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Jacques Coenen-Huther, 2010. Comprendre Durkheim [Understanding Durkheim]. Paris: Armand Colin, 220 p.
Charles-Henri Cuin, 2011. Durkheim. Modernité d’un classique [Durkheim. Modernity of a Classic]. Paris: Hermann, 206 p.
Raymond Boudon, 2011, ed. Durkheim fut-il durkheimien? [Was Durkheim Durkheimian?]. Paris: Armand Colin, 236 p.

1The celebration, in 2008, of the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of Durkheim’s birth gave rise to the publication of a number of works, as observed by Dominique Merllié in the article “L’‘Année’ Durkheim 2008” (2008: ‘Year’ of Durkheim) in Revue philosophique (134, no. 2 [2009]: 217-229). In the run up to the centenary commemoration of The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse), three books have recently appeared in France that attest to the enduring interest in the work of the founder of scientific sociology. All of their authors aimed to free scientific sociology from the dogmatic rigidity in which it is often still imprisoned, and so to bring an end to the widely accepted view of the discipline. In doing so, they also attempt to break with both the monolithic view of what is actually a very varied way of thinking and with the image of a theorist whose strictness, authoritarianism, and intolerance have been exaggerated. To this end, they offer a series of new readings and reevaluations, some examples of which will be examined here.

2Contemporaneous with the scholarly work of Philippe Besnard and Massimo Borlandi on Durkheimian thought, seven of Charles-Henri Cuin’s texts from the last twenty-five years have been compiled into a single volume. The collection retraces some of the contours of this undertaking to reexamine Durkheim’s works. It begins with a study on “Durkheim and Social Mobility” (“Durkheim et la mobilité sociale”). This study reveals an “equivocal position” that gives rise to “an ambiguous theory of social distribution.” Although it is true that Durkheim’s The Division of Labor in Society (De la division du travail social) sees a distribution governed by equal opportunities as the remedy to the compulsory form of the division of labor, “the analysis never arrives at what would seem to be its logical extension: on the one hand, an analysis of the conditions of an equalitarian social distribution and, on the other hand, an analysis of its effects not only on the integration of the social system, but also on individual fates in terms of ‘social mobility’” (Cuin 2011, 88-89). It would therefore be useless to look for a finished theory of social mobility in the work. According to C.-H. Cuin, this is because Durkheim does not address the problem of compatibility between two views of social distribution, “one of which is governed by the norm of equal opportunity and the other by that of individual adaptation.”

3Such an undertaking is seen in Cuin’s “Division of Labor, Social Inequalities, and Social Order” (“Division du travail, inégalités sociales et ordre social”). This work updates the aporias of the socioeconomic solution envisaged in Durkheim’s 1894 theory for eliminating inequalities, establishing equal opportunities, and ensuring social order. It also updates the reasons for choosing the sociocultural solution. The reflections at the end of Socialism (Le Socialisme, 1928) contrast with the conclusions of the chapter on “The Restricted Division of Labor.” Durkheim states that “for social order to reign, men in general must content themselves with their fate, but what allows them to do this is not having more or having less, but being convinced that they do not have the right to have more.” On this view, educational institutions are not an instrument of equal opportunities, but a way of producing individuals who meet social demand. The “sole or main object [of education] is not the individual and their interests, but above all the way in which society constantly renews the conditions of its existence” (Education and Sociology [Éducation et Sociologie], 1922). C.-H Cuin concludes that this is far from the initial goal of “harmony between individual natures and social functions.” He emphasizes “the precarious nature of our author’s reflections on the conditions for establishing equality of social opportunities … and the emphasis that he places on the essentially socializing and integrating role of educational institutions, to the detriment of their role in the social promotion of individuals” (Cuin 2011, 55).

4“One Discourse for Two Methods: From The Rules to Suicide” (“Un discours pour deux méthodes : des Règles au Suicide”) reexamines the received view that Suicide is an exemplary illustration of the method prescribed in The Rules. “Close reading” reveals that the 1897 work owes little to the prescriptions made three years earlier. Moreover, the 1894 text paradoxically says little about explanation in sociology. Its author seems to be well aware of the shortcomings of this explanation in conforming to positivist epistemology: the results of the concomitant variation method “need interpretation” and the facts that it establishes “need development by the mind.” At the end of a rigorous demonstration, C.-H. Cuin offers proof that The Rules outline an explanatory method “that transgresses the inductivist and holistic prescriptions of the positivist orthodoxy.” They do, in fact, introduce two methods. These are not contradictory, because all research combines induction and deduction, just as holism and individualism, despite being purely methodological, are the two necessary stages of a true explanation. Thus, Suicide connects and combines an “individualist” method with a “holistic” epistemology, or “more precisely, it uses two methods of explanation, one of which applies the doctrinal rigor of The Rules to the letter, while the other introduces the cursed object of Durkheimian epistemology – individual psychology – through the back door” (Cuin 2011, 59).

5We also find in this collection C.-H. Cuin’s contribution to the volume edited by M. Borlandi and M. Cherkaoui, Suicide: A Century After Durkheim (Le Suicide, un siècle après Durkheim [Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2000]): “Sociology Without Words: Durkheim and the Discourse of Actors” (“Sociologie sans paroles: Durkheim et le discours des acteurs”). In this article, Cuin gives a reinterpretation of the 1897 monograph, with new and often biting reflections: “No one could fail to observe that Durkheim’s chosen actors are, by definition, inexorably and definitively mute” (Cuin 2011, 128). Not only is the discourse of actors dispensable, but these fallacious and dangerous verbal manifestations should be ignored. The explanatory procedure for the causes of suicide used here is truly “comprehensive.” It does not apply to concrete individuals, but to types; it is part of “an art of understanding without listening,” supported by a model-based reconstruction of motivations: “In truth, the best passages in Suicide are those in which the author reveals and analyzes the reasons [that lead to suicide].” Like that of Weber, “Durkheim’s talent lies in analyzing social action by reconstructing the actors’ motives and reasoning, without ever risking the dubious interpretation of their words” (Cuin 2011, 130). The conclusion reminds us that for “sociologists of the ‘subject,’ the Durkheimian view is still a real theoretical scandal – not to mention how provocative it is for the kind of sociology that now seems unable to work without a dictaphone…” (Cuin, 159).

6Understanding Durkheim (Comprendre Durkheim) shares this reevaluation of a sociology that is of infinitely greater value than its widely accepted version. Like C.-H. Cuin, who uncovers subtle analyses masked by dogmatic writings in order to demonstrate the modernity of Durkheimian problems, the originality of Durkheim’s answers, and the “multitude of questions,” Jacques Coenen-Huther gives a “nuanced analysis” and “balanced overview” of a work that is held to be “a source of inspiration and of reflections that are still relevant today.” He does this in six chapters, the first of which, “The Man and the Oeuvre in their Time” (“L’homme et l’œuvre en leur temps”) uses information from (in particular) Marcel Fournier’s long biography of Durkheim (Emile Durkheim: 1858-1917 [Paris: Fayard, 2007]). We encounter there a complex character, often seen as a “conservative bourgeois,” but who was very close to Jaurès’ humanist socialism and “in line” with Léon Bourgeois’ solidarism. Against a background of tensions between science and action, determinism and freedom, and sociological naturalism and spiritualist orientation, this man who was “keen” to counter the undertakings of his potential competitors (Gabriel Tarde and René Worms) employs a double strategy (intellectual and institutional). A coherent scientific program (taken on collectively by the L’Année Sociologique group) and a constant desire for official recognition ensured his superiority. However, because he stated that social facts should be treated as things, he was seen as a “strict scientist.” Similarly, his seemingly systematic affirmation that individual consciousness is an expression of society meant that he was seen as having an excessively hostile view of society. He consequently acquired “the reputation of a dogmatic mind.”

7The second chapter, “A Sociology of Modernity” (“Une sociologie de la modernité”), which focuses on The Division of Labor in Society and Suicide, attempts to bring out the real significance of Durkheim’s sociology: “a true sociology of modernity, brought about by the arrival of modernity [seen] as the result of a differentiation process.” Distancing himself from the biological model that was dominant at the time and from the organicist metaphors that accompanied it, Durkheim analyzed this process in terms of social relationships, defining “two ideal-typical states of societal interdependence.” These were mechanical solidarity and organic solidarity. This analysis is part of a reflection on the fundaments of social cohesion. Here, J. Coenen-Huther compares this “dichotomy of ideal types” with those of Herbert Spencer and Ferdinand Tönnies. Following many analysts, he observes that Durkheim stands apart from both Spencer’s “evolutionist optimism” and Tönnies’ “romantic pessimism.” Integration, regulation, suicides as limits of socialization, and socialism as a reaction to anomie: all lend their content to the developments that follow, which conclude with two paragraphs on “professional groups and democracy.”

8“A Method for Sociology” (“Une méthode pour la sociologie”) examines Durkheim’s view of his discipline as an experimental science, free from opinions and preconceptions, and what separates the “professed method” from the “practiced method.” The third chapter essentially deals with The Rules and their application in Suicide and then in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Justice is done to the received idea that Durkheim constructed sociology in opposition to psychology. Following an initial rejection, psychology was “discreetly” reintroduced in the 1897 work. The distance between the stated principles and the effective product “is therefore not a matter of a proclaimed incompatibility between psychology and sociology: it is of another nature, and more fundamental. By adopting a ‘comprehensive’ reasoning (before the expression came into use), Durkheim returns to the preconceptions of his time and greatly relativizes the break with common sense that he prescribes in The Rules” (Coenen-Huther 2010, 79); a debatable formulation to say the least. In Elementary Forms, moving “from observable reality to the representations of actors,” the author of The Rules distances himself from the principles that he initially set out: “There is a noticeable difference between the precepts announced in the first work and the way of thinking seen in the second” (Coenen-Huther 2010, 80). After evoking “the scandal with Tarde” (Coenen-Huther 2010, 82-84), this methodological section ends first with a precise description of causal analysis and functional analysis and then of the distinction between the normal and the pathological.

9The following chapter, “From the Social to the Moral” (“Du fait social au fait moral”) completes the critical presentation of Durkheim’s thought and his key works After considering “the necessity of adopting a moral code,” it successively examines the establishment of a positive science of morality, individualism, and social consensus and the religious roots of morality, education, and the principle of authority. Overall, this first part of Understanding Durkheim fulfills its stated objective: it makes a series of alterations to a theoretical tapestry of loosely woven chronological threads, moving from the historical context to specific reevaluations. Since Durkheim formulated what he considered to be universal precepts, “the modern analyst, if he wishes to appreciate the validity of his conclusions, must decontextualize the statements to some extent. Faced with Durkheim’s work, sociologists can only adopt a ‘presentism’ tempered by the lessons of historiography, but backed up by a concern for relevance in the present” (Coenen-Huther 2010,  8). Clichés are undeniably destroyed and received ideas beneficially rejected, but in some cases this is only to make room for summary judgments and schematic or approximate views. For lack of examining a certain number of texts, including those recently collected by Victor Karady, Coenen-Huther does not fully and synthetically represent the ideas that drove Durkheim’s research program. He leaves aside the topographical survey of social sciences made by Durkheim (in 1909), the relationships between sociology and its neighboring disciplines, and the division of scientific work within L’Année Sociologique. The first four chapters say nothing of the group’s activities, nor (above all) of its leader’s contributions between 1898 and the eve of the First World War.

10Chapter 5, “France Post-Durkheim” (“L’après-Durkheim en France”) begins by naming Durkheimians divided “between fidelity and innovation.” They are separated into “professors” – Bouglé, Davy, and Fauconnet – and “researchers” – Halbwachs, Mauss, and Simiand. Rather than dwelling on the contestable nature of a return to this distinction, we prefer to emphasize the richness of the information provided in this chapter, much of which comes from the best source: J.-C. Marcel’s 2001 work (Le durkheimisme dans l’entre-deux-guerres [Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2001]). It gives a good description, commentary, and analysis of the relative eclipsing of Durkheimism after the Second World War (a period dominated by two strong figures with radically different intellectual orientations: Georges Gurvitch and Jean Stoetzel), of the first return to Durkheim (by Raymond Aron, Raymond Boudon, Pierre Bourdieu, Jean-Claude Chamboredon, François Chazel, and Jean-Claude Passeron), and of the different methods of appropriation and recent reevaluations of Durkheim’s work. Nevertheless, certain analyses are regrettably reductive and incomplete, such as that on the anti-Durkheimism of Stoetzel, whose key contribution to social psychology is not mentioned. The sixth and final chapter is entitled “Durkheim and Modern Sociology” (“Durkheim et la sociologie moderne”). In thirty pages, it covers the facts on how Durkheim’s work was received in various countries, particularly the United States, and on its current influence in France. Overall, in Understanding Durkheim, J. Coenen-Huther gives a critical and well-informed review of a body of work the importance of which has long been acknowledged. In this respect, it is possible to question the statement that it was only “during the last decade, after the hesitations of the preceding fifty years, [that] Durkheim and Weber, with Marx, Pareto, Simmel, and several others, joined the ranks of the ‘founding fathers’ of sociology” (Coenen-Huther 2010, 152).

11Was Durkheim Durkheimian? (Durkheim fut-il durkheimien ?) edited by Raymond Boudon, collects the proceedings of a conference organized at Bourdon’s instigation at the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences (Académie des sciences morales et politiques) in November 2008. Twelve contributions offer important clarifications and shed new light on Durkheim’s works, how they have been interpreted, and the problems that they present. Thus, Jean Baechler attempts to show the modernity of The Division of Labor in Society, which for him is a “masterpiece.” Behind the apparent and undeniable weaknesses, he identifies the strengths of Durkheim’s first work: the view of social cohesion, the reflections on equality and justice, the thoughts on the individual and the person, and the vision of a unified Europe. He sees Durkheim “if not [as] a father of the European Union, at least one of its perceptive forebears.” Next, François Chazel attempts to answer a specific question: “How should we read The Rules of Sociological Method today?” He strives to identify the reasoning behind Durkheim’s arguments, and emphasizes that the text is not a purely epistemological work, but an attempt to codify and systematize a research practice. Like C.-H. Cuin, He observes that “his methodology goes beyond the formulation of explicit recommendations, to which The Rules are devoted.” He adds that it is enlightening to compare the 1895 work (in which positivist inspiration dominates) and Suicide. Despite these reservations, F. Chazel argues that “the fundamental message” of The Rules should not be forgotten. According to him, this work “proposes and defends an ideal of scientificity, based on a generalized “scientific rationalism,” rather than solely on the virtues of experimental reasoning” (Chazel in Boudon 2011, 40).

12Durkheim’s final book, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, also receives an original new reading through the eyes of Raymond Boudon. In his text on “The Nature of Religion According to Durkheim” (“La nature de la religion selon Durkheim”), he proposes that what he holds up as a model of scientific demonstration offers a realist theory of religion. This theory undoubtedly has its weaknesses, but its strength emerges in its conclusions on the theories that religious beliefs are the product of an illusion. The fact that one element of Durkheim’s theory is difficult to accept (the view that it is in all cases society that is the object of this feeling of the sacred) does not invalidate the principles behind the analyses. Indeed, “why should it be society that, masked, claims the position of sole correlate of religious sentiment?” R. Boudon suggests that this correlate “is nothing more than what we today call values.” He argues that it is easier to accept “that the distinction between sacred and profane is associated with the distinction between values and reality than to suppose that it is society that provokes a sense of the sacred in the individual” (Boudon 2011, 150). This eliminates the need for the hypothesis of false consciousness, illusion, or hallucination. If Durkheim did not envisage this solution, it is partly because “the concept of values as we understand it today was little known in his time” (Boudon 2011, 150).

13The recurring theme according to which the social must be explained by the social is the departure point for Mohammed Cherkaoui’s contribution, “The Complexity of Social Phenomena and the Sociological Method According to Durkheim” (“La complexité du social et la méthode sociologique selon Durkheim”). Given that Durkheim’s theory and method are based on the singularity of macro-phenomena (sui generis realities, both expected and unwanted, all resulting from the interdependence of individuals), Cherkaoui seeks to uncover Durkheim’s solutions to the problem of the relationships between the individual and society. This, in other words, is the problem of the relationships between the microsociological and the macrosociological. He identifies four such relationships in Durkheim’s works: macro-macro, micro-micro, macro-micro, and micro-macro. He opportunely evokes the epistemological tradition in which these are based: “In A System of Logic, to which Durkheim explicitly refers, John Stuart Mill distinguishes two classes of phenomena and laws. The first category, homeopathic laws, is identifiable by the fact that causes and effects are on the same level of reality. This is the case when the social is studied through the social, or the individual through the individual. In the second category, that of telepathic laws, the causes and effects are not on the same level of reality. This is the case when studying the effects of the macro on the micro, and of the micro on the macro” (Cherkaoui in Boudon 2011, 82). Yet Durkheim’s model is not completely satisfactory; he himself knew that it was hypothetical and insufficiently developed. Nevertheless, contemporary sciences of complexity, with their infinitely more powerful means, still only manage to simulate the emergence of macrophenomena in certain cases.

14The 2008 conference resulted in tangible changes to the readings or views imposed (with varying degrees of legitimacy) by interpretations of Durkheim’s works. It did this through contributions on a series of themes, domains, or aspects of Durkheimian sociology: “Law and Morality” (“Droit et moralité” by Steven Lukes and Devyani Prabhat), “The sociology of Law” (“La sociologie du droit” by François Terré), the sociology of “Education” (“L’éducation” by Philippe Reynaud), “Human Rights in the Works of Durkheim and Weber” (“Les Droits de l’homme chez Durkheim et Weber” by Hans Joas), and “Durkheim, the Republican Communion and its Enemies” (“Durkheim, la communion républicaine et ses ennemis” by Pierre Birnbaum). Particular mention should be made of Massimo Borlandi’s “Durkheim and Psychology” (“Durkheim et la psychologie,” pages 55-80), because its attentive and learned examination of Durkheim’s text on psychology definitively sheds light on a relationship that has always been poorly understood. First, a distinction is made between “scientific psychology” and “ordinary psychology”, which are often both called “individual psychology”. Although Durkheim was well aware of the advances and contributions of scientific psychology, the weakness of his analysis of ordinary psychology is clear. The reasons for this weakness were essentially polemical, leading him to turn his attention to explanations in terms of motivations and motives, without taking direct interest in them. This is, in some ways, the flipside of his solid refutation of individualist sociology (the individualist explanation of social phenomena which he saw as emerging, then surviving the circumstances that provoked them).

15The comparative analysis of the three types of psychology – individual, social, and collective – is enlightening. The first is powerless to explain social phenomena. In order to explain such phenomena psychologically, a new psychology with principles different from those of ordinary psychology must be used. The rules of this other psychology are laid out in the 1898 article “Individual Representations and Collective Representations” (“Représentations individuelles et représentations collectives”), in which “representations” refers to psychological phenomena. The second and third types of psychology, while not entirely the same, are indifferently employed by Durkheim when he analyzes the psychological life of groups. Collective psychology as Durkheim sees it has original characteristics, as described by M. Borlandi: it supposes that the group mentality is not that of individuals, it must be supported by research that attempts to show how groups form their representations and establish their “laws of collective ideation”, and it crosses, overlaps, or straddles the psychology of crowds and the psychology of peoples. This collective psychology has no particular disciplinary status. Durkheim, who assimilates it with “sociology as a whole”, transforms it in his new science: it is entirely annexed and presented as “an empty expression, with no specific referent.” Borlandi clearly identifies the reasons for its promotion after the appearance of The Division of Labor in Society: accused of being mechanical, materialist, and ignorant of religion and spirituality, Durkheim retorted that social phenomena act via psychological pathways. This was another way of giving legitimacy to his theories other than asserting that, “In social life, everything is representation… All sociology is a psychology, but a sui generis psychology.” In short, “Durkheim’s collective psychology is an irremediable misunderstanding, because it is invariably a type of sociology: his sociology.”

16In the conclusion, Raymond Boudon returns to the question asked in the title of the work. Once again, the inaccurate interpretation of Durkheim’s theory as “a causal vision [in which] behavior and beliefs” are explained by social forces that act unbeknownst to actors, is vigorously and justifiably denounced. If we examine the spirit of the works, rather than the letter, it could be said that that their author “would not have consented to be called ‘Durkheimian.’” In conclusion, we might ask whether he would recognize himself in the common representation of him as leader of an authoritarian and implacable school of thought. In his memoirs, From Jaurès to Léon Blum (De Jaurès à Léon Blum. Paris: Fayard, 1938), Hubert Bourgin paints a striking picture of Durkheim and the Durkheimians gathered in an all-powerful Vehmic court, terrorizing and bringing down their adversaries. It is just as colorful as Péguy’s better-known representation. We are grateful to Bertrand Saint-Sernin’s “Durkheim and the Philosophers of his Time” (“Durkheim et les philosophes de son temps”, in Boudon 2011, 187-204) for inviting us to read the memories of Étienne Gilson, collected in Philosophy and Theology (Le Philosophe et la Théologie [Paris: Fayard, 1960]). The work concerns the “Durkheim myth” (Gilson 1960, 21-38). Gilson, who was a student at the Sorbonne in 1905, writes: “I cannot believe that (Péguy) is writing about the same man that I knew”; “Durkheimism never invaded higher education”; “the sociological terror that Péguy describes with such flair, in which Durkheim plays the role of a Robespierre, only ever existed in his fertile imagination.” Nevertheless, the founder of scientific sociology is often still seen as the “Regent of the Sorbonne”.

Bernard Valade
Director of L’Année sociologique, Professor Emeritus at Paris-Descartes University (France)
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