Canadian Journal of Sociology Online March - April 2000

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Robert Alun Jones.
The Development of Durkheim’s Social Realism.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, 324 pp. $US 59.95 cloth (0521650453).

Robert Alun Jones’s book on Durkheim is an account of the history of Durkheim’s social realism, a perspective he espoused in his later works which takes the view that social realities are external to the individual, have the capacity for restraint, and are to be treated as if they were things. Jones’s central thesis is that Durkheim adopted his realist stance only after his visit to Germany in 1886-7, and that, in fact, he had not discovered the specific normative language of ‘externality’ and ‘constraint’ at least until 1895, when he published The Rules of Sociological Method.

The objective of Jones’s study is to trace the historical and social conditions shaping the development of Durkheim’s realism by focusing on the historical events of the Third Republic in France between 1879 and 1885. During this time the French were actively engaged in social reforms which, among other things, involved the process of dissolving the Catholic system of education and rebounding from the demoralizing losses of the Prussian occupation of 1871. Jones takes the view that Durkheim’s social realism developed only gradually during this period and that, while to some extent it is evident in lectures he presented at Bordeaux in 1885-6 on Moral Education and on The Evolution of Pedagogy in France, it is not fully developed as a sociological idiom until 1895.

At the center of Jones’ study is an archival manuscript entitled the Sens Lecture. Discovered in 1995, the text of the Sens Lecture consists of approximately 600 pages of detailed notes taken by the French philosopher Andre Lelande (1867-1964) at the Lycée de Sens between 1883-4. Most of the lectures were given by Durkheim in 1883 and include detailed discussion of philosophical subject matter. Jones, however, points out that the ‘contents of the lectures reveal a Durkheim so dramatically different from the one with whom we are familiar that he might be reasonably described as the early [pre-sociological] Durkheim’ (p. 112). He claims that by 1883-4 -- 12 years before The Rules and 14 years before Suicide -- Durkheim shows no trace of his social realism and is completely free of the realist-externalist idiom with which we are so familiar.

Taking his methodological initiative from Richard Rorty and Quentin Skinner, Jones adopts an historicist approach by attempting to answer the question, when did ‘Durkheim contrive the language of social realism?’ (p. 7). Jones’s historicist orientation is used to promote an ‘imaginary conversation’ with classic texts and authors for purposes of reconstructing views and positions which they explicitly take up and pursue. This is intended, in turn, to assist contemporary scholars in making judgments about the directions classic authors may have taken in their work. However, the conclusion which Jones draws from this ‘historical reconstruction’ is based on two persistent and, in a way, problematic claims: first, he claims that Durkheim’s social realism was motivated not by ‘a discovery of some new, hitherto unnoticed aspect of nature but was rather a gradual cobbling together of a vocabulary that would prove useful in speaking about it’ (p. 302); second, he claims that the actual Durkheim which emerges from the early period of the Bordeaux lectures on Evolution of Pedagogy and Moral Education, and the period after the return from Germany (the German essays of 1887) will ‘seem unfamiliar and even unattractive to some sociologists’ (p. 302).

What is striking about these claims is that they are fundamentally at variance with accounts by Lukes (1973) and Giddens (1978) who take the view that it was Durkheim’s positivism, not his realism, which led him to discover the property of restraint in the outer world, a positivism which he would have had from the beginning. Jones, by contrast, asserts that it was Durkheim’s realist outlook, not his positivism, that gave him a new idiom and a new way of talking about external realities that allowed him to ‘construct a normative vocabulary which functioned to identify social subject matters as if they were things’ (p. 5). More recently, however, Stjepan Mestrovic (1991) has asserted that Durkheim was neither a positivist nor a realist and instead sees him as a ‘renovated rationalist’ who tended to retain an idealist position which he drew upon in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life to propound a theory of social representations. N.J. Allen, W.S.F. Pickering and W. Watts Miller (1998) on the other hand, have focused not on the positivist or realist works of Durkheim but rather on the Elementary Forms of Religious Life, which they see as taking a position somewhere between rationalism and realism.

Before we go further, it may be useful to elucidate what exactly the realist position is. Generally speaking, Jones says that Durkheim’s realism can be captured by the famous methodological injunction to treat social facts as things; but this does not go far enough. First and foremost, realism is a doctrine which views the outer world as independent of the mind and as having an existence that is autonomous from the rational constructions of the theorist. In this respect, Durkheim’s realism, like Marx’s materialism, was a strategy for performing a break with the world of ideas as given by texts and a break with the world of ideas as given by philosophers. For the world of ideas as given by texts Durkheim substituted the world of things, so that things could be straightforwardly encountered as the subject matter of knowledge. Social realism, in Durkheim’s case, seems to be an epistemological procedure for asserting the independent existence of ‘duties and obligations’ and for identifying the socially derived nature of restraint.

In this light, Durkheim’s motivation to devise a realist language can be construed as an effort on his part to leave the rationalist world of the text for the realist world of things as the domain of knowledge. Essentially, realism treats the objects of knowledge as if they were structures and mechanisms which constitute ‘realities as substantial and definite as those of the psychologist or biologist’ (Durkheim, 1951). These structures and mechanisms are neither phenomena in the empirical sense of being observationally present, nor are they rationalist constructions of the mind as in the sense of idealism. Instead they are treated as if they are real events which operate independently of the individuals whose action they shape. In contrast to empiricism, the realist outlook sees objects of knowledge as structures not events; and in contrast to idealism it sees the outer world as autonomous conditions and arrangements rather than as products of the mind (Bhaskar, 1975 : 25). Jones, however, believes that rather than viewing Durkheim’s social realism as an epistemological maneuver which allowed him to study society as a reality that was irreducible to another substance (biology, individual psychology), it should be thought of as a strategy for ‘cobbling together a language rather than discovering something about nature’ (p. 5). In fact, Jones believes that Durkheim’s realist outlook was not in any way an observational procedure and states that ‘if we think of Durkheim in this way his social realism appears less a coherent doctrine or a theory than as an assortment of rhetorical strategies’ (p. 5).

Notwithstanding Jones’s careful scrutiny of Durkheim’s body of work and his ingenious reconstruction of archival and lecture material, he has neglected to include in his study an early work published by Durkheim in 1888 on ‘Suicide and the Birth Rate’ where we find the realist vocabulary more fully developed than has been claimed by Jones. While Jones specifically dates Durkheim’s realism to the Dreyfus period of 1894-98, it is possible to see in the 1888 study the development of at least three major components of his realist program. First, he separates out and discusses the benefits of his own ‘social approach’ with respect to ‘birth rates and suicide’ by noting that whereas in the past birth rates and suicide had been studied from the perspective of economics and demography, we can now see that they were due to ‘distinctly social causes, or if one prefers moral causes’ (Durkheim, 1888: 132). Second, he elevates birth rates to the status of social facts by asserting that ‘birth rates constitute social facts and are thus a living reality’ (Durkheim, 1888: 130). Instead of viewing birth rates as a function of some organic disposition (e.g., fertility) he demarcates them as social subject matter and this brings them under the rubric of ‘ruling social customs and ideas in society’ (Durkheim, 1888: 131). Birth rates are not, then, imposed by organic necessity as common sense would assert, but are social facts to the extent that they point to underlying practices to which individuals comply. Fourth, in his discussion of birth rates and suicide he asserts that the social functions performed by the family serve as a restraint on the development of egoism and that when this ‘solidarity is weakened, they are less drawn together and this forms spaces between which the cold wind of egoism blows’ (Durkheim, 1888: 132). It seems to me that this is a far more developed realist program than that claimed by Jones.

Finally, let me say a word or two about the historicist method. First, there is the question of Jones’s historicist reading of Durkheim’s strategy for which his realist vocabulary served as solutions to problems. Nowhere does Jones express possible doubts about the claimed truth of his historical reconstruction even though it can only be an interpretation rather than a demonstrable fact. Second, because Jones is a historian and not a sociologist, he overlooks the epistemological detours from rationalism to realism which Durkheim may have taken in order to claim the factual and coercive existence of social realities and social subject matter. What then appears to Jones as ‘rhetorical strategies,’ may have in fact been tactics related to an epistemological break with philosophy and with Cartesian rationalism. In this respect, Jones’s historicist method is misapplied since the problem it was designed to solve was formulated outside the discipline of sociology.


Allen, N.J., Pickering W.S.F., and W. Watts Miller (eds.), On Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life, London: Routledge, 1998.
Bhaskar, Roy, A Realist Theory of Science: London: Leeds Books, 1975.
Durkheim, E., Suicide, New York: Free Press, 1951.
__________, ‘Suicide and the Birth Rate’, in Lester, David (ed) Emile Durkheim’s Le Suicide: One Hundred Years Later, Philadelphia: Charles Press, [1888] 1994, pp. 115-132.
Giddens, A., Durkheim, London: Fontana, 1978.
Lukes, S. Emile Durkheim His Life and Works: A Historical and Critical Study, Peregrine Books, 1973.
Mestrovic, Stjepan G. The Coming Fin De Siècle: An Application of Durkheim’s Sociology to Modernity and Postmodernism, London: Routledge,1991.

Ken Morrison
Department of Sociology & Anthropology
Wilfrid Laurier University
March-April 2000
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