University of British Columbia
With the centennial anniversary of Durkheim’s death upon us, it is perhaps as good a time as any to reflect on his significance in sociology. On the one hand, the conventional use of Durkheim illustrates widespread weaknesses in the use of theory in sociological research. On the other hand, Durkheim’s ideas are so deeply infused throughout contemporary sociology that his work continues to demonstrate impressive staying-power and offers promise for future generations of sociologists.
What’s Wrong with Theory?
It is perhaps clichéd to begin an essay on one of sociology’s great theorists by pointing to the problems in contemporary sociological theory. However, I find it intriguing to contemplate what Durkheim would think about theory today.
However, he would likely also have plenty of concerns. For one, he would likely worry that “theory” had little to no meaning—that is, like lay people who think the theory of evolution is just a theory, or a guess, sociologists use the term “theory” in contradictory ways (Turner 1985; Abend 2008). Second, he would be confused as to why theory textbooks and syllabi focus on individuals. This is especially true of classical theory courses, which frequently take the form of a history of social thought course. Biologists do not spend much time on Darwin’s life, or make concerted efforts to reduce his theory to the time and place that he wrote about it, so why do we? Third, he would likely be disappointed that social theory is frequently taught as if it were the same as sociological theory. The latter is scientific, the former philosophy. And, while Durkheim, like his contemporaries, was indeed indebted to German and French philosophers, he was also committed to building a sociology that transcended philosophy: one that didn’t describe, in the abstract, “the good society,” but rather sought to find empirical regularities that shaped positive or negative social outcomes. Finally, he would be confused by incessant questions about whether sociology is or should be a science. It is. As proof, I offer two of Durkheim’s insights that demonstrate their scientific power and, more importantly, their relevance to a powerful public sociology.
Liquefying Durkheim: From Settled Theory to Analytic Principles
Durkheim’s (1897 ) classic Suicide--which, according to the Open Syllabus Project, is the fourth-most assigned text in sociology—presents a perfect prototype of both the problems with sociological theory and its power. The problem lies in the fact that the vast majority of sociologists are taught Durkheim’s four-fold typology of suicide as if it were (to paraphrase Randall Collins ) a “dead” text. That is, the four types of suicide are treated as enduring social facts, essentially “truths” about how society works. Durkheim’s typology has crystallized, despite the fact that, of the four “types” of suicide, only egoistic suicide receives consistent empirical verification, or the fact that one of the four “types” (fatalism) was added by Durkheim at the last minute in a single footnote, in a single paragraph likely for the sake of symmetry (Durkheim 1897 : 276). It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that a recent review of the literature took sociology to task for its continued testing and re-testing of Durkheim’s nineteenth century hypotheses (Wray, Colen and Pescosolido 2011).
The crystallization of Suicide is something Durkheim, as someone devoted to the scientific method, would likely not appreciate. And indeed, the negative effects of the presumed “settled” status of Suicide in sociology are per-haps best illustrated by that fact that sociology currently produces the second fewest publica-tions on suicide by a wide margin (Stack and Bowman 2012). The creative use of the socio-logical imagination that Durkheim depicted in his seminal text is undermined by our devotion to his ideas, without refinement, without exten-sion, and without applying the benefit of 150 years of additional sociological inquiry into society’s effects on individuals and on mental health. Whether we are teaching the central tenets of Durkheim’s principles or motivating our own research, a more robust sociology might note that the typology has little empirical validity, and, instead of freezing Durkheim’s theoretical framework as an immutable “clas-sic” alongside The Protestant Ethic or Mind, Self, Society, we might extend it with more modern empirical and theoretical work (Pescosolido 1990; Abrutyn and Mueller 2014b).
Despite my pessimism about the state of the sociology of suicide, Durkheim’s Suicide indeed endures, and for good reason. If we step back from the four-fold typology of suicide, Durkheim’s entire argument essentially boils down to two principles that ultimately provide sociologists with a powerful array of pedago-gical and theoretical tools. First, the structure of suicide rates is a function of the structure of social relationships in society; and second, the structure of social relationships varies in terms of how much integration or how much regu-lation characterizes social bonds. The elegance of this argument is truly inspiring, especially when we consider that Durkheim meant for this model to apply across phenomena, and not be limited to suicide only. This suggests that we should abandon our emphasis on the specifics of the typology, and shift our focus instead to the principles that underlie it.
Consider, for instance, the teaching moment the two dimensions underlying variation across social relationships (i.e., integration and regulation) provide us. Durkheim’s conceptualization of both shifted throughout Suicide—as they did, in fact, across his whole career. Because of this, these concepts rest at the epicenter of the massive acknowledged weaknesses in his theory (Johnson 1965; Pescosolido 1994; Abrutyn and Mueller 2016; Mueller and Abrutyn 2016). But these purported weaknesses actually hide an important opportunity to teach our students important lessons about the relationship between theory and research.
First, rather than treat Durkheim’s Suicide as a finished product, sociologists are in an excellent position to do what Durkheim did: synthesize his insights with more recent work from various sociological subfields to construct a clearer, stronger, and more consistent theory. For instance, how can social-psychological insights improve our thinking about integration (Abrutyn and Mueller 2014b)? How can network principles re-cast Durkheim’s theory as less about macro- and more about meso-level processes (Pescosolido 1994)? Second, these questions naturally lead us to rethink the implicit Durkheimian paradox: if integration and regulation are supposed to be protective, then how do we explain the suggestion that too much of either makes us vulnerable to self-destructive behaviors? While Durkheim’s discussion of altruism and fatalism are problematic on many grounds (Abrutyn and Mueller 2016; Davies and Neal 2000; Leenaars 2004), they nevertheless hold an enormous amount of teaching power and theory-building potential: if Durkheim meant his theory to be a general theory of suicide (or, more accurately, of social behavior), then the more useful questions to ask are (1) why, how, and when does too much of either force make us vulnerable, and (2) what types of social milieus exhibit these characteristics?
Once we begin to reconceptualize integration and regulation, we can rethink, theoretically and methodologically, how we deal with the first great principle of suicide—i.e., that the structure of suicide rates is shaped by the structure of social relationships. Durkheim’s model—the conventional, orthodox version—has a serious limitation: macro-level data and processes do not explain individual-level behavior. Thus, although we can know that Protestants tend towards suicide more so than Catholics and Jews, we cannot know (a) why this or that Protestant is more vulnerable to suicide than her fellow congregants, or (b) why some Protestant congregations may exhibit higher rates of suicide than others. Thus, on the one hand, while structural conditions seem to shape suicide rates, on the other hand, the other great principle in Suicide—that social relationships vary in terms of integration and regulation—begs to be unpacked in creative ways. For instance, we could investigate why a specific Protestant congregation was at greater risk of suicidality by rethinking the level of analysis. This congregation is embedded within a community that has specific historical, political, cultural, and economic conditions that operate to integrate and regulate members. What is it about these conditions that may weaken the protective bonds we would expect from religious affiliation? By asking these questions, we may shed new light on integration and regulation that leads to comparative research and more generalizable theory. Moreover, by eschewing macro-level logic, sociology is on firmer ground in understanding why a congregation or a family is at risk of suicidality and, therefore, how sociological tools can be brought to bear on the practical problem of prevention. If we are unable to bring our tools to bear on understanding and explaining suicidality without resorting to reductionism, then what good is a sociology of suicide, or even a sociology of mental health?
Thus, while there remains a need for aggregate-level research, a far more pressing need is for sociology to use new tools to analyze suicide. Durkheim himself used historical and ethnographic methods alongside quantitative methods, and opportunities abound for qualitative research into the meanings individuals apply to suicide (Kitanaka 2012), how place affects suicidality and the prevalence of suicide (Mueller and Abrutyn 2016), and how survivors (those affected by the death of a significant other) cope with the loss. Exploring these questions may allow us to consider questions Durkheim rejected, such as why suicides spread dyadically (Abrutyn and Mueller 2014a; Mueller and Abrutyn 2015) and in bounded social spaces (Haw et al. 2012). Indeed, retheorizing integration and regulation can open a whole set of new avenues for working on these puzzles—puzzles that, incidentally, apply to other behaviors like smoking, drinking, and so forth.
Durkheim, Theory, and the Good Society
In short, there remains a need to assign Durkheim’s Suicide, but there is an equal need for serious pedagogical and theoretical engagement with the concepts and principles that lie at its core rather than its more often-discussed typology. Once we engage these things, we are forced to abandon the notion that Durkheim’s theory is dead or frozen, that the issue of suicide is empirically settled, or that somehow extending, modifying, or recasting Durkheim’s principles violates his own intentions. There is no need for exegesis; nor is there a pressing need to interpret the book in light of the theorists or moral philosophers Durkheim himself drew from. The principles are timeless, and exist apart from their writer. Durkheim would likely be shocked that his work is treated as immutable, frozen, and crystallized. We should learn from him: sociology is about theoretical and methodolo-gical creativity. The two are equally important, and cannot be divorced from each other.
Crystallization also risks ceding sociology’s rightful place in studying suicide and trying to make real-world differences in prevention and postvention. Indeed, studies of the recent American presidential election—which reveal a correlation between deaths of despair (e.g., opioid overdose, suicide) and voting patterns—drives home just how relevant Durkheimian sociology remains to understanding and pursuing the “good society.” While Durkheim and his philosophical predecessor, Comte, are sometimes unfairly maligned as too conservative or reformist compared to Marx, they too were committed to social justice. Durkheim, however, provides important tools we can use to generate a public sociology committed to helping combat poor physical, emotional, and psychological health; and to improve our understanding of the social forces that help build positive local social organization, especially in the face of injustice, inequity, and oppression.
Durkheim’s Suicide, and indeed his life’s work, was devoted to understanding and explaining how to spot societal-level ailments so that we can improve life. Yes, he was reformist (though, he did write an interesting book on socialism), and he was not interested in power or inequality (to his detriment), but that should not take away from his concern with real, practical problems and sociology’s potential to alleviate them. For some, suicide may not be as grave a concern as social justice tout court, but for those survivors I have interviewed, and for those communities hit by clusters of adolescent suicides, it is an existential crisis. It saturates the cultural style of the people, and it leaves a devastating social and psychological trauma.
Unlike Marx, Durkheim was not so naïve as to think homicide, alcoholism, or suicide could simply be eradicated. He reckoned that the creation of the good society was a process. And, this is perhaps his greatest lesson: social problems are a constant feature of human societies. Rather than believe, as Comte or Marx or Plato did, that a perfect society could be built, we should work to understand, explain, and try to alleviate the reality of social problems. That is, society is inherently good, but flawed. Thus, if we believe that sociology has a responsibility to work to make it better, like Durkheim, we must commit to sociology as a science aimed at developing cumulative knowledge through whatever methods and theoretical tools it takes. Rather than revere the “masters,” we should mobilize their principles so that we can clearly understand the social processes, like integration, most relevant to social life; elucidate how these processes facilitate and constrain positive and negative social outcomes; and thus make a real difference in making society a better place. By resisting the crystallization of Durkheim’s work into settled theory, we can offer our students important “weapons” they can deploy in the pursuit of a better society.
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