French sociologist Emile Durkheim is considered by many as the father of modern sociology along with Karl Marx and Max Weber. He is credited with establishing social sciences as part of formal academic curriculum (Durkheim, 2002). He lectured and published works on religion, suicide, and other aspects of sociology, among which are The Division of Labor in Society and his seminal work, Suicide in 1897. Influenced by introductory sociologists, Comte and Saint-Simon, Durkheim's holism approach stated sociology should study and observe cultures and social actions at a macro level. He provided sociology with a professional and systematic standing, for which he stressed that a domain should be specified for the study of sociology that separates it from psychology and individuality and focus only on the social concern. He claimed that a society has its own mind and life and is not primarily driven by intentions and doings of individuals, which is precisely what gives purpose to sociology (Free Essays, 2003). In advancing the positivist concept of sociology, he worked to prove society as distinct, regarding social phenomena as causally functioning forces, which was previously not the case. He took steps to discard the abstract and deductive approach of a general individual as perceived by economists and moralists, as stressed that real man was far more composite.
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The idea of 'social realism' was presented in his work, 'The rules of Sociological Method' published in 1895. According to him, social facts should be seen and examined as real and tangible, dependent on the laws of nature and which can be explored by scientific laws (Jones, 1999). Social events are not to be seen only as a sum of acts by abstract persons but objective realities of their own identity that are subject to certain rules, and these rules can be ascertained by proper application of empirical scientific methodologies. He came to take on this realist position after his trip to Germany in 1886-1667, in face of historical and social circumstances that were taking shape in France during that time, when it was actively undergoing the process of social reform, and hence, Durkheim's realism began to develop in that period only. His social realism has come to be considered a central contribution to sociological thought. In order to account for social realism, it is also important to understand the concept of social facts. In order to understand Durkheim's realism, the eminent procedural injunction of treating social facts as things must be applied. These are the facts that involve or rely on the features that distinguish him and the social life in which he participates apart from the non-living nature (Collin, 1997:6). These are the intentional facts tat deal with man's intentions, choices and desires aimed at the world around him, no matter how direct or indirect that is.
Social realism, as Durkheim's puts it, can be conceived as an epistemological process to affirm the independent existence of 'duties and obligations' and to recognize the nature of restraint as drawn from the society. According to Durkheim, realism consists of realities that are as significant and distinct as psychology or biology, which can neither be termed empirical or idealist. These structures are dealt as real events operating sovereign to individuals whose action are shaped by them, hence acting contrary to both.
His work, 'Suicide and the Birth Rate' that was published in 1888 presents a more detailed and developed realist vocabulary by Durkheim (Morrison, 2000). In this, he splits and first talks about the advantages of his own social approach with regard to birth rate and suicide, making a point that the work made it obvious that the reasons behind the issue was social or moral, rather than demographic or economic factors as previously studied by respective social scientists. He then raised the status of birth rates to social facts, as of composing a living reality. Rather than viewing them as of organic nature like fertility, he perceived birth rates as a social subject matter, and brings them, as put by Durkheim, under the heading of 'ruling social customs and ideas in society.' They are therefore social facts such that they direct the fundamental practices whose terms are then met by individuals, instead of being implied as a mere natural necessity. During the discussion on birth rates and suicide, he also asserts that social functions that families serve act as a restraint on individuals' egoism and binds them together. Its absence gradually weakens this bond of solidarity and the resulting gaps are filled by egoism.
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Durkheim's outlook on society was influenced by individualist theories presented by Thomas Hobbes and Jacques-Jean Rousseau, which focused on individual person's nature to explore the roots of a society (Morrison, 2006). According to Hobbes, nature is a condition that exists when the government and laws are absent. In such a state, people would use violent means of obtaining power and there would be no security. Hence, there would be no peace in a state of nature when people would struggle for dominance and achievement of motives, leading to war against all. He asserted that society only comes into existence when people deal out of the nature and shun aggression to meet their objectives. They then form a society in order to achieve peace and security by yielding for rules to a ruler who can control all of them. Durkheim, on the other hand, disagreed with this notion as it implied that individuals are innately resistant to society, which, according to it, is only formed when individuals are forced to comply with the laws by an external leader. In this view, Durkheim disagreed and said that this restraint is merely an individual's consequence and is added additionally to social reality. He said that this restraint is rather impressed by the society instead of the individual, thereby making it central to his stand on societal structure. This led him to believe that this restraint can in fact, be studied as part of social reality.
Jacques-Jean Rousseau presented another individualistic theory of social-contract drawn in The Social Contract and the Origin of Inequality. Rousseau concentrated on issue of the creation of common social rules in society, and like Hobbe, paid significance to human characters in the making of society. According to him, as the society develops, it is likely to build private property and self-interest, which results in conflict between individuals who compete in a hostile and selfish world. He aimed to explore how individual interest is replaced by common interests. It is when individuals let priority be given to the general will rather than the individual will that the society is formed. This general will is important because he asserted that it is formed when individuals gather their own separate wills, and as this happens, individual will is altered so much that the people involved become part of the entirety formed by their common unification. This so means that the general will is created and receives its unification by depending on the amalgamation of individual wills, hence moving on to build the collective will of the society. In this way, the society becomes an alliance whose ethical and joint authority is formed by multiple entities, and the product of the society, he believed therefore, was a mutual expression of individual wills. Despite being similar to Durkheim's views in some respects, he disagreed with Rousseau in certain other matters, beginning with Rousseau's inclination to seek origination from the individual nature to reach social issue dealing. However, Durkheim is of the view that the collective makeup of the society is distinct from the individual, and so it can be examined as a social reality in its own self, and so he believed that it was independent of the individual. Durkheim also happened to be critical of Rousseau's concept of the emergence of society as it clearly relied on the philosophical and idealist concepts of individualist characters, and so it did not succeed in taking the realist approach of treating society as an autonomous reality that is present external to individual. From Rousseau's point of view, society could always be brought down into individual wills. This raises question on the issue of social obligations that was seen by Durkheim in contrast as an autonomous basis of investigation, having created from within the society.
For Emile Durkheim, religion is a key factor in the being of groups and individuals. He spent ample amount of time in exploring the dynamics of religion and how it influences and directs individuals and society (Townsley, 2004). He views religion as the reflection of society instead of the representation of supernatural realism and proved this assumption using sociological method. Durkheim describes religion in the book, Elementary Form of Religious Life as "a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden-beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them." He illustrates religious depictions as collective representations that convey shared realities, moving on to define rites as ways of acting that are created only among the assembled groups and that aim to induce, uphold or reconstruct certain mental states in groups. He also points out how all of the initial systems of representation were religious when they originated, and introduced researchers to a new way to confer epistemology.
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For the purpose of explicating the sociology of knowledge, Durkheim uses the history of religions to show how religions reflected the structure of society. He observes that there is nothing objective in the world apparently that forces us to group things with each other, our experiences being dissimilar and sporadic. In actuality, we never observe beings that merge their natures and modify into one another. It is in fact, only the religious practice of grouping different symbolic clans together that enabled us to start grouping other things in our surroundings, based on his study of tribal groups. Thus, the realities of nature, man and society to which religious assumption was applied then are quite similar to those that would later serve as objects of scientists' reflection, as Durkheim put it. Both attempt to interconnect things, establish internal associations among those things, categorize them, and arrange them.
This is how Durkheim tries to show that religion shape the epistemological foundation for human experience. He, however, takes a step further and made effort to drastically overturn this conception of the relation of religion and society, and said that society is the origin of religion instead of making religion the beginning of society. In this respect, he agreed with his predecessor, Karl Marx in making religion a reflection of society. However, in contrast to Marx who sees god as a glorification of human nature, Durkheim, in many ways, perceives god as society itself. In this manner, he strives to show how religion stabilizes everyone, and stimulate unity, identity and coherence between members of the community. This happens when ritual are restructured that invokes intense feelings and attachment between partakers. The symbolic meanings attached with these rituals will seep into the daily lives of these members, from where they can be passed on to those who have not participated, who can uphold these symbols too, and eventually pass on to others. This is how moral systems would effectively penetrate into and pass on in the societies.