- Positivism and Sociology: Explaining Social Life by Peter Halfpenny
Allen and Unwin, 141 pp, £10.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 04 300084 3
- The Rules of Sociological Method and Selected Texts on Sociology and its Method by Emile Durkheim and Steven Lukes, translated by W.D. Halls
Macmillan, 264 pp, £15.00, November 1982, ISBN 0 333 28071 7
- The Sociological Domain: The Durkheimians and the Founding of French Sociology edited by Philippe Besnard
Cambridge, 296 pp, £24.00, March 1983, ISBN 0 521 23876 5
- Durkheim and the Study of Suicide by Steve Taylor
Macmillan, 249 pp, £15.00, July 1982, ISBN 0 333 28645 6
At a conference several years ago, a participant glared at the three sociologists who had just presented their papers. ‘The trouble with you is your rup,’ he said. Throughout the auditorium colleagues whispered to each other, ‘Rup?’ ‘What is rup?’ until the man on the platform translated: residual unresolved positivism. By accusing the speakers of rup, he implied that they might cleanse themselves of the remnants of positivism and become decent scholars again.
‘Positivist’ seems to have become the most demeaning name one can call a sociologist. It signifies a fetish for numbers (and for machines that grind and brew them) and an allergy toward social theory, philosophy, and anything abstract or otherwise unobservable, High in the ranks of those to blame for the residue of positivism in sociology has been Emile Durkheim, who among the founding sociologists (Marx, Weber, Simmel, Durkheim) was most sympathetic to positivist dogma. Unlike Marx, Durkheim is not represented by sections of sociological associations, nor do journals and political groups bear his name. Nor is his writing Germanically dense. Weber and Simmel experimented, almost playfully, with concepts and methodologies that might explain society, and their tastes in prose were toward the personal, historical and discursive – an invitation to generations of exegesis. But Durkheim fancied a science of society with rigorous inquiry akin to the biologists’ and findings stated as laws of cause and effect.
In Peter Halfpenny’s catalogue of 12 referents for ‘positivism’ as used by sociologists, Durkheim is ticketed for two: ‘the natural science of sociology consists of the collection and statistical analysis of quantitative data about society,’ and ‘science consists of a corpus of causal laws on the basis of which phenomena are explained and predicted.’ By my count, Durkheim can be charged with seven additional Halfpenny positivisms as well, since he held to the superiority of scientific knowledge, use of such knowledge to improve society, integration of various sciences, devoted study of society, verificationism, building facts systematically into laws, and tests of such laws.
Can Durkheim the multi-positivist be saved? Until recently very few sociologists have had reason to ask. On the one hand are those, including the whole of mainstream North American sociology, who go on about their research – using statistics and causal talk, scientificating by validation and the accumulation of findings – who seldom notice that they have been castigated as positivists, and who remember Durkheim as someone who a professor in graduate school said had started this line of work. On the other hand are qualitative researchers, including ethnographers, symbolic interactionists, ethno-methodologists, and followers of the latest French schools, who spice their scholarly reports with criticisms of Durkheim’s more evangelical claims about sociology as the supreme science.
A new impetus has emerged in the last ten years, however, with translations into English of several discerning essays by Durkheim – under the titles Emile Durkheim on Morality and Society and Sociology and Philosophy – which suggest the complexity and pertinence of his thought, and which have given rise to alterations in the received view of his theory. The obvious risk whenever this happens is of ending up with a theory of convenience, where one reads the texts in whatever ways seem most helpful to current projects or prejudices. Indeed several analyses just preceding this current lot failed in that way, consisting as they did of exhibits of passages where Durkheim sounds like the sort of phenomenologist or liberal the author wished him to be. The current reinterpretation differs, not only because it works with newly available data, but also because of its identification of a generative concept in Durkheim’s work: namely, homo duplex, a notion of man as both individual and social. As Durkheim explains in a recently translated essay:
Far from being simple, our inner life has something like a double centre of gravity. On the one hand is our individuality ... On the other is everything in us that expresses something other than ourselves. Not only are these two groups of states of consciousness different in their origins and their properties, but there is a true antagonism between them.
The notion of homo duplex turns out to be at work throughout all of Durkheim’s substantive research, displaying itself in his treatments of personal desires and societal constraints, individual and collective conscience, altruism and egoism, and the sacred and profane. In each instance, he proposes that a balance of the opposites is optimal and finds the fulcrum maintained by apparatus like laws and religions. Increases in social problems and deviance are manifestations of these embodiments of the ‘collective conscience’ becoming too powerful or too weak.
In quite a different way, the balancing of homo duplex is equally important for Durkheim’s methodology, because it prevents him from becoming the sort of social determinist who believes that all thoughts, feelings and social structures are produced by society, or a number cruncher who would reduce sociological phenomena to a set of correlations between variables, Which is why the new translation of Durkheim’s Rules is cause for celebration. Rules is his relentless call for a scientific sociology, and therefore provides an acid test for the current reading of Durkheim.