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The paradox of Durkheim's manifesto: Reconsidering

The Rules of Sociological Method

St. Francis Xavier University, Canada

ff the search for paradox is the mark of the sophist,

to flee from it when the facts d e m a n d it is that of a
mind that possesses neither courage nor faith in
science. 1

Durkheim serves this observation and warning to his reader on the first
page of his preface to The Rules of Sociological Method. He is,
somewhat surprisingly, at least partially aligning himself with those
most infamous of rhetoricians, the ancient Greek sophists, suggesting
that because they recognize the inevitability of paradox they make pref-
erable intellectual company to those who imagine the social world to
be straightforward. Indeed he tells his reader, before any of the specific
rules of method are delineated, to expect paradox: literally, para-doxa,
that which is contrary to received opinion. Implicitly then, if one takes
Durkheim's text itself as an object of sociological interest, one is invited
to ask: What are the facts about Durkheim's work that unavoidably
lead into paradox? How can the reader have the "courage" and "faith"
to face paradox as a part of the rules of method, and understand that
the ostensible contradictions of Durkheim's textual rhetoric do not
necessarily undermine the sociological discipline from its outset?

For me, reading Durkheim as a rhetorician is one crucial step in under-

standing the sociological enterprise as a discursive influence within
m o d e m western culture. My reading of The Rules of Sociological
Method suggests that Durkheim's rhetorical devices are integral to his
central concerns - i.e., sociology's particular objects of interest, its
mode of inquiry, and its pedagogical and moral claims. Moreover,
Durkheim's text itself furnishes the conceptual elements for my thesis
that sociology discursively helps to create, in conjunction with other
social forces, its own object of study ("society" or the "social"), but then

Theory andSociety 25: 8 5 - 1 0 4 , 1996.

9 1996 KluwerAcademic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.

cannot fully represent or capture this trope. This irony is, I suggest,
sociology's inevitable frustration, but also if adequately recognized, its
potential strength.

My discussion is made up of four sections. In the first I discuss Durk-

helm's rhetoric as little more than a strategy intended to define and
defend the relatively new discipline that he was working to institution-
alize, a gesture necessary for sociology to get underway. In the second
section I discuss Durkheim's project as one of making sociology a
unique moral discourse by presenting the trope of the "social" as a
historical reality that could be directly represented in scientific lan-
guage. In the third section I suggest that Durkheim's rhetoric ultimately
formulates sociology as a "collective representation" within the modern
era, and argue that as such sociology is never able to fulfill its promise
of the direct and complete representation of "social facts." With each of
these three progressive steps I find sociology more and more to be
embedded in its objects of scientific interest, and to constitute a system
of beliefs particular to modern culture. In my concluding section I dis-
cuss the implications of these findings for contemporary practitioners,
suggesting that sociology be understood as a self-consciously moral
and interpretive practice that influences the broader collective imagi-
nary and its functioning. Among other things, this version of the socio-
logical project accounts for its own perennial epistemological "crises"
as both inherent and necessary to its continued revivification.

Interestingly, rhetorical excess has been a central theme in the tradition

of reading The Rules of Sociological Method. It has, in fact, been one of
the most common charges and criticisms of it, with commentators find-
ing a fatal contradiction between Durkheim's avowed project of estab-
lishing a rationalist science of societies, and the polemical prose that he
employs toward this end. For example, Steven Lukes locates a disjunc-
tion between Durkheim's apparent message and his medium: "Durk-
heim's style often tends to caricature his thought: he often expressed his
ideas in an extreme or figurative manner, which distorted their meaning
and concealed their significance. ''2 Such a distinction relies not only on
a tenuous separation of textual content from stylistic form within the
text, but also on a discernible distinction between Durkheim's inten-
tions and his utterances. Indeed, it is intriguing that Lukes seems to be
privy to Durkheim's thoughts independent of their expression in words,
such that he can make this criticism at all. He assumes both that Durk-
heim's thoughts are formed independent of the language used to com-
municate them, and that the reader can see through these misleading

signifiers to their pre-linguistic "meaning" and "significance" This for-

mulation is hardly sociological, as it ignores the complexities and sub-
tleties of linguistic practices, and betrays a naive, common-sense
understanding of rhetoric as no more than ornamental and distorting.
In a similar judgement of Durkheim's prose, Kenneth Thompson goes
as far as to say that: "The manifesto-like character of The Rules renders
it unsuitable as a basis for evaluating his actual methods of sociological
analysis: '3 Lukes, too, identities this text as a manifesto, and although
he does not make an explicit connection between this observation and
his judgement of the text, he does concur with Thompson that The
Rules of Sociological Method does not provide "an accurate guide to
[Durkheim's] own sociological practice: '4 Thompson recommends that
the reader look for Durkheim's methods where he employs them
directly - e.g., in his study of suicide that examines the statistical rela-
tion between rates of suicide and levels of European social integration.
In other words, for Lukes and Thompson there is little sociology per se
in The Rules of Sociological Method.

It is not inaccurate to characterize Durkheim's text as exaggerated

and polemical, or as a "manifesto" (literally, a "slap with the hand"). As
discussed below, his enunciations employed many of the extreme
rhetorical devices associated with manifestos. But does calling it a
manifesto necessarily disqualify it as a directly sociological text? Is it
that Durkheim's other texts are, for example, free from hyperbole and
excess? That they soberly pursue "pure" sociological method, while
this text defers that responsibility? To take Thompson's directive, and
look to Suicide: A Study in Sociology, would be to assume that it is
concerned with elucidating the phenomena of suicide and social inte-
gration more than it is interested in exhibiting and promoting the power
of sociological analysis itself (by overtly displaying the social qualities
of an occurrence popularly assumed to be profoundly psychological).
In this sense, Durkheim's work shows its generally open relation to
rhetoric. The strategy employed in Suicide is akin to one used by the
sophists, who in order to prove their persuasive prowess intentionally
took up the apparently weakest case - a position against which their
audience was inherently prejudiced. Suicide, proudly announced as "a
study in sociology," and Durkheim's other major works are also mani-
festos of the new science of societies, because the sociological orien-
tation or imagination - not the substantive topics in isolation - were
what Durkheim sought to promote. In fact, as I explain below, the
social crises of Durkheim's time - which he formulates under the
rubric of "anomie" - are to be resolved not so much by the application

of sociological remedies as by the sociological mind becoming popular

and common. 5

Durkheim's manifesto as violent strategy

To call a text a manifesto undoubtedly puts it in infamous and

somewhat suspect company. The manifesto was, for example, a favored
literary spectacle for twentieth-century avant-garde artists including
the futurists, dadaists, surrealists, and situationists, who relished the
most provocative pronouncements. In the "Second Surrealist Mani-
festo" written in 1929, Andr6 Breton and the surrealists are found
asserting that "the simplest surrealist act consists of dashing down into
the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the
trigger, into the crowd "'6 In the "Futurist Manifesto" of 1909, Filippo
Marinetti, leader of the Italian futurists and author of dozens of mani-
festos, proclaims that futurists "wish to glorify war.., militarism, patri-
otism... [and] the contempt for women. ''7 Considering himself an
expert in manifesto writing, he described the manifesto's two most
essential qualities as "violence and precision? '8 It is instructive, there-
fore, to make use of Marinetti's apparent expertise, at least provisional-
ly, and consider his simple manifesto formula.

Let us first investigate Marinetti's characterization of the manifesto as

"violent." A manifesto's utterance attacks accepted understandings of
the world, and promises new possibilities and often new social rela-
tions. It also violently disrupts polite and orderly speech. As such, its
textual form is ultimately analytically indistinguishable from its con-
tent, as the successful manifesto embodies and promotes the excess it
discusses. 9 In a word, it is a break with convention. And as both an out-
line of future plans and a direct disruptive act in itself it can be situated
between instrumental, goal-oriented texts (e.g., policy papers, mission
statements) and destructive, emotional outbursts (e.g., demonstrations,
riots, terrorism). This double gesture creates a discursive space where
practical alms and radical dreams are possible simultaneously. Take for
example the futurist pronouncement that makes use of the present
tense to describe its own speech and its program: "We stand upon the
summit of the world, and once more we hurl our challenge to the
stars! "1~ But this attempt both to describe and perform social change
produces an array of contradictions that run through the argument. For
example, the reader to whom the text is directed is announced to be
equally determined by the past, and the self-conscious agent of change

in the present. History has, ha this logic, necessarily unfolded toward a

present that is ripe for fundamental upheaval, while the future will be
settled, almost put beyond struggle. Of course, any serious considera-
tion of the past would reveal that the simple line leading to this moment
of crisis is itself made up of incendiary gestures not unlike the one
being announced in the text. Ironically then, it is as if being too histori-
cally conscious can be detrimental to projects of radical change. As
Nietzsche explains, "...the unhistorical and the historical are equally
necessary to an individual, a community, and a system of culture''11
because "[f]orgetfulness is a property of all action...."12

Reading The Rules of Sociological Method with this understanding of

the manifesto in mind would imply that Durkheim's writing is primarily
strategic. Thus understood, Durkheim wrote this text because he knew
that in his own time and place sociology could not fully convince its lay
or academic audience of itself by way of its mere demonstration. He
had to ensure that his version of "the social" would gain ontological and
intellectual primacy, and therefore the sociological project had to be
proclaimed and somewhat violently inserted into the culture as if it
were an historical necessity and inevitability. The manifesto had to
attack conventional pre-modern as well as competing intellectual
explanations of the human world. Hence we find his opening sentence
of the preface announcing that "[w]e are so little accustomed to treating
social facts scientifically that certain propositions contained in this
book may well surprise the reader.''a3 The difficulty of his task is attest-
ed to in his second, longer preface where Durkheim tries to redress the
hostile reception and apparent misreadings that met the initial publica-
tion in 1895. This indefatigable and relentless defense of his most basic
propositions and concepts runs through his later writings, as he is
forced throughout his career to hold off assails rooted in biological and
evolutionary determinism, psychological reductionism, romantic politi-
cal-economic constructions of the voluntaristic individual, and materi-
alist versions of group consciousness. As such, the practice of sociology
would only get underway after this initial intellectual deracination was
achieved, and after the alleged historical leap into "reason" was made:
"It therefore seems to us ... that such an undertaking can and should be
greeted without apprehension and indeed with sympathy by all those
who ... share our faith in the future of reason." 14 In another text he
announces that "...history will have to be transformed and become
scientific. 15

Another violence typically practiced by manifestos is the reification of

ideas, especially as they relate to history and identity. By announcing
that it speaks for (and with) a particular group, the manifesto insists
that it liberates an essential and unquestionable identity that need only
be recalled and re-established. These identities are usually structured
around formulations of social class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or
artistic integrity. Against these groups stand the equally essentialized
enemy - the capitalist, the W.A.S.P., the man, the straight, the bourgeois
artist. Animating the conflict between these two essential interests is
History, or some other external logic that makes this antagonism in-
evitable, and which ultimately forces the conflict to end in victory for
the oppressed, while the corrupt and vice-ridden institutions of the past
decay. This allows the "'Situationists' International Manifesto" (1960)
to begin with the assertion that:

A new human force, which the existing framework of society will not be able
to suppress, is growing day by day along with the irresistible development of
technology and the frustration of its potential applications in our meaning-
less social life. 16

Durkheim also apparently reified the idea of the "social" into a real,
almost tangible thing. In his chapter entitled "Rules for the observation
of social facts" Durkheim slides from the prescription "It]he first and
most basic rule is to consider social facts as things ''17 to "...social phe-
nomena are things, and should be treated as such.''aS Morris Ginsberg
concludes from passages like this that "...in general 'la socirtr' has an
intoxicating effect on [Durkheim's] mind, hindering any further reflec-
tion on the nature of the goods of which it is the condition "'19 Accord-
ing to Ginsberg, Durkheim loses his dispassionate relationship to his
ideas the minute he attempts to name them. But considered as a strat-
egy, his reified ideas are simply persuasive devices meant to convince
his readers of concepts foundational to his subsequent argument. Of
course, one could ask in that case if Durkheim takes responsibility for
the "objects" he produces; if he can justify rhetorically conjuring
images for the sake of his discussion. Is his an action that lies within the
realm of scientific method and is justifiable within the criteria of his
own rules of method? The full significance of these questions becomes
clear later in this discussion.

In this first and simplest formulation, Durkheim's sociological mani-

festo is understood as a revolutionary intervention that is distinct from
and inessential to the practice of sociology, and is quickly overcome as

the discipline establishes itself and nascent social scientists break from
the pre-sociological past. This view again defends a distinction of
Durkheim's content from his form, with the content being disqualified
as a sociological work by the manifesto form (which ultimately must
disappear to allow sociology to exist). But a reading like this, that as-
sumes the text can be thus divided, is one example of non-reflective
conventional thought that Durkheim meant to undermine. Durkheim
himself has suggested that to approach something sociologically means
to bracket one's common sense understanding of it.

Our reader [the prospective sociologicalthinker] ... should alwaysbe con-

scious that the modes of thought with which he is most familiar are adverse,
rather than favorable,to the scientificstudy of social phenomena... 3o

One should not then imagine, as common sense dictates, that writing
produces a content that is easily discernible from its rhetorical devices.
In fact, criticizing Simmel's formal sociology, Durkheim addresses this
very distinction: "By what right are the container and content of society
separated.... ''21 By extension, I am asking by what fight are the so-
called container and content of his text separated? Perhaps a more
subtle and extensive understanding of the manifesto as a textual prac-
tice is needed to inform this problem.

Durkheim's manifesto as morality

Recall that Marinetfi's formula for manifesto-wfiti g included "preci-

sion" as well as "violence." While a manifesto breaks from convention
and tradition, it also seeks to describe its historical condition to the
reader, i.e., show that its rhetoric is generated out of a considered
knowledge of its own time and place. By way of this gesture, which
demonstrates its understanding of the present, it can then convince its
readers of the accuracy and precision of its forecasts for the future.
Typically, a manifesto points out an "undisputable" reality that has
nevertheless been consistently overlooked by common sense, for the
very fact that it is so pervasive and absolute. Take for example, the
famous opening line of "The Manifesto of the Communist Party"
(1848), which proclaims: ' ~ specter is haunting Europe - the specter
of Communism. ''22 In this gambit Marx and Engels claim an awareness
of the revolutionary political forces animating their time. But, more sig-
nificantly, in the midst of pointing out this apparent reality they are also
simultaneously making it, forcing this etherial ideational specter to

become corporeal. As a precise description of the historical "facts" in

which it functions, the manifesto shows a commitment to making facts
into palpable realities. Of course, this gesture also puts the manifesto's
goals at the center of the facts it brings to light.

Durkheim agrees with Marinetti that the first thing to be articulated is a

"precise" definition of "society" before the sociological enterprise can
proceed, 23 and Durkheim does this by making plain "the facts" of
nineteenth-century Europe that are constantly being overlooked. For
Durkheim the primary fact of note is the "social fact" which is a reality
of all societies, but only directly knowable and utterable as such in
modern societies. He characterizes "social facts" as independent and
historically prior to the individals who are born into them and enact
...they consist of manners of acting, thinking and feeling external to the
individual, which are invested with a coercive power by virtue of which they
exercise control over him ... and to them must be exclusively assigned the
term social. 24

Durkheim argues that while all societies produce images and artifacts
that attest to a general s e n s e of collective forces greater than the indi-
vidual, or the simple sum of all individual parts, these are reified and
personified as gods and spirits (or "specters") rather than grasped and
represented directly as "a reality sui generis"25 Traditionally the collec-
tive represents and worships itself without members understanding that
they tremble and prostrate before nothing more than the collective
itself. Durkheim's project, in contrast, relies on the possibility of this
reality being clearly conceivable as such by his audience. His problem
then becomes one of speaking plainly and precisely about something
that has never before been directly representable in the history of
human collectives. Why indeed would social reality suddenly become
so amenable to being represented when previously elusiveness was one
of its primary characteristics? Undoubtedly, Durkheim would explain
this sea-change as resting in the difference between ordinary thought
and scientific thought, the latter being capable of extracting social facts
from the tissue of sentiments and beliefs. But this still leaves unans-
wered both the question of how the sociologist renders these represen-
tations generally recognizable, and the question of the relationship
between sociologist and the object of study. While one way of making
the raw social fact visible would be by its constant disruption, 26 Durk-
heim chooses a gentler and more careful mediation between social
reality and his audience.

As most clearly articulated in his first major work, The Division of

Labor in Society, Durkheim's central and ongoing concern was the
basis of social cohesion in modernity, especially the civic identification
of individuals within the new "imagined community''27 of the nation-
state. In his work on pedagogy and public education, Durkheim argued
that teachers take on the special moral responsibility of mediating
between student and society, "which seeks to shape [the child] in its
own image .... ,28 His interest extended beyond this simple assertion,
however - he saw sociology as a part of the morality being introduced
to the student. As a manifesto writer, Durkheim speaks like a teacher
on behalf of a particular society or morality. He represents the socio-
logical society, or more exactly, he mediates between the factual reality
of the "social" and the reader, who he asks to throw off traditional, dis-
guised, and indirect representations of this reality:

We must discover those moral forces that men, down to the present time,
have conceived of only under the form of religious allegories. We must dis-
engage them from their symbols, present them in their rational nakedness, so
to speak, and find a way to make the child feel their reality without recourse
to any mythological intermediary. 29

So while social forces are representable as naked, rational facts, and

should be starkly presented as such even to children in France's new
compulsory public schools, their representation is always nevertheless
a moral practice (regardless of whether or not this representation is
sociological or religious). And moral practices are, according to Durk-
heim, extra-individual interests that guard the well-being of the collec-
tive. Hence, for Durkheim science replaces religion as a primary orga-
nizing and sustaining system of beliefs in Europe, a system of thought
that "is only a more perfect form of religious thought.''3~ In this way,
Durtdleim's manifesto was both a political and moral action, as he
understood his own culture to be in the midst of making the "social"
itself a part of this morality, and he made himself its messenger.

But like Marx and Engels, Durkheim was making this new reality as
well as announcing it. He was trying to help create the object of study
for sociology, a "subject matter peculiarly its own, TM as well as creating
new sociological "relations of production" around this object (i.e., rules
for the "observation" and "explanation" of social facts, as well as the
"distinction of the normal from the pathological" the "constitution of
social types" and the "demonstration of sociological proof"). 32 His
text, therefore, was necessarily hyperbolic and polemical because he
was compelled to make the "social" a real imaginative possibility for his

audience. Moreover, his audience could not in this formulation be

restricted to prospective social scientists, but must include every citizen
franchised into the contemporary world. Ultimately, his message must
extend universally within his culture because this reality is a societal
and moral fact that has the historically unique privilege of being direct-
ly representable as such. In other words, if social facts are no longer in
France's Third Republic disguised in pre-modern totems and gods,
then the collective as a whole moves toward representing itself under
the new trope of the "social." As such, this trope or image is as morally
binding as its previous metaphysical incarnations. As Durkheim makes
most clear in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, the French
Revolution was for him modernity's most dramatic, while ultimately
futile, attempt at becoming directly self-conscious: "...in one deter-
mined case we have seen society and its essential ideas become, direct-
ly and with no transfiguration of any sort, the object of a veritable
c u l t : '33 The Revolution marks and participates in the movement
toward a collective life that makes a new social fact of the "social" itself.

Viewed in this second way, Durkheim's manifesto is a historical moment

within sociology. Specifically, it is the primary moment, in which the
performance of sociology is integral to the creation of its object. As
such, the manifesto cannot precede sociology because it helps to make
sociology by generating the moral reality that it studies. Once this
moral reality has been established it becomes the sociologist's obliga-
tion to guide the transition between traditional modes of representing
social facts and scientific modes. Nevertheless, once made, sociology
can free itself from manifesto rhetoric because the moral force of scien-
tific discourse will have become self-sustaining.

Durkheim's manifesto as interpretive sociology

The two above characterizations of the manifesto remain incomplete,

and so too the formulation of Durkheim's manifesto rhetoric. A mani-
festo is more than Marinetti's prescribed "violence and precision"; it is
also, and perhaps most fundamentally, an action that makes topical the
very question of representation itself. This explains more fully why the
avant-garde artists were so attracted to this rhetoric, and why they pro-
duced some of the most compelling and self-conscious manifestos. For
them free expression was a crucial concern, and the space between the
future and the present was confiated into a liberationist gesture enacted
fully and directly in their words. Simply put, their manifestos were a

performance or execution of their goal. The most radical gesture for

the surrealists, for example, began with "automatic writing," or the free
flow of unconscious thought onto paper unencumbered by the con-
straints of rationality and order. In the dada experiment, perhaps the
most extreme example of the artistic liberation of speech, language
itself was to be reinvented by its speaker (the word "dada" chosen to
signify the avoidance of definitive meaning). The ultimate result of
having taken such a stance was that artistic performance became
reduced for the dadaists to the incessant utterance of simple nonsen-
sical syllables. Their project most clearly showed that the attempt to
perform or embody a utopia does not bridge the gap between the real
and the imagined - on the contrary, it highlights the impossibility of its
unification. So while the avant-garde manifestos may be more self-con-
sciously performative of radical action than those deferring action into
the future (e.g., communist and socialist manifestos especially), they do
not any more than the others overcome the contradiction between
being determined (in this case by language as a social fact) and being
free (of choosing to speak in a particular way). Their difference lies in
their attempt to embrace this very dilemma and make their desire to
embody language into an artistic opportunity.

In this third formulation, Durkheim's manifesto is primarily the

attempt to formulate representation as the most basic social action.
And as a collective or cultural phenomenon, representation is the
attempt on the part of the group to show itself, to produce images of its
sense of collectivity, and to speak about its collective qualities, e.g., its
structure and organization. (In this case it is the attempt to represent
the sui generis social fact directly in scientific speech.) But, it is more
than this. It is also the attempt to interpret this fact, or to tell the story
of the collective's relationship to the condition it makes. This is what
Durkheim calls the "collective representation" a constellation of con-
crete practices and images that express: "the way in which the group
thinks of itself in its relationships with the objects which affect it.''34 Of
course, the "objects which affect it" are often made by the collective
itself; societies are grounded in both the utterance of realities in speech,
and the narration of the group's dynamic relationship with these real-
ities. Hence, explains Durkheim, the sociologist discovers social facts
as pre-existing arfi-facts, or cosmologies, with a narrative structure
already in place. This narrative structure is not limited to traditional
forms, because all societies produce collective representations, be they
religious or scientific. He reasons somewhat anachronistically that "[i]f
philosophy and the sciences were born of religion, it is because religion

began by taking the place of the sciences and philosophy.' '35 Ultimately
the collective representation reveals to the sociological observer an
incessant and circular movement between the human manufacture of
social realities, and the group's particular responses or relations to
these realities.

And if Durkheim's text is primarily a discussion of representation as a

collective phenomenon, his ideas of "social fact" and "collective repre-
sentation" become much more complex. After all, these very concepts
are themselves, according to Durkheim's own argument, the social
forces of his time. As discussed, Durkheim's manifesto appeared in a
context where the notion of "society" or the "social" was becoming
more and more a discursive "social fact." Partly by way of his efforts, it
was becoming an aspect of the moral reality of this increasingly secular
culture in which "... the old gods are growing older or already dead, and
others are not yet born. ''36 And like any social fact, the attempt to
represent its force (even in sociological language) does not overcome
the tendency of it being hypostatized by the collective. As we have
seen, Durkheim's own formulation of the "social fact" risks presenting
the concept as an object. Evidently, this problem is not something that
could be overcome if Durkheim were to gain control of his prose, as
Lukes and Thompson might recommend, because it points to the fun-
damental quality of speech itself. If anything, it serves to confirm Durk-
heim's own thesis, and recalls his first point about paradox: although
Durkheim wants society to be directly representable in a rational
language, his own formulations of social life show that this is impos-
sible. To the extent that sociological representation is a moral force, its
voice is inescapably excessive and yet incomplete - it tries, but cannot
represent its object fully. 37 As the dadaists so dramatically discovered,
language is never fully mastered by its speakers because language itself
is beyond full representation. Language is, as Durkheim explains, one
example of the group thinking itself, i.e., generating its own sense of the
sui generis, its own ideal. 3s

And yet, this inherent frustration to the sociological project is also cen-
tral to its promise. Because sociology points to the social fact of the
"social" as a reality, and in so doing names it, the rendering of this fact
makes it a collective representation in the culture. And as discussed, a
collective representation is not just the naming and totemic deification
of the group - it is a group's dialogue about its social condition. It is the
group's way of examining its own naming practices. Hence, within the
concept of collective representation lies the possibility of self-reflective

and self-interpretive societal change by way of its ideal: 'A society can
neither create itself nor recreate itself without at the same time creating
a n i d e a l . ''39 Durkheim explains that even narrowly conceived as an
individual, contemplative action, thought is the creation of social con-

If the object of thought were simply to "reproduce" reality, it would be the

slave of things; it would be chained to reality. It would have no role except to
"copy" in a servile fashion the reality that it has before it. ff thought is to be
freed, it must b e c o m e the creator of its own object; and the only way to attain
this goal is to accord it a reality that it has to make or construct itself. There-
fore, thought has as its aim not the reproduction of a given reality, but the
construction of a future realityJ ~

Implicitly Durkheim's text is also "the construction of a future reality,"

or the attempt to formulate sociological representation as an action
that reports on, and changes the collective by introducing a language
that clearly invites and encourages this turn. Certainly, sociological
language cannot escape the fact that all language, to the degree that it is
popular and disseminated in the culture, is subject to becoming habi-
tual and taken-for-granted. Sociology can, nevertheless, make this con-
dition a topic for the group itself. The culture can think of itself as a
culture, as a social reality, that could become otherwise.

In a word, collectives have interpretive relations to themselves because

collectives are not empirical groups, but the self-defined identity and
symbolic life of any people: "collective life is only made of represen-
tations. ''41 Interpretation mediates between ideas as social facts (as
external and coercive morality) and ideas as collective representations
(artifactual images and stories about social conditions). And as sociol-
ogy is itself by Durkheim's time becoming a social fact and a collective
representation, it must also be in some way an interpretive science.
After all, from Australian aboriginal totems to European suicide statis-
tics, Durkheim's work involved the interpretation of collective repre-
sentations. Certainly, in Suicide the statistic is taken by Durkheim
somewhat uncritically as an empirical indicator of suicide as it corre-
lates with social categories. It is important to note that he did not col-
lect these numbers himself, as might be expected of a good empiricist.
He found them ready-made, like the totem, to be taken up directly by
the sociologist. And like the totem, the statistic tells a story of how the
collective organizes itself, in this case it tells the story of how European
nation-states structure, imagine, and discourse with themselves. The
sociologist helps reinforce the taken-for-granted nature of this repre-

sentation by uncriticaly imagining that it speaks directly about the

phenomenon it purports to measure, rather than about how the collec-
tive images itself to be statistical (just as the aboriginal imagines that the
totem represents the spirits of animals instead of his or her own social
condition). Surely, the suicide statistic tells more than Durkheim found
in it. As well as the social fact of suicide, and the qualities of collective
integration of which it speaks, the statistic tells of the new nation-state's
responsibility for representing the group in terms of this measurement,
such that the population is found to embody numerical rates. Hannah
Arendt draws out the political significance of this representation when
she argues that statistical measurement is not externally imposed by
social scientists upon m o d e m populations, but instead modern mass
culture is characterized by a type of social actor who is unthinkingly
"behavioral "'42 Of course, I do not mean to suggest that Durkheim's
uncritical relation to the statistic should be considered a serious short-
fall in his work, it is only an indication that the sociologist is implicated
as a participant in particular historical collective images and narratives.
We can never fully represent the collective to itself without producing
representations that are socially endowed and that always to some
extent escape our intellectual grasp.

Durkheim, therefore, is correct in his argument that all societies must

represent themselves and may even directly dialogue with themselves
about their social nature. Nevertheless, he also pointed out that a col-
lective can never represent itself fully. This is the irony of collective
representations: they are direct cosmologies of the collective, but can-
not be fully grasped by the collective that generates them. To the extent
that social realities become collective images their appearance fore-
closes full and immediate interpretation. These images are indirect and
diffused, somewhat like the unconscious wishes of Freud's dreamer,
and although they are represented, their overdetermined imagery
requires extensive deciphering. Just as it is questionable if any dreamer
could fully grasp the unconscious "message" of the dream, it is equally
doubtful that any collective could become so sociological as to see
itself completely. Nevertheless, these images seem to invite or call for
interpretation. And although Durkheim assigned science a special role
in the interpretation of these images, he knew that full disclosure was
impossible: "It is the task of science to correct these illusions, although
in the sphere of practice they are inevitable.''43 Of course, all science
falls within the "sphere of practice" to the extent that all knowledge,
from religion to science, is a moral reality and a collective dialogue.


In summary, my three formulations of Durkheim's The Rules of Socio-

logical Method as a manifesto have progressively found it to be epis-
temologically and pedagogically embedded in its object of scientific
interest. In the first and most limited formulation, Durkheim's text was
a violent and strategic preparation for his vision of sociology, that laid
its grounds, but was ultimately inessential to sociological practice itself.
It marked what he hoped was a historical rupture in western thought,
after which true sociological reason could get underway. In my second
formulation his text was the creation of a precise sociological object
and moral reality. And while constituting sociology's first action, the
manifesto could then be superseded as this morality began to sustain
itself. Nevertheless, more than in the first formulation, it actively pro-
duced a new "social fact" in European culture. Finally, in the third for-
mulation, Durkheim's manifesto is an ongoing moment of sociology
itself (in the sense of a Hegelian "moment" which is fully visible only in
its first conflict-ridden appearance, but subsequently constitutes an
essential part of the phenomenon's makeup). This manifesto is sociol-
ogy's first clear attempt to understand representation as the funda-
mental element of social life. As such, sociological images and language
are more than new "social facts" they are also "collective representa-
tions" themselves, that reveal how the collective both imagines itself
and interprets its own images. In this last formulation, sociology is
deeply intertwined with the phenomena it seeks to explain, and be-
comes increasingly so as it proceeds historically.

The implications of understanding sociology as a collective represen-

tation are manifold. But among the most important is that sociology
develops by way of a dialectical relation to its object. Not surprisingly, a
century after the appearance of Durkheim's manifesto, popular mass
culture is permeated with reified sociological language, 44 while cultural
and mass-media studies have become a central interest of contempo-
rary social theory. One could even speculate what Durkheim might say
about late twentieth-century North American or European culture,
and the place of sociological images therein. Would he, fike one might
imagine Freud, despair at the popular tropes and metaphors that he
helped produce? Would he see only a monster of his own creation?
Unlike Freud, who might be able to condemn popular psychoanalytic
language as itself an indication of an immature culture looking for
therapeutic fathers, Durkheim formulated the inevitability of the reifi-
cation and deification of sociological language. For example, he

explains that his own time was dominated by the language of the
French Revolution:

... society also consecrates things, especially ideas. If a belief is unanimously

shared by a people, then ... it is forbidden to touch it, that is to say, to deny it
or to contest it. Now the prohibition of criticism is an interdiction like the
others and proves the presence of something sacred. Even today, howsoever
great may be the liberty which we accord to others, a man who should totally
deny progress or ridicule the h u m a n ideal to which m o d e r n societies are
attached, would produce the effect of a sacrilege. 45

He gives "Fatherland," "Liberty" and "Reason" as examples of the

sacred language inherited from the Revolution. And although he
understands that these ideas are historically contingent, he nevertheless
defends their value, especially the value of "Reason." Evidently, Durk-
heim is not troubled by the knowledge that thoughts are shaped by the
sacred ideas of their time.

Noting the popularity of his own texts in the undergraduate class-

room, Durkheim might ask how they function now. He might ask how
The Rules of Sociological Method is an academic collective representa-
tion. He might also ask more generally how the word "society" has
come to be used as a moral reality, or a social fact. How do speakers
gain a moral stronghold on conversation by invoking "society" as the
overarching totem (signifying everything from tradition and order to
constraint and oppression)? Durkheim would probably conclude that
in its current usage "society" means many things, and perhaps is even
reducible to a dada utterance. Society is the punishing god and the for-
giving god; it is used to authorize the judge and justify the deviant. It is,
most generally, the way our culture signals its attempt to formulate
itself by way of its sacred images.

And yet, to avoid concluding that sociology, as it proceeds, ultimately

becomes another instance of the object it studies, one must see Durk-
heim as providing the opportunity within his images and tropes to
make them more than religion or ideology. In other words, although
social reality has traditionally been represented as the Judaeo-Chris-
tian god in western cultures, that does not mean that "Society" will in
turn become the new god of the organically solidary collective. As
Durkheim provided sociology with a basic manifesto orientation (in all
three of my formulations of sociology as strategic, moral, and interpre-
tive), he also provided the opportunity for sociology continually to
change its object by studying it. While normally for scientists their

influence on their object constitutes a disastrous error, because the

data have been contaminated by the act of observation, Durkheim
makes clear that sociology inevitably has this effect (indeed it has this
moral obligation and responsibility). Sociology encourages a culture
where the openness of human identifies and practices is generally
known, and where this openness does not lead to anomic despair. This
was Durkheim's promise to his time - i.e., that looking at ourselves as
agents of our collective condition provides an opportunity to produce
sacred objects that are sacred by the very fact that they are patently
produced collectively.46 While all collectives produce representations
of themselves, what is peculiar to the sociological culture is that it is
supposed to be able to identify these as such - it is supposed to see its
own totem building. This requires a certain ironic orientation grounded
in an insight that the collective could be drastically otherwise, without
provoking a crisis of meaning. In this way, sociology is a system of
beliefs without being an ideology or religion.

And, of course, within a sociological culture change does occur. Once

these sociological tropes are established, they undergo interpretation
and reinterpretation as they are disseminated, circulated, and used in
popular discourse. As the dialogue between academic language and
popular language continues through time, sociologists are required to
imagine sociological interventions that keep these images dynamic
rather than ideological. Hence, as sociology contributes to the sacred
language used by opinion (or doxa), it is neither reducible to opinion,
nor fully distinguishable from it. Sociology seeks to influence the way
opinion recollects its basis (i.e., social life), and in so doing must change
its own language to continue to induce para-doxa.

It is possible therefore that the tropes and images introduced by Durk-

heim have served many rhetorical purposes and need to be reinter-
preted by each new generation of sociologists as they consider the
particular sociological "rules of method" of their own time. But what is
inexhaustible about the Durkheimian legacy is his insight that sociology
must look for its effects at a general discursive level, remaining cog-
nizant that it is a part of modernity's particular collective representa-
tions. Thus formulated, the grounds of sociological thought are neces-
sarily present even in the most specialized of contemporary research,
as each topic covertly speaks about collective representational desire.
Sociology also meets its own limits (even the possibility of its own
death) at the very point where it becomes self-conscious as a cultural
practice - i.e., its various inevitable "crises" as to its relevance point to

its entanglement in the representational anxieties characteristic of

modernity in general. It seems to me crucial that sociological practi-
tioners acknowledge and orient to this condition so that sociology
remains vital to itself and to the collective life it studies. Or in stronger,
more polemical words: sociology is a significant cultural force to the
extent that it understands itself already to be one.


I would like to thank Jinnean Barnard, Jim Cosgrave, Flavio Multi-

neddu, Amresh Sinha, and Matthew Trachman, as well as the Theory
and Society Editors for their helpful comments about this article. My
gratitude also to James Porter for his detailed and careful response to
an early draft of this work, and to Janice Newson and Raymond Morris
for their advice and support. Finally, thanks to Alan Blum, who nur-
tured the interests articulated in this article while guiding my disserta-
tion research.


1. Emile Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method, trans. W. D. Halls (New York:
The Free Press, 1982), 31.
2. Steven Lukes, Emile Durkheim, His Life and Work: A Historical and Critical Study
(Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1973), 4.
3. Kenneth Thompson, Emile Durkheim (New York: Tavistock Publications and Ellis
Horwood Ltd., 1982), 107.
4. Lukes, "Introduction" in The Rules of SociologicalMethod, 23.
5. As evidence of the relatively recent emergence of distinctly social images and con-
cepts, Swingewood points out that Diderot's mid-eighteenth-century Encyclopedia
(an attempt to catalogue all western thought) included no entry for "society." Alan
Swingewood, A Short History of Sociological Thought (London: Macmillan, 1984).
6. Andr6 Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. R. Seaver and H.R. Lane (Ann
Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969), 125.
7. T. Filippo Marinetti, "Foundation manifesto of futurism" in Jane Rye, editor,
Futurism (Highgate Hill, London: Studio Vista/Dutton Pictureback, 1972), 7.
8. Marjorie Perloff, "Violence and Precision': The manifesto as art form" Chicago
Review 34 (1984): 65.
9. Shumway points out that the avant-garde artists defined and named themselves in
terms of their literary practices (e.g., surrealism, dadaism, symbolism). Their mani-
festos were then examples of these literary actions. Loren Shumway, "The intel-
ligibility of the avant-grade manifesto" French Literature Series 7 (1980): 57.
10. Marinetti,"Fonndafionmanifesto" 9.

11. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History, trans. Adrian Collins (Indiana-
polis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957), 8.
12. Nietzsche, ibid., 6.
13. Durkheim, The Rules, 31.
14. Durkheim, ibid., 33.
15. Emile Durkheim, On Morality and Society, ed. Robert N. Bellah (Chicago: Univer-
sity of Chicago Press, 1973), 8.
16. Situationists, "Situationists': International manifesto" in Programs and Manifestoes
on Twentieth-century Architecture, ed. Ulrich Conrads, trans. Michael Bollock
(Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1970), 172.
17. Durkheim, The Rules, 60. Emphasis in original.
18. Durkheim, ibid., 69.
19. Morris Cfinsberg, On The Diversity of Morals (London: William Heinemann, 1956),
20. Durkheim, The Rules, 31.
21. Emile Durkheim, "Sociology and its scientific field;' in Lewis A. Coser, editor,
Georg Simmel (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965), 46.
22. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, "The Communist Manifesto," in Robert C.
Tucker, editor, The Marx-Engels Reader (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), 473.
23. Durkheim, The Rules, 50.
24. Durkheim, ibid., 52.
25. Durkheim, ibid., 54.
26. One subsequent school of sociology, ethnomethodology, was to employ disruption
of the everyday as its primary mode of making social facts visible. Unfortunately,
however, this disruption of the taken-for-granted meant that it often killed the
sociality it attempted to describe.
27. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread
of Nationalism (London & New York: Verso, 1983).
28. Emile Durkheim, Moral Education: A Study in the Theory and Application of the
Sociology of Education, trans. Everett K. Wilson and Herman Schnurer (New York:
The Free Press, 1973), 54.
29. Emile Durkheim, ibid., 11.
30. Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, trans. Joseph Ward
Swain (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1915); 429.
31. Durkheim, The Rules, 50.
32. Durkheim, ibid., v.
33. Durkheim, The Elementary Forms, 214.
34. Durkheim, The Rules, 40.
35. Durkheim, The Elementary Forms, 9.
36. Durkheim, ibid., 427.
37. Colin Kelly's excellent deconstructive reading of Durkheim locates a similar tension
between his rationalism and his reliance on the idea of the sacred. Kelly, "Methods
of Reading and the Discipline of Sociology: The Case of Durkheim Studies"
Canadian Journal of Sociology 15 (1990): 320.
38. See Blum's discussion of Durkheimian sociology as a mode of inquiry that takes
itself as rooted in convention, and by which "language is an icon of the social." Alan
Blum, Theorizing (London: Heinemann, 1974), 206.
39. Durkheim, The Elementary Forms, 422.
40. Emile Durkheim, Emile Durkheim: Selected Writings, ed. Anthony Giddens (Cam-
bridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), 251.

41. Durkheim, On Morality and Society, 16.

42. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
43. Durkheim, Emile Durkheim: Selected Writings, 250.
44. The most general of such utterances include: "society says" "society wants," and
"society makes us." The third of these contemporary common-sense observations
picks up especially well on a central Durkheimian theme that we are both consti-
tuted ("made" human) by social forces, and necessarily constrained by them
("made" to act in particular ways).
45. Durkheim, On Morality and Society, 176.
46. One could, for example, make a case for "liberty, equality, fraternity" as self-con-
sciously sacred objects which were understood by the revolutionaries as products
of mass action, while still being elevated to the status of the sacred. But given the
self-destructive nature of the revolution through its leaders' attempts to deify all of
its aspects, their irony toward this sacredness seems lacking. A contemporary
example is found perhaps in "identity politics" which in its strongest form takes
democracy as the ironic and rhetorical opportunity for new gender, sexual, and
racial identity constructions. See Judith E Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and
the Subversion ofldentity (New York: Routledge, 1990).