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Durkheim is usually referred to as a realist when it comes to his analysis of society. This approach is considered the most successful in sociology. This is proved by the fact that Durkheim is now known as one of the founders of sociology as science and formation of sociology was influenced by Durkheim’s ideas in most countries around the world. Secondly, his ideas are used as key principles in various branches of sociological knowledge and research. All more or less significant sociological theories of the XX century are somehow correlated with his realist theory that also gave birth to the creation of the French School of Sociology.
The first argument for Durkheims analysis of the society is his detailed and convincing justifications of society. He argued that society was a special kind of reality that could not be compared with any other. This reality as a single organism has many functions and at the same way can be influenced by many factors. This is true, and according to Durkheim, the main task of sociology is the study of social facts, to which he attributed primarily so-called collective representations, that is, traditions, customs, morality, and religious beliefs. I consider this definition the most appropriate, because it can be said what a society is when studying the above mentioned aspects together.
However, one aspect of Durkheims theory can be argued about. In connection with the secularization of public life in society, he saw that society authorizes and justifies moral values and norms instead of God. He told that one needed to make a choice between God and society. It is not obvious to consider here the arguments in favor of the decision, because both of them are close to each other. However, from my point of view, this choice is not very significant. Durkheims ideas were reflected in his sacralization (consecration) of society. However, this defect is often turned into a virtue. Thanks to this feature of his thoughts, the ontological status of society and sociology was established in both professional and in the mass consciousness.
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As he emphasized, social facts existed independently from the individual and, in addition, they had forced impact on human behavior that prompted a person to act in a certain way. The advantage of Durkheims works is that he addressed mainly to the analysis of social factors that influenced human behavior. Here we can mention one of the basic concepts in Durkheim’s theory, which is the concept of social solidarity. Durkheim viewed society as a sphere of solidarity and cohesion. This well-observed feature indicates the mechanisms of social life, which ensure the integrity and unity of human society. I find this explanation exact, because there is not any other mechanism that could unite a huge number of individuals in one society. According to Durkheim, the nature of social solidarity was different in different historical epochs, and this is one more argument for his theory, as here the mechanism of changes that occurred in a society during various historical periods becomes clear.
Here he identified two types of solidarity mechanical and organic. Durkheim pointed to that fact that mechanical solidarity occurs in undeveloped primitive societies. It is mechanic, because people in such societies are alike; they are influenced by stable customs, traditions, and religious ideas. In such society, there was no division of labor, and all the people performed similar functions, and their behavior was predetermined.
Organic solidarity is a characteristic of the industrial society. According to Durkheim, this kind of solidarity predominated because of the expansion of the social division of labor. From those times, people began to specialize in different activities. The relationship between people was now based on the economic exchange. People’s behavior was not influenced by the collective representations of human behavior that was much weaker.
Durkheim gave a distinct description of the society, applying the two opposing theoretical models that were mechanical and organic solidarity in an explanation of human culture. He pointed to the fact that the elements of both mechanical and organic solidarity are the necessary part of human relations, and different kinds of societies can be described as various combinations of these models. Here, he clearly explains that in the primitive society, there already existed the simplest elements of labor division, and at the same time there were some collective representations in an advanced industrial society. However, many sociologists consider that by proving the normal character of solidarity in the society and abnormal character of its absence, Durkheim largely used wishful thinking. For this he was well-founded critic. He was overly optimistic about reality and prospects of organic solidarity and underestimated the potential for new forms of a mechanical solidarity in totalitarian societies.
The idea of social solidarity is quite a successful attempt to answer the question about instruments that unite people in the society. Durkheim believed that such force is the division of labor. His argument was that the division of labor (professional specialization) performed an integrative role of social consciousness. Since the specialization of labor is increasing, people constantly exchange experience and thus play complementary roles and are combined into one unit. Indeed, the archaic society, which was not developed and was characterized by dominated mechanical solidarity, was one-faced. There was no space for individual deviations and collective religious consciousness that dictated the rules of life. The development of the division of labor implies the emergence of a large number of a wide variety of functions. This was the main factor that weakened the unified collective consciousness. The division of labor ceases to be a cause of individual differences in accordance with the professional role. Each individual becomes a person. The reason for the division of labor, according to Durkheim, is a growth of population since everything that is related with increasing levels of social interaction leads to the division of labor. Durkheim defines normal state of the society as the development and economic planning, and the best regulation of labor relations. Along with the normal state of the society, the sociologist defines the concept of anomie as a form of abnormal division of labor. This is the consequence of the lack of moral unregulated competition, class conflict, routine work, and degradation of labor.
Durkheim paid much attention to the analysis of various collective phenomena of social life. Suicide is one of the best known works as to this aspect. Durkheim correctly explained the roots of this phenomenon, pointing to the fact that suicide usually happened not only due to the features of the individual psyche, but because of the influence of the social environment of the person. Durkheim identified such types of suicide: egoistic, altruistic, anomic, and fatalistic. Egoistic suicide occurs in the modern industrial society. It is the result of the rupture of social ties, the isolation of man from his/her inner circle released by the feeling of loneliness. This argument is rather firm as it distinctly describes the problems of todays world. Many suicides occur, because a person feels that he/she is too good for the world. Altruistic suicide is a characteristic of undeveloped societies where mechanical solidarity dominates. In such societies, an individual is completely subordinate to the requirements of the group and may sacrifice his/her own life for the sake of the collective interest. Durkheim considers that anomic suicide spreads more in a period of crisis and social upheaval, when conditions of life abruptly change and not all people are able to adapt to the change process. Fatalistic suicide is due to overregulation in society. Because of being enslaved, a servant or a slave can commit suicide.
I find the interpretation of the society primarily a moral reality, which is most important in Durkheims sociology. On the one hand, he preferred to define sociology from religious and moral perspective rather than from economical and political. That can be considered as the main weakness of his ideas. However, I agree with Durkheim that morale is the only practical, effective, and real power. Economy and politics that have little moral foundation are fragile and temporary.
One more argument for Durkheims thought is his important contribution to the understanding of the society as a system of values. He emphasized that social behavior is always governed by some set of rules. These rules are always mandatory and desirable. However, here we can define one more weakness of Durkheims sociology as he underestimates the well-known fact that diverse social groups often have different interpretations of the same norms and values. However, these sociologists correctly underline the great value of crises that changes in the system of societys values and norms and introduces a very important concept of anomie in sociology.
Durkheim’s contribution in the epistemological aspect was as valuable as in ontological. He applied principles of scientific rationalism, methodological principles of sociological thinking, theoretical and empirical approaches, and structural-functional analysis in sociology. At the same time, he successfully used comparative historical and evolutionary methodology for comparing different types of societies and considering society as a complex combination of the same simple elementary units. Certainly, there were much of naive and utopian in his faith in science; nevertheless, this belief, supported by the deep logical reasoning and Durkheim’s own research, played a huge role in the development of sociology, recognition of its scientific status, and authority.