Classical Sociological Theory: A Summary

Mathieu Deflem
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These summary notes were originally prepared in the summer of 1993 when I was a graduate student preparing for comprehensive exams. They are meant to provide a useful introduction to the classics by way of summaries of their major works. This edition was first placed online in January 1999. Latest revisions, September 2004.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 1999. "Classical Sociological Theory: A Summary." Unpublished notes. Available via

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(1905) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
(1910-1914) Economy and Society
(1915-) Religionssoziologie

A. Methodological Approach

1. Objectivity and Value-Freedom

a) An Objective Sociology of Subjectivity

The differentiation of subject and object (and the corresponding distinctions between social and natural sciences) does not mean that the social sciences, which necessarily deal with ideal phenomena, cannot be objective. Social sciences cannot scientifically establish the ideals or normative principles which define what ought to be. But one can distinguish means and ends of action, and science can determine what the best means are, given that end. Sociology can, then, also say that some ends are useless since there are, and can be, no means to achieve those goals. Or sociology can also determine and explicitly state the axioms on which certain attitudes and statements rest.

There is therefore no universal ethics. No single set of ideals can be shown scientifically to be right or wrong. This is the role of religion: it is directed towards ultimate ends (Gesinnungsethik). On the other hand, sociology can assist in an ethics of responsibility (Verantwortungsethik), which seeks to find the rational calculus by which means are employed to ends, and the consequences they actually have, regardless of (despite of) the intentions.

b) Causality and Ideal-Types

Science seeks causes, but it also rests on ideals which it cannot justify scientifically, mainly the selection of relevant facts out of reality. The identification of causes of effects necessarily rests on certain assumptions, as a minimum this involves the selection of events, and the identification of the one factor or set of factors, in a broader frame of factors (which is basically a stream of events), without which a certain effect would not have been brought about. This identification is selective, and in this sense, subjective, but any such identification, then, must be verifiable by others (a sort of consensus theory of truth).

Ideal-types are specifically constructed with the purpose of interpreting and explaining a historical event. It is constructed by abstracting and combining a limited number of elements which are seldom found, in purity, in reality. However, the ideal-type is not an ideal, it is, rather, an idealization with a purpose: the ideal-type is not description nor hypothesis, but it is a metrological device that aids in describing and explaining, it makes reality describable and explainable at all.

c) Value-Freedom

Scientists should be value-free (in the meaning indicated above), but this does not mean, according to Weber, that scientists cannot have and propagate values. The scientist as educator must seek to specialize in knowledge and education, but the scientist can, not as scientist but as‘political animal’, outside the university, express political and moral judgments. The sphere of science and politics, then, must and can be kept separate.

2. Understanding and Explanation

a) Interpretative Sociology

Weber was interested in the formulation of general principles of social action, but these cannot be conceived as laws: sociology must seek to understand human action inasmuch as it is (non-)meaningful. Human action is subjective: it is guided by the motivations and intentions of the actors involved. Sociology seeks to understand those motives and meanings from an emphatic attitude (Sinverstehen). This does not exclude explanation: sociology understands human action, with reference to an ideal-type or with regard to a specific meaning of action, and thereby explains its course and consequences. Also, sociology can identify both the meaningful and non-meaningful elements of action. The techniques to grasp meaning must be replicable, and verifiable on the basis of the established standards of methodology. These techniques include a) direct observation of emotive action (e.g. anger), and b) explanatory understanding by identifying an intervening motivational link between meaning and action (e.g. chop wood). The latter implies the identification of a particular motive which is always linked to a broader frame of ‘normativity’. This does not mean psychological reductionism (cf. there are explainable structures within which meaning is given).

b) Social Relationships

A social relationship is defined as a reciprocal interaction between two or more individuals, which does not necessarily mean that the meanings of all actors are identical, but that there must be meaning involved in any case on the part of the inter-actors (an orientation to).

Weber distinguishes four ideal-typical types of orientation in social relationships: 1) Purposive rational action is directed by the successful calculation of means towards a give end; 2) Value rational action is directed towards an ideal and is carried out for its own sake; 3) Affective action is also carried out for its own sake, yet it lacks a clear ideal, and rests on an emotive state; and 4) Traditional action is carried out under the influence of a custom or habit.

B. Protestantism, Capitalism, and the World Religions

1. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

a) The Problem

There is the statistical fact that in modern capitalist societies, the high-skilled workers and the entrepreneurs are overwhelmingly Protestant. The connection between economic rationality in capitalism and Protestantism Weber will trace in the character of Protestant beliefs. This connection in itself is nothing special (Marx saw Protestantism as the ideological reflection of capitalism), but Weber suggest an alternative explanation. He will focus on cultural elements which, he will show, have are a peculiar independent factor in the formation of Western capitalism, defined as, and this is crucial, the rational capitalistic organization of free labor.

b) The Spirit of Capitalism

The methodical conduct of life under capitalism is not just a practice, it is also an ethic, a conviction which emphasizes the duty of the individual to increase capital, the making of money as a goal in and by itself. This conduct is specific to Western capitalism (other forms of capitalism may lack it). This capitalist spirit goes beyond the traditionalistic conception of the manipulation of nature to sustain one’s livelihood.

Note from the start that what Weber is talking about is a very precise conception of capitalism (it is not what Marx meant by it): "capitalism is identical with the pursuit of profit, and forever renewed profit, by means of continuous, rational, capitalistic enterprise". Capitalist rational action Weber describes as "one which rests on the expectation of profit by the utilization of opportunities for exchange, that is on (formally) peaceful chances of profit... The important fact is always that a calculation of capital in terms of money is made". Capitalism for Weber, then, is first and foremost the desire to use the most rational, i.e. most efficient, means to accumulate wealth, a desire which serves no other end than itself. For the acquisition of more and more money, and at the same time the avoidance of pleasure, there is employed a very rational procedure. The method is rational (in terms of efficiency), and the goal is irrational, namely the acquisition of money for an end (to have it) which defies the main characteristic of money (namely a means of exchange, i.e. to be used). Note that this method of conduct, as inspired by the Protestant ethos of Calvinism, applies only to a limited number of people for a short period of time, and only in the West. It is then, by all standards, not true that Weber suggests that Protestantism led to capitalism, let alone caused it.

c) Luther’s Concept of the Calling

The concept of the calling is a product of the Reformation. It refers to the joining of the mundane affairs of life with an over-arching religious influence (away from the ideal of Catholic monastic isolation to the inner-worldly worship of the outer-worldly god). One had to perform one’s duties in the world to serve god. But Luther’s concept of the calling was still traditionalistic since it implied an absolute acceptance of the way things are. Later Protestant sects changed this. Then four (ideal-typical) kinds of ascetic Protestantism emerged: Calvinism, Methodism, Pietism, and Baptism.

d) Calvinism

Calvinism has the following idea(l)s: the universe exists for god, the motives of god are humanly incomprehensible, and, most importantly, only a small number of people are chosen to receive grace, i.e. the notion of predestination. The consequences of these beliefs for the believer were an unprecedented feeling of inner loneliness: one could not know whether one was chosen, this is decisive, the crucial break from Catholicism (for the thesis Weber seeks to defend). Therefore, one had the duty to convince oneself that one was chosen, which can best be secured by an intensely inner-worldly activity. For this reason, labor in the material world became the highest positive ethical attitude: the instrumental spirit of capitalism is an unintended offshoot of Calvinism.

e) Asceticism and the Spirit of Capitalism

The spirit of ascetic Protestantism gave birth to capitalist economic rationalism because of its emphasis on the ascetic rational motives with a denouncement of pleasure. Puritanism restricted pleasure, and at the same time broke with traditionalism, to see the acquisition of wealth as directly willed by god. Then, once capitalism is established, this religious core does not have to be there anymore. The economic rational conduct of life becomes a power independent of religion. The idea of the calling is a support for capitalism that, in the end, it no longer needs. Then, the cloak of the care for external goods has become an "iron cage."

So Weber concludes that the rationality of capitalism is connected with the irrationality of a value commitment (against a naive historical materialism), but Weber does not present a unified alternative theory. Weber states that there is an elective affinity between certain sorts of Calvinism and the ethics of capitalism. He adds that it is necessary "to investigate how Protestant Asceticism was in turn influenced by its character by the totality of social conditions, especially economic". A one-sided approach, materialist or idealist, is in any case useless. Also Weber did not maintain "such a foolish and doctrinaire thesis as that the spirit of capitalism... could only have arisen as the result of certain effects of the reformation, or even that capitalism as an economic system is the creation of the Reformation". Instead Weber argues that the Protestant ethic which holds that the acquisition of material goods is good in itself, even willed by god, has shaped the particular course capitalism has taken in the West, and that the ethic of Protestantism is co-responsible for the qualitative formation and quantitative expansion of the capitalist culture.

f) Addendum: The Protestant Sects and the Spirit of Capitalism

In this paper, Weber tries to account for the fact that, while (in the USA) state and church are separated and the state authorities accordingly never ask for a person’s denomination, the question of religious affiliation was always posed in social and business life. Admission to a religious congregation was seen as a certificate of business morals, an absolute guarantee of the moral qualities of a gentleman, especially of the qualities required in business. This is because a sect, unlike a church, is a voluntary association of those who are religiously and morally qualified to become one of its members. Today the particular kind of denomination is rather irrelevant, but it is decisive that one is admitted to membership by ballot, after an examination of moral worth and an ethical probation in the sense of virtues which will guarantee inner-worldly asceticism and credit worthiness in business life. The methodical way of life in the sects nowadays appears in a complex of voluntary associations: one must belong to a club of whatever kind. These clubs, which are a secularized version of their predecessors (sects), share the formal qualities of being voluntary, exclusive and based upon an examination of worthiness. Not only the ethic of Protestantism (see The Protestant Ethic), but also the social premiums, means of discipline, and, in general, the whole organization of Protestantism still find their derivatives today.

In history, three principles of protestant organization are revealed. 1) Voluntarism: Only qualified persons are admitted to the Lord’s Supper. The voluntaristic nature of this admission is demonstrated by the fact that baptism is reserved for adults. This poses the problem of who is to decide who will and has to, and who cannot be admitted. 2) Sovereignty: Only the local sacral community can judge whether a member is qualified. The community stands jointly before god. Only charisma, not training or office (of professional theologians or spiritual authority) is recognized. 3) Moral discipline: Externally, expelled persons are boycotted, while, internally in the sects, brotherliness and mutual aid secure the cohesiveness of the group.

The modern functions of sect-like organizations in the USA follow the same pattern. The discipline of the sects was vested in the hands of laymen, it worked through the necessity to hold one’s own, and it bred and selected qualities. This last element is most important: one has to have certain qualities and constantly has to prove this. Therefore, this inner-worldly asceticism is a methodical, rational way of conduct. It is the foundation of modern individualism since it legitimates the economic individualism of modern capitalism.

2. The World Religions

a) The Economic Ethics of the World Religions

Weber’s sociology is opposed to the organicist model of society, there is more than a one-to-one relationship, much more interdependence between different parts. Also, he is opposed to evolutionary theories that readily assume inevitable historical patterns. Weber is interested in finding the economic ethic of the religions of the world, i.e. the practical impulses for action found in the pragmatic contexts of religion. The economic ethic of a religion does not enjoy a one-to-one status with economic organization, but it is important to note that the economic ethic is not just a function of economic organization (contrary to Marx), nor of religion. Note for instance how religious ethics has evaluated suffering. Suffering can be seen as a reflection of possession by a demon. Therefore, the advantaged feel blessed, they are ‘the chosen ones’ that deserve grace (as a legitimation of inequality). The disadvantaged, on the other hand, must be purified, e.g. by magicians. Thus sacred values always include worldly matters (health, wealth, etc.). And, irrational values have led to very rational ways of life, and how this differently affects different social strata.

b) Religions of the World and Capitalism

The distinct characteristic of religion is the worship of divine entities, with priests, a cult, and a system of beliefs (magical forces, on the other hand, are subordinated to human needs by the use of formulae, with magicians, cults, and a low degree of systematic beliefs). The prophet of religion is an individual bearer of charisma who proclaims a religious doctrine, and is instrumental for change; prophets can (not necessarily) de-mystify the world or remove magic (cf. disenchantment). The doctrine of the prophet may be inconsistent, but, more importantly, his practical orientation to the world give unity. It is important to note that Weber did not simply conduct ex-post-facto experiments: there exist in history different combinations of material and ideal factors which are decisive for the (non-)formation of capitalism.

c) Religious Rejections of the World and Their Directions

Asceticism and mysticism as religious rejections of the world are ideal types; this means they are not historical formations, but technical, methodological aids that enable us to see to what extent historical phenomena approximate these constructions.

Asceticism v. Mysticism:
abnegation as god-willed action v. contemplative possession of the holy
individual as a tool of the divine v. individual as a vessel of the divine
inner-worldly contemplative v. flight from the world
(asceticist flight from the world) v. (inner-worldly mysticism)
to prove oneself through action v. to prove oneself against the world

Asceticism moves in two directions: it negates the world, and simultaneously wants to master it through the powers of abnegation, in different spheres of action:
1) The traditional community: the religiosity of the congregation no longer appeals to the community of villagers, members of the sib, guilds and so on, but, as religion of brotherliness, to the relations among the believers. This leads to tensions between the order and universalist ethic demands of the brethren of the faith and the orders and values of this world.

2) The economic sphere: the religions of salvation warn against the impersonal mechanisms of the money-market. Therefore, asceticism routinized work in the world into serving god’s will, and mysticism resorts to an objectless devotion for anybody, not for the person’s sake, but for devotion.

3) The political sphere: to the powers of the state, claiming the monopoly of the legitimate use of force, puritanism reacts by acting against the world with the means of that world (violence). Mysticism, on the other hand, takes on a radical anti-political attitude: it completely withdraws from the pragma of violence. Tensions with the political world are unavoidable, but compromises are always made. The rationalization of politics and economy, leading action to be more and more considered in terms of means-ends relations (purposive rationality), increase these tensions. In the end, the religion of brotherliness could entirely reject purposive rational action.

4) The esthetic sphere: just like economy and politics, the esthetic sphere is rationalized into a separate social domain, claiming independence with regard to beauty and form. In the religions of brotherliness art is supposed to have a meaning (in relation to god) and not be just a thing of form. Again, this leads to tensions, but alliances or compromises are made.

5) The erotic sphere: eroticism has been raised into the sphere of conscious enjoyment, acquiring a sensational character as a salvation from rationalization, an escape from means-ends directed relations. Of course, a principled ethic of religious brotherhood is sharply opposed to this"brutality" an denial of bondage to god.

6) The intellectual sphere: the tension between religion and scientific knowledge is the greatest. Science has disenchanted the world into a causal mechanism (loss of freedom) and pushed religion away into the irrational realm. Every religion, on the other hand, in the end asks for a sacrifice of the intellect; in religion the world is understood by virtue of a charisma of illumination, not by intellect. The scientification of the world has also led to a loss of meaning (senselessness), and religion, in turn, has become ever more other-worldly, more alienated from all structured forms of life, confining itself to the specific religious essence.

C. State, Bureaucracy, and Law in the Age of Modernity

1. State and Bureaucracy

One of Weber’s most famous contributions to sociology is his approach to politics, bureaucracy and the state. First, note that political societies exercise their might over a territory by the threat or use of force, and by reference to some kind of legitimacy. Political legitimacy can be of three kinds: 1) Traditional authority is based on the belief in the age-old sanctity of power; 2) Legal domination is typical for the bureaucracy of the state (see below); and 3) charismatic domination is based on the belief in the extraordinary qualities of a person.

When a political society uses force in such a way that it results in a successful monopoly over force, there is a state. Weber defines the state as "a compulsory association which organizes domination. It has been successful in seeking to monopolize the legitimate use of physical force as a means of domination within a territory." The domination of the state implies that its subordinates belief in the legitimacy of their subordination.

To secure its legitimate monopoly over force, the state has combined the material means of organization in the hands of its leaders, and it has"expropriated all autonomous functionaries of estates who formerly controlled these means in their own rights. The state has taken their positions and now stands in top place". The crucial elements in Weber’s definition of the state, then, refer to 1) the legitimate use of force, 2) the territorial boundaries which delineate the state’s domination, and 3) the appropriation of the means of control.

a) The Legitimacy of the State

First, Weber contends that the modern state cannot be defined in terms of its ends, but only in terms of its means: the state has acquired a monopoly over the use of force. Unlike the commonly held view at Weber’s time of viewing the state as one of the noblest of man’s creations, the means of the state should in Weber’s view be conceived in terms of violence and coercion. The threat or use of physical force is not the only means of the state but it is specific to the state. The appropriation of the means of violence is necessary for the formation of the state, but it is not sufficient for its further development. States also fulfill the following functions: the enactment of law (legislation), the protection of personal safety and public order (police), the protection of vested rights (administration of justice), the cultivation of cultural interests (in the administration), and the organized armed protection against outside attack (the military).

b) The Territory of the State

Second, Weber holds the view that the state has a monopoly of force within a given territory. The authority of the state is binding within a particular territorial area only. After having given his definition (see above), Weber stresses: "Note that ‘territory’ is one of the characteristics of the state (as it is of any political formation). Any kind of political association is therefore defined, next to legitimate force, as having a territorial basis: "Whenever corporate groups which make use of force are also characterized by a claim to territorial jurisdiction..., they must be regarded by definition to that extent as political groups". This does not mean, according to Weber, that every form of organization with territorial claims is a state; the monopoly of force and its legitimacy through legality are just as necessary conditions for there to be a state. He draws a comparison with churches: "The prevailing hierocratic territorial and parochial organization is in accordance with the normal striving of a church after complete domination;... But unlike the political corporate group, the church historically has not felt nearly as much the need for exclusive territorial domination and this is especially true today.

c) The Bureaucracy of the State

As a third element in Weber’s definition of the state, he contends that the right to use force is given to other institutions only to the extent to which the state permits it. These institutions are the bureaucracies in the sphere of public government ("bureaucratic authority") and in the market-economy ("bureaucratic management"). Bureaucratic authority is bound by obedience to the power-holder: the means of power are separated from the formally autonomous power-holders to the bureaucratic apparatus of the state.

Bureaucracies are for Weber one of the most important characteristics of modern, rationalized societies. they indicate the extent to which the world has become ‘calculable’ in terms of efficiency, the extent to which the previous mysteries of the world, as embodied in traditionalistic ethical life, have become disenchanted (demystified).

Legal legitimacy rests on the validity of impersonal norms which have been consciously established in the context of purposive or value rationality. This accounts for the following characteristics of bureaucracies: 1) they are subject to the principle of fixed jurisdictional areas; 2) because of their hierarchy they are firmly ordered; 3) the modern office is based upon written documents (files); 4) the public equipment of the official are divorced from his private property, and the executive office is separated from the household; 5) specialized training is required; 6) official activity is a full-time job; 7) the management of offices is guided by general rules which can be learnt. Only within modern capitalist societies, do bureaucracies take on this form, directly affected by the division of labor: bureaucracies are specialization and therefore efficient.

Bureaucracies perform administrative tasks (management) to secure an efficient functioning of state and market-economy. Like capitalist enterprises, bureaucracies also concentrate the material means of management. In the military, for instance, war has become war of machines, and in the field of science, the bureaucratization of institutes and universities involves an increasing demand for material means of research and education. Bureaucracies are also based on a leveling of social differences: they create mass democracies which level the governed in opposition to the ruling. The bureaucratic apparatus is stable, permanent, indispensable, and the machine is "easily made to work for anybody who knows how to gain control over it". The administrative functions of bureaucracies are specialized and based on calculable rules: bureaucracy is dehumanized, and objective experts take control. The political master may find himself in the role of dilettante who stand opposite the expert.

Characteristic for modern bureaucracies is the discipline with which they operate. The discipline in the army and in monasteries is, according to Weber, a central force in the process of bureaucratization. Indeed, discipline emerged out of the techniques of the organization of warfare (not just the technological means), and it was military discipline that affected social and economic life. Under these conditions, mainly to satisfy the needs of professional soldiery, charismatic political power structures become routinized and rational, transforming into legal-rational power under bureaucratic control. Note, however, that as a formal means of organization, discipline can accompany any political power structure, whether traditional, charismatic or legal-rational.

The notion of discipline refers to, first, an institutional form of organization, which gradually extends throughout society. It refers to the "consistently rationalized, methodically trained and exact execution of the received order, in which all personal criticism is unconditionally suspended". Discipline reduces the significance of individual action, it is a matter purely of formal routine and efficiency. The official’s position in a bureaucracy is therefore characterized by a) the social esteem he enjoys from the governed, b) the fact that he is appointed (not elected), c) that it is a life-long appointment, d) that he reserves regular salaries, and e) that he can have a career with fixed conditions for advancement. Second, the spread of discipline throughout society also transforms the individual psychology: people have developed a passion for bureaucratization. At the same time, Weber sees it important to "oppose this machinery in order to preserve a vestige of humanity from this fragmentation of the soul". The idea of democracy is inherently ambivalent towards bureaucracies since it opposes the status of bureaucratic specialist and seeks to replace them by the (just as arbitrary) influence of the governed and their representatives in political parties.

2. Class, Status, and Party

a) Class

Discipline is also an important mechanism in the power potentials of classes, status groups and parties. A class in Weber terminology’s are determined by economic interest in the possession of goods (property) and opportunities for income (sale of labor service), a definition for which Weber is largely indebted to Marx. However, Weber contends that class interests are not uni-directly determined by ownership: class struggles do not necessarily have to result from the inequalities in ownership. Class consciousness must be mobilized under certain circumstances, which can be non-economic, such as the visibility of the class enemy, the menas of communication to organize a group, and so on. The relevance of classes as classes, however, is by definition solely restricted to market conditions.

b) Status

Status groups are determined by a social estimation of honor and prestige: unlike classes, status groups do not necessarily consist of economically privileged people, but of symbolic qualities and a particular life-style, and, unlike classes, they are mostly conscious of their common position (example: professional organizations). The potential of status groups for political and communal action is clear from their characteristic of social closure: groups tend to improve their lot by restricting access to rewards and privileges to a small circle of chosen ones. Certain social or physical attributes are selected and function as criteria of eligibility. It does not matter what these criteria are as long as they lead to distinguish insiders from outsiders. Exclusionary social closure thus enables status groups to secure advantages and resources for itself.

c) Party

Parties, finally, are exclusively related to power and domination. Parties strive to realize planned change in communal action (sometimes based on class, on status, on both, or neither). Parties can reach "beyond the frontiers of politics... But their aim is not necessarily the establishment of new international political, i.e. territorial, dominion".

While discipline, class, status and party are related to aspects of power, it is noteworthy that Weber does not discuss them in relation to state and bureaucracy. Classes, status groups and parties can strive for power and mobilize political action, but they nevertheless operate in the realm of civil society or the nation. The nation refers to a group held together by sentiments of solidarity in the face of other groups. It is not identical with the people of a state but may cross through different states, or any one state can harbor different nations. A nation does not necessarily share the same language, religion, race or common descent but each of these or any other cultural values may be focussed on to define the nation. Nations do tend to produce their own state, but are nevertheless in the first instance cultural entities.

3. The Rationality of Modern Law

a) Legitimacy and Law

Weber’s sociology of law is intimately related to his notion of state and bureaucracy (note: Giddens says that legitimacy is not necessarily related to the state or to state-law; but legal-rational legitimacy is, as Parsons rightly claims). The state not only has a monopoly of force, it is also a political community that successfully claims a legitimate monopoly of force. State domination is legitimated by legality, the belief in the rational validity of legal rules. This rational-legal legitimation derives from the systemic rationalization of law and constitutionalism, from bureaucracies and from doctrines of sovereignty. Weber is clearly directed against materialist and idealist interpretations of law. He defines law in the following way: "An order will be called law if it is externally guaranteed by the probability that coercion (physical or psychological), to bring about conformity or avenge violation, will be applied by a staff of people holding themselves specially ready for that purpose". The element of staff, the organized coercive apparatus including "judges, prosecutors, policemen, or sheriffs" is decisive (not coercion itself). This does not mean that legal legitimacy is always tied up to the state, and it does not always imply adherence to law. The criminal, for instance, also recognizes the legitimacy of law, namely because he has to carefully plan the execution of a crime, he is aware that it is a violation of law. The coercive apparatus does not have to be a political agency; there must simply be a body that applies sanctions, whether bound to the state or not.

b) The Rationality of Modern Law

In spite of the attention Weber pays to the legitimacy of law, which resides in the legal subjects, he interprets the law positivistically as a set of reliable techniques for producing legally consistent answers. Rationalized law is formal, abstract, exemplifying the disenchanted modernized world. A sense of justice may play a role in the development of law, but such an emotional factor "cannot be expressed except in a few very general and purely formal maxims". Legal formalism can be challenged by social law, based on emotionally colored ethical postulates like justice or human dignity, but this value-irrationalism has equally been opposed by attempts to re-establish objective standards of value and law as a technical tool. The legal-rational authority of the state’s bureaucracies is governed by procedures, by a system of laws, not of men, which formally regulates social affairs.

4. The Rationality of the Capitalist Economy

Weber considered the Western type of capitalist organization as "the most fateful force in our modern life". Indeed, throughout his writings, Weber discusses the influences of the capitalist economy on nearly every other sphere of modern society. The rise of bureaucracies, for instance, Weber explains partly by economic conditions. The money market is necessary to provide the income to maintain bureaucracies (based on a system of taxation) since bureaucracies cannot be derived from private profits. Other conditions of the expansion of bureaucracies are political. Bureaucratic structures grow larger and change qualitatively with the expansion of the state: "The increasing demand of a society, accustomed to absolute pacification, for order and protection (‘police’), in all fields exerts an especially persevering influence in the direction of bureaucratization. A steady road leads from modifications of the blood feud, sacerdotally, or by means of arbitration, to the present position of the policeman as ‘the representative of God on earth.’".

Weber also mentions several technical developments that favor the rise of bureaucracies. The characteristically modern means of communication enter the picture as pacemakers of bureaucratization; public roads, telegraph and so on must be publicly administered. These technical developments are crucial for the possibilities of bureaucracies: "The modern Occidental state can be administered the way it actually is only because the state controls the telegraph network and has the mails and railroads at its disposal". Technological developments in the modern means of communication do not completely determine the operation of bureaucracies, they also respond to the demand of the capitalist market economy. Unambiguity, knowledge of the files, continuity and unity are all raised to the optimum point: "the extraordinary increase in the speed by which public announcements, as well as economic and political facts are transmitted, exerts a steady and sharp pressure in the direction of speeding up the tempo of administrative reaction towards various situations".

Note that Weber does not conceive the interplay of numerous, political, economic and cultural factors as an inevitable evolutionary trend. The extension of market capitalism he very likely sees as dominant. Also note that the antinomy between formal rationality (conduct organized according to calculable principles) and substantive rationality (calculable conduct applied to the furtherance of certain goals or value) cannot be resolved in modern capitalism.

The rise of modern rationalized law Weber also attributes to economic and political factors. Rational law is guided by general rules to create stable, predictable and patterned regularities in social actions and social institutions. Rationalized law is executed in the bureaucratic apparatus of the state, but it also serves the free-market economy. Specifically, law prevents a war of all against all on the economic battlefield. A rational free-market economy is not possible without the legal order of the state, but contractual freedom leads to the free use of resources without legal restraints: "The market is a relationship which transcends the boundaries of neighborhood, kinship group, or tribe". Laws leaving everything free to the market imply "a relative reduction of that kind of coercion which results from the threat of mandatory and prohibitory norms".



(1893) The Division of Labor in Society
(1895) The Rules of Sociological Method
(1897) Suicide
(1912) The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life

Note: click image to hear Durkheim lecture on values!

A. The Rules of Sociological Method

1. Sociology as the Study of Social Facts

a) Definition and Characteristics of Social Facts:

Definition: a social fact is (1) any way of acting, fixed or not, (2) capable of exerting an external constraint over the individual; (3) it is general and exists independent of its individual manifestations.

Note the characteristics of a social fact: 1) Social facts are ways of being, including (ideal) representations and (material) actions;2) They have a coercive power over the individual; they are accompanied by sanctions, and thereby control the individual; this is actually how we can identify social facts (see two types of law in division of labor), and this is because:3) They are external to the individual; they are social; society is their substratum;they cannot be reduced to its individual manifestations, which are both part social and part psychological (socio-psychological); therefore, they are not collective (shared by everyone); society is a reality sui generis.

b) The Study of Social Facts:

Basic Rule: Consider social facts as things:

Durkheim first discusses social philosophies. These are unscientific because they substitute social reality for a certain conception of that reality. From this perspective, Durkheim discards Comte’s and Spencer’s evolutionary schemas, since they represent their ideas of society rather than present the facts of social life. What we need, is a clear-cut, unambiguous, and scientifically developed concept of the social. For instance, sociology should study not an idea of ethical rules but the ethical rules themselves.Consequently, Durkheim concludes that social phenomena are things and that they should be treated as such. Social facts, then, are seen to be things that exist outside of the will of people.Therefore, sociology needs to be established as a rigorous discipline, with the following principles:

Auxiliary Rule 1: Discard all preconceptions:

This calls for a value-free approach to the study of social facts.Whatever moral, political, or religious concerns the sociologist may have, he cannot allow them into his investigations.Ethical considerations an the like are themselves object for sociological inquiry.

Auxiliary Rule 2: Define the subject matter in terms of the common external characteristics of a group of phenomena, and include all phenomena that correspond to this definition:

This rule calls for a clearly defined subject matter in terms of its inherent characteristics. This ensures that the topics of sociological investigation do not depend on the sociologist but on the social facts.Durkheim makes the interesting comment that this rule is often not observed because many concepts in sociology, e.g. the family or law, are also common-sense notions. Another violation of this rule is that not all relevant phenomena are included in a study; a selection is made, often in terms of assuming that what holds for our society, is valid universally. One should therefore start with the observable consequences of the phenomenon under investigation to define it, that is, same effects indicate one phenomenon (e.g. crime is classified by punishment).

Auxiliary Rule 3: Social facts are studied objectively when they are isolated from their individual manifestations:

This follows from the basic rule, and from the fact that objectivity is enhanced by the increasing stability of a subject matter. Hence, study social facts independent of their individual manifestations since the latter are too variable.

c) Social Facts and Physical Things:

In the preface to the 2nd edition of Rules, Durkheim discusses some misunderstandings of his method.First, he says that social things are things like physical things but this does not mean that they are physical things. Social facts are things in the sense that they stand outside an idea, that they can only be known by observation, and that thus they must be studied as nature is studied by physicists.Second, society is, of course, made up out of individuals, but this does not mean that we should study individual consciousness, because the resulting synthesis of individuals coming together is a reality sui generis. The collective representations lead a life of their own, they exhibit their own psyche, and they reveal, as one and only one of their characteristics, the fact that they are constraining or coercive.

2. The Distinction of the Normal from the Pathological

Science cannot decide what is good or evil for us, because it would be ideological, yet, on the other hand, science must justify itself.Durkheim sees the solution to this problem in the fact that science should ask and investigate what is actually, in a given society, good or desirable.Science is not evil or good but it can study evil and good. Here, Durkheim proceeds to do just that.

Social facts are pathological when they disrupt the normal operations of social functions in a certain society. This, of course, can vary from society to society. Note Durkheim’s functionalist argument that the most widespread social forms are, in the long run and in the aggregate, the ones that survive (normality is therefore more common). Therefore, social facts can be pathological at some time in development (but not in the long run) because, and only when, they were at one time normal.

Therefore, the following rules apply to distinguishing normal from pathological.

1) a social fact is normal for a specific social type, at some specific time in its social evolution, when it occurs in the average society of that species; this can be verified by:

2) demonstrating that the general character of a phenomenon is related to the general conditions of collective life; and this is necessary:

3) when the social type under investigation has not yet completely evolved.

An example is the demonstration of the normality of crime. Crime is normal because it is observed, in some form or another, in all societies.It is not a demonstration of the wicked nature of man, but, on the contrary, a factor that shows the necessary integrative element in society (see below).

3. Morphology, Explanation, and Comparison

a) Social Morphology: The Constitution of Social Types

Above we indicated that Durkheim distinguishes different societies from one another (e.g. what is normal in one society is not necessarily normal in another). How does he make this distinction? This is the task of social morphology.

Durkheim proposes to first identify the basic, crucial characteristics of societies, which can be identified in a study of the simplest of societies (this is why he undertook the study of Australian religions). This indicates the relevance of ethnographies for sociology.Therefore, he proposes to study the horde, i.e. a social formation which cannot be split up into any smaller social parts; the horde consist of individuals.Different hordes linked together form a clan. From here on, societies can be classified into social types, e.g. a simple replication of hordes or clans, a replication of these replications, and so on (see Division of Labor).

b) Sociological Explanation

The identification of social types, on the basis of the purpose that certain basic social facts fulfill, is insufficient to demonstrate where these facts came from. Therefore, look for the historical causes that have certain social facts as effects (very important: two things are needed: identification of facts based on functions, and a historical study of causes).

Therefore, to explain a fact, study its cause and its function separately.Obviously, following from the basic rule, these functions and causes are, by definition, social and cannot be retrieved in the individual psyche, although he admits that human nature plays a part in social facts (as a kind of disturbing factor, but never as a cause). The rules to find function and cause are: the cause of a social fact lies in antecedent social facts, and the function of a social fact lies in the end it fulfills.In other words, social processes should be explained in terms of society itself (e.g. social volume and density).

This also leads Durkheim to suggest that sociology can explain what is, by finding out what has been, but not to predict what will be (against Marx and the evolutionists). Moreover, it indicates the special relevance of history to sociology. Sociology must be historical but this should be conceived as a study of the objective causes of social facts (based on principles of morphology), i.e. as a psychology of the social (since society is a character of its own). Sociology cannot be a search for individuals’ inner states of mind, because introspection is only valid for individual psychology, not for sociology. Therefore too, the method of political economy to study goods in terms of the value they have for the participants in the economic process is invalid.

c) Sociological Proof by Comparison

Since there can be no experiment in sociology, causes of social facts are investigated by the comparative method, i.e. comparing the cases where two social facts are simultaneously absent or present, so we can discover the variations displayed in these combinations which provides evidence that one fact (cause) leads to another fact (effect). This method is guided by the rule that one cause leads to one effect.

Note that this rule, as Durkheim admits, does not really prove causes, but that it can minimally disprove causes. Indeed, if someone states that A causes B, but we find a case where there is B but not A, then the thesis is disproved. Since social life is so complex, it can always be that we have omitted a relevant variable. A parallelism of a sufficient number of cases, however, adds value to our inferences on causal links. Then we can deduce a thesis and test it inductively. This could lead us to establish laws. What is indispensable for sociology, then, is to explain social facts by tracing its entire development throughout all social species (i.e. across time and space).

In sum, sociology must make up classifications, then sociology must be historical to identify causes and effects, and finally, in being historical, sociology must be objective.

Methodological conclusions:

1) Sociology is not philosophy: sociology is empirical and investigates causes;
2) The sociological method is objective; social facts are to be studied as things;
3) The sociological method is unique to sociology (not psychological): social facts are social.

4. Psychology and Philosophy

It is not true, Durkheim argues, that he wants to destroy psychology and philosophy. First, sociology begins with society to see how it affects human nature, the human psyche (sociology of social facts leads to solid psychology). Second, metaphysical questions will always exist, yet sociology will force them to be asked in different form, so sociology informs philosophical inquiry. In addition, sociology can study philosophies as social facts, so sociology is also an extension of philosophy.

B. Suicide as a Sociological Object

1. Extra-Social Factors

First, Durkheim rules out that suicide varies with psychopathic states.It cannot be that people have only one specific type of mental illness that would lead them to commit suicide. People cannot be temporarily insane because they lack a motive to commit suicide.There is no correlation between insanity (as measured, for instance, by the number of people in an asylum) and the suicide rate. Finally, there is no correlation between alcoholism and suicide.

Second, Durkheim disproves that suicide varies with normal psychological states, such as race or heredity, since there is considerable variation in suicide rate within races.

Third, Durkheim argues that there is no relation between suicide and climate or seasonal temperature, but he finds that the intensity of life seems to have an effect (a social cause).

Finally, imitation, the mechanic reproduction of somebody else’s act, does not correlate with the suicide rate, since, for instance, there are no concentrated zones of suicides.

2. Social Causes and Social Types

The previous investigation on non-social factors of suicide, by elimination, shows that suicide must depend on social causes. Such a sociological explanation could start from types of suicide and then look for their causes.However, this is not possible because of lack of data. Therefore, we look for causes of suicide-rates, on the premise that one cause leads to one effect.How to look for these causes?The legal establishment gives immediate motives of suicides, but this only explains individual suicides, and not the more general states that lay behind them.

a) Egoistic Suicide

Thesis 1: Suicide varies inversely with the degree of integration in religious society

Religion affects suicide: there is less suicide in Catholic countries, and more suicide in Protestant countries. Also, within any single nation this effect holds good.Jews generally commit even less suicide than Catholics. Note that both the Catholic and Protestant religions prohibit suicide. The essential difference, however, between Catholicism and Protestantism is that Protestantism permits free inquiry to a much greater extent, while Catholicism is organized by a hierarchical system of authority. Protestantism’s free inquiry is itself the effect of a lack of traditional beliefs and practices, in short, it is a less strongly integrated church. For Jews, the great solidarity, the need to live in greater union, protects them from suicide.

This explanation is confirmed: 1) of all protestant countries, England has a lower suicide-rate, because the Anglican church is more strongly organized; 2) free inquiry stimulates a desire for learning, and, indeed, the more the craving for knowledge develops, the more does suicide (this also explains why women commit less suicide; and for Jews the thesis does not hold because their strive for knowledge has a different origin, namely to be better armed for struggle in their unfavorable position). Note that knowledge in itself is not a source for evil, and religion in general has a prophylactic effect upon suicide. But the (lack of) intense collective life along with it explains their effect upon suicide.

Thesis 2: Suicide varies inversely with the degree of integration in domestic society

Marriage reduces the danger of suicide. Other data show that: - too early marriages have an aggravating influence on suicide, especially for men; - married persons of both sexes commit less suicide than unmarried persons; - the sex committing less suicide in marriage varies from society to society; - widowhood leads to higher suicide-rates.

The privileged position of married persons, with regard to suicide, is not dependent on matrimonial selection (e.g. because men and women are recruited to marriage in the same way, but married women commit more suicide). Is it the conjugal group (husband and wife) or the family group (married with children!) that produces this effect? Data on families without children show that conjugality only plays a moderate role. The fact that widowers have children makes the crisis through which they pass more intense, and therefore their suicide-rate is higher. Differences in suicide during widowhood between the sexes are explained by the suicidal tendency of the sexes in the state of marriage (where men benefit more from marriage, they also suffer more from widowhood, but are also better able to endure it).The effect of the family group is further shown by the fact that higher family density (more children) correlates with lower suicide-rates, because families with more children are more powerfully integrated.

Thesis 3: Suicide varies inversely with the degree of integration in political society

Political societies also effect suicide-rates: revolutions, wars, and other political crises lead to a reduction of the number of suicides, because (and only when) such crises can move the masses, arousing collective sentiments and national faith, and integrate society, at least temporarily, towards a single end.

Conclusion: Suicide varies with the degree of social integration

Something in religion, the family, and political life must be common to explain their effect on suicide: they are all strongly integrated groups.Social integration refers to the degree of bonding or attachment of individuals to society. If groups are weakly integrated, the individual is less dependent on them, they are in a state of egoism: egoistic suicide springs from excessive individualism.An entire range of ideas, feelings and practices of civilized adults are built and expanded because of the demands of the social environment; they are social demands with a social purpose.But, as individuals, we must cling to them, and we can only do so to the extent to which we are integrated within society itself.(Women live more outside of community existence, this explains the relatively lower suicide-rates of widows as compared to widowers).

b) Altruistic Suicide

Thesis: Insufficient individuation leads to suicide; every form of suicide is the exaggerated form of a virtue; the extremes are pathological

In the lower, primitive societies, old men, women at their husband’s death, and servants at the death of their chief kill themselves because it is their duty, it is compelled, because these individuals are completely absorbed in the group, they are very highly integrated.In this case, the ego is not its own property, this is a state of altruism.

Altruistic suicide may be obligatory (the previous examples), optional, i.e. not formally required, or considered a praiseworthy sacrifice (as in some, pantheistic religions).In all these cases, the individual strips himself of his personal being, in order to be engulfed in something considered the true essence, a mental representation which springs not from the individual, but from society.In modern society, altruistic suicide can be observed in the army, not because of bachelorhood, since the soldier is not isolated at all, and also not from alcoholism, or not from disgust with the service.Actually, those that are most inclined to a military career and best suited to the needs of the army, are the ones with highest suicide-rates (note that throughout these chapters, Durkheim refutes explanations different from his owns, and he does so by controlling variables when looking at statistical data).The general loss of discipline in the army in recent years is accompanied by a general decline in the suicide-rate, again, this proves the thesis of altruism.

c) Anomic Suicide

Thesis: Suicide varies with the degree of social regulation

1) Acute anomic suicide:

Economic crises increase suicide-rates, not because then life is more difficult, since even fortunate crises have this effect, but because they are disturbances of the collective order. This can be explained by the fact that man, unlike animals, has needs that are in principle infinite.If there would be no limits set to these needs, this would lead to perpetual unhappiness, and since man cannot limit the desires himself, a force outside of him must do it, an authority he respects, and this is society. Society is the moral disciplinary body whose authority must not only depend on force but also accepted as just. Now, when society is disturbed by crises, it is momentarily incapable of exercising this moral influence; society is then in a state of anomie, and this produces anomic suicide.

2) Chronic anomic suicide:

Anomie is a regular factor in the world of trade and industry. Economic progress exists in freeing relations from all kinds of regulation, the complete liberation of desires. Anomic suicide shares with egoistic suicide that both represent an insufficient presence of society in the individual, but egoism refers to a lack of integration (the attachment of individuals to society), anomie refers to a lack of regulation (the control of basic human passions).

Explanation: The suicide of widowhood is a result of domestic anomie, and divorce shows this even more. Particularly, divorce, especially where it is legally regulated, leads to higher suicide-rates among husbands.This is explained by the nature of marriage (conjugal society).For men, marriage offers a useful regulation of sexual desires and other passions, and divorce is a sudden weakening of this regulation.For women, this is different: women are more instinctive creatures and mentally less developed, so that any regulation (marriage) for them is a constraint without great advantages, and divorce frees them from this constraint. Anomic suicide because of divorce is thus wholly to be attributed to men. [Excessive regulation can also lead to suicide, fatalistic suicide, but this is very uncommon].

d) Individual Forms of the Different Types of Suicide

Now a morphological classification, on the basis of the aethiological one, can make sense, taking into account that only suicide as a collective phenomenon can be explained. Egoistic suicide refers to those types that result from highly developed individualism, from seeking the absolute only in him/herself, because society is not sufficiently integrated.The decision to commit suicide under these circumstances can be sad or cheerful.Altruistic suicide is the opposite, an active suicide, with perfect calmness. Entirely different is anomic suicide out of a state of unregulated emotions or the disappointment following disturbances in regulation.

These different social conditions can also affect the individual simultaneously and produce combined effects.Egoism and anomie have some affinity, cf. the egoist is detached from society and thus it has no sufficient hold upon her/him. Anomie can also be associated with altruism (e.g. the Jews after the fall of Jerusalem).Finally, egoism and altruism even can combine their influence, e.g. when people create an imaginary object which they attach themselves to (summary table, p.293).

3. The Social Element of Suicide

Suicide, then, is socially determined, independent of the individual.The collective tendencies that are responsible for suicide have a mind of their own; they are moral and social. Social life, then, is external to the individual. Murder and suicide, which seem alike, are not invariably related (e.g. wars lead to less suicide, yet more murder; anomie and altruistic suicide, on the other hand, are related; consequently, murder is social too and, since it has different causes, murder comes in different types).

Since the indispensable conditions of life are useful, suicide is likely to occur. Indeed, social regulation and integration are needed in any society, and whether societies place high value on the individual or, on the contrary, constrain him heavily, there is suicide resulting from those social states (every morality produces its type of suicide).

However, the enormous increase in the number of suicides over the last century is due, not to progress, but to the particular conditions under which progress has actually occurred.These conditions are pathological (basically, a lack of regulation, due to the abruptness of the social changes, cf. Division of labor).Therefore, the current rate of suicide is pathological, not suicide as such!

The solution to the problem is not legislation, education, politics or family. The true solution is the professional group, to create a morality close enough to the individual (see below).

C. Religion, Society and Knowledge

1. Religion as a Social Fact

Durkheim studies religion in its most simple form to derive the basics, to find the universals of religion by tracking its indispensable properties.This also leads him to a theory of the origin of religion, and to postulate that religion is at the basis of all human thought (both sacred and profane), even of all the categories of human thought (e.g. space, time, causality).All of this, it will be shown, is essentially social: religious representations are collective representations which express collective realities. The categories of knowledge, because they are of religious origin, are therefore social too; e.g. spatial representations are universal because they are based on the fact that values are differentially attributed to different regions within any given civilization. Within that civilization, therefore, these values must be universal, i.e. they originated within that society (e.g. space is conceived the way a tribal area is divided).Since society is a reality sui generis, its representations which express it, must be supra-individual, it imposes itself upon the individual mind.Consequently, since these representations are so constraining, have such power over the individual, society is responsible for the necessity of the categories of thought as a reflection of the moral necessity of society. It will be shown that all representations come from religious representations as a social reality sui generis.

Therefore, religion has to be defined as a social fact: religion is a unified system of beliefs (states of opinion) and practices (modes of action) relative to sacred things, i.e. things set apart and forbidden; the beliefs and practices unite all those who adhere to them into a single moral community, i.e. a church. The beliefs refer to representations of the sacred, but at once they identify the relations between different sacred things and between the sacred and the profane. The practices are tied with the beliefs. Religious rites and beliefs, then, have a special object, i.e. they presuppose a classification of things into sacred and profane, determined by the attitudes people have towards those things on the basis of their social reality.

Durkheim proceeds, on the basis of this definition, to refute other conceptions of religion. Animistic theories explain religion by reference to the worship of the soul which would be the result of dreams, of an illusion, of fantasy. This is nonsense since it is an individualistic interpretation, and because it cannot account for the fact that something which has sustained as long as religion it must have physical, concrete aspects. Likewise, naturalistic theories pose that religion comes from the fact that sacredness is attributed to sensuous experiences and the language by which reference is made to these phenomena. Again, this is nonsense since religion is again attributed to an illusion, namely the illusion of just names.

2. Totemic Beliefs

Durkheim proposes to study totemic religion among Australian tribes because it is a very simple society and it will therefore exhibit the original form of religion. The clan that worships the totem is of central significance: the clan is a bond of kinship united by name (not biology), and the totem of the clan is also the totem of the clan members. Another clan has another totem. Totems can be animals, vegetables and even ancestors.Clans are united by bonds of fraternity in phratries; these phratries also have a totem, and they relate to the different totems of the clans in a relation of subordination. Clan totems enjoy special status: some persons may not touch the totem, it is kept in a special place, it gives men special powers, and its loss is a disaster. Other things can be sacred because they are in some way related to the totem. Note that totems are worshipped, not because the person has some sensation of it, but because it fulfills the need of representing ideas which are formed of it. (later Durkheim will of course seek to explain what these ideas are). There is also a marked parallelism between men and totems: the prohibitions regarding totems also apply to clan members (e.g. they have the same name).

Then Durkheim proceeds to show that the totemic classifications form the basis for the idea of social class. Men were first organized as men, in clans and phratries, and therefore they were able to organize things. The fundamental notions of the intellect are the product of social factors. The notion of class is not an ideal but a defined group of interrelated things. Human classification is based on social hierarchy.

3. The Origin of Totemic Beliefs

After refuting a series of theories, Durkheim asserts that totems have an underlying idea of force.The force of the totem, its symbolic qualities of sacredness, must indeed have a referent (symbols refer to something). There must be something unifying in all that is worshipped in these totemic religions, and this unity lies in what is symbolized and not in the symbol. Here Durkheim argues that totems are forceful over and against the individual because they are an instance of the idea of force in general. This force derives from the strength of the clan, so that the totemic principle of force is in fact the clan under an empirically concrete form: if the totem’s symbol is god and society, then god and society are identical.

Indeed, following from Durkheim’s approach to sociology in general, it follows that the reality underlying religious thought cannot be representations of the individual or of the material environment. This external reality, Durkheim will contend, is society itself. Society alone is the moral authority which can exert such a powerful hold over man.Therefore, god or any other sacred object is a symbolic representation of society.The ideas of religious, then, are real in that they express something real, a real idea so to speak, or what Durkheim calls essential idealism.

Note how the soul can be seen from this perspective. The idea of the soul is universal to religion. The human body shelters a soul; body and soul are not the same, but they are closely related.The soul represents the sacred, it concerns moral ideas; while the body is in a sense profane, and represents the material world. The soul, Durkheim asserts, was created because it refers to something real, namely the relation between individual and society (body and soul).

Other religious ideas are also of social origin. The god, for instance, is an ancestor who gained a prominent place. All religious ideas of totem, souls, spirits, and gods, derive from the original form of the tribe: the tribal unity is expressed in the form of a god, it expresses the tribe conscious of itself.

4. Ritual Attitudes

Here Durkheim explains the origin of rituals in its most basic form.Cults are negative or positive. Negative cults prohibit or interdict (by means of taboo), in order to keep different sacred things apart or to separate sacred from profane. These interdictions can translate into the prohibition of contact with the sacred, not speaking out the sacred, and the territorial or temporal separation of sacred and profane. The positive cult worships something. In rites, something is awakened, then it is sacrificed.

Ritual acts produce feelings of well-being, which itself becomes the justification of the rite. The ritual arouses sentiments, it affects the mental status of its participants.Note how the notion of causality is produced by rituals. Causality is a social force, external to the mind.Causality is the work of the group and not just an intellectual construction; it derives from the efficaciousness of ritual manipulations.Rituals tie the individual to the group. Religious rituals reaffirm the social group and strengthen the collectivity. Rituals of passage (e.g. burial) have the same function: when someone dies, the group is weakened, so the collective sentiments have to renewed, reaffirmed.This also explains the rise of civil religion, e.g. the worship of Fatherland, Reason and Liberty in the French revolution.

5. Conclusion

These simple religions which Durkheim studies, share essential elements with all religions. Specifically, the sentiments of the believers, unanimously shared, cannot be illusory, they have objective causes in a reality sui generis, i.e. society. Society produces religion, it can account for the sentiments involved, it is even society who makes the individual. To do this, society must come in action, it must make itself felt and it does this in the assembly of believers. By this form of common action, society takes consciousness of itself. It is the idea of society which is the soul of religion; and through religion, all the fundamental categories of thought were formed.

It could be objected that this ‘society’ that is at the origin of religion is an ideal version of society, that it is not real. No, it is real, but an idealization nonetheless; the idealization itself stems from the intensity of rituals, as a natural product of social life, i.e. as a condensed or concentrated version of that society. The idealized society is therefore not outside the real society but a part of it. The ideals of religion are thus an expression of the collective life: in the school of collective life, the person has learned to idealize. This is not to be confused with an historical-materialist argument.

Concepts are collective representations.They derive their more specific nature (their diversity) from the fact that clans and tribes are differentiated, and, at the same time, they derive their universal nature from the fact that every society is always part of a larger whole.Therefore, it is always society which furnishes the most general notions with which it should be represented. Society is the consciousness of consciousness, it is itself an individuality, of a superior status.

D. The Division of Labor and the Morality of Society

In his review of the works of Marx and Durkheim, Alexander outlines Durkheim’s theory of modern society as forming a hierarchy of processes and institutions ranging from the particularism of individual life to the universalism of culture. At the most general level, culture refers to the cognitive, moral and aesthetic representations of collective life that inform the rest of society. It refers to what Durkheim described as the "collective consciousness", society as it thinks of itself, the morality of society which regulates the social institutions as well as economic life. Beneath culture, the state and the law represent this universal culture in a more particularistic way and organize the lower levels of the educational, occupational and domestic institutions.The individual is at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Some central elements emerging out of this scheme are Durkheim’s notion of culture and morality, state and politics, law and punishment, the corporation or occupational group, and the characteristics of modern economic life. Durkheim’s ideas on these issues have undergone changes in the course of his work; basically in The Division of Labor he argued for a materialist interpretation, while in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life he gives an idealist account. This presentation rests on his first major excursion in The Division of Labor in Society, but when necessary I will indicate if and how Durkheim’s ideas have developed in his later works.

1. The Division of Labor and Its Causes

The purpose of Durkheim’s work on the division of labor is to construct a positivistic science of morality and discover how social solidarity can be maintained despite the growing autonomy of the individual resulting out of the division of labor. Economic forces have lead not only to a functional differentiation of labor but also to differentiation processes in all other domains of society. Durkheim argues that this is the result of an evolution from mechanical to organic societies. Mechanical societies are composed of similar replicated parts (families, hordes, clans).The collective conscience, defined as "the totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average members of a society", reflects this "solidarity by similarities": the collective practices and beliefs of the group are shared by all of its members, and any offense against the collective consciousness is perceived a threat to the entire social order. Durkheim argues that in the course of history organic society made progress in the proportion to which mechanical society has regressed. Organic societies are made up of functionally different organs, each performing a special role.The collective consciousness of this social type has a different hold on the individual: the bonds to tradition and family are loosened, but the individual now has the social duty to specialize and to concentrate his range of activities.The collective consciousness in modern societies still has a hold on individuals, if only to affirm their individuality.

The causes of this evolution to a society characterized by a functional division of labor are two-fold. First, "It is because there occurs a drawing together of individuals who were separated from one another, or at least they draw more closely together than they had been.".Then social relations become more numerous since "they push out beyond their original boundaries on all sides". Durkheim calls this "drawing together and the active exchanges that result from it" dynamic or moral density.Second, the social volume also increases, that is, the total number of members of society becomes larger. More dense and more voluminous societies, Durkheim argues, necessitate the division of labor because the struggle for existence becomes more strenuous.As people are drawn together this will increase competition among them and when they have "ample space at their disposal, they will flee from one another.[On the other hand] If they cannot go beyond set limits, they will begin to differentiate, but in a way so that they become still more dependent of one another".Therefore, "the division of labor unites at the same time it sets at odds; it causes the activities that it differentiates to converge; it brings closer that it separates".

The secondary factors that account for the development of the division of labor include, first, the greater independence of individuals in relation to the group. This means that the collective consciousness becomes progressively indeterminate as societies get larger: "Because they are spread over a much vaster area, the common consciousness is itself forced to rise above all local diversities, to dominate more the space available, and consequently to become more abstract". This trend is for instance demonstrated by the changing nature of the notion of divinity. Originally, the objects of religious devotion are sacred beings who derived their sacred character directly from the object with which they were identified (sacred plants or animals). Then develops the notion of spirits "who, whilst preferring this or that location, nevertheless exist outside the particular objects to which they are more especially attached...; they still exist in space". With the evolution to polytheism "the dwelling-place of the gods becomes more clearly distinct from that of man", and, finally, the god of Christianity "goes beyond space; His Kingdom is no longer of this world".

Another secondary factor in the evolution to organic societies is the weakening of the influence of tradition. This occurs because in modern societies "individuals are no longer restricted to their place of origin and free space is opened up, attracting them, they cannot fail to spread out over it". Especially the growth of the town demonstrates that "The more the group is spread out, although densely concentrated, the more the collective attention, dissipated over a wide area, becomes incapable of following the movements of each individual, because attention does not become more intense as the number of individuals increases. It must oversee too many points at one time to be able to concentrate on any single one. The surveillance is less careful, because there are too many people and things to watch.There is therefore a general decrease in social control because the individual’s "more frequent journeys, the more active communications that he exchanges, the affairs with which he busies himself outside his own locality, etc., divert his gaze from what is taking place around him.The center of his life and concerns is no longer to be found wholly in the place where he lives". Therefore, "collective surveillance is irrevocably relaxed, the common consciousness loses its authority... In short, for social control to be rigorous and for the common consciousness to be maintained, society must split up into moderately small compartments that enclose completely the individual.By contrast, both social control and the common consciousness grow weaker as such divisions fade".

Along with the division of labor, there is then a general trend for social life to become regulated in a different way (and not un-regulated as some observers had thought).The economic order itself does not lead to order or disorder, it is the collective consciousness that accompanies it which determines the cohesion of society.The moralities of mechanical and organic societies fulfill the function of binding the individual, offering cohesion to the whole, albeit in different ways which are themselves the result of changed conditions in social density and volume.

2. Crime, Law and Punishment (I)

In the Division of Labor, Durkheim conceives law as a manifestation of the collective consciousness.Hence he uses as a measure for the development from mechanical to organic societies the evolution from repressive to restitutive law. Repressive law is characteristic for simple and ancient societies. Law is essentially religious law and infractions against it are immediately punished because they threaten the existence of the collectivity itself. Crimes that are not religious are less severely punished. The moral beliefs and justifications on which law and punishment are based are specific but not explicitly specified since every member of society knows them (the collective consciousness is identical to the individual consciousness).In modern societies only criminal law is still repressive: it serves the unconscious function of strengthening social solidarity. The nature of modern solidarity, however, changed and criminal law declined in favor of restitutive law. Punishment follows legal violations in a restitutive way so that the relations between individual and society are restored.Because individuals are more and more differentiated from one another (they have different professions), legal regulations are more abstract and general so they can still apply to all different individuals and provide the solidarity necessary for the cohesion of society: "That alone is rational that is universal. What defies the understanding is the particular and the concrete".

The growth of commercial law is an index of organic social solidarity: it indicates the need to maintain relations between differentiated parts (analogous to the specialized functions of the organs of the body), which are backed up by society.In contract law, for instance, every contract "assumes that behind the parties who bind eachother, society is there, quite prepared to intervene and to enforce respect for any undertakings entered into". In organic societies it is therefore the state which becomes the organ of priority to direct the other organs (like the brain). Violating the rules of a contract between individuals is an offense against the state as the representative body of modern collective conscience.

3. Political Society and State (I)

The evolution of political life, under normal conditions, corresponds to the growing indeterminacy of the collective consciousness in organic societies: "the place of the individual is becoming greater and governmental power less absolute".The modern state is more universal and less coercive and repressive, but this does not mean that it has become less in size. On the contrary, "the state’s attributions become even more numerous and diverse as one approaches the higher types of society". The state’s functions thus generally increase and specialize; "At the same time, it extends progressively over the whole area of its territory and ever more densely packed, complex network, with branches that are substituted for existing local bodies or that assimilate them".

According to Durkheim, the state develops not as a counterbalance to but by mechanical necessity out of the division of labor (p.296-308).The government cannot regulate at any moment all the conditions of economic life since it is "too general to ensure the co-operation of the social functions, if such co-operation is not realized spontaneously".This "spontaneous consensus of its parts" is still necessary if society is to be held together and only the collective consciousness can provide this unity. Therefore, the state "is not the brain that creates the unity of the organism, but it expresses it, setting its seal upon it, [while] the parts must be already solidly linked to one another".

4. Crime, Law and Punishment (II)

We already saw that Durkheim conceives the law as fulfilling the function of maintaining solidarity between the component parts in society, to secure the autonomy of different individuals while maintaining the relationships that hold them together.In a later work Durkheim modifies his view of law and outlines two laws of penal evolution. The first law stipulates that "the intensity of punishment is greater the more closely societies approximate to a less developed type - and the more the central power assumes an absolute character".Durkheim thus reaffirms what he earlier argued in The Division of Labor: the collective consciousness is stronger in mechanical societies, more loosened in organic societies. He now explicitly links this evolution with the religious or secular nature of law. In primitive societies, the collective consciousness is essentially religious and so are their laws. In organic societies, the law is secularized to refer to some human interest, not an individually held interest but to mankind in general (analogous to the development of the collective consciousness). Any offense is an offense against another human and "cannot arouse the same indignation as on offense of man against God". However, in the second part of the first law Durkheim states that the nature of political power also intervenes in the development of the intensity of punishment. The law does not always "automatically" represent the collective consciousness; it may be "distorted" by the political regime that determines its contents.An absolutist government which faces no counter-balancing social forces, in particular, may create and enforce laws which do not correspond to the collective consciousness: the laws may be repressive, even in a differentiated society characterized by a division of labor. However, Durkheim asserted, this is not "a consequence of the fundamental nature of society, but rather depends on unique, transitory, and contingent factors". The political society to be normal, therefore, should always be in concord with the development of the collective consciousness.

The other "law of law" refers to the fact that "deprivations of liberty, and of liberty alone, varying in time according to the seriousness of crime, tend to become more and more the normal means of social control". Durkheim refers to the lack of prisons in primitive societies where, he argues, imprisonment would not fulfill any need since crimes directly threaten the collectivity and should therefore also be punished collectively.When with the division of labor collective responsibility gradually declines, the individual comes to the focus of attention and the deprivation of his freedom is a natural consequence.

5. The Social Regulation of Economic Life: The Corporation

With his study of the division of labor Durkheim wanted to show that the "cult of individualism" and the persistence of collective consciousness are not mutually exclusive, but on the contrary that the division of labor produces and necessitates a different kind of social solidarity. Under exceptional circumstances, however, Durkheim maintained that the division of labor often did not produce organic solidarity, because it was produced under conditions of an absence of rules regulating social relations (anomie), or forced under conditions of economic-material inequalities. Economic life as such is not normal or pathological, Durkheim contends, it is the (lack of) its regulation which should be dealt with. The intervention of the state Durkheim saw in this regard necessary but insufficient because the state is too far removed from the concrete lives of people and the specific needs of their different professions (the state is too general).Therefore, Durkheim proposed that a secondary groups placed between the individual and the state should take care of this function. He judged the corporation or professional group to be ideal in this regard.

Durkheim first discussed the professional group in some detail in his work Suicide. As a remedy to egoistic and anomic suicide, he argued that a restoration of man’s attachment to, and regulation by, society is needed, and that this role should be taken up by the corporation. Political society is too far removed from the individual to affect him, religious society is generally in decline (secularization), and the family’s duration is too brief (it has become a non-entity). The corporation, on the other hand, could fulfill the function of investing society in the individual, because it has a strong cohesion and its influence on individuals is "not intermittent, like that of political society, but it is always in contact with them by the constant exercise of the function of which it is the organ and in which they collaborate". To take up this function the corporation has to become a definite and recognized organ of public life "instead of remaining a private group legally permitted, but politically ignored".It has to be moved between the state and the individual to form "a cluster of collective forces outside the State, though subject to its action, whose regulative influence can be exerted with greater variety". The state remains important to fulfill the function of opposing "the need for organic equilibrium to the particularism of each corporation".

In the preface to the second edition of The Division of Labor and in the posthumously published Professional Ethics and Civic Morals further expands this idea. In the preface, he reasserts that a society "cannot be maintained unless, between the state and individuals, a whole range of secondary groups are interposed".Of these secondary institutions only the corporation can ‘tame’ the economy.The family can no longer take up this function since it has lost much of its integrative and regulatory force. Corporations should take over because the profession under conditions of the division of labor determines our life more and more.Such corporations already exist since, like other secondary institutions, "as soon as a certain number of individuals find they hold in common ideas, interests, sentiments and occupations which the rest of the population does not share in, it is inevitable that, under the influence of these similarities, they should be attracted to one another.They will seek one another out, enter into relationships and associate together".The existing corporations, however, should be reformed: they must set codes guiding each of the professions (regulatory) and they must be well-organized groups (integrative) constituting a moral force upon and not a servant of the economy. Then, their activities will not only be professional but also educational, providing mutual assistance and friendship, and it will form the basic political unit of the nation.The state will not be abolished: it remains necessary to lay down the general principles for industrial legislation.But the diversity of the various types of industry the state cannot see. Here corporations, distinct and autonomous from the state but also in contact with it, can fulfill their role.

6. Political Society and State (II)

In his work Professional Ethics and Civic Morals, Durkheim explicates the underlying viewpoint of his political-sociology in his discussions of the role of corporation.He draws a sharp distinction between political society and state (which, as Durkheim admits, he did not always make himself in his earlier work).Political society refers to an opposition between governing and governed, in which the governed must be a coming together of different secondary social groups (families, professions or classes), subject to the same authority, and this authority "is not itself subject to any other permanently constituted superior authority".Territory is not a defining characteristic of political societies, since the "geographical expression" of a nation is only a recent phenomenon, and "in the past it was the number of citizens and not the territory that was considered to be the primary element of the state.To annex a state was not to annex the country, but its inhabitants and to incorporate them within the conquering state...; where prime importance attaches to national territory, it is of comparatively recent date.".The recent identification of state with territory is the result of many factors, one of them is perhaps "the relatively greater importance that the geographical bond has assumed since other social ties of a more moral kind have lost their force.We see the society of which we are members more as a defined territory because it is no longer perceived as essentially religious, or identified with its own unique set of traditions or with the support of a particular dynasty".

The political society for Durkheim thus refers to a sovereign authority.The state has a more specific meaning to refer to the "particular group of officials entrusted with representing this authority...; the state is a specialized agency whose responsibility it is to work out certain ideas which apply to the collectivity. These ideas are distinguished from the other collective representations by their more conscious and deliberate character". As said before, Durkheim does not want to abolish the state and neither does he favor an all-encompassing authoritarian state. Durkheim does acknowledge that there is today nothing "in the realm of public life which cannot become subject to the action of the state...Every society is despotic, at least if nothing external intervenes to restrain its despotism".The state’s role, therefore, is not restricted to the regulation of economic life alone: "It is not merely a matter of increasing the exchanges of goods and services, but of seeing that they are done by rules that are more just; it is not simply that everyone should have access to rich supplies of food and drink. Rather it is that each one should be treated as he deserves, each be freed from an unjust and humiliating tutelage, and that, in holding to his fellows and his group, a man should not sacrifice his individuality". Durkheim also contends that the state cannot fulfill this function by itself: if the state "is to be the liberator of the individual, it has itself need of some counter-balance. It must be restrained by other collective forces, that is, by the secondary groups... [which] are essential if the state is not to oppress the individual: they are also necessary if the state is not to be sufficiently free of the individual".

The secondary groups thus form intermediate institutions that come in between the individual and the state, and, because economic life has gained so much importance, the professional group Durkheim considered best suited to fulfill this need. Like the state, the secondary groups fulfill not economic functions alone: "Their usefulness is not merely to regulate and administer the interests under their supervision. They have a more general role; they form one of the conditions essential to the emancipation of the individual". Professional groups would thus form the basis of political life: "The idea is already gaining ground that the professional association is the true electoral unit". Since no less than all of society is affected by a smooth functioning of political life, Durkheim would go as far as to make membership in corporations compulsory: " is beyond me to understand the scruples that some feel in this case against any suggestion of compulsion".


(1900) The Philosophy of Money
(1908) Soziologie
(1917) Individual and Society

A. Society and Sociology

Sociology is the study of society, but what is society, and is it real? The central point is that society nor individual are real alone, neither one is thinkable without the other. Simmel wants to overcome the problems of both methodological individualism, stressing the primacy of the individual, and holism or sociologism, emphasizing the social. Nothing is real in the sense that it would refer to a single object, e.g. the individual is not an object of cognition but of experience, its intellectual knowledge is a synthesis, an abstraction. These abstractions are all real although they approach an object from different distances, related to, and justified by, their purposes. Sociology, as a method, focuses on people inasmuch as they form groups and are determined by their interactions.

Society, then, can be defined as a number of individuals connected by interaction. These interactions can become crystallized as permanent fields. These relationships, or forms of sociation, are crucial because they demonstrate that society is not a substance but an event, and because forms of sociation overcome the individual/social dualism (individuals engage with one another and thus constitute the social). Through sociation, particular phenomena are produced. These phenomena are of two kinds: 1) the simultaneous influence of interacting individuals, and 2) the succession of generations.

In sum, society is defined as a) a number of individuals connected by interaction, and b) the sum of these interactions, or the forms of relationship by virtue of which individuals are transformed into society in the first sense (Simmel is unclear about this, but tends more towards the latter definition).

B. Society and Individual: General, Formal, and Philosophical Sociology

Simmel distinguishes general, formal and philosophical sociology. Sociology is a point of view, and these various kinds of sociology indicate different viewpoints.

1. General Sociology

= the study of the whole of historical life insofar as it is societally formed

The facts of social life can be studied in terms of their historical materiality, their contents, i.e. in terms of their development within and by social groups over time. Historical developments can be perceived in different terms, but they all present a particular frame of analysis from the objective, individual (subjective), and/or social point of view. The social viewpoint is obviously the one that concerns sociology, though the link with the other ones is unavoidable. Here appear the problems of social evolution (e.g. Durkheim: from organic to mechanical solidarity), group power, or the value relations between collectivity and individuality.

2. Formal or Pure Sociology

= the study of the societal forms themselves

Formal or pure sociology abstracts the mere element of sociation from social life, it isolates the form from its different manifestations in historical contents (which were traced through general sociology, e.g. the form of the division of labor in 19th century capitalism). Form and content are relatively autonomous: the forms of life must be distinct from their content since groups with different content (referring to the relatively variable "what" of social life) may exhibit similar or even identical forms, and the form (referring to the relatively stable "how" of social action) of groups can differ though their contents are the same. Behind every social formation there are forces at work which should be isolated from the content of their manifestation, and their analysis points to the value of abstract, pure or formal sociology. (Thus, the wide variety of topics discussed by Simmel [fashion, law, space, women, poverty, secrecy, the city, art, etcetera] is not surprising).

3. Philosophical Sociology

= the study of the epistemology and metaphysics of society

Philosophical sociology concerns two areas of research: a) the fundamental concepts and presuppositions of research, i.e. the epistemology of the special social sciences engaged in the study of any one particular manifestation of social life, and b) the concepts and presuppositions of knowledge, the metaphysics of the matters discussed in the special social sciences. These are not empirical questions of research or thought, but they always underlie them. Note that Simmel here often confused ontology and intellectual history.

A Note on Sociation:

Sociation is the crucial subject matter of Simmel’s (formal) sociology. This concept indicates: - that everything in social life is related, interacts with everything else (Wechselwirkung); - this order of interaction is dynamic, and society is experienced to be in flux and transitory; - concepts should be relational (e.g. form con only be elucidated with reference to content). Society, in previous sociologies (e.g. Spencer) is a totality assumed to have a particular pattern of evolution. This is not so; society is constituted by the totality of forms of interaction that make people societal; sociation refers to the forms around which people crystallize their interests. Simmel’s object of sociology became society as sociation (words he came to use interchangeably).

Note the contrast with Durkheim: Durkheim conceived society as a system of active forces operating upon individuals; for Simmel, society is seen as formal interactions between individuals. In interaction, people occupy a role, their individuality is constituted, and together it forms a structure. In addition, people are aware of this process (the consciousness of sociation).

Forms of sociation can be divided in a) social processes: the relatively stable and simple configurations of social interaction (e.g. the secret society); b) social types: the typical characteristics of the persons engaged in interaction (e.g. the stranger); and c) developmental patterns: the complex and diachronic forms of interaction (taken from Levine).

C. Examples of General, Formal, and Philosophical Sociology

1. Example of General Sociology: The Social and the Individual Level

The individual and the group level are different with regard to one fact: this is the possibility of separating in the individual the qualities by which he forms the group, and the qualities constitute his private nature, individuality. The force of tradition (the old) is explained by the fact that it is most deeply rooted in the individual as group member, the appeal of the new is explained by the same valuation, namely it is more valued by the individual as individual. Therefore, both similarities and differences between individuals are significant. However, in modern times, the values of individuality and the new are rated higher. The mass combines therefore not all individuals but only those parts of them which coincide between all it members.

Consequently, mass behavior is a kind of lowest common denominator: at the level of intellect, the mass shows only one, simple idea, the individual is allowed more creativity in thought. Therefore, what holds the mass together must be what is shared by all, even the poorest (stupidest) of its members. At the level of emotions, however, the social is stronger than the individual (e.g. mass excitement, mass hysteria, and mass enthusiasm). Note that the mass is not the average but tends towards the lowest value (counter-forces prevent it from reaching the bottom), and that higher placed people cannot always descend to lower levels.

2. Example of Formal Sociology: Sociability

Formal or pure sociology, as said before, focuses on the societal forms. The content or material of sociation refers to individual’s interests and drives which mediate effects upon others. These materials are not social but when they are transformed into forms of interaction, they are a factor of sociation. Sociation is the form in which individuals interact to satisfy their interests. Then the original interest that brought the forms into existence can be transformed into a new reality (e.g. laws are created because of certain interests, but once created, it is no longer a means to an ends but determines itself how social life should be shaped, a sort of dialectical reification). So then, first, the materials determine the forms of social life, and, then, the forms determine the materials (dialectics).

The same process happens in society, and the result is that forms gain their own life, freed from contents, existing for its own sake, and this is sociability, i.e. the satisfactory feeling of being sociated regardless of the material motivations, it is the play-form of sociation (note that in German sociability refers to both association and coziness).

Some characteristics of sociability: - tact, as a regulatory principle, limits all motives other than the sociation itself since these would militate against interaction (e.g. status); - discretion prevents individuals from crossing the sociability thresholds, that is either only holding on to objective purposes or to one’s subjective aspects; - the democratic nature of sociability, as sociability’s drive, is played to suggest total equality; - sociability is artificial because its symmetry and balance are stylized expressions; this is manifested in games, where society is played, in coquetry, whereby the woman moves between yes and no while the man appreciates this movement in itself; in sociable conversations, i.e. fascinating, non-instrumental talk, in sociable ethics, the ways in which individual and collective are merged; - the superficiality of sociability, finally, exemplifies the fact that it plays social life and yet remains related to it.

3. Example of Philosophical Sociology: Individual and Society in 18th and 19th Century Views of Life

The basic problem of any society is the conflict between social forces and the individual, because, first, the social is inherent to every individual and, second, social and individual elements may collide in the individual. The conflict between society, striving to fully integrate the individual, and the individual, resisting this drive, is insoluble. This problem should not be conceived as an egoism-altruism dichotomy (Durkheim): the perfection of the individual constitutes an objective value irrespective of its (in)significance for other individuals, even for the individual him/herself. This objective human value may even collide with society as a whole: the (deeper) human values have a merely accidental relation to the (actual) social values. Likewise, personal values are autonomous from their social entanglements: the attitude of personal life can differ from the success of individual action, in other words, existence is qualitatively different from its particular effects. This double struggle of the individual with society, not to transcend it in a more general nor more individual fashion, is the basis of the philosophies of individual freedom.

In the 18th Century, the philosophy of individualism is well captured in the slogan of the French Revolution: "liberty, equality and fraternity". The unacceptable social forms of the Ancien Regime (18th century dictatorship) lead to the ideal of individual liberty as the "natural" state of (wo)man. But, of course, this would lead to exploitation by the privileged, so that freedom would lead to inequality (unless economic equality is achieved by means of socializing the means of production, as is proposed in socialism). Therefore, a third element is brought in: fraternity, which should balance freedom and equality. In 18th century philosophy, freedom is seen as natural or law-like so that any particular individual (and his/her liberty) is captured within the more general pattern of humanity "as such": the antinomy between freedom and equality is in the individual seen as general humanity (cf. Kant: what the ego conceives is real; cf. Rousseau: be yourself to be more than yourself). The "pure" (wo)man is manifested (more or less) in every individual. Therefore, "act in such a way that the principles guiding your actions can be valid for everybody" (Kant’s categorical imperative).

In the 19th Century, the abstract conception of individualism in the 18th Century could not be maintained, and split up in two ways: a) equality without freedom versus b) freedom without equality. (a) In socialism, equality comes first, but for this to be achieved without completely destroying freedom (of the entrepreneur for instance), the equality of the proletariat must be seen as freedom. In practice this cannot be maintained: inequalities will always remain (e.g. because there are more people qualified to take up important positions than there are positions). Socialism is doomed to fail. (b) Individualism comes first, now also to distinguish the individual from all other individuals, either to realize that s/he is like all others (we’re all the same), or to bear an extreme solitude (I am not you), the latter can even be thought of as the ultimate, moral goal of (wo)man as the strive for complete uniqueness. Together with the individualism of the 18th Century (free personality), this individualism (of differentiated personality) manifested itself in the economic principles of, respectively, free competition and the division of labor.

D. Quantitative Aspects of the Group

1. On the Significance of Numbers for Social Life

Groups are quantitatively determined in two ways: some developments can only take place below or above a particular number of elements, and some developments are imposed upon the group by its quantitative modifications.

Small groups: only in small groups does socialism stand a chance (otherwise, differentiations are inevitable). Sects too require the cohesiveness of small groups, and aristocracies need the "surveyability" of all elements in small groups (the transition to larger groups means the extinction of small groups, cf. state formation).

Large groups: they are always guided by simple ideas accessible to everybody, though in reality they operate with great complexity. Small groups are more radical in the sense that they require unreserved devotion of every member; larger groups can allow some heterogeneity of elements without the danger of breaking up. Also, as a correlate to the face-to-face cohesiveness of small groups, large groups resort to offices, laws, representations and symbols. For instance, compare custom and law: custom is the undifferentiated "normative as such" and evolves into both morality and law. Morality is what develops in the ego (the individuality of the ideal "I ought to" which is part of the "I am"); law is its correlate in society (the "we ought to" to which the individual is subjected). Custom stands in between both; a breach of custom mobilizes the small group, while legal violations provoke the whole society. However, the law of society does not have to be as all-encompassing as custom, because the large group only requires the law as far as it forms a unity, which is a matter of degree.

2. The Quantitative Determination of Group Divisions and of Certain Groups

Moving beyond the small-large group division, some observations can be made. In numerical equal subdivisions, the number operates as a classificatory principle within a whole. The subdivisions are composed of related or supplementary elements. The numerical division here constitutes the principle of classification. Numbers can also be used to characterize a group within a larger group (e.g. the top ten). The number is the symbol for group division, and its members are defined solely on the basis of that number. This division by numbers only becomes increasingly important in large groups, where the individual becomes less important than the whole. The example of the party further shows the relevance of the number. A party is only a party depending on the relationships between host and guests, between guests, and how these relations are interpreted. Note that the more people come together, the less they can share any sophisticated things, they instead share at a lower level (food and drink). Generally, the more people come together, the more it will lead to something intrinsically different (quantity shifts lead to qualitative changes). Groups have their own responsibilities which an individual member could not bear. Numbers also matter for the extended family, and so on.

3. The Isolated Individual and the Dyad

More definite conclusions can be reached from looking at the simple structures, i.e. one, two or three people. First, isolation is not just the individual in solitude, but it implies the rejection of society (often in a group). It exist in the individual but it expresses a relation with the group. Freedom, therefore, is not being alone; freedom is drawn with respect to a group, as a matter of degree, and often dependent on a person’s power. Second, the dyad is the simplest form of sociation, between two people upon which it is entirely dependent. The dyad is trivial and intimate. The marriage is a desire for fusion and, once a child is born, the illusion of that fusion. A third person coming in destroys the dyad, and it becomes a triad. Then superordination and subordination completely change.

4. The Triad

Triads consist of three people or three parties (consisting of more than three people). The role of the third is crucial, because the third can mediate (verbally or by gesture) between the other two since he stand above the conflicting interests or is equally concerned with both interests. The third can also arbitrate, i.e. make a final decision. Note that Simmel feels that "if one wants to understand the real web of human society..., the most important thing is to sharpen one’s eye for such beginnings and transitions". The third can also be a tertius gaudens, i.e. someone who profits from the other two’s interactions, e.g. checking them out. An example is a buyer and two or more producers. of course, as soon as the other two merge (form a trust), the third looses its advantage. The third can also create conflicts between the two others and prohibit them from uniting and so becoming stronger (the divide and rule principle).

E. Superordination and Subordination


These are the key ideas of Simmel’s analysis of superordination and subordination:

1) Domination is a form of interaction. Even in the most extreme forms of subordination, there is some personal freedom. These are therefore societal forms.

2) Authority denotes authoritative behavior that can become objective or supra-individual, as well as the fact that the supra-individual power may vest a person with authority. Prestige is individual and has no supra-individual objectivity.

3) The leader and the led are intertwined in sociation by means of reciprocity; they do not exclude each other, on the contrary, they imply one another.

4) Interaction is important for the idea of law. There can be no reciprocity between ruler and ruled when the ruler is chosen on the basis of a mutual contract between the ruled. In this case there is no reciprocity. There must be confrontation to have interaction, and therefore "the tyranny of a group over its own members is worse than that of a prince over his subjects" (relate to informalism in social control, cf. there is no third with which a reciprocal relationship is established).

1. Subordination under an Individual

Superordination can be exerted by an individual, a group, or an objective, social or ideal, force. Subordination of a group under an individual results in a unification, a close bonding of the group (around or against the leader). Examples: sects have a strong cohesion based on their relationship to god. The leader, which can be a plurality of leaders, is the cause of cohesion.

When groups have a common enemy, their cohesion is even stronger (see Lewis Coser). Often group dynamics show both the need for, and the antagonism toward, leadership: obedience and opposition are two sides of one human attitude. However, subordination under one leader can also lead to group conflicts. This is a threshold phenomenon: antagonisms between groups stabilizes their relationships up to a certain point (e.g. dominated groups have a tendency to come together, and this can intensify group conflicts). Group conflicts, however, are more easily removed when these groups have a common leader, a higher power which they share.

Levelling of the group, i.e. the abolition or non-existence of differences between its members, maintains the power of the leader (the despot rules by virtue of equality). Individual members of a group put only a little part of their personality in the group (by virtue of their decomposition of personality), and how smaller this input, how easier it is for the ruler to rule. Gradation can also lead to unification, namely when the group members are organized like a pyramid, with the ruler on top.. Gradation occurs bottom up or top down. An overturn of power actually often preserves the structures of superordination (e.g. French revolution).

2. Subordination under a Plurality

The relationships between a plurality of leaders and their subordinates are uneven depending on the structures of their relations. Individual needs are usually not taken into account, while an appeal to objective conditions (e.g. law) is often effective under a plurality of leaders. Masses are lower in intellect, they are susceptible to irrational, spontaneous actions.

The subordination under a plurality may be total, and the individual is confronted by different demands (the tension is insoluble). The subordination under a plurality is relative when the individual can switch from one to the other. The plurality of superordinates can also be stratified, so that a middle power stands between the upper power and the subordinates (hostile to both).

A special case of subordination is the outvoting of a minority. As a member of a community, the individual who joins in the vote submits to the subordination to the majority, as a consequence of social membership. Outvoting does not threaten the whole when there is this sense of supra-individuality, but when it is missing, unanimity becomes imperative for the continuation of the whole. Simmel notes that the subjection to majority can be irrational in the sense that the majority can be wrong (it is a subjection based on dogma). Note how there is dissent (the will of the minority) but it does not weaken the group; outvoting reflects the dualism between a person’s group membership and his personal individuality.

3. Subordination under a Principle

This is the dominant modern principle of subordination: people subject to an objective law, not to leaders. It is depersonified subordination. Subordination by principle can also take the form of a concrete object (e.g. the land). These relationships translate in the individual’s consciousness: the group wants what the individual wants (socialization), but the power of obligation stems from the super-personal validity, an objective reality (reification). Actually, society stand between individual and objectivity, society is general. The objectivity arises out of society, its generality. In the end, justice, for instance, appears as an objective relationship, it transcend the individual as well as the social. Actually, the power of the superordinate can also become objective, e.g. the will of the King becomes law, and then he must himself subject to that objectivity. Both superordinates and subordinates stand under an objective force (e.g. the force of the contract).

4. Superordination, Subordination, Domination and Freedom

There can be groups which have no subordinates, and the group itself is superordinate (e.g. vis-a-vis a former enemy, there is no interaction yet there is superordination). There is actually a fundamental will to substitute superordination for freedom, this is done either by wanting to destroy the sociological form of superordination, or by seeking benefits within that form, i.e. lower start climbing up to the higher (the latter instance seems more common to Simmel, and goes completely against Marx).

Freedom and domination are dialectically related; differences among men are natural (against socialism and anarchism). For Simmel, superordination and subordination should be reciprocal over time; people are dependent on eachother vis-a-vis an objectified from of domination (e.g. the prince acquires a general character; the position in a division of labor is objective, and it is separated from the person). Coercion is important because of its form; it keeps people together (formal functionality of coercion), it is an irreplaceable support. The structures of superordination, to Simmel, seem mostly just because more people are qualified to take up the highest positions, hence the best take them. The pyramidal structure of classification is a solution to the discrepancy between qualifications and the limitations on the satisfying of those qualifications (compare to Durkheim who says that norms limit people’s passions, while Simmel says it’s the forms that do this).

F. The Secret and the Secret Society

1. Knowledge, Truth and Falsehood

Knowledge in significant in interaction, first, because one has to know who one deal with. This knowledge is a standpoint depending on the interaction, the positions we’re in, and this knowledge in turn affects the relationship. In our knowledge of reality, we can make errors. the knowledge of objects differs from that of people because people can choose to lie, i.e. conceal the truth about them. People select the relevant fragments of their thoughts to be revealed. These are not lies: a lie is a purposeful deception. Large, modern societies are fundamentally based on the truthfulness of its actors, but a certain amount of lying is not entirely negative. This indicates the relevance of trust or confidence: not everything can be known, so it must be assumed that they will do this or that.

Different groups can be distinguished based on the reciprocity of knowledge between their members. In interest groups, this reciprocal knowledge is not important, because, and as long as, members perform towards the interest that binds them. Several social forms can be classified according to the amount of knowledge involved; e.g. acquaintance: merely the other’s existence is acknowledged; discretion: respect for the other’s secret; friendship and love: a strive for total intimacy (but usually one focuses on one or the other aspect of the person); marriage: modern marriages are directed by love and sex, but there is an amount of discretion involved otherwise there would be nothing left to discover.

2. Secrecy and the Secret Society

The secret, as the hiding of realities, is one of man’s greatest achievements, it creates a second world and thus enlarges social life. People are fascinated by secrecy (I know something you don’t know) as well as by betrayal (I will tell you something you don’t know). Note that in modern society, more is known of general affairs and hardly anything of personal things. Note on adornment that it is twofold, namely giving another person joy and a wish to be enjoyed, a wish for the joy to flow back (it is typically a property of women; men have weapons).

The secret society (i.e. the group’s existence is a secret, or the membership in a known group is a secret) has the purpose of protection through confidence. The group can conceal itself, i.e. its existence is a secret, because it is just formed or because it is threatened in its existence. The confidence among its members is essential, they must preserve the secret, but this situation is unstable. Silence is a necessary technique to keep a secret, while written communication is opposed to all secrecy (e.g. letters).

Secrecy can be the purpose of a social formation (e.g. the secret society), and sociation prevents people from disclosing the secret since it counterbalances the isolation which results from keeping a secret. Secret societies are hierarchical (division of labor), because they are built (they do not grow) purposely in this fashion. Therefore, secret societies have specific rituals, which must be carried out and which must be guarded as a secret; it claims the individual, makes him member of the secret society. Secret societies also have a degree of freedom which is missing in society at large; the secret society compensates for this lack of freedom in general society. Compared to sociation in general, secret societies are separate, formal, and conscious; they have complicated systems of signs which secure inner cohesion and seclusion from the outside; its members feel superior, and are initiated to materially and formally establish their seclusion from society; they are egoistic in terms of the secret society and hostile towards the general society; secret societies have very strong bonds, they exclude inner conflicts, and they are centralized (blind obedience to the leaders); the members are de-individualized, equal, anonymous, and because they essentially refuse the unifying attempt of government in society at large, they appear as dangerous.

G. Some Cultural Studies of Modernity

1. Faithfulness and Gratitude

Faithfulness is a mode of conduct, a psychic state of the individual, and it is necessary for the existence of society. It ensures that relationships are maintained beyond the purposes that originated them. Faithfulness is not directed towards a person, it is directed at the relationship; it stabilizes the fluctuations in relationships and mediates tensions (it secures the interactions’ formal stability). This makes gratitude and faithfulness sociological matters: they sustain sociation. Specifically, gratitude ensures the reciprocity of relations, a means of inner coercion by absence of external coercion.

2. Masses and The Stranger

Masses are negative, they prohibit because it unifies them more easily. The observance of norms is not that important, but the violation of a norm can be an impetus for exclusion from the group.

A stranger is not part of a group, and can therefore be more objective, because of the peculiar distance and nearness vis-a-vis the group. The stranger stays unique, no matter how much they interact with the group, they never interact in the group.

3. The Metropolis and Mental Life

The city affects people’s psychic lives because of the intensification of nervous stimulations, it calls for punctuality, calculability and exactness. This dominance of the intellect is related to the money economy, since both are unresponsive to the individuality of persons. Objective culture at the same time calls for a personal subjectivity, cf. the blase attitude. All qualities are reduced to quantities, all relations are characterized by distrust and indifference. But it also allows for freedom, since the ability to control each and every person is weakened; the objective spirit takes over from the subjective spirit. People are overwhelmed by objective culture, but at the same time this makes them want to be unique, it stimulates their need to seek individuality. Not the general human attitude secures the individual’s freedom (see above, 18th century), but the individual’s uniqueness and independence.



Mead’s work directly responded to Cooley, but Mead’s analysis has been more influential for later interactionist developments. Charles Horton Cooley was the first to emphasize the social constitution of the self, the fact that the self is not intrinsically biological (for instance with reference to sex), but that biological conditions have to become relevant for the constitution of the self in a society. Cooley defines the self as "a somewhat definitive imagination of how one’s self... appears in a particular mind" (Human Nature and Social Order, 1902).

According to Cooley, the self is the capacity to see ourselves as we see other objects, as if we are looking into a mirror to find ourselves and see ourselves as others see us. This process of the looking-glass self can be broken down into three components: first, we imagine how we appear to others; second, we imagine others’ judgment of that appearance; and, third, we develop a self-feeling as the result of our imagining others’ judgments. The self, then, is first and foremost the result of a social process; there is no self without society (hence, most attention goes to the social influences on the self).

Mead’s analysis of the self departs from Cooley’s in two ways: a) Mead pays more attention to the process of how the self is constituted (through mind, cognition and language), and b) in the course of this explanation, Mead pays equal attention to the active ‘I’ and the passive ‘me’ side of the self (while Cooley’s self is largely me). Also, Mead, unlike some of his interactionist successors, was heavily influenced by psychological behaviorism; he sought to apply behaviorism to an analysis of consciousness, mind and self.

1. Mind

Mead’s analysis of mind, self, and society basically presents an outline of how social action is possible and what is so special about human (as compared to animal) action (Mind, Self & Society, 1934). This requires a few words of explanations on how he conceives mind and action.

First, consider an act. According to Mead, any act entails four stages: 1) impulse: a reaction to a stimulation in terms of the existing environment (I’m hungry); 2) perception: the incoming stimuli create mental images which permit to differentiate among the dimensions of an impulse (I see a dog and a chicken); 3) manipulation: appropriate action is considered in response to the perceived stimulus (the chicken looks quite tasty); and 4) action is taken (I eat the chicken).

Now, second, the human mind is according to Mead characterized by some unique features: the human mind is capable of using symbols to denote objects, to rehearse different types of action, and to imaginarily select the most appropriate line of action (the latter two are made possible by virtue of the symbols). This mind-ful use of symbols is called imaginate rehearsal, and this process is a necessary condition for the development of self and society. Indeed, because of the mind’s capacity to use significant symbols, as a basis for true communication, humans can transcend the simple pattern of action based on gestures. Gestures are used in any act involving two or more people (or animals), but only through the human mind can they acquire meanings which become common or shared among individuals in the course of their interactions with others. These are significant symbols, and they make up the essence of human communication through language. Thinking, then, can be defined as an internal conversation, and, since language is a social product, human thought or consciousness (and symbolic interaction) are possible only through the use of significant symbols (consciousness is social). Then, the mind can enter the important phase of being able to take the role of the other and constitute, through the interpretation of symbols, both self and society.

2. Self

Since communication is essential to the development of the self, it follows that Mead’s concept of the self is essentially a social self: "one has to be a member of a community to be a self". The self develops out of a conversation: by using symbols, one can talk to one’s self as if one talks to someone else. These symbols should arouse in oneself what it arouses in others (shared meanings). This is achieved through social interaction, i.e. in the course of life (from child to adulthood). Likewise, consciousness is social, it is a characteristic of the environment to which one belongs, it is not lodged in the brain.

Two stages can be distinguished in the development of self: 1) play, when the specific perspectives of a limited number of others is taken, and game, when several others’ particular perspectives lead to the formation of multiple self-images, and 2) the generalized other, when the overall, general perspective of the community of others (social norms, group) is assumed. The perspectives of others on oneself is then crystallized into a more or less coherent and stable conception of the self. Thus, in the form of the generalized other as the cognitive recognition of the attitudes of the community, the community exerts control over its members. The generalized other is not a part of the self; it is a capacity of the self to make signs universal.

The social determination of the self is not to deny subjectivity or individualism. Here fits in Mead’s important distinction between ‘I’ and ‘me’. First, the process of the formation of the self is not to be conceived mechanistically: the individual mind, the human capacity to take the role of the other through symbolic communication, is cognitively involved in the process to the self. Second, the self entails both the I and the me. This can be clarified by reference to memory: what the I does now is remembered the next moment as the me.

More important is the definition of I and me by reference to the social dimensions of the self. The me, the self as object, is the organized set of attitudes of others which oneself has assumed, it is the definite organization of the community in one’s own attitudes, as a moral, not a mechanistic, necessity; the me is conventional. The I, the self as subject, is how one reacts to these attitudes; it is uncertain, it gives the sense of freedom and initiative; the I represents novelty in action. The self therefore is conceived as a social process consisting of these two phases.

While the self is socially constructed, this does not mean, according to Mead, that the individual cannot affect the social community. On the one hand, Mead emphasizes that when one is engrossed in action, there is no sense of the self. One has to be more reflective in light of others to "have" a self (socially constructed). There cannot be a self without society. On the other hand, however, Mead also asserts that the individual "is not only a citizen, a member of the community, but he is one who reacts to this community and in his reaction to it... changes it".

The relative importance of I and me depend on the situation, and "The fact that all selves are constituted by or in terms of the social process... is not in the least incompatible with, or destructive of, the fact that every individual self has its own peculiar individuality, its own unique pattern; because each individual self within that process, while it reflects in its organized structure the behavior patterns of that process as a whole, does so from its own particular standpoint within that process". The result of the I’s relative powers over the me do not only result in a changing self (adaptation to the situation), but can also affect the social environment (e.g. the genius).

3. Society

For the formation of the self, Mead asserts, interaction with others is crucial. Society, then, is defined by Mead as the organized set of interactions among diverse individuals (interaction between selves and others). All individuals in a society occupy particular roles, and each of their roles is defined in relation to the role of others (roles come in pairs, e.g. father and child). Social interaction relies then on the ability of individuals to know the roles of others, i.e. the capacity of "taking the role of the other", and, in the course of these interactions, as mentioned before, the self can also acquire the capacity to take the role of the generalized other. Under the supervision of the generalized other, the I and the me can then negotiate: the I tries out different versions of the me. The generalized other also enables two parties in a conversation to understand one another, to share meanings, and to put themselves in the place of the other. The universal nature of signs, the fact that a sign does not refer to anything in particular, emerges from the generalized other, i.e. the ability of people to project themselves emphatically into the position of the other.

In sum, the self and society are in Mead’s view mutually constitutive: society is in flux and amenable to change because it is constructed out of the adjustive interactions among individuals, and, at the same time, society influences the formation of the self via the mind process of taking the role of the generalized other. Basically, Mead argues that society shapes the self, and that the self affects society, a simple but profound observation for the times. The person "must become socialized to become himself."

4. Note: Mead on Social Control

Mead writes: "Social control, as operating in terms of self-criticism, exerts itself so intimately and extensively over individual behavior or conduct... [because the individual takes] the attitude of other individuals, and the attitudes of the organized social group of which he and they are members, toward himself......; and thus, through self-criticism, social control over individual behavior or conduct operates by virtue of the social origin and basis of such criticism. That is to say, self-criticism is essentially social criticism, and behavior controlled by self-criticism is essentially behavior controlled socially. Hence social control, so far from tending to crush out the individual or to obliterate his self-conscious individuality, is, on the contrary, actually constitutive of and inextricably associated with that individuality".

See related papers on sociological theory.