From Emile Durkheim to Max Weber – When context became key

In this article I want to talk about some integral figures within Sociology. People who helped to shape the discipline.

When studying Sociology and traversing the classic studies; Suicide by Emile Durkheim is usually the first studied. His aim was to study suicide across Europe. At the time no sociologist had attempted something on this scale. In his own words from the preface,

The progress of a science is proven by the progress toward solution of the problems it treats. It is said to be advancing when laws hitherto unknown are discovered, or when at least new facts are acquired modifying the formulation of these problems even though not furnishing a final solution. Unfortunately, there is good reason why sociology does not appear in this light, and this is because the problems it proposes are not usually clear-cut. It is still in the stage of system-building and philosophical syntheses. Instead of attempting to cast light on a limited portion of the social field, it prefers brilliant generalities reflecting all sorts of questions to definite treatment of anyone. Such a method may indeed momentarily satisfy public curiosity by offering it so-called illumination on all sorts of subjects, but it can achieve nothing objective. Brief studies and hasty intuitions are not enough for the discovery of the laws of so complex a reality.
(Durkheim, 1897)

Here we can see his laudable aims, but in the tail of the quote we see an issue. Durkheim supposes reality a complex place, but still thinks there are laws which can be discovered by Sociology. He is imagining being able to apply formulae like a physicist and gain the answers to our world. However, he also recognises how the word suicide may not always mean the same thing,

Our first task then must be to determine the order of facts to be studied under the name of suicides. Accordingly, we must inquire whether, among the different varieties of death, some have common qualities objective enough to be recognizable by all honest observers, specific enough not to be found elsewhere and also sufficiently kin to those commonly called suicides for us to retain the same term without breaking with common usage. If such are found, we shall combine under that name absolutely all the facts presenting these distinctive characteristics, regardless of whether the resulting class fails to include all cases ordinarily included under the name or includes others usually otherwise classified.
Durkheim questions how an act is defined and the agency of the person committing the act,
…in general, an act cannot be defined by the end sought by the actor, for an identical system of behaviour may be adjustable to too many different ends without altering its nature. Indeed, if the intention of self-destruction alone constituted suicide, the name suicide could not be given to facts which, despite apparent differences, are fundamentally identical with those always called suicide and which could not be otherwise described without discarding the term. The soldier facing certain death to save his regiment does not wish to die, and yet is he not as much the author of his own death as the manufacturer or merchant who kills himself to avoid bankruptcy?
Durkheim used whatever official sources he could to acquire the data. He then went onto present it in tables such as these,


and decides that,
The suicide-rate is therefore a factual order, unified and definite, as is shown by both its permanence and its variability. For this permanence would be inexplicable if it were not the result of a group of distinct characteristics, solidarity one with another, and simultaneously effective in spite of different attendant circumstances; and this variability proves the concrete and individual quality of these same characteristics, since they vary with the individual character of society itself.
Now whilst Durkheim has questioned the nature of the word suicide. He takes the collected statistics as fact. He sees the variance in statistics reflecting the attitudes of the society. What he doesn’t do is ask whether the attitude of the country initially decides when a death is a suicide.

If someone in a Catholic country found their friend dead with a suicide note; would they report that as suicide? Would they doom their friend’s body to burial in unconsecrated ground? How many suicides were counted as accidental deaths to give Italy the least amount of “suicides” in the above table? How many still happen today?

We can see that Durkheim is certainly questioning and exploring the nature of reality, but has blind spots which give Suicide its flaws.

If we move forward to Max Weber, the founder of the Interpretive school of thought. Weber introduced the idea of ‘Verstehen’
Verstehen is a German term that means to understand, perceive, know, and comprehend the nature and significance of a phenomenon. To grasp or comprehend the meaning intended or expressed by another. Weber used the term to refer to the social scientist’s attempt to understand both the intention and the context of human action.
(Elwell, 2005)
Weber decides that all societies have their own ‘norms’ and ‘values’. How something such as suicide was seen; would be determined by those norms and values.

From our earlier example; Italy’s norms and values see suicide as a mortal sin. These norms and values will therefore determine not only an individual’s likelihood to commit suicide, but also how likely that suicide will be recorded as such.

No respected sociologist today would ever attempt to analyse statistics without evaluating how the statistics were collected. Every sociologist today recognises that context is key to every investigation, even in terms of why someone decides to research a certain topic!

Context-driven sociology doesn’t exist because it doesn’t need to. How long until testing is the same?

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