It is Durkheim who clearly
established the logic of the functional approach to the study of
social phenomena, although functional explanations, it will be recalled,
play a major part in Spencer's approach, and the lineaments of functional
reasoning were already discernible in the work of Comte. In particular,
Durkheim set down a clear distinction between historical and functional
types of inquiry and between functional consequences and individual
When . . . .
the explanation of a social phenomenon is undertaken, we must seek
separately the efficient cause which produces it and the function
it fulfills. We use the word "function," in preference
to "end" or "purpose," precisely because social
phenomena do not generally exist for the useful results they produce.
We must determine whether there is a correspondence between the
fact under consideration and the general needs of the social organism,
and in what this correspondence consists, without occupying ourselves
with whether it has been intentional or not.
"The determination of function is . . . necessary for the complete
explanation of the phenomena. . . . To explain a social fact it
is not enough to show the cause on which it depends; we must also,
at least in most cases, show its function in the establishment of
Durkheim separated functional
analysis from two other analytical procedures, the quest for historical
origins and causes and the probing of individual purposes and motives.
The second seemed to him of only peripheral importance for sociological
inquiry since men often engage in actions when they are unable to
anticipate the consequences. The quest for origins and historical
causes, however, was to Durkheim as essential and legitimate a part
of the sociological enterprise as was the analysis of functions.
In fact, he was convinced that the full explanation of sociological
phenomena would necessarily utilize both historical and functional
analysis. The latter would reveal how a particular item under consideration
had certain consequences for the operation of the overall system
or its component parts. The former would enable the analyst to show
why this particular item, rather than some others, was historically
available to subserve a particular function. Social investigators
must combine the search for efficient causes and the determination
of the functions of a phenomenon.
The concept of function
played a key part in all of Durkheim's work from The Division of
Labor, in which he sees his prime objective in the determination
of "the functions of division of labor, that is to say, what
social needs it satisfies," to The Elementary Forms of Religious
Life, which is devoted to a demonstration of the various functions
performed in society through religious cults, rites, and beliefs.
An additional illustration of Durkheim's functional approach is
his discussion of criminality.
In his discussion of
deviance and criminality, Durkheim departed fundamentally from the
conventional path. While most criminologists treated crime as a
pathological phenomenon and sought psychological causes in the mind
of the criminal, Durkheim saw crime as normal in terms of its occurrence,
and even as having positive social functions in terms of its consequences.
Crime was normal in that no society could enforce total conformity
to its injunctions, and if society could, it would be so repressive
as to leave no leeway for the social contributions of individuals.
Deviance from the norms of society is necessary if society is to
remain flexible and open to change and new adaptations. "Where
crime exists, collective sentiments are sufficiently flexible to
take on a new form, and crime sometimes helps to determine the form
they will take. How many times, indeed, it is only an anticipation
of future morality--a step toward what will be." But in addition
to such direct consequences of crime, Durkheim identified indirect
functions that are no less important. A criminal act, Durkheim reasoned,
elicits negative sanctions in the community by arousing collective
sentiments against the infringement of the norm. Hence i has the
unanticipated consequence of strengthening normative consensus in
the common weal. "Crime brings together upright consciences
and concentrates them."
Whether he investigated
religious phenomena or criminal acts, whether he desired to clarify
the social impact of the division of labor or of changes in the
authority structure of the family, Durkheim always shows himself
a masterful functional analyst. He is not content merely to trace
the historical origins of phenomena under investigation, although
he tries to do this also, but he moves from the search for efficient
causes to inquiries into the consequences of phenomena for the structures
in which they are variously imbedded. Durkheim always thinks contextually
rather than atomistically. As such he must be recognized as the
direct ancestor of that type of functional analysis which came to
dominate British anthropology under the impact of Radcliffe-Brown
and Malinowski and which led. somewhat later, to American functionalism
in sociology under Talcott Parsons and Robert K. Merton.
The sections that follow
will provide more information on Durkheim the man, and on his activities
as an applied scientist and engaged reformer. This section was limited
to his theoretical work, but it could not possibly do justice to
all the facets of the work of so complicated a social theorist as
Emile Durkheim. Space did not permit a discussion of Durkheim's
contributions to the sociology of education, although they are considerable;
nor could justice be done to Durkheim's fascinating if highly speculative
work on the importance of professional associations as intermediary
links between individuals and the all-encompassing, and possibly
suffocating, powers of the state. Even his important contributions
to the sociology of law could be alluded to only in passing.
As a social theorist,
Durkheim, to quote him directly, had as his "principal objective
. . . to extend scientific rationalism to human behavior."
And although he may have failed in many particulars, the fact that
his work has become part of the foundation for all modern sociology
testifies to his overall success.