Emile Durkheim and Methodological Individualism

By Alexander P. Young
2011, Vol. 3 No. 01 | pg. 1/1

Throughout Émile Durkheim’s Social Facts, he provides an account of what he deems to be the correct nature of social facts. This essay explores his account in order to assess its relation to both methodological holism and methodological individualism in order to show that Durkheim is far more inclined toward a holistic view of social phenomena than an individualistic one. Indeed, I shall go as far to say that Durkheim’s approach could only be termed an individualism in the loosest possible sense of the term.

First of all, an account of the doctrine of methodological individualism shall be elucidated in order to provide a framework for Durkheim’s thesis to be evaluated. Methodological individualism, in Watkins’ eyes, ‘starts with individuals’ dispositions, information and relationships’ as data and then ‘works outward’ to ‘the unintended consequences of their interaction.’1

A base example of this is the assumption in economics that all will pursue their self-interested aims above all else, with the result of an efficient market system, distributing goods effectively at the lowest prices pursuant to their continued availability: no agents intend for this to be the result of their actions, but their disposition to act in their own self-interest leads them to be led, as by an ‘invisible hand’ (as termed by Adam Smith), to actions which are conducive to the resolution of the efficient market detailed above.2

In Smith’s initial formulation, the ‘invisible hand’ was a mechanism of beneficial outcomes, but the methodological individualist approach also accounts for negative social occurrences such as racial segregation: in the model given by Rosenberg, the ‘rational’ disposition to living around a given fraction of people of our own race may lead to a situation of practically perfect segregation – even in situations where we would prefer to live in integrated neighbourhoods. In this situation, if (for example) we wish to live with a minimum of one-third of people our own race and this condition is not met, we will move to an area where it is to be met. In doing so, we may make the conditions such that someone of another race no longer has their one-third preference met.

Here, it is likely that this member of another race will move to an area from which someone of our race has left. This effect will snowball until a completely segregated arrangement arises, with people acting solely to satiate their preferences where they are violated by the moving in of those of other races.3 To the individualist, society is naught but the sum-total of the decisions4 (as the result of the interactions between dispositions, situations, beliefs, physical resources and environment of individuals5) of the people of which it consists.

Durkheim seems to fly in the face of any possibility of him being termed a methodological individualist in an incredibly brazen manner: indeed, he does directly state that ‘a thought that we find in every individual consciousness [..] is not thereby a social fact’6 – if such a thing were to exist, it would most definitely be considered an element of the social sphere by the methodological individualist. He asserts the truth of ‘social facts’, defined as ‘ways of acting, thinking and feeling, external to the individual, endowed with a power of coercion.’7

These ‘facts’ are ‘not to be confused with biological phenomena, since they consist of representations and of actions; nor with psychological phenomena, which exist only in the individual consciousness and through it’8: they are therefore a ‘new’ kind of fact and are thus separate from the individuals composing society. The coercion implied by Durkheim takes many forms (inclusive of disapproval or ridicule in the case of the deviation from moral norms dictated by social facts and of the direct punishment of the violation of law dictated by social facts9), and serves, for Durkheim to prove the existence of such things – if you can ‘feel’ something (as one would by being coerced), it definitely exists10. When I conform to the dictates of social fact, I do not feel the constraint of their coercive power; but upon resisting them, I am aware fully of the coercive power they hold: this follows as (for example) the punishments of law are not going to be applied to me unless I break the law.11

As their source is, for Durkheim, not ‘in the individual’, they must exist at the social stratum. This immediately proposes a large disjunction between the views of Durkheim and those of methodological individualists: he is thus proposing a sort of ‘organicism’12, by which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Methodological individualists could never assent to such an explanation of the coercive power of law or public morality as it is something independent of the psychology of individuals.

Durkheim further differentiates himself from methodological individualists by stating that ‘social currents’ can lead to the creation of psychological states in individuals in groups, which they will later (post-group dispersal) not be able to identify with as their own.13 Here, it is evident that Durkheim has effectively stated that as well as things existing in the social realm independent of psychological states, these external facts are capable of influencing the psychological states of people: the irreducible element of social explanation has plainly been switched from psychological states to external social facts. His discussion of education furthers this element of his argument: that the ‘constraint [of social facts] ceases to be felt […] because it gradually gives rise to habits and to internal tendencies which render constraint unnecessary’ is perfectly demonstrative of this point – the social facts condition the psychology of people, as opposed to the opposite in the school of methodological individualism.

The occurrence and maintenance of the examples given for the practical application of methodology will now be explicated here in the context of Durkheim’s more holistic approach. The appearance of efficient market systems shall be evaluated first: in comparison to the ‘unintended consequence’ approach of an individualist, Durkheim’s argument could (if such a thing were empirically observed) rely upon a social fact such as the influence of a code of public morality which would deem price-gouging wrong. Here, the coercive force of this element of public morality forces people to trade certain amounts at certain prices in order to allocate efficiently and in order that they not be subject to whatever punishment is applicable for deviation from the social fact.

To account for the example of segregation in spite of tolerant, integrationist individuals, one could call upon the nature of the preference stated in the rational-choice individualistic explanation: it is clear that each prefers to live with 1/x of their own race, but what informs this preference? It is completely feasible that this preference is the dictate of a social fact of a ‘way of living’ which involves living within one’s own race. Deviation from this may lead to the abandonment of one by their racial peers and serve to coerce individuals to carry this preference.

The fact that I mention ‘methodological individualism in the loosest in the sense of the term’ in my introduction should not go unnoticed: Kincaid develops a theory of seven possible theories which could be termed as ‘methodological individualism.’14 The one defined as above would constitute the strictest form of the doctrine, ‘individualist theory suffices to fully explain social phenomena’: the ultimate resort in the explanation of social phenomena is the appeal to individual psychology. From what has been discussed thus far, Durkheim would not fit into any of the Kincaidian categories, but there is textual evidence to suggest that Durkheim had sympathies which could have placed him in the category of individualists for whom ‘some reference to individuals is a necessary condition for any full explanation of social phenomena.’15

Durkheim concedes that individual manifestations of social facts are ‘to a certain extent, social, since they partly reproduce a social model.’16 In spite of his protestations that, as mere reproductions, they are not the subject matter of sociology, it is quite evident that in order to explain a given social event in the past, one would need to refer to the ‘decisions’ rather than ‘dispositions’ (in Watkins’ terms, though here, of course, imposed by exogenous social facts) of individuals to give a full explanations: historical explanations using Durkheim’s methods would thus be tarred by the brush of methodological individualism.

To conclude, it is apparent that Durkheim is by no stretch of the imagination a strict follower of the methodological individualist tradition. His assertion of the existence of ‘things’ separate to the sum-totalling of individual psychological dispositions in context of information and relations with others makes sure of this: his core thesis is fundamentally at odds with a traditional interpretation of methodological individualism for this reason. However, if one is to admit a very much weakened definition of ’individualism’, Durkheim appears to be sympathetic to the importance of the individual in large-scale social events in terms of their embodying them microcosmically.


  1. Watkins, “Ideal Types and Historical Explanation”, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, vol. 3 (1952), p26
  2. Rosenberg, Philosophy of Social Science, p153
  3. Ibid, pp157-158
  4. Watkins, “Historical Explanation in the Social Sciences” in Readings in the Philosophy of Social Science, ed. Martin and McIntyre, p448
  5. Ibid, p442
  6. Durkheim, “Social Facts” in Readings in the Philosophy of Social Science, ed. Martin and McIntyre, p435
  7. Ibid, p434
  8. Ibid, p434
  9. Ibid, pp433-434
  10. Ibid, p439
  11. Ibid, p433
  12. Rosenberg, op cit, p126
  13. Durkheim, op cit, p435
  14. Kincaid, “Reduction, Explanation and Individualism” in Readings in the Philosophy of Social Science, ed. Martin and McIntyre, p497
  15. Ibid, p497
  16. Durkheim, op cit, p436

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