Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Durkheim: Reader TGGP suggests I say a word about Emile Durkheim. While many sociologists nowadays loathe Durkheim because of the conservative element in his theory, I like him for the same reason.

To Durkheim, communities are like organisms that naturally gravitate toward order and harmony. Institutions make up the organs, each playing a specalized role that contributes to the smooth functioning of the whole.

Isolated individuals have potentially unlimited appetites, and to maximize their psychological and physical health, they need to be well integrated into various institutions. Being tied into a web of social relationships and the norms that accompany those ties are good for people: they limit, regulate, and guide behaviors and feelings, and they give one meaning and a worldview.

At this point, Durkheim would insert a word of moderation. If insitutions are too controlling, they can lead to destructive behaviors. A good example of this would be cults. On the other hand, if institutions are failing to adequately guide people, dysfunctional behavior will occur.

The problem is that communities exist within ever-changing environments, so communities will inevitably change as well. But any kind of rapid or sudden change--demographic disasters, revolutions, conquests, for example--disrupts this web of relationships and moral structure. Individuals become dislocated, and you consequently see an increase in dysfunctional behavior.

According to Durkheim, optimal health is found in a community that evolves slowly and organically. He doesn't seem to stress this, but his theory implies that a national goverment inposing new policies on local communities tears social fabric and creates anomic conditions. Any powerful, aggressive social movement or institution--say, the federal judiciary--that coerces local communities to change before they have evolved to that point generates chaos. Moral guidelines are delegitimated; people have nothing to turn to but their own cognitive resources; and anomie and dysfunction are a result.

Here's one quick example. The post-war gender and sexual revolution produced a high rate of divorce, cohabitation, and remarriage. All of a sudden, we had new arrangements, like the stepfamily. Well, that arrangement was not institutionalized, so stepfamilies have consequently been conflict-ridden and unstable. Same kind of thing for mother-only families. Durkheim, I imagine, would have predicted the decline and fall of the black community as it was taken over by the sexual revolution, and perhaps by the sudden, devastating loss of manufacturing jobs.

Slow, natural, organic evolution--good. Sudden, externally imposed change--bad.

Can you see why lefties hate him, even though he never whispered the dreaded word "genes"?

(You can see why freedom fetishists wouldn't like him either).


  1. Anonymous5:32 PM

    Nice theory, except stepfamilies have been around as long as there have been stories about the "evil stepmother". Definitely not a modern invention, given the high rate of maternal death due to pregnancy, and just higher death rates in general. People got remarried, quite a lot in the past. Doesn't mean that those formations were stable either though.

  2. Thanks. I used to be more of a cliche individualist libertarian. I've never read Ayn Rand, but that might give you some idea. I wanted modernist capitalism (with all those fancy skyscrapers) to destroy all the old fashioned ties and restraints. I certainly wouldn't have been reading Keith Preston back then! I've been drifting away a lot from that and toward a greater appreciation of the role community plays. I've been meaning to read some Robert Nisbet, but never gotten around to it. My most anti-community capitalist post is Be grateful diversity reduces trust.


The Inductivist admits that culture matters

A pure naturist would claim that the culture of East Asians would not change after moving to America. Let's test this with one question ...