What is society? Society consists of individuals, but is it just a congregation? Or, does it have a separate existence? Can it be a separate entity? These are the questions which Durkheim looks to answer in his quest to prove Sociology as a positivist social science.

Standing on the shoulder of the giants, but, moving forward 

As we saw earlier, Comte saw society moving from a theological or fictitious state to positive or scientific state. Herbert Spencer, an English sociologist, termed Comte’s evolution of society to be ideological, and proposed his own version of evolution of society. Spencer drew on the Darwin’s theory of evolution, and applied it on Sociology. He addressed society as a social organism, which evolves from simple to more complex form like the organisms do. Society, as per him, evolves from Militant ( primitive society – simple, homogeneous, less differentiated ) to industrial society ( complex, heterogeneous, differentiated). He believed that everything in this universe moves from homogeneous to heterogeneous form in order to remain in a state of equilibrium.

Durkheim borrowed the positivism from Comte, and structural functionalism from Spencer, but, attacked both of them for the lack of empiricism in their study, thus, moving sociology dangerously close to the abstractness of philosophy. According to Durkheim, Comte assumed that society will eventually evolve into a scientific society without studying the change in the society. Similarly, Spencer suggested the evolution from a homogeneous society to a stable heterogeneous one, without studying the intermediate process, which can be chaotic, and not as harmonious as Spencer assumed.

In order to bridge the gap in the earlier works, and to make sociology a scientific discipline, Durkheim attempted to extract the ideas from Montesquieu’s work in one of his thesis.

Carving out sociology as a science 

Durkheim’s thesis, Montesquieu’s Contribution to the Rise of Social Science, was an attempt to prove sociology to be a science. He proposed four pre-requisites to make sociology a scientific discipline –

  • first, definite subject matter;
  • second, classifications which explain the change and evolution in society;
  • third, a set of laws; and
  • fourth, an inductive method to study the subject matter.

According to Durkheim, Sociology has a definite subject matter comprising social facts. He proposed mechanical and organic solidarity as a classifications to study the evolution of society. Being a structural functionalist, his society follows a set of laws based on the collective will, and not on the individual will. His methods of study are based on observations which finally culminate in generalizations (the inductive process) and not the vice versa.

The methods of sociology

Social facts are the foundation of Durkheim’s empirical study of sociology. Social facts, in order to be empirical, can not depend on the subjective experiences or feelings of an individual, but, it has to be based on the objective reality.

Social facts are of two types- material and non material. They cover the entire gamut of reality in a society.

  • Material social facts, which are tangible things having a material existence in the world, and which hold cultural meanings for people in a society, for example, national flag of a country.
  • Non material social facts, which do not have a material existence, for example, feelings like love and patriotism.

This classification was necessary, as for Durkheim, it is through material social facts that we can measure non material social facts. He demonstrated how a non material social fact, such as collective consciousness, can be measured using a material social fact, such as law. For example, as the law changes from repressive to rehabilitative in society, the collective consciousness also undergoes a change.

The science of society

Thus, the society is a separate entity. It has an existence which transcends human existence on earth, it was there before we were born, and it will exist after us. Society has coercive powers as it influences the way we feel, think or act by using its objective tools or social facts.

It may seem that the process of thinking or feeling is internal to an individual, but, Durkheim says that it is the society which delineates the rules and norms which we tend to follow in all our actions. And, since these rules and norms are external to an individual, their objectivity makes it possible to empirically study the society.