Principles of Group Solidarity

By Michael Hechter | Go to book overview

CHAPTER II
THE PROBLEM

A social fact is to be recognized by the power of external coercion which
it exercises or is capable of exercising over individuals, and the presence
of this power may be recognized in its turn either by the existence of
some specific sanction or by the resistance offered against every individ-
ual effort that tends to violate it.

Emile Durkheim

IN ORDER TO justify their new discipline, the founders of sociology claimed that the causes of social phenomena were to be found by studying groups rather than individuals.1 They held that neither social order nor social change could be understood adequately on the basis of individualistic assumptions: the individual was a consequence, not a determinant of social structures. The early sociologists attacked the economists’ assumption that freely contracting individuals could establish and sustain institutions like the free market, asserting instead that social institutions rested upon factors like “noncontractual bases of contract” or structures of property rights that were embedded within the society at large.

Sociologists indicted methodological individualism for its inability to explain both social order and social change.2 For them, order rested upon the existence of groups based on kinship, religion, or some other common interest. As for change, what sociologist would seek to explain revolutions without the concept of class, or nationalism without the concept of the ethnic group? Classes and status groups—not individuals—were considered to be the principal actors in sociology.

Underlying these contentions is a single idea: that in all societies individuals’ actions are decisively affected by the groups to which they belong. If Catholics have higher fertility rates than Protestants, this must be because adherents comply with the directive of the Catholic Church forbid

1 “If there is such a science as sociology, it can only be the study of a world hitherto unknown, different from those explored by other sciences” (Durkheim [1897] 1951: 310).

2 Max Weber may be considered to be the major exception to this rule. Although he advocated individualism in his writings on methodology, this position was largely abandoned in the historical analyses upon which his fame principally rests. For Weber, the course of history was decisively affected by conflicts between status groups whose solidarity was taken as given, rather than regarded as problematic (Bendix 1960: 259).

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