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Society as Representation

Durkheim, Psychology and the Dualism of Human


Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi

Abstract: Against readings that have emphasized Durkheims sociological

realism and reductionism, this article examines the role of individuality
and psychology in his theory. In particular, Durkheims approach to rep-
resentations is the proof of the crucial importance he assigned to mental
processes in the construction of social life. Durkheim showed the rela-
tion of representations to the collectivity how ideas promote the sense
of community and in this context he emphasized their epistemological
ramifications. Specifically, he pointed to a series of dualisms that remained
unexplained by psychological analysis, including the one posing ratio-
nal against affective logic. While arguing for the preeminence of ideas in
Durkheims view of society, the article also recognizes the limitations that
marred his efforts at reconciling the individual with society. Most notably,
his genetic approach and his account of the central role of affect in the
creation of the social made Durkheim vulnerable to criticism. Even his
late essay on the dualism of human nature, which testifies to his lifelong
confrontations with psychology, left a whole set of questions unanswered
about his theorys applicability to historical forms of institutionalization of
the social, especially in modernity.

Keywords: duality, Durkheim, individualcollective, profanesacred,



Durkheim often complained about misunderstandings of his work, despite

endeavours to correct them. Not long after publication of The Elementary
Forms of Religious Life, he began an article on the dualism of human
nature by saying it was an attempt to bring out a basic explanatory

Durkheimian Studies, Volume 20, 2014: 4363, Durkheim Press

doi: 10.3167/ds.2014.200103 ISSN 1362-024X (Print) ISSN 1752-2307 (Online)
Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi

principle of his book that had gone unnoticed (Durkheim 1914a: 315 /
t.35). Was the attempt doomed to failure? In a letter of June 1897, at the
time of the publication of Suicide, he worried that it would be a complete
waste of effort un coup de lepe dans leau, or, literally, a sword slashing
water (Durkheim 1998: 78). This is quoted as a knife slashing water in the
introduction to the biography of Durkheim by Marcel Fournier (2007: 14
/ t.5). In turn, in a review of the biographys English translation, David
Smith (2014) mobilizes the imagery of a knife slashing water to complain
about a continuing failure of critics to grasp Durkheims project and his
struggle to anchor sociology in first principles. Although Fourniers nearly
thousand-page biography spans Durkheims entire life work, Smith centres
his review around accusations about Durkheims sociological realism and
reductionism, and specifically posits that the books main goal is to dispel
the myth of Durkheims supposed negation of individuality (ibid.: 166). He
thus identifies as central to Fourniers account the issue of how Durkheim
viewed the relationship between individual and society, psychology and
In truth, Fournier does not frame his work exclusively along the lines
suggested by Smith, but rather juggles multiple goals and themes in a
volume that seeks to integrate established information with knowledge
from newly available archival sources and manuscripts. Yet, there is no
doubt that his book is intended to correct misinterpretations of Durkheims
theoretical stances. The objective of this biography is to debunk the myths
that surround the life and career of the founder of sociology in France, and
to challenge or qualify received ideas about his work (Fournier 2007: 10
/ t.2). Among the misguided conceptions Fournier believes people hold
about Durkheim is his denial both of the individual and psychology due to
an extreme emphasis on the collective and the desire to establish sociology
as an autonomous field.
Because Durkheims whole scientific enterprise revolved around the
definitional status of sociology and because in his view the new sciences
search for identity implied comparison with and differentiation from neigh-
bouring fields, especially psychology, it is legitimate to say that the question
of individuality was intrinsic to the Durkheimian project. Smiths assertive
choice of isolating this specific issue among the several themes considered
in Fourniers book is thus in part justified and testifies to the fact that,
after more than a hundred years and countless books and commentaries,
the question of individuality in Durkheims work has yet to be put to rest.
Accordingly, it is important to ask about a history of early but also continu-
ing misunderstandings and misrepresentations of Durkheim on this point,
and what has contributed to them. Have his critics just been wrong all
along? Or do their attacks have roots in his work itself? Ultimately, are their

Society as Representation

views merely misguided and the result of an unfair, simplified analysis, or

are they an indication of Durkheims own shortcomings?
To begin answering these questions, I will re-examine the centrality
of psychologys relationship with sociology in Durkheims theory, thus
sharing with Fournier, Smith and other scholars recognition of this themes
importance in his work. The notion of representation, on which Durkheim
particularly relied, in my view proves the critical role he assigned to mental
processes in the constitution of social life. So my article mainly focuses
on analysis of this problematic to reaffirm the prominence of ideas in
Durkheims view of society. At the same time, however, it tries to move on
from an essentially defensive argument to an assessment of limitations that
afflicted Durkheims efforts at reconciling the individual with society. As
lucidly argued some time ago by Steven Lukes (1973), ambiguity marred
Durkheims sociological concepts, and a key case involved his definition of
social facts as existing outside of individual consciousnesses. Internal con-
tradictions also weakened Durkheims pioneering culture-centred under-
standing of the individual/society relationship as a duality. Acknowledging
the epistemological shortcomings of Durkheims theory will help to re-
evaluate the overall import of the relationship between objectivity and
subjectivity in his sociological approach. It will also contribute to avoiding
interpretive pitfalls while building on the strengths of his critical reflections
at a time when emotional affect is emerging as a central notion in socio-
cultural explanations.

Society as Representation

As Smith brings out, a major point of contention in critical evaluations of

Durkheims theory is the price the individual is made to pay to ensure that
the notion of society takes centre stage in sociological explanation. This is
doubtlessly a tricky issue. After all, Durkheims goal of establishing sociol-
ogy as a science with its own specific subject area was predicated upon
and required a new understanding of what society is, and how it works.1
Durkheim eventually encapsulated his essential thinking on the issue by
defining society as something different from the sum of its parts: society is a
sui generis construct that we need to approach with a mind frame that does
not privilege the role of the rational individual over other potential explana-
tory factors. But even before elaborating that definition, Durkheim became
convinced that sociology was independent from other sciences, including
biology and psychology.2 The object of sociology was society, and there
existed no specialized knowledge that focused on the dynamics of social
life. Sociology would fill up that absence; it alone could play that role.

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But how exactly did he pick out the realm of society and social, collec-
tive life? What was implied in his talk of this reality as sui generis? Even
or especially in his insistence on a material substratum, it was undoubt-
edly some or other form of a mental, spiritual realm that he came to
posit at the constitutive foundation of the social as in a relatively early,
though only posthumously published, lecture-course on socialism given at
the university of Bordeaux in 189596, and in which a society is above all
a community of ideas (Durkheim 1928: 129 / t.91). Ideas constituted the
source of social life, its sine qua non; What unites men into society is a
common way of thinking, that is, of picturing things to themselves (ibid.:
130 / t.92). A shared community implied shared representations, common
ways to see the world, and Durkheim identified as the inspirational source
of his innovative, if not quite original, approach Saint-Simon, whom he
also acclaimed as the founder of positive philosophy. Despite the fact that
Auguste Comte had coined the term sociology, Durkheim believed that
Saint-Simon ought to be considered the initiator of sociology; he was the
first to conceive that between the formal generalities of metaphysical phi-
losophy and the narrow specialization of the particular sciences, there was
a place for a new enterprise (ibid.: 148 / t.104).3 Even more important,
he conceived ideas as the foundation of the social system: societies were
nothing more than an ensemble of beliefs: The similarity of positive moral
idea is the single bond which can unite men into society (Saint-Simon,
quoted by Durkheim 1928: 129 / t.91).
Saint-Simons theoretical standpoint and Durkheims engagement with
it fed into his understanding of society as based on shared mental pro-
cesses and what he discussed more and more as representations. The term
was widely current among French philosophers of the time, but especially
among neo-Kantians such as Charles Renouvier and Durkheims friend and
colleague at Bordeaux, Octave Hamelin. In his own case, talk of represen-
tations and interest in their collective form can be found in early work,
including The Division of Labour (1893b), but became increasingly evident
in The Rules of Sociological Method (1895a)4 and in Suicide (1897a), leading
on to his publication, in the Revue de mtaphysique et de morale, of a major
essay on the issue of individual and collective representations (1898b).5 In
this, he specifically addressed the central role of ideas in society and placed
collective beliefs at the heart of sociological investigation. With a cogent
argument that also made the case for sociologys autonomous status vis--
vis other sciences, he asserted that collective life, like the mental life of the
individual, is composed of representations (Durkheim 1898b: 2 / cf. t.2).
At first debunking the epiphenomenalist view of psychic notions, the
article discussed individual representations and argued that mental activi-
ties are not natural phenomena dependent on the function of the organism,
a set of patterns that follow the laws of nature. Representations could not

Society as Representation

be deduced or understood by reference to the biological structure or the

theory of cells. A representation is not simply an aspect of the condition
of a neural element at the particular moment that it takes place, since
it persists after that condition has passed, and since the relations of the
representations are different in nature from those of the underlying neural
elements (ibid.: 33 / t.24). Representations were something quite new
and constituted realities even if they escaped immediate consciousness.
Because a mental fact could be unconscious did not imply it did not have
an independent existence. The limits of consciousness are not the limits
of all psychic activity representational life extends beyond our present
consciousness and develops relations and reactions that are not immedi-
ately linked to the physiological, nervous substratum (3132 / t.2223).
Mental representations, as with all psychic life, have their own force and
way of being; although not fully autonomous, and whether or not we can
consciously grasp them, they nevertheless exist in themselves (32 / t.23).
If mental representations are independent of cerebral cells and form
something new, Durkheim analogically reasoned, the same could be said
of social facts in relation to individuals. Firmly convinced of the need to
dispense with old and scientifically unproven theories, Durkheims onto-
logical stance on psychology led him to challenge the notion that ideas of
a collective nature are caused by individuals. In The Rules he had already
argued that social facts are independent of and external to the person;
associational life could not but be different from the sum of its single
members, and ideas of a collective nature could not be ascribed back to
specific individuals. Now he clearly postulated that collective represen-
tations, produced by the actions and reactions between the elementary
consciousnesses that make up society, do not derive directly from these
and consequently go beyond them (Durkheim 1898b: 34 / cf. t.2425).
Knowing what goes on in an individual mind would not give any clue
about the dynamics of collective forces, their drives and motivations.6
Collective representations had a life of their own that could not be gauged
by relying on an explanatory understanding centred on the individual; in
contrast, Durkheim suggested that ideas, like any other social fact, impose
themselves upon us.
Durkheims assertion of social facts independence from individuals,
coupled with his rule to study social facts as things, proved to be a conten-
tious argument that drove critics to accuse him of materialism and organi-
cism. Open to different interpretations, as noted by Lukes, Durkheims
definition of social facts (which emphasized externality, constraint, gen-
erality and independence) turned out to be the sociologists Achilles heel,
and still is today. Yet, one tends to forget that Durkheims intention of
demonstrating the autonomy of social facts went along with his under-
standing of the supra individual nature of social reality a sui generis

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phenomenon at whose centre stood representations. Ever since his very

first attempts at founding a science of society, he put ideas at the heart of
sociological inquiry. For him, ideas created a sense of community and pro-
moted the sentiment of the social, and sociology, like psychology, studied
mental life, albeit of people in communities, so that sociology constitutes a
collective psychology.7 Based on his novel evaluation of individual mental
facts within the psychological field, he strongly affirmed the spirituality
of collective intellectual facts against a merely physical, materialist inter-
pretation of their origin and essence, and made psychology the referent for
his vision of a sociology concerned with social life as a hyper-spirituality,
where the constitutive attributes of psychic life are found, but elevated to a
very much higher power (ibid.: 48 / cf. t.34). Emphasis on spirituality, the
mind, and representations were as intrinsic to Durkheims vision of social
facts as the objective qualities he deemed necessary for phenomena to
qualify as sociologically pertinent. As a matter of fact, although The Rules
had left unresolved the definitional status of social facts, Durkheim spent
little time working on the issue; substantive questions on the relationship
of the individual to society, in contrast, remained his life-long concern via
the intermediary notion of representations.
Once collective representations were placed at the heart of society,
Durkheim realized that one could not explain their centrality without
delving into the dynamic relationships between group and individual,
whole and parts, reason and sentiment, spiritual and material, conscious
and unconscious. Even though he had proposed examining the relation-
ship between individual and collectivity as a synthesis in which relatively
autonomous subjective particularities get assimilated within a completely
new and independent collective reality, Durkheim was continuously con-
fronted with the incongruities that such relationship entailed, and he
tackled those incongruities head on. He thus focused on what he esteemed
to be the true complexities and contradictions of human existence, later
summed up in the notion of the duality of human nature, a concept he
struggled with until the end of his life.
To summarize so far: Durkheim fully embraced talk of societies as living
consciousnesses, organisms of ideas, or, in other terms, as systems of
representations. Because of this strong conviction, he organized his work
around the epistemological ramifications that the concept of representa-
tion entailed, in particular a series of dualities that remained unexplained
by psychological analysis. Even as he tried to prove sociologys superior
explanatory compass, a continuous confrontation with psychology charac-
terized his theorizing and determined the direction of his research.8

Society as Representation

Psychology and Dualities

How did Durkheim come to focus on psychology and dualities? According

to Bruno Karsenti (1997), at the end of the eighteenth century there devel-
oped in France a human science (science de lhomme) that conceived of
man as a philosophical object in need of being understood as a total-
ity. This conception implied the recognition of humans as social beings,
meaning that the study of the social was intrinsic to the study of man;
to reach a complete picture of humanity, one needed to consider humans
social dimension. Sociological thinking developed within this historical
intellectual context that looked at the social as an essential constituent
of human phenomena. In turn, the emergence of psychology in France
coincided with the acknowledgment of the sociological perspective, albeit
within an analysis that prioritized the individual. On the one hand, and
following a long-standing philosophical tradition, French psychology was
founded on the belief in the rational functions of the mind and considered
the intellectual activity of individual conscience its main object of concern.
On the other hand, scholars of psychology had also come to recognize that
rationality could not explain all actions and that there coexisted in the indi-
vidual both a rational logic and an affective, emotional one. Psychologists
still considered the rational mind their main domain, but having to account
for affective logic, they linked it to outside forces, that is, the social. Since
they were not interested in emotions, however, psychologists paid little
attention to understanding the coexistence in the individual of the rational
and emotional logics; for them, the two logics comprised phenomena of
different natures.
Contrary to the psychologists, Durkheim was interested in the social
dimension of human existence and took it upon himself to focus on the
relationship between rational and affective logic. That is how he came to
focus on psychology. He claimed that rational and affective logics were not
separate; psychology had failed to recognize that the social element unified
the individual psyche. The essay on primitive classification (Durkheim and
Mauss 1903) argued exactly this point by postulating the effects of collec-
tive phenomena on the structure of mental processes, and can be seen as a
key stage in a developing attempt on Durkheims part to address the issue
of human duality.
The problem, as immediately defined in the essays introduction, was
in believing that the main features of logical operations had remained
unchanged since the origins of humanity and that therefore the devel-
opment of logical functions could be explained exclusively by reference
to individual psychology. Were the faculties of deduction and induction
really intrinsic to the individual? Durkheim and Mauss sceptically asked.
A close look at the history of logic suggested to them that the genesis of

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categories was not a spontaneous affair nor did categories derive from the
things themselves. In particular, an operation as important as classifying
showed the social origins of logical notions; classification reflected social
arrangements and the groupings thereof. After all, since we group things
in families and link them through relationships of kinship, does not our
arrangement suggest an extra-logical origin? Every classification implies a
hierarchical order for which neither the tangible world nor our mind gives
us the model (Durkheim and Mauss 1903: 6 / t.8). Case studies of the
simplest systems of classification, which the essay took to be those found
among Australian tribes, would show that in the beginning the way things
were classified followed and reproduced the ordering of the social structure
(ibid.: 78 / t.11).
The ethnography was interpreted to claim that the Australian form of
social organization consisted of different totemic clans created following
the division of the tribe into two moieties, each in turn separated into two
marriage classes. Kinship ties and family relations determined the system
of internal social division and served to classify hierarchically individuals
and groups within their social unit. When it came to grouping objects,
the same sentiments that had intervened in determining the structure of
social relations (family and kinship ties) also affected the logical division
of things. There are sentimental affinities between things as between indi-
viduals (ibid.: 69 / t.85). And since, according to Durkheim and Mauss,
sentiments reflected how the group thought of and structured itself senti-
ments were expressions of the collective mind groupings objectified and
represented society; society was the centre around which systems of clas-
sification unfolded. This fact was even more evident when considering the
impact of religious emotions on the properties assigned to things: sacred
or profane, pure or impure, friends or enemies, favourable or unfavour-
able (70 / t.86). A function of social sensibility rather than logic, these
characterizations of things were accepted as normative by the whole group
and never submitted to critical, rational examination. The pressure exerted
by the group on each of its members does not permit individuals to judge
freely the notions which society itself has elaborated and in which it has
placed something of its personality (7172 / t.88). Among the Australians,
society overcame the individual and shaped group representations.
As societies developed historically, systems of classification eventu-
ally changed, while social pressure diminished and individuation, along
with reflective thought, became characteristic of modern social forms. Yet,
according to Durkheim and Mauss, the social origins of classificatory func-
tions continue to remain evident in the mental framework through which
we moderns represent things and beings. That framework is modelled after
relations that individuals formed when they divided themselves up in dif-
ferent groups at the dawn of history. For primitive classification did not

Society as Representation

merely reflect the structure of society and its affective roots; it also incor-
porated the principles of social division as a form of logic. Sociality helped
to give rise to scientific thinking, since logical relations at first equated
domestic relations Thus the essay argued against the view, attributed to
James Frazer, that men were divided into clans by a pre-existing classifi-
cation of things and instead insisted that they classified things because
they were divided by clans; (ibid.: 67 / t.82). Indeed, even though the
Australian form of classification is considered primitive, it was not excep-
tional and presented the same basic features as our modern approach. In
both cases, classifications are systems of hierarchized notions that have
a purely speculative purpose and not an instrumental end. Both forms of
classification seek to advance knowledge, that is, to make intelligible the
relations which exist between things (ibid.: 66 / t.81).
With the essay on primitive classification, Durkheim and Mauss made
the case for the relevance of sociology when analysing ideas and abstract
notions, including the categories of space and time, but also cause, sub-
stance, and so on, in other words the essential cultural categories underly-
ing the organization of society. They emphasized the affective origins of
social formations and underscored the crucial role religious representations
play as the locus of affectivity on which the rational foundation of solidar-
ity, that is sociality, is built. Most importantly, they argued that sociology
could reveal the tight link connecting rationality and sentiments in human
action, a task that psychology had miserably failed to accomplish.
In the end, and whether or not convincing, Durkheim and Mausss
discussion in Primitive Classification did not resolve the multiple epis-
temological issues implicated in the individual/society relationship that
Durkheim had originally identified as central to his sociological enterprise.
If anything, it complicated them, the more so in combination with his
increasing emphasis on the explosion of intellectual and emotional ener-
gies in times of collective creative effervescence. It is not surprising that in
1914 after many years working on The Forms and as part of the debate
its publication generated, including a discussion paper on the duality of
human nature (Durkheim 1913b) he was still addressing the same ques-
tions on the dynamic relation between rational logic and affective logic
that the essay on classification had raised a decade earlier. This relation, it
seems, was pivotal to his whole sociological theorizing. What, if anything,
did the essay on the dualism of human nature add to his past discussion
of these issues?

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Epistemological Challenges

As part of a detailed analysis of the essay and its sources in earlier work,
Giovanni Paoletti (2012a) examined the history of Durkheims use of the
terms dualism and duality. This suggests that dualism tended to be
concerned with doctrines claiming that human nature is double, duality
with the fact that it truly is in some way double. It also suggests a history
of ambivalence over what the doubleness involves, but with an increasing
insistence on a relational duality in which the constituent elements can
only be understood in interlinkage with one another, a case exemplified by
the duality of the sacred and profane. Yet what in turn is the interlinkage of
the sacred/profane with the individual/society dichotomy, at the centre of
his careers intellectual preoccupations?
In revisiting this dichotomy, Durkheims essay once more made the case
that sociology, as the science of societies, could not dispense with the
individual, who after all constitutes the basic element of human groups.
Indeed, sociology needed to account for the individuals role in society.
But since society could not exist without fashioning the consciousness of
individuals after itself, he believed most mental states should be consid-
ered as having social origins: it is impossible to try to explain the whole
without explaining the part, if only as an after-effect (Durkheim 1914a:
314 / t.35). Turning on its head the notion that the whole is not a sum of
its components, Durkheim seemed to suggest that the part could never be
considered in a pure state of isolation, independent from the environment
in which it was embedded. The historical process that meshed individuals
into society proved the inanity of separating the whole from the part, and
also asserted the artificiality of the line drawn between individual on one
side and society on the other. Matters were much more complicated, and
Durkheim insisted that man is a product of history; individuals cannot
think of themselves as naturally and spontaneously developing. Even more
consequential, social interests often collide with the interests of individu-
als and hamper the latter from pursuing their course. As a proof for this
state of affairs, Durkheim argued that all individuals feel a split within
themselves, an inner conflict that is the sign of an existent disharmony. He
ascribed this contradictory sensation to the duality constitutive of human
nature, a duality confirmed by psychological analysis and that Durkheim
conceived as the individuals perennial perception of the coexistence in
their being of two heterogeneous elements: body and soul. The body, in
referring to the material dimension of our nature and involving the senses,
is rooted in the world of the profane, while the soul, in encompassing the
spiritual sphere, forever belongs to the realm of the sacred. The sensory
pole is linked to egoistic needs that we develop as individuals; the spiritual
pole, even or especially in linking with the idea of the person, includes the

Society as Representation

pursuit of impersonal ends, moral activity and thinking conceptually.9 With

the formula homo duplex Durkheim believed he had captured the essence
of human nature, a combination of extreme egoism and moral disinterest-
edness, of carnal desires and spiritual ideals and aspirations. These appar-
ently conflicting, heterogeneous elements were intricately connected and
worked together in the making up of the individual personality.
But, he asked, how could the spiritual and material coexist in the same
being? His answer was to place representations at the centre of the social
process via the determining influence of religion. As he noted, the antinomy
we experience has always been expressed in religious terms: body and soul,
profane and sacred. He concluded that the duality of our nature is there-
fore only a particular case of this division of things into the sacred and
the profane that is the found at the basis of all religions, and it must be
explained according to the same principles (ibid.: 327 / t.42). As humans,
we tend to believe that the soul is heavenly as opposed to the terrestrial
nature of the body and we come to evaluate everything related to the body
as having a profane character; material appetites and sensations are inferior
to reason and moral activity through the latter we supposedly communi-
cate with god. Since for Durkheim the sacred corresponded with the social,
as he had argued in several writings up to and including The Forms, the
theory of human duality allowed him to account for the dynamics that made
possible the strengthening of social ties via collective representations. This
strengthening process was only possible when considered holistically as the
interaction of whole and parts, spirit and body. Indeed, he argued, collective
representations could only emerge when incarnated in material objects.
The process was explored and exemplified through the case of the
Australian societies especially discussed in The Forms but also other writ-
ings, and especially in drawing on Spencer and Gillens pioneering field-
work-based studies, of 1899 and 1904, of the Arunta, Warramunga and
other peoples.10 As part of Durkheims retheorization of their ethnography,
mundane things took on a sacred character when thought to be represent-
ing collective ideals. In the effervescence of special ritual times, material,
profane objects ascended to a higher status as individual consciousnesses
recognized in them shared sentiments, the coming together of a commu-
nity. In a logic that might seem circular but that anyway entails a role for
the material substratum he sometimes wanted to play down, Durkheim
argued that because embodied individuals communicate and realize
unison through objects, and because these objects embody collective rep-
resentations, they are set in a league apart and considered sacred. In this
guise, objects feed the soul via the powerful impulse of the senses. Egoistic
drives then become sublimated into a higher moral ground that dispenses
with personal goals and focuses instead on the disinterested sphere of the
sacred. Collective ideas become moral forces that, felt as unusual energies

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leading, driving and inspiring us, do not come from us but impose them-
selves on us (Durkheim 1914a: 328 / t.42). The strength of these ideals is
an effect of the power of the common consciousness that objects simply
materialize and render tangible. Objects embody the feeling of the sacred
that people experience with their senses; they foster that spirit by making
it concrete. In other words, and undermining any simple opposition of
collectivesacred to individualprofane, the sacred reflects and promotes
the power of the group thanks to energies generated through individually
based bodily sensations.
As the most vivid example of this process and, in The Forms, the star case
of effervescence, Durkheim selected a group of ceremonies that Spencer
and Gillen had described among the Warramunga people. These showed
the interconnection between body and soul as ciphers of the profane/sacred
duality, through their combination of assembly, song, dance, art, night-
long celebrations and suggestive atmosphere, all of which helped not just
to express a feeling of belonging but to create and inspire it. The concrete
incarnations of the sacred gave individuals the sense of communicating
with each other and invited them to imagine themselves as a whole, a com-
munity whose value was magnified by the atmosphere of excitement and
effervescence that characterized ritual ceremonies. Material symbols estab-
lished the means through which the idea of the social was shared and sanc-
tified. In turn, collective representations, which resulted from this alchemy,
founded society and at the same time symbolized it. Representations in
a sense overlapped with societies. As in an earlier essay, If societies are
organisms, they are distinguished from purely physical organisms in that
they are essentially consciousnesses [consciences]. They are nothing if not
systems of representations (Durkheim 1900b: 124 / t.13). As complicated
as their status was, representations ultimately made society.
Durkheims answer to the duality of human nature involved the indi-
viduals uplift through positive, inspirational, dynamogenic energies but
also the restrictions society imposes on the individual as the reason for
the inner contradictions we feel. If society were the natural and spon-
taneous development of the individual, we would never experience an
internal conflict. By resorting to religion and the separation between sacred
and profane, Durkheim confirmed the sui generis status of society and
explicated it via the process through which collective ideas emerge. As
he had done in the past, he argued it was impossible to understand the
individual without considering societys influence, and just as impossible
to understand society without bringing in the individual. But he ultimately
proclaimed sociologys pre-eminence over psychology when it came
to accounting for these relations. Again, as in the earlier essay, he still
regarded societies as living consciousnesses, organisms of ideas, insisted
social life was of a psychic order, and he maintained that both sociology

Society as Representation

and psychology dealt with representations, emotions, impulses, which are

grouped and organized (ibid.: 124125 / t.1314). In other words, he still
thought that sociology built on psychology but also that it would surpass it,
thanks, among other things, to a keener understanding of the relationship
between actions and mental processes.
To summarize, Durkheim believed in sociologys superior explanatory
power, yet in claiming its greater worth still took psychology as his key the-
oretical reference and point of comparison. As the discussion has shown,
his interest in psychology was long-running, informed and explicit, so that
it is possible to speculate over the reasons why, in spite of the evidence, he
has been continuously accused of ignoring individual elements. In the case
of early critics and misinterpretations, at least part of the explanation might
be found in the emergence of theories that expanded the realm of inves-
tigations concerned with the mind. Along with psychophysiology, a new
psychology arose that became particularly popular in France thanks to
Jean-Martin Charcot as well as, among others, Thodule Ribot (cf. Fournier
2007: 7375 / t.5760). Distinctive approaches started to circulate espe-
cially psychoanalysis concerned with exploring a sphere of the uncon-
scious in individuals as well as groups. Durkheim was knowledgeable
about the new psychological theories and indeed shared worries over the
pathologies of modern urban life that had helped to instigate them in the
first place. However, he seemed reluctant to embrace the irrational implica-
tions of their interpretive models, and the terms he used in his sociological
analyses upheld the relevance of the conscious over the unconscious (ibid.:
6566 / t.5051). The notion of conscience collective, after all, underlined
his belief in the pre-eminence of human rationality, at least when dealing
with normal conditions.
But whether or not his view of psychology differed from that of some
of his critics, his approach also revealed internal tensions, paradoxes or,
indeed, contradictions. Taking up and developing his work requires an effort
to address these tensions, beginning with the rational/affective dichotomy.
How could Durkheim stand on the side of reason and belief in the individ-
uals rational, conceptual powers as a person, while also backing belief in
ideas driven by affective forces? To be sure, and as explicated by him at the
level of abstract general theory, the duality of human nature can account
for complex dynamics that link the logic of reason and the logic of feeling.
But as it turns out in practice, he tried to base his theorys universal claims
in studies of the particular case of primitive peoples, among whom, in his
view, emotions still exercised their contagious power throughout a rela-
tively de-individualized group. So an issue is: if the most archaic societ-
ies help to show us universal elemental forces at the root of the social,
how can these also account for stages of sociohistorical development in
which shared feeling weakens and individuality grows in importance? Was

Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi

Durkheim avoiding a basic contemporary challenge by looking beyond

his own Western world for affective sources of social action? His focus
on primitives allowed him to skirt round complexities of the individual/
social polarity specifically characteristic of modern social life, in a vague-
ness in which key questions about his theory were left hanging in the air
and aporias of his thinking became magnified.

The Primitives Problem

No doubt, the decision to study primitive peoples was methodologically

justified by the twin goal of trying to understand the evolution of a social
phenomenon from its origins through its transformations, and in the process
to unearth continuing universals of social life. Spurred by such interests,
Durkheim was passionate in arguing for a sociological research programme
that incorporated not just a functionalist but a genetic approach.11 So this
raises fundamental issues that include, as already indicated, the whole vast
problem of how his theoretical framework transposes to modern situations,
but that also involve relatively more specific questions. An assumption,
as in the essay on classification, was that the study of primitives could
reveal the social origins of the realm of ideas, concepts and categories.12
Yet how is it a realm not only of ideas but also ideals?13 And what are
the consequences if cognitive and moral forces not only share social roots
but closely overlap with one another? A basic problem, in other words,
is how it is possible to undertake critical normative evaluations of social
forms, especially given Durkheims own persistent worries about the exist-
ing social system. Although his work raised and struggled with important
questions, a focus on primitives did not necessarily help to answer them.
Victor Karady (1988) remarked that the interest of the Durkheimians in
archaic societies was somewhat paradoxical in view of their main concern
with the crisis of modern societies.14 The groups orientation might seem
even more surprising, given the attitude towards ethnography in an article
that Durkheim published in the same year as The Rules and before starting
to plan the Anne sociologique. After complaining about reliance on mere
travellers tales as well as other inadequacies of contemporary anthropol-
ogy, and attacking the simplistic approach of its leading representative in
France at the time, Charles Letourneau, the article insisted that sociology
must direct its research mainly towards societies that can be studied on
the basis of truly historical documents; ethnographic information should
only be used to corroborate, and in part illuminate, those documents
(Durkheim 1895e: 7778). So this might help to explain why his thesis of
1893 drew on only a limited number of ethnographic sources, compared
with its use of historical studies, and in fact hardly any fieldwork-based

Society as Representation

research was available. In any case, Durkheim had converted to a more

enthusiastic view of ethnography in the essay, which launched his new
journal, on the incest prohibition and its origins (1898a[ii]). Indeed, with
the publication of Spencer and Gillens fieldwork studies, and as in his
responses to these in his essays on totemism (1902a[i]) and on matrimo-
nial organization (1905a[i]), he became absorbed in the details and intrica-
cies of Australian ethnography.15
At a more general level, his interest in the earliest, most basic types of
social formation linked not only with his commitment, already noted, to
genetic explanation but also with his view of how religion synthesized
different elements at the origins of collective life. Religion became the
primitive social phenomenon for Durkheim (Lukes 1973: 250). Or as he
himself wrote, in explaining to his new journals readers the prominence
of its section on religion: Religion contains in itself, from the beginning
but in a confused state, all the elements that, in the process of dissoci-
ating and determining themselves and of combining with each other in
multiple ways, have generated the diverse manifestations of collective life
(Durkheim 1899a[i]: iv).
Here and elsewhere in his road to The Forms, his thinking about religion
is bound up with a genetic approach to the social that simultaneously
involves ideas of historically evolving variation and continuing underlying
elements that are universal not least his duality of human nature itself.
Although, as in the case of this duality, The Forms remains in many ways a
work in progress, it can still be taken as the apotheosis of his lifelong effort
to understand religion. All religions are comparable; as varieties of the
same genus, all contain fundamental representations and ritual attitudes
that might take different shapes but share with each other similar mean-
ings and functions (Durkheim 1912a: 6 / t.4). Thus all religious beliefs
operate with the same classification of real and ideal things into two cat-
egories that are heterogeneous and mutually exclusive: the profane and the
sacred. All religious systems involve ritual practices and rules of conduct
for individual believers to follow, including rules that operate not only as
negative prohibitions separating the profane from the sacred but also as a
positive step towards joining these by preparing, initiating and transform-
ing individuals for communion with the sacred. Finally, religious beliefs
and practices are rooted in participation in collective life, in adherence to a
common faith through which individuals feel connected and constitute the
moral community of a church a crucial point emphasized in The Forms
as part of Durkheims evolving effort to bring out religions eminently col-
lective character, and stress the groups influence in forming the solidity of
a communion with god.16
In looking for a way to test his theory of genetic development and the
religious underpinning of the social, he found this in the case not just

Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi

of totemism but totemism in Australia as the simplest and most primi-

tive religion (ibid.: 31 / t.21). As he went on to claim, the god of the
clan, the totemic principle, can be none other than the clan itself, but the
clan transfigured (hypostasi) (294 / t.208). Like god, society goes over
and beyond and transcends individuals, yet is also necessarily grounded
inside and immanent within them. And this conclusion about a duality
of the immanent-transcendent is not just applicable to early, elementary
Australia, but constitutes a continuing element of every social world across
differences of time and place. Society always exercises a moral power over
the individuals on whom its existence depends, and who necessarily set
aside particular instincts, interests or desires not just in submission to
but in uplift and inspiration by this power. However, this is not simply a
product of reason or logical thinking but emerges from emotions and ener-
gies capable of moving the will, and from a mental state ready to make sac-
rifices in a greater cause. Such a transformative experience occurs in social
gatherings, when the individuals stimulated senses overrun an ordinary,
everyday, normal state of mind. The body, aroused from all directions,
affects the mind, to imagine and conjure up a sacred world of extraordinary
power and intensity through moments of a total hyperexcitement of physi-
cal and mental life (310 / t.218). Even so, and given Durkheims equation
of god, the sacred and the social through these moments of effervescence
in Australia, yet another question raised by all this is how he distinguishes
the early and elementary from continuing, universal elements of social
life. Put one way, part of what is problematic about his model of the social
is how far it applies only to specific characteristics of archaic worlds. Put
another way, an issue that again arises is what happens in trying to apply
his model to modern times.17


In forging the path to a new scientific discipline, in defining a new object of

study society Durkheim confronted numerous opponents and obstacles,
most notably French naturalistic understandings of psychology, rational-
ity, modernity, logic and the individual. His solution over his twenty-year
career was to think and rethink the nature of the social, which he founded
on the shared symbolic representations underpinning all social relations,
social identities and our schemas for perceiving and knowing the world.
He grounded these representations deep in the instituted social order, burnt
into individuals and groups by emotional rites and overawing notions of
the sacred.18 Rooted in the analysis of the primitives, Durkheims cul-
tural understanding of sociality downplayed the prominence of interest
in human action and offered a rich portrait of the emotional drives that

Society as Representation

motivate individuals to feel connected within a community. Having identi-

fied the central role of affect in creating the social, his genetic approach,
nevertheless, left a whole set of questions unanswered about historical
forms of institutionalization of the social, especially in modernity.
The issues Durkheim faced were no small matters and one should not
expect him to have resolved them when we know that other scholars of his
time were unsuccessfully confronting the same problems. It is fair to say,
however, that Durkheim attracted negative reactions from critics because of
his tendency to present definitive answers to complex intellectual puzzles
even when, as in the case he postulated of the mutual relationship between
sentiment and reason, his conclusions were still tentative. Durkheims
attempt to overcome the accepted explanation for the division between
primitives and civilized, according to which the primitives were suppos-
edly characterized by the affective and the civilized by rationality, was very
well directed. Durkheims idea of a mutual constitution linking sentiment
and reason, spirit and body, subject and object, individual and society
however was, as formulated, unable to explain modern formations. More
generally, Durkheims conception of society as sui generis and superior to
any particularity was not by itself able to resolve all the questions related
to social cohesion. Could one look at collective representations as less
liable to instability, arbitrariness and so on by virtue of their transcendence
alone? As Durkheim deemed community a supreme value, he neglected
to interrogate the different shapes that community can take and also left
aside the question of how emotions can be reconciled with reason. Thus
he failed to complement his brilliant intuition of communitys affective
roots and the power of representations with an adequate analysis of social
structures and political relations within a specific social formation.
If Durkheim crucially founded sociology on the study of mental life and
the symbolic, thus challenging psychologys exclusiveness in this realm,
he nonetheless relied on notions that made it hard to valorise the role of
subjectivity in founding the social. In particular, his reference to the spirit/
body dualism brilliantly caught the contradictory nature of social explana-
tion, yet it stood at odds with his view of social fact as able to capture an
exact picture of external reality.

Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi is Professor of Sociology at the University

of California, Santa Barbara, where she teaches courses in social theory
and culture. Her work includes Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power
in Mussolinis Italy (1997), Rethinking the Political: The Sacred, Aesthetics
Politics and the Collge de Sociologie (2011) and editorship of Georges
Bataille, La Sociologie sacre du monde contemporain (2004). Email:

Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi

1. According to Fournier, sociology in Durkheims time was in a very poor state
and widely scorned by academics as a vague, ill-defined science.
2. On the influence of Thodule Ribot on this point, see Fournier (2007: 5152 / t.39).
3. Moreover, although Saint-Simon may have had precursors, never had it been
so clearly asserted that man and society could not be directed in their conduct
unless one began by making them objects of science (Durkheim 1928: 149 /
t.105). See also an essay on the history of sociology in which, after tributes to
Montesquieu and Condorcet, the honour of having first formulated the new
science belongs to Saint-Simon (Durkheim 1900b: 115 / t.6).
4. This first appeared as a set of articles in 1894, which he brought out as a book the
following year. Its importance in his developing concern with representations was
especially emphasized by Clestin Bougl (in Durkheim 1924: viiiix / t.xxxvii).
5. For accounts of Durkheims interest in representations, see Warren Schmaus
(1994), Susan Stedman Jones (1901), Giovanni Paoletti (2012b) and a collec-
tion edited by W. S. F. Pickering (2000).
6. Cf. the preface to the first edition of The Rules, which sympathized with ideal-
ism (spiritualism) in insisting that psychic phenomena cannot be derived
directly from organic phenomena (Durkheim 1895a: vii / t.xxxix).
7. This is in a note near the end of his essay, explaining its use of the terms psychol-
ogy and sociology as a way to distinguish individual from collective psychology
(Durkheim 1898b: 47, n. 1 / t.34, n. 1). Cf. Bougl (1935: 7): in Durkheims eyes
sociology implies a new psychology, which will have at its centre the observa-
tion of the conscience collective.
8. Cf. a letter of June 1894, which mentions the possibility of starting a course
on psychology the following session (Durkheim 1998: 36). In fact, accord-
ing to the list of courses he gave at Bordeaux (in Lukes 1973: 617619), he
had already lectured on psychology applied to education in 189293 and
189394; he then gave courses just on psychology from 1894/95 to 1897/98,
but returned to psychology applied to education in 1901/2, his last session at
Bordeaux before leaving for Paris. After publication of The Forms, the Sorbonne
appointed him to a newly created chair of educational science and sociology
the first chair of sociology in France and recently discovered student notes
of his inaugural lecture in 1913 show it was concerned with working out the
relationship between sociology, psychology and philosophy (Durkheim 2012).
9. According to Durkheim, concepts are regularly shared by a community of
people if for no other reason than the language we use to communicate them
is social and not any individuals invention or unique possession.
10. On Spencer and Gillens key role in the creation of The Forms, see William
Watts Miller (2012).
11. On this issue, see The Rules (Durkheim 1895a: 169 / t.157) and also an edito-
rial for his new journal, the Anne sociologique (Durkheim 1899a[i]: ivv)
12. Cf.: It was because men were grouped, and thought of themselves in the
form of groups, that in their ideas they grouped other things, and in the begin-
ning the two modes of grouping were merged to the point of being indistinct
(Durkheim and Mauss 1903: 67 / t.82).

Society as Representation

13. On this issue, see Raquel Weiss (2012).

14. See also a comment by Mauss (1927: 200 / t.51), talking about the Durkheimian
approach to religion: we study, perhaps too much, the primitives and not
enough our own major religions. For another angle on the same question,
see Fauble (1977). On the development of anthropology in France and the
Durkheimian groups role in this, see, e.g., the now classic articles by Georges
Condominas (1972) and, more recently, a study by Alice Conklin (2013).
15. Cf. the remark, in reviewing an article on ethnology and sociology, that ethnog-
raphy helps us to understand our own evolution, especially because, unlike
history, it is about peoples who are still living (Durkheim 1904a[2]: 160). In
The Forms, ethnography has often brought about the most fertile revolutions
in the various branches of sociology (Durkheim 1912a: 9 / t.6).
16. According to this definition of religion, the group character of belief is more
crucial than the issue of obligation: the latter comes automatically once one is
part of a group (Durkheim 1912a: 65, n. 1 / t.44, n. 68).
17. Cf. the view that the French Revolution was a privileged creative moment
in modernity, in which the sacralization of society and its essential ideals
was transparent, without transfiguration of any kind (Durkheim 1912a:
306/t.216). For discussions of a wide range of issues raised by The Forms,
see the collections edited by N. J. Allen, W. S. F. Pickering and W. Watts Miller
(1998), Massimo Borlandi (2012) and Sondra Hausner (2013).
18. See his review of Thodule Ribots La logique des sentiments. He quotes from
Ribot that human groups are formed and maintained through the community
of beliefs, opinions, prejudices, and it is this logic of feelings that is necessary
to create and defend them. He himself then adds: The logic of feelings is
this other logic that is ignored by the scholar and yet that has played and that
always plays a considerable role in life (Durkheim 1906a[8]: 156157).

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