Emile Durkheim: Assumptions
The events of his era formed only one part of the historical crucible that shaped the thought of Durkheim. Powerful intellectual undercurrents added another dimension. After graduation from secondary school, he studied philosophy at the Ecole Normale Supericure in Paris, developing a passion for political and social thought and the reputation as an iconoclast. Here Durkheim began to study in the fledgling field of sociology, while frowning on some aspects of classical education. He began to develop a sense of sociology as science, an assumption he retained throughout his academic life. Almost four decades after he entered the Ecole Normale he was to write:
Sociology...does not seek to know the defunct forms of civilization in order to reconstitute them. Like any positive science, it has primarily as its object the explanation of a reality, which is close to use, and which thus can affect our ideas and our behaviors. (Durkheim, 1912/1964, p. 1)
The citation of commitment to positive science is typical. Durkheim's sociology reveals this Comtean position as a matter of course. Yet in addition to this image of science, he was also in tune with Comte's consensual vision of normative systems and often employed organic metaphors of society. Finally, Durkheim held fast to a Hobbesian conception of human nature, in which the dangerous ability to imagine unfettered power necessitates strong forms of social control. Such assumptions clearly supported those aspects of functionalist theory that point up the disorganizing consequences of social change. As Zeitlin (1968, pp. 234-280) observes, Durkheim's work featured a conservative ideological infrastructure, intended in part to counter the structural criticism of the socialist of his epoch.
Durkheim, like Comte before him, was heavily indebted to the ideas of Saint-Simon. He (Saint-Simon) argued that science could resolve political and social questions. It was science that would emerge as a new ethic, a striking moral power that would guide the construction of a new society. With this new society in place, reason could be applied to the solution of the more extreme problems of class conflict. The hierarchical nature of society would remain, but in the Platonist sense of the organism, the new order would be one of integration and stability with norms sufficient to hold in check the destructive passions that plague human nature. Undergirding this new integration would be a community of ideas.
If Saint-Simon saw as his major task to determine what kind of moral system post-Revolutionary European society required, Durkheim viewed his own work in a similar light: to provide a secular, moral system that would bind together into a solidary social order the classes, strata and occupational groups of contemporary France. (Zeitlin, 1968, pp. 236-237)
This section is based upon Perdue (1986, p. 72).