Emile Durkheim, 1858-1917: A Collection of Essays, with Translations and a Bibliography

By Emile Durkheim; Kurt H. Wolff | Go to book overview

DURKHEIM'S CONTRIBUTION TO THE THEORY OF INTEGRATION OF SOCIAL SYSTEMS

TALCOTT PARSONS

It is appropriate at this time, just a little over one hundred years after the birth of Emile Durkheim, to take stock of his contributions to what was perhaps the central area of his theoretical interest. The development of theoretical thinking that has taken place in the intervening years enables us to achieve greater clarity in the identification and evaluation of these contributions.

It can be said, I think, that it was the problem of the integration of the social system, of what holds societies together, which was the most persistent preoccupation of Durkheim's career. In the situation of the time, one could not have chosen a more strategic focus for contributing to sociological theory. Moreover, the work Durkheim did in this field can be said to have been nothing short of epoch-making; he did not stand entirely alone, but his work was far more sharply focused and deeply penetrating than that of any other author of his time. Because of this profundity, the full implications of his work have not yet been entirely assimilated by the relevant professional groups. Furthermore, in addition to the intrinsic complexity of the subject, the rather special frame of reference of French Positivism in which he couched his analysis has made it difficult to interpret him.

The present essay will not attempt to be a scholarly review either of Durkheim's own printed work or of the secondary literature. It will rather attempt--in the light of a good many years of preoccupation with the problems for which Durkheim. gave what were for his time classical formulations--to assess some of the main lines of his special contribution and to indicate the ways in which it has been both necessary and possible to try to go beyond the stage at which he left them.

There are two essential reference points in Durkheim's initial orientation: one is positive and the other negative. The posi-

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