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Durkheim, Émile (1858-1917)

social communication theory individual

Émile Durkheim was one of the founding figures of sociology. His work is important to students of communication because of the central, though often implicit, role of communication processes in his sociological analyses. In current Durkheimian theory, communication, broadly conceived, is the fundamental social process. As a result of communication, biological beings become civilized human beings, psychological dispositions take the shape of cultural forces, and material and economic life takes meaningful shape as community and society. Durkheim himself was never so explicit about such large claims, and he was writing before the development of the modern vocabulary of communication theory. Nevertheless, interested readers have no difficulty seeing that signs, symbols, representations, rituals, myths, symbolic interaction, and other modes and media of communication are the underlying processes of his theoretical explanations of social order and process.

Durkheim was born in Épinal in the Lorraine region of France. His family expected him to become a rabbi, but Durkheim opted instead for secular scholarship. He studied philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris and spent a year in Germany (1885-1886) studying the new social sciences. In 1887, he took a post in education and sociology at Bordeaux; this was the first professor-ship in sociology in France. In 1902, he was given a professorship at the Sorbonne in Paris. At both universities Durkheim surrounded himself with a busy group of talented students. Together they conducted research, planned courses, wrote books and articles, and edited one of the world’s first journals of sociology, L’Année Sociologique. Three of the four books published in his lifetime— The Division of Labor in Society (1893), The Rules of Sociological Method (1895), and Suicide (1897)— appeared in rapid order during the Bordeaux years and cemented his reputation as an important, if controversial, thinker. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912) was completed and published fifteen years later, following a prolific production of articles, reviews, courses, and lectures. Course notes and essays were compiled and published posthumously. He died in November 1917 while recuperating from a stroke suffered after leaving a war information meeting the previous year. It is commonly reported that the heartbreak and strain of the war—in which his only son and many of his students were killed—contributed directly to his death.

The first step in Durkheimian social theory is the claim that society, or the social, represents a distinct and separate type of reality. Durkheim said the social was sui generis (i.e., unique, individual) and set it alongside physical, biological, psychological, and economic realities. This entails, then, that social reality has a degree of autonomy vis-àvis physical, biological, psychological, and economic circumstances and that it follows some of its own rules of cause and consequence. Sociology, then, as the science devoted to social realities, needed to have its own concepts, logic, and method, as it too would make a sui generis contribution to the academy. Modern students of communication can read Durkheim’s work as an early movement toward the later establishment of communication studies, cultural studies, and the textual turn throughout the social sciences.

The next step in Durkheimian social theory is to posit social forces as the causal explanation for the socialized behavior of individuals and the endurance of social organizations and order. In Durkheim’s early work, on the division of labor and on suicide, for example, the nature of these social forces was sometimes mysterious. Because he often deduced the evidence for their existence through argument by elimination—showing first that biological, psychological, and economic explanations were inadequate—the nature of the social forces was in important ways left undefined. In The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Durkheim offers his most substantive analysis of social forces, and it becomes clear that they exist and work through processes of communication. In the analysis of religious symbol and ritual that is the centerpiece of that work, Durkheim shows how the ordinary material objects and body movements of religious ceremony carry special meanings and powers for the social group that is practicing the ritual. They actually represent the group to itself, and thus the ritual objects and practices are the symbols and media of the group’s power over the individual.

One of the most general propositions of Durkheimian theory is that group activities strengthen the group by expressing and representing social forces, and thus reinforcing their presence in individual minds. Normally socialized adults, for example, feel social norms in their own consciousness, whether as spontaneous desires or as uncomfortable social pressures. Normative social interaction reinforces the ubiquity, utility, and taken-for-grantedness of those norms. Language, logic, aesthetic preferences, rules of interaction, taken-for-granted political beliefs, and religious practice and belief all share these characteristics with social norms. Durkheim described this class of phenomena as “things in us, not of us,” as instances of the social within the mind of the individual.


These ideas have become commonplace. No one doubts that social interaction, communication, and culture are fundamental to socialization, and that the outcome of socialization is such that much of a person’s conscious thought is a social product, even as it is his or her own individual experience. That does not diminish Durkheim’s innovation. At the time, this was a fundamentally new approach to sociology, tantamount to the invention of social psychology. It is of further importance to students of communication because it puts symbolic processes at the heart of social theory and points toward “communication-centric” analyses of culture, politics, and social life.

For example, the practices of modern democratic politics—campaigning, voting, swearing in, parades, saluting the flag, holidays, monuments, speeches—can be analyzed as the ritual of a modern social religion. Much political activity that appears purposeless or irrational can be shown to be ritually important. The entertainment, leisure, and consumer goods industries, for another example, also have a ritual and normative element, since they provide the material resources for the modern cult of the individual. In modern society, each person must be a distinct individual; the social norm is to be one’s self. Choices in entertainment, leisure activities, and consumer goods are media for the expression of that identity, rituals of each individual’s adherence to the norm. As these examples indicate, there is room in contemporary communication, cultural, and social theory for a distinctive Durkheimian contribution.

Dutrochet, Henri [next] [back] Durham, James(1762–?) - Physician, Gains Professional Recognition, Chronology

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