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 CONSERVATISM AND ITS IMPLICATIONS FOR HIS SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY

LEWIS A. COSER

"A way of seeing is always a way of not seeing."1 It is clear that Durkheim saw much, and many writers in this volume will help to remind us of it. My task, though complementary, is different: I shall attempt to establish that Durkheim's conservatism significantly limited his perception of society. I would hold with Max Weber that "the choice of the object of investigation and the extent or depth to which this investigation attempts to penetrate into the infinite causal web, are determined by the evaluative ideas which dominate the investigator and his age."2 Since Durkheim was unusually explicit in stating his values, it is possible to trace in some detail the manner in which they limited the extent or depth of his investigation in certain areas, just as they helped him open up other areas to fruitful and often entirely new investigation.

In spite of all the adverse criticism which it contains, this essay is written in praise of Durkheim. I know of no better way to celebrate the work of a master of the past than to account for the limitations of his work. No one knew better than Durkheim that progress in science can be achieved only through the selective elimination as well as the selective preservation of past contributions.

As one studies the numerous hostile criticisms of Durkheim's sociology,3 one is struck by the fact that many, though not all, of them share a limited number of common themes. It is said that Durkheim was so fascinated by the study of cohesion that he neglected to study the phenomena of conflict; that he was so absorbed in the study of society as a whole that he did not deal adequately with the subgroups and subdivisions which make up the total society; that he neglected the individual and his claims because he concentrated upon the society and its claims; that he stressed the cohesive function of religion without considering its divisive features; that he did not duly appreciate the import of social innovation and social change

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