Emile Durkheim is considered to be the father of modern sociology. He was born in 1858, the son of a Jewish Rabbi, and had excelled in his schooling due to a superior intellect. As a youth, Durkheim attended rabbinical school, expecting to join his father, and continue the long family line of Rabbis. Once he went to Paris, however, he abandoned his theological ambitions.
After earning his bacceloriate in Letters and Science in Epinal, he left for Paris, and in 1879, after three attempts to pass the entrance exams, he was admitted into the Ecole Normale Superieur in Paris, and became, after study and testing, an associate professor of Philosophy in 1882 at a university in Bordeaux. . Five years later, after considerable effort and lobbying, he was named the head of the School of Social Science at the University. This was a relatively new field that competed with the entrenched philosophy of humanism.
During his time as head of this department, he stressed the importance of sociology and taught courses in the theory of education. In 1898, he founded the first Social Science journal in France, and was made a full professor in 1902. Though his ideas about Social Morality antagonized the Church and other conservatives, his position required that All students going for a degree in Philosophy, Languages, History or Literature were exposed to his theories and reasoning. After the death of his son in 1916 in WWI, Durkheim’s health failed and he died in 1917 at the age of 59.
Among his voluminous writings are several major works on a variety of subjects, including, The Division of Labour in Society (1893), Suicide (1897), On the Normality of Crime (1893) Professional Ethics and Civic Morals, and The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912). In Durkheim’s model of sociological theory, he argued that people organize themselves into “professional groupings” or “occupational groups” in which the desires and needs of particular groups may be pursued.
According to Durkheim, these occupational groups would work for the betterment of society as a whole, and not just for the betterment of their own particular group and interests. In a society that had developed a complex system of division of labor, the force of the occupational groups would create unity or solidarity between what otherwise might have been opposing factions. In Durkheim’s view, the notion that division of labor led inevitable to class conflict (a theory held by Marx) was incorrect.
Durkheim did not devote specific attention to politics in his writings, but his theories suggest a form of pluralism. In the preface of the second edition The Division of Labour in Society, Durkheim expands upon what he feels to be the role of these occupational groups in society. According to Durkheim, regulation between occupations was lacking in the current economic climate. (pg. 2) That is, while acknowledging that within professional groups there are relatively clear standards of behavior and conduct, there are no such standards between such groups.
Thus, doctors, lawyers and other professionals are very aware of their limitations of behavior within the practice of their own profession, but lack regulatory guidance as to how to behave vis-a-vis members of other professions. (pg. 2) Such rules of conduct are on an ad-hoc basis, with nothing to urge actual enforcement of ethical or good behavior between professional groups. (pg. 2) The resulting state of economic society is one of near-anarchy, featuring opposing interests that conclude their differences with violence.
(pg. 3) Further, the temporary nature of truces between the groups renders the sociological system unstable and subject to the smallest of external forces to reintroduce anarchy. (pg. 4) In order for this dysfunction, or anomy to end, the ascendency of the operational group must occur. (pg. 4) Durkheim then uses the historical example of Roman corporation and medieval corporation to illustrate the impermanence of stable societies if left to corporate behavior control.
He argues that in both cases, what measure of stability in economic society was gained occurred as a function of mutual assistance within trade societies, guilds and unions. (pg. 14) Durkheim observes that these groups had a solidarity, though religion in the case of the Romans, and through formal trade guilds in the case of medieval Europe. (pg. 15) Each group would take care of its own, and in so doing, would exercise the authority necessary to govern the action of its members.
It was only when the State, as a function of the corporation, attempted to usurp this autonomy that the stability of the social structure in both cases changed for the worse. (pg. 15) Durkheim argues that societal morality is motivated by a universal desire for a peaceful coexistence that trumps the constant positioning for economic power characteristic of a society without operational groups. (Pg. 16)
He further opines that obligations of family are also insufficient to explain the level of cohesion existing in operational groups, pointing out that consangutiy is not present when these occur, and sometimes present when the cohesion doesn’t exist. (pg. 16) Durkheim addresses the question of how to make corporations relevant to collective morality and social harmony in the way that they had been in the Middle ages. This would allow them to exert regulation of behavior that would be acceptable across operational groups. (pg. 18)
Unlike its status in Roman times as being separate (to a great extent) from the State, in the Middle Ages, the corporation was an integral part of the governing mechanism, representing the third of the Estates General characteristic of the times. (pg. 20) While Durkheim fails to specify what protections the corporation needs in order to avoid the falling from favor that it experienced between the the 1600s and the Industrial Revolution, Durkheim maintains that is is important to the guidance of operational groups to engender and provide a more universal morality between such groups. (pg. 25)
Durkheim offers the operational group as a fundamental unit of organization. He equates the peaceful conduct of economic society with the internal and external stability of these groups. He observes that internally, the groups have stable regulatory patterns, but often lack regulation when in conflict to one another. Durkheim proposes that the resurgence of the corporation would help to mitigate this issue by providing a more universal structure and morality to the interactions between operational groups.
He cautions, however, that the dominance of the corporation faces challenges, mostly relating to inflexibility of form (pg. 31) and a societal marriage to the urban population. Durkheim concludes that operational groups in concert with corporations can become the foundation of economic and, therefore, social stability in a society. Work Cited Durkheim, E. (1993) & Simpson, G, (ed. ) The Division of Labour in Society. The Free Press, Glendale, IL. 2nd Edition, pg. 1-32 (1947).
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