To Durkheim, men were creatures whose desires were unlimited. Unlike other animals, they are not satiated when their biological needs are fulfilled. "The more one has, the more one wants, since satisfactions received only stimulate instead of filling needs." It follows from this natural insatiability of the human animal that his desires can only be held in check by external controls, that is, by societal control. Society imposes limits on human desires and constitutes "a regulative force [which] must play the same role for moral needs which the organism plays for physical needs." In well-regulated societies, social controls set limits on individual propensities so that "each in his sphere vaguely realizes the extreme limits on individual propensities so that "each in his sphere vaguely realizes the extreme limits set to his ambitions and aspires to nothing beyond. . . . Thus, an end or a goal [is] set to the passions."
When social regulations break down, the controlling influence of society on individual propensities is no longer effective and individuals are left to their own devices. Such a state of affairs Durkheim calls anomie, a term that refers to a condition of relative normlessness in a whole society or in some of its component groups. Anomie does not refer to a state of mind, but to a property of the social structure. It characterizes a condition in which individual desires are no longer regulated by common norms and where, as a consequence, individuals are left without moral guidance in the pursuit of their goals.
Although complete anomie, or total normlessness, is empirically impossible, societies may be characterized by greater or lesser degrees of normative regulations. Moreover, within any particular society, groups may differ in the degree of anomie that besets them. Social change may create anomie either in the whole society or in some parts of it. Business crises, for example, may have a far greater impact on those on the higher reaches of the social pyramid than on the underlying population. When depression leads to a sudden downward mobility, the men affected experience a de-regulation in their lives--a loss of moral certainty and customary expectations that are no longer sustained by the group to which these men once belonged. Similarly, the rapid onset of prosperity may lead some people to a quick upward mobility and hence deprive them of the social support needed in their new styles of life. Any rapid movement in the social structure that upsets previous networks in which life styles are embedded carries with it a chance of anomie.
Durkheim argued that economic affluence, by stimulating human desires, carries with it dangers of anomic conditions because it "deceives us into believing that we depend on ourselves only," while "poverty protects against suicide because it is a restraint in itself." Since the realization of human desires depends upon the resources at hand, the poor are restrained, and hence less prone to suffer from anomie by virtue of the fact that they possess but limited resources. "The less one has the less he is tempted to extend the range of his needs indefinitely."
By accounting for the different susceptibility to anomie in terms of the social process--that is, the relations between individuals rather than the biological propensities of individuals-- Durkheim in effect proposed a specifically sociological theory of deviant behavior even though he failed to point to the general implications of this crucial insight. In the words of Robert K. Merton, who was the first to ferret out in this respect the overall implications of Durkheim's thought and to develop them methodically, "Social structures exert a definite pressure upon certain persons in the society to engage in non conforming rather than conforming conduct."
Durkheim's program of study, the overriding problems in all his work, concerns the sources of social order and disorder, the forces that make for regulation or de-regulation in the body social. His work on suicide, of which the discussion and analysis of anomie forms a part, must be read in this light. Once he discovered that certain types of suicide could be accounted for by anomie, he could then use anomic suicide as an index for the otherwise unmeasurable degree of social integration. This was not circular reasoning, as could be argued, but a further application of his method of analysis. He reasoned as follows: There are no societies in which suicide does not occur, and many societies show roughly the same rates of suicide overlong periods of time. This indicates that suicides may be considered a "normal," that is, a regular, occurrence. However, sudden spurts in the suicide rates of certain groups or total societies are "abnormal" and point to some perturbations not previously present. Hence. "abnormally" high rates in specific groups or social categories, or in total societies, can be taken as an index of disintegrating forces at work in a social structure.
Durkheim distinguished between types of suicide according to the relation of the actor to his society. When men become "detached from society," when they are thrown upon their own devices and loosen the bonds that previously had tied them to their fellow, they are prone to egoistic, or individualistic, suicide. When the normative regulations surrounding individual conduct are relaxed and hence fail to curb and guide human propensities, men are susceptible to succumbing to anomic suicide. To put the matter differently, when the restraints of structural integration, as exemplified in the operation of organic solidarity, fail to operate, men become prone to egoistic suicide; when the collective conscience weakens, men fall victim to anomic suicide.
In addition to egoistic and anomic types of suicide, Durkheim refers to altruistic and fatalistic suicide. The latter is touched upon only briefly in his work, but the former is of great importance for an understanding of Durkheim's general approach. Altruistic suicide refers to cases in which suicide can be accounted for by overly strong regulation of individuals, as opposed to lack of regulation. Durkheim argues in effect that the relation of suicide rates to social regulation is curvilinear--high rates being associated with both excessive individuation and excessive regulation. In the case of excessive regulation, the demands of society are so great that suicide varies directly rather than inversely with the degree of integration. For example, in the instance of the Hindu normative requirement that widows commit ritual suicide upon the funeral pyre of their husbands, or in the case of harikiri, the individual is so strongly attuned to the demands of his society that he is willing to take his own life when the norms so demand. Arguing from statistical data, Durkheim shows that in modern societies the high rates of suicide among the military cannot be explained by the deprivations of military life suffered by the lower ranks, since the suicide rate happens to be higher for officers than for enlisted men. Rather, the high rate for officers can be accounted for by a military code of honor that enjoins a passive habit of obedience leading officers to undervalue their own lives. In such cases, Durkheim is led to refer to too feeble degrees of individuation and to counter pose these to the excesses of individuation or de- regulation, which account, in his view, for the other major forms of suicide.
Durkheim's discussion of altruistic suicide allows privileged access to some of the intricacies of his approach. He has often been accused of having an overly anti-individualistic philosophy, one that is mainly concerned with the taming of individual impulse and the harnessing of the energies of individuals for the purposes of society. Although it cannot be denied that there are such tendencies in his work, Durkheim's treatment of altruistic suicide indicates that he was trying to establish a balance between the claims of individuals and those of society, rather than to suppress individual strivings. Acutely aware of the dangers of the breakdown of social order, he also realized that total control of component social actors by society would be as detrimental as anomie and de-regulation. Throughout his life he attempted to establish a balance between societal and individual claims.
Durkheim was indeed a thinker in the conservative tradition to the extent that he reacted against the atomistic drift of most Enlightenment philosophy and grounded his sociology in a concern for the maintenance of social order. As Robert Nisbet has shown convincingly, such key terms as cohesion, solidarity, integration, authority, ritual, and regulation indicate that his sociology is anchored upon an anti-atomistic set of premises. In this respect he was like his traditionalist forebears, yet it would be a mistake to classify Durkheim as a traditionalist social thinker. Politically he was a liberal--indeed, a defender of the rightsof individuals against the state. He also was moved to warn against excesses of regulation over persons even though the major thrusts of his argument were against those who, by failing to recognize the requirements of the social order, were likely to foster anomic states of affairs. Anomie, he argued, was as detrimental to individuals as it wasto the social order at large.
Durkheim meant to show that a Spencerian approach to the social realm, an approach in which the social dimension is ultimately derived from the desire of individuals to increase the sum of their happiness, did not stand up before the court of evidence or the court of reason. Arguing against Spencer and the utilitarians, he maintained that society cannot be derived from the propensity of individuals to trade and barter in order to maximize their own happiness. This view fails to account for the fact that people do not trade and barter at random but follow a pattern that is normative. For men to make a contract and live up to it, they must have a prior commitment to the meaning of a contract in its own right. Such prior collective commitment, that is, such a non-contractual element of contracts, constitutes the framework of normative control. No trade or barter can take place without social regulation and some system of positive and negative sanctions.
Durkheim's main shafts against individualistic social theories notwithstanding, he was by no means oblivious of the dangers of over regulation to which Spencer's social philosophy had been especially sensitive. Durkheim saw man as Homoduplex--as body, desire, and appetite and also as socialized personality. But man was specifically human only in the latter capacity, and he became fully human only in and through society. Hence, true moral action lies in the sacrifice of certain individual desires for the service of groups and society. But such sacrifices redound in the last analysis to the benefit of individuals, as well as society, since unbridled desires lead to frustration and unhappiness rather than to bliss and fulfillment. Modern society seems to contain, for Durkheim, the potentialities for individualism within social regulation. In contrast to earlier types of social organization based on mechanical solidarity that demanded a high degree of regimentation, modern types of organization rest on organic solidarity obtained through the functional interdependence of autonomous individuals. In modern societies, social solidarity is dependent upon, rather than repressive of, individual autonomy of conduct.
Though Durkheim stressed that in modern societies a measure of integration was achieved through the intermeshing and mutual dependence of differentiated roles, he came to see that these societies nevertheless could not do without some common integration by a system of common beliefs. In earlier social formations built on mechanical solidarity, such common beliefs are not clearly distinct from the norms through which they are implemented in communal action; in the case of organic solidarity, the detailed norms have become relatively independent from overall beliefs, responding as they do to the exigencies of differentiated role requirements, but a general system of overall beliefs must still exist. Hence Durkheim turned, in the last period of his scholarly life, to the study of religious phenomena as core elements of systems of common beliefs.
From Coser, 1977:132-136.