Emile Durkheim Defined Sociology

One upon time, those who taught English–specifically, composition–and who adhered to the advice of Strunk and White believed they had, in the discipline of sociology, a perfect example of a jargon-fountain. Then came Structuralist and post-Structuralist literary theory, a Niagra Falls of jargon, as well as a more clear-eyed view of Strunk’s and White’s limitations, including the fact that some of their “rules” were, of course, merely idiosyncratic preferences.

If you are looking for a clear, spare definition of sociology, look no further than the work of sociologist Emile Durkheim, who wrote . . .

“Sociology can then be defined as the science of institutions, of their genesis and their functioning.” (from The Rules of Sociological Method)

Strunk, White, and Orwell might have objected to the use of the passive voice here, but I think Durkheim’s use of it here is appropriate and, at worst, a nit to pick.

I have borrowed the definition from the excellent site, http://www.emile-durkheim.com/ .

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One Response to “Emile Durkheim Defined Sociology”

  1. Wild Bill Says:

    In the last faculty meeting at the institution that Dr. O — not to be confused with Doctorow — and I serve, yet another pedant fumed against the passive voice as if everyone present agreed that the passive voice was, like small pox, to be stamped out in first-year seminars. The pedant intoned gravely about the passive voice while the faculty considered an addition to the rubrics of two first-year seminars. The concluding sentence of additions was vague if not meaningless, but the pedant focused the faculty on the pedant’s many burdens in his first-year course.

    Let us soothe our colleague. Like Ayn Rand’s John Galt, let us urge Anal Atlas to shrug off pedantry in favor of pedagogy.

    In my classes, I teach students that they should invest the passive voice cautiously and deliberately. Too many passive verbs would be profligate. However, studied avoidance of the passive voice reduces the voices available in English. Since, to my knowledge, we have but two voices in English, reducing one’s voices from two to one seems imprudent.

    More important to me than punctilious pedants is the reason why Durkheim or his translator might have used the passive voice: to avoid a first person construction! Rather than the direct “I shall define sociology … ,” the translator or Durkheim or both indulged the fantasy that eschewing the first person somehow makes prose more intellectual or objective.

    Stilts may elevate the wearer, but stilts do not make the wearer taller.

    Most important, Dr. O invokes Strunk and White, a classic pairing whose classic work was responsible for producing many chronic pedants, including many of us. Or should I say “reducing” many pedants? Strunk and White prosecuted their prejudices as “instant style” or “streamlined clarity” or other eventually self-fulfilling prophecies. Strunk and White did much good. Strunk and White also spread much nonsense. Strunk and White provided academics that most precious commodity: an authority for parading erudition that preeners had neither earned nor attained. As a result, faculty meetings resound with questions about the parallelism of a motion that embodies madness. Colleagues lament the passing of the stricture against splitting infinitives when most of their students have no idea what an infinitive is or was. And our last faculty meeting featured a dazzling discussion of where the commas in the rubric might best be positioned.


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