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Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) was a French sociologist and philosopher. He was known for his contribution to the functionalist theory, a major perspective in sociology.

Structured System: social facts as constraints

Functionalists have often argued that members experience society in terms of the structural pressure or constraints placed on their behavior. From this perspective, society can be interpreted as a “hidden hand” that is constantly coercing people to do what they may or may not want to do but have to in order to remain a member of society.  This concept was originally proposed by Adam Smith in his “Wealth of Nations” to explain market forces in the economy. “Individual choice”, therefore, is not much of a key concept in functionalism as people react to the structural pressures rather than act out of their own will.

Similarly, Durkheim argues that society has its own reality above the people, who are constrained by what he called “social facts',” which are “ways of acting, thinking and feeling, external to the individual, and endowed with a power of coercion, by reason of which they control him.” Rather than people’s conscious directing their behavior, Durkheim claimed that it is common beliefs and values which are shared and passed down generations that shape people’s thoughts and behaviors. 

Causes and functions of social facts

Durkheim provided further explanation of his “social facts” by looking at both its causes and functions. He stated that the origin of social facts ought to be found  “among the social facts preceding it and not among the states of individual consciousness”. For example, the causes of variations of suicide rates can be explained by forces in society and not individuals.

In terms of function, or the usefulness to society, Durkheim suggested that social factors exist because of its contribution to society and the fact that it serves “some social end.”

Functional prerequisites & social order

A major part of Durkheim’s work focused on the functions of social facts. He acknowledged that functional prerequisites are needed for societies to survive and claimed that social facts are an example needed to maintain social order, primarily due to human nature. His model of human nature was that of “homo duplex”, which involves two approaches to human nature. One is that humans are selfish beings who put their own interests first, while the other is that humans are capable of having moral values and socializing. In order for social life and social order to be achieved, society has to make effective use of the latter side of human nature. 

Value consensus: collective conscience & social solidarity

As humans are capable of believing in moral values, value consensus can be used to establish social order. Two other key concepts Durkheim proposed are collective conscience and social solidarity. Collective conscience involves the “external expression” of the collective will of members of society and therefore involves the social forces that help integrate people into society. It also restrains people’s actions to the requirements of society as social facts are external and beyond the control of individuals. Indeed, society doesn’t just exist but “has to be present in the individual.” 

Social solidarity is the sense of belonging to society and is based upon factors such as common culture and socialization. Durkheim suggests that in traditional societies, people are shaped by mechanical solidarity, i.e. who they are, while in modern societies, people are shaped by organic solidarity, i.e. what they do. The organic solidarity is more complicated than the mechanic solidarity is it involves integrating people to society through a common values and a sense of belonging.

Social change: threats to social solidarity

Durkheim did acknowledge the possibilities of conflict in societies as his work on the division of labor (Durkheim, 1947, first published 1893) proves. Industrial societies on the basis of organic solidarity may collapse due to people’s egoism or hostilities, which could reduce the power of the structural constraints on individuals. Nevertheless, Durkheim thought the conflicts could be resolved with professional associations, such as the educational system, which teaches and enforces moral values and by treating all members fairly.