Individual andSociety

To Durkheim, men were creatures whose desires were unlimited.Unlike other animals, they are not satiated when their biologicalneeds are fulfilled. "The more one has, the more one wants,since satisfactions received only stimulate instead of fillingneeds."10 It follows from this naturalinsatiability of the human animal that his desires can only beheld in check by external controls, that is, by societal control.Society imposes limits on human desires and constitutes "aregulative force [which] must play the same role for moral needswhich the organism plays for physical needs."11In well-regulated societies, social controls set limits onindividual propensities so that "each in his sphere vaguelyrealizes the extreme limits on individual propensities so that"each in his sphere vaguely realizes the extreme limits setto his ambitions and aspires to nothing beyond. . . . Thus, anend or a goal [is] set to the passions."12

When social regulations break down, the controlling influenceof society on individual propensities is no longer effective andindividuals are left to their own devices. Such a state ofaffairs Durkheim calls anomie, a tern that refers to acondition of relative normlessness in a whole society or in someof its component groups. Anomie does not refer to a state ofmind, but to a property of the social structure. It characterizesa condition in which individual desires are no longer regulatedby common norms and where, as a consequence, individuals are leftwithout moral guidance in the pursuit of their goals.

Although complete anomie, or total normlessness, isempirically impossible, societies may be characterized by greateror lesser degrees of normative regulations. Moreover, within anyparticular society, groups may differ in the degree of anomiethat besets them. Social change may create anomie either in thewhole society or in some parts of it. Business crises, forexample, may have a far greater impact on those on the higherreaches of the social pyramid than on the underlying population.When depression leads to a sudden downward mobility, the menaffected experience a de-regulation in their lives--a loss ofmoral certainty and customary expectations that are no longersustained by the group to which these men once belonged.Similarly, the rapid onset of prosperity may lead some people toa quick upward mobility and hence deprive them of the socialsupport needed in their new styles of life. Any rapid movement inthe social structure that upsets previous networks in which lifestyles are embedded carries with it a chance of anomie.

Durkheim argued that economic affluence, by stimulating humandesires, carries with it dangers of anomic conditions because it"deceives us into believing that we depend on ourselvesonly," while "poverty protects against suicide becauseit is a restraint in itself."13 Since therealization of human desires depends upon the resources at hand,the poor are restrained, and hence less prone to suffer fromanomie by virtue of the fact that they possess but limitedresources. "The less one has the less he is tempted toextend the range of his needs indefinitely."14

By accounting for the different susceptibility to anomie interms of the social process--that is, the relations betweenindividuals rather than the biological propensities ofindividuals-- Durkheim in effect proposed a specificallysociological theory of deviant behavior even though he failed topoint to the general implications of this crucial insight. In thewords of Robert K. Merton, who was the first to ferret out inthis respect the overall implications of Durkheim's thought andto develop them methodically, "Social structures exert adefinite pressure upon certain persons in the society to engagein nonconforming rather than conforming conduct."15

Durkheim's program of study, the overriding problems in allhis work, concerns the sources of social order and disorder, theforces that make for regulation or de-regulation in the bodysocial. His work on suicide, of which the discussion and analysisof anomie forms a part, must be read in this light. Once hediscovered that certain types of suicide could be accounted forby anomie, he could then use anomic suicide as an index for theotherwise unmeasurable degree of social integration. This was notcircular reasoning, as could be argued, but a further applicationof his method of analysis. He reasoned as follows: There are nosocieties in which suicide does not occur, and many societiesshow roughly the same rates of suicide over long periods of time.This indicates that suicides may be considered a"normal," that is, a regular, occurrence. However,sudden spurts in the suicide rates of certain groups or totalsocieties are "abnormal" and point to someperturbations not previously present. Hence."abnormally" high rates in specific groups or socialcategories, or in total societies, can be taken as an index ofdisintegrating forces at work in a social structure.

Durkheim distinguished between types of suicide according tothe relation of the actor to his society. When men become"detached from society,"16 when they arethrown upon their own devices and loosen the bonds thatpreviously had tied them to their fellow, they are prone to egoistic,or individualistic, suicide. When the normative regulationssurrounding individual conduct are relaxed and hence fail to curband guide human propensities, men are susceptible to succumbingto anomic suicide. To put the matter differently, when therestraints of structural integration, as exemplified in theoperation of organic solidarity, fail to operate, men becomeprone to egoistic suicide; when the collective conscienceweakens, men fall victim to anomic suicide.

In addition to egoistic and anomic types of suicide, Durkheimrefers to altruistic and fatalistic suicide. The latter istouched upon only briefly in his work, but the former is of greatimportance for an understanding of Durkheim's general approach.Altruistic suicide refers to cases in which suicide can beaccounted for by overly strong regulation of individuals, asopposed to lack of regulation. Durkheim argues in effect that therelation of suicide rates to social regulation iscurvilinear--high rates being associated with both excessiveindividuation and excessive regulation. In the case of excessiveregulation, the demands of society are so great that suicidevaries directly rather than inversely with the degree ofintegration. For example, in the instance of the Hindu normativerequirement that widows commit ritual suicide upon the funeralpyre of their husbands, or in the case of harikiri, theindividual is so strongly attuned to the demands of his societythat he is willing to take his own life when the norms so demand.Arguing from statistical data, Durkheim shows that in modernsocieties the high rates of suicide among the military cannot beexplained by the deprivations of military life suffered by thelower ranks, since the suicide rate happens to be higher forofficers than for enlisted men. Rather, the high rate forofficers can be accounted for by a military code of honor thatenjoins a passive habit of obedience leading officers toundervalue their own lives. In such cases, Durkheim is led torefer to too feeble degrees of individuation and to counterposethese to the excesses of individuation or de-regulation, whichaccount, in his view, for the other major forms of suicide.

Durkheim's discussion of altruistic suicide allows privilegedaccess to some of the intricacies of his approach. He has oftenbeen accused of having an overly anti-individualistic philosophy,one that is mainly concerned with the taming of individualimpulse and the harnessing of the energies of individuals for thepurposes of society. Although it cannot be denied that there aresuch tendencies in his work, Durkheim's treatment of altruisticsuicide indicates that he was trying to establish a balancebetween the claims of individuals and those of society, ratherthan to suppress individual strivings. Acutely aware of thedangers of the breakdown of social order, he also realized thattotal control of component social actors by society would be asdetrimental as anomie and de-regulation. Throughout his life heattempted to establish a balance between societal and individualclaims.

Durkheim was indeed a thinker in the conservative tradition tothe extent that he reacted against the atomistic drift of mostEnlightenment philosophy and grounded his sociology in a concernfor the maintenance of social order. As Robert Nisbet17has shown convincingly, such key terms as cohesion,solidarity, integration, authority, ritual, and regulationindicate that his sociology is anchored upon an anti-atomisticset of premises. In this respect he was like his traditionalistforebears, yet it would be a mistake to classify Durkheim as atraditionalist social thinker. Politically he was aliberal--indeed, a defender of the rights of individuals againstthe state. He also was moved to warn against excesses ofregulation over persons even though the major thrusts of hisargument were against those who, by failing to recognize therequirements of the social order, were likely to foster anomicstates of affairs. Anomie, he argued, was as detrimental toindividuals as it was to the social order at large.

Durkheim meant to show that a Spencerian approach to thesocial realm, an approach in which the social dimension isultimately derived from the desire of individuals to increase thesum of their happiness, did not stand up before the court ofevidence or the court of reason. Arguing against Spencer and theutilitarians, he maintained that society cannot be derived fromthe propensity of individuals to trade and barter in order tomaximize their own happiness. This view fails to account for thefact that people do not trade and barter at random but follow apattern that is normative. For men to make a contract and live upto it, they must have a prior commitment to the meaning of acontract in its own right. Such prior collective commitment, thatis, such a non-contractual element of contracts, constitutes theframework of normative control. No trade or barter can take placewithout social regulation and some system of positive andnegative sanctions.

Durkheim's main shafts against individualistic social theoriesnotwithstanding, he was by no means oblivious of the dangers ofoverregulation to which Spencer's social philosophy had beenespecially sensitive. Durkheim saw man as Homo duplex--asbody, desire, and appetite and also as socialized personality.But man was specifically human only in the latter capacity, andhe became fully human only in and through society. Hence, truemoral action lies in the sacrifice of certain individual desiresfor the service of groups and society. But such sacrificesredound in the last analysis to the benefit of individuals, aswell as society, since unbridled desires lead to frustration andunhappiness rather than to bliss and fulfillment. Modern societyseems to contain, for Durkheim, the potentialities forindividualism within social regulation. In contrast to earliertypes of social organization based on mechanical solidarity thatdemanded a high degree of regimentation, modern types oforganization rest on organic solidarity obtained through thefunctional interdependence of autonomous individuals. In modernsocieties, social solidarity is dependent upon, rather thanrepressive of, individual autonomy of conduct.

Though Durkheim stressed that in modern societies a measure ofintegration was achieved through the intermeshing and mutualdependence of differentiated roles, he came to see that thesesocieties nevertheless could not do without some commonintegration by a system of common beliefs. In earlier socialformations built on mechanical solidarity, such common beliefsare not clearly distinct from the norms through which they areimplemented in communal action; in the case of organicsolidarity, the detailed norms have become relatively independentfrom overall beliefs, responding as they do to the exigencies ofdifferentiated role requirements, but a general system of overallbeliefs must still exist.18 Hence Durkheim turned, inthe last period of his scholarly life, to the study of religiousphenomena as core elements of systems of common beliefs.

From Lewis A. Coser, Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideasin Historical and Social Context, 2nd Ed., Fort Worth:Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1977: 132-36.



  1. Suicide, p. 248.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., p. 250.
  4. Ibid., p. 254.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure (New York, The Free Press, 1968), p. 186.
  7. Suicide, p. 212.
  8. Robert A. Nisbet, Emile Durkheim (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall, 1965).
  9. Talcott Parsons, op. cit.

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