Was Durkheim a professional sociologist?

At some point in the history of sociology there was a transition from the founding non-professional genius to the professional disciplinary researcher. Marx and Tocqueville certainly fall in the former category; Robert Merton, Mayer Zald, and Neil Smelser fall clearly in the latter. By some time in the mid-twentieth century sociology had become “professionalized.” What is the situation of the “professional” sociologist? To what extent and why is this an improvement? And where do Durkheim and Weber fall in this transition?

We might characterize a discipline as —

a complex set of social institutions that organize, validate, and evaluate the work products of knowledge seekers. 

This means several things: organized processes for identifying and ranking important research problems; institutions for selecting and training young scientists; formal processes for evaluating scientific work; institutions for valorizing and disseminating scientific results; and ways of prioritizing certain methods of knowledge formation and discouraging others. As Andrew Abbott shows in Department and Discipline: Chicago Sociology at One Hundred, the discipline of sociology is an amalgam of journals and editorial boards, annual conferences, associations, research universities, departments of sociology, tenure processes and standards, and funding mechanisms. And the discipline succeeds to a substantial degree in fostering certain forms of scientific behavior among young sociologists while discouraging other forms. Heterodox researchers and innovators — counter-disciplinary thinkers — have a harder time in building a career in the discipline at every stage: dissertation, job seeking, promotion and tenure, and publication in high-value journals. So we might say that an academic field has become professionalized when it has created the institutions and norms that serve to guide, constrain, and regulate the scientific activities of its practitioners. (Abbott offers an extensive sociology of the professions in The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor. And he analyzes academic disciplines in Chaos of Disciplines.  Here is an earlier post on the sociology of the professions.)

We should begin by asking this basic question: why might professionalization of sociology be thought to be a good thing? Why is the formalization of a scientific or academic discipline a good step forward? The answers, if there are any, ought to be epistemic. We’d like to think that the professionalization of science leads to an improvement in the quality of the product — the veridicality, scope, depth, and practical value of the products of the social activity of science. And disciplines might do this in at least two ways.

First, they might serve to embody and enforce standards of scientific rigor; they might give institutional expression to valid methods of scientific research and inference. And on the people side, they might create mechanisms of evaluation of researchers and their products that consistently identify talent and sort out high quality researchers. This promotes the high achievers, motivates everyone, and winnows out the unproductive.

And second, the institutions of a discipline might serve to enhance the collective effectiveness of the research community by establishing and organizing a scientific division of labor; they might serve to focus collective attention on a limited set of problems selected to be important — cognitively or practically. In other words, the rules and norms of the discipline might be epistemically virtuous: they might serve to ratchet up the veridicality and scope of science as a social activity.

But do the norms and institutions of the social science disciplines actually achieve these good results? Not always. In fact, we can identify directly dysfunctional features of the disciplines: a dogmatic insistence on some methods over others, a myopic focus on research problems that are ideologically selected; a tendency to discourage innovators. (See several earlier posts on the negative potential of disciplines in the social and human sciences; sociology, political science.)

So now let’s return to the cases of Tocqueville and Durkheim. How do these beacons of French sociology fare on the spectrum of the academic professions? Tocqueville is the easier case. He was an innovative and rigorous thinker when it came to understanding the social world around him. But he was clearly not a “professional,” for several reasons. He was not immersed in an evaluative framework in the context of which his scientific work was to be judged. His research questions were of his own design, not part of an active community of sociologists with considered judgments about what topics were important. His reasoning about society and history followed his own intuitions about inference and explanation, not a community-based set of norms dictating answers to these questions. There was no professional discipline of sociology in 1835, and Tocqueville was not a professional.

The case of Durkheim is a bit more difficult.  (Steven Lukes’s Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work: A Historical and Critical Study is a superb critical discussion of Durkheim’s intellectual development (google books).  Robert Nisbet’s The Sociology of Emile Durkheim is also valuable.)  Durkheim was highly credentialed, with degrees from the École Normale Supérieure — and of course credentialing is a crucial component of professionalization. At the same time he was a founder; he was a highly original thinker with his own intuitions about what society consists of and how to research it. This implies that he was a “genius founder” or a sui generis amateur. But he was also embedded within a tradition of thought that was beginning to look more like an emerging discipline of sociology. His thought fit logically and clearly — albeit with originality — into a tradition of teachers and writers like Fustel de Coulanges and Hyppolite Taine — another mark of being part of a discipline or research tradition.  And he distinguished himself from Comte and Spencer by committing himself to specialized studies of particular social phenomena — yet another sign of professionalism (Lukes, 137-38; 289).

And what about publications and external standards of quality assessment? Here again, Durkheim was on the cusp of a transition. He himself was the creator and long-time editor of one of the first sociological journals in 1896, L’Année Sociologique.  His goal was to establish a working collaboration of young sociologists to contribute to the progress and specialization of the new science of sociology.  Other young sociologists associated with the journal included Célestin Bouglé, Marcel Mauss, Henri Hubert, Robert Hertz, Maurice Halbwachs, and François Simiand.  Durkheim was a prolific reviewer of other people’s academic work in the journal (a discipline-like activity), and he did so on the basis of standards that were clearly sociological.  And of course he published numerous important and influential books on different aspects of social order, and these books helped to set the research agenda for French sociology for the next generation — yet another disciplinary activity.

So perhaps we can say that Durkheim played a dual role with respect to sociology as a professional social science. He both contributed to the definition and articulation of a discipline of sociology, and he also fell within that discipline. He was a professional sociologist in the somewhat unusual sense that Bob “Barky” Barkhimer was a professional NASCAR driver: he helped to create the very institutional processes and institutions that would eventually validate his work.


One response

  1. Re-reading Durkheim after forty years, he seems to say that Division of Labour will enable the human race to survive longer??But hominids survived millions of years without much DofL.And if DofL does allow greater population density and if this is a threat to survival via climate change the reverse may be true.China managed less DofL and more density than the West!

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