Emile Durkheim: Sociologist of Modernity

Emirbayer, Mustafa (Editor)
Blackwell Publishers, Oxford

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Cover of book Given this book's sub-title, I had expected to receive a collection of essays or a new monograph on Durkheim. However, new selections of work from the classical theorists can potentially open novel perspectives where the conventional presentation of their ideas has become marooned in its own history, irrelevant to contemporary issues. The most readily-available translated selections of Durkheim's work, those edited by Thompson, Giddens, and Nisbet, were produced in the 1970s and mid-1980s, in very different intellectual and political contexts from today. Given ensuing debates, especially over modernity and postmodernity, and developments such as the collapse of the old Soviet bloc regimes, there is scope for an edited selection to reveal a new Durkheim, more directly attuned to our contemporary concerns. Emirbayer succeeds in this to some extent, but the aim of this edition of extracts from Durkheim and more recent authors, to establish Durkheim's relevance, is severely compromised by editorial strategies.

Rather than following a chronological or intrinsic order, the extracts are organised into editorially thematised Parts and further sub-divided into thematic chapters, each containing extracts from Durkheim and others. The editor's 29-page introduction sets out the rationale for the book's organisation, but does not contextualise the project in terms of either Durkheim scholarship or the sociological discourse of modernity. Though Emirbayer seems to have drawn upon a wider range of Durkheim's work than is usual, the selection of the accompanying authors seems rather arbitrary and the relation between the extracts is not always self-evident.

Emirbayer's objective seems to have been to produce a collection which could revitalise student's interest in Durkheim's ideas by supporting a selection of edited extracts from his work with more recent works which utilise, develop or reflect on some of his key concepts and sociological observations. This aim, to present Durkheim as a sociologist of modernity whose work is of continuing relevance, is compromised by the books sub-titling strategy, which contrasts the 'Durkheim Selections' with the accompanying essays, entitled 'Modern Selections' (the modern-ness of some of which is rather questionable). Rather than presenting a sociologist of modernity, who might be expected to offer us some insight into our present predicaments, the tendency of this edition is thus to (re)produce a Durheimianism which privileges abstract conceptualisation over context and analysis.

The editor's selection complements that organizational decontextualisation of Durkheim's own work. We gain little sense of Durkheim as a thinker engaging with contemporary issues of his time, but are instead given the impression of his writing as the articulation of a fully pre-conceived analysis of an atemporal modernity extending into the future as well as into the past. Emirbayer's introductory 'biographical sketch' effectively isolates the readings from their context, so that the history and politics of Durkheim's Third Republic, and indeed modernity itself, appear simply as a vehicle for the unfolding of his sociology, which is in turn recontextualised, or enframed, by the editor's own thematic organisation of the contents, so that the body of work we are presented with is positively Emirbayer's Durkheim.

Even that could constitute an entirely valid undertaking. However, the book's presentation, by the publishers and by the Series Editor, as 'the best of' Durkheim, seems to have decisively misdirected and undermined Emirbayer's efforts. Close reading reveals severe over-editing, which appears to have been undertaken to produce 'bite-sized' quotations that promote the merely superficial engagement of a 'Durkheim reading' for those who have neither the time nor concentration to engage with unpredigested text. In addition to assembling phrases excised from their context in sentence and paragraph to make continuous prose, the extracts are also increasingly attenuated toward the end of the book. The effect is to construct an impression of Durkheim's work (or of Durkheimianism) as dogma proceeding by serial assertions, rather than by rigorous, analytical reasoning. The result is a pixellated representation of Durkheim for an academy in deep attention deficit, while Emirbayer's more laudable intentions would have been better served by a rigorous original monograph.

Mike Drake
University of East Anglia