society and the continuing validity of

its institutions.

If this is the core argument of Elementary Forms,

one may well see one problem it poses for Durkheim

himself. If religion is the ultimate source of

all morality, and if it is necessary to the very

survival of society, what of modern society itself?

Has modernization not displaced religion?

By the time he wrote Elementary Forms, Durkheim

himself had recognized some validity to

the secularization thesis, and had become less

and less confident in the validity and sustainability

of the modernization project. Yet in Elementary

Forms and in other writings he tries hard, one

senses, to be optimistic. Modern society, like all

others, needs religion, for without religion society

would face dissolution. And it has in fact, for all

appearances to the contrary, a religion of its own,

compatible of course with other aspects of its

nature, but not yet sufficiently conscious of itself

and of its own distinctiveness.

Modern religion – the cult of the individual –

sacralizes the human person, the human being as

such. It surrounds with a halo of dignity each

member of society, forbidding others to treat the

individual as a morally neutral, merely factual

component of society, as a means or as an obstacle.

Its content is revealed, in particular, by political

constitutions which attribute some rights to

all citizens, irrespective of their social condition.

This recognition of a juridically significant

capacity which belongs equally to everyone is a

significant moral advance of modernity. That capacity

is periodically celebrated by political rituals,

and its scope is destined to grow in the future. Its

moral significance is under threat from contemporary

developments which encourage egoism

instead of affirming the sacredness of the individual.

But such developments can be countered by

institutional innovations, in particular those that

regulate and constrain competitive conduct on

the market. Furthermore, it can be expected that

more and more societies – beginning with European

ones, which represented for Durkheim the

front edge of modernity – will assert in their constitutions

the equal moral significance of all their

members. They will thus contribute to establishing

a form of religion appropriate to modernity.

Durkheim’s expectations of further moral

advances from European societies were harshly

negated by the advent of World War I. This conflict

at first gave new impulse to his French patriotism;

but at length its carnage brutally thinned

out the ranks of his own students. When his own

son perished during a military expedition in the

Balkans, this personal tragedy broke Durkheim’s

heart and paralyzed his mind. He died in 1917.

GIANFRANCO POGGI

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156

E

economism



This is a term for theories that regard economic

activity as the primary focus of social life, in which

political or cultural arrangements are, at best, secondary

to, or derivative of, more fundamental economic

forces. Examples of economism include

theories (such as the economics of the market,

and certain types of Marxism) and social activities

(such as free trade or trade unionism) that are

perceived as neglectful of interactions between

economic and noneconomic aspects of social life.

The term is usually applied by critics rather than

supporters of economism. To describe something

or someone as economistic is usually to diagnose a

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