Luhmann & Durkheim

Luhmann saw himself as building on the pioneering work of Émile Durkheim, among others. Of course, he studied with Parsons, but Parsons was heavily influenced by Durkheim. Thus, Luhmann argued that society is not an aggregate of individuals. We have to deal with social constraints and pressures that no human being or group of human beings ever intentionally created. We must face unintended consequences. For example, no human being or organization ever decided that it would be a good idea for people to spend hours in gridlock traffic every workday. As Kenneth Thompson writes, for Durkheim

there are constraining and determining factors of a social nature that must be taken into account in explaining human behaviour. Durkheim was arguing against the prevailing tendency to reduce such explanations to the levels of individual psychology or biology, and the individual and voluntaristic philosophies of his time.

Durkheim, Émile, and Thompson, Kenneth. Readings from Emile Durkheim. Revised ed. Key Texts (London, England). London ; New York: Routledge, 2004.

If in a city like Los Angeles everyone follows their own self-interest and tries to get to work a little early, no one will get to work early. There were many independent, purposeful acts (people trying to earn a living, engineers designing the freeways, workers building the freeways whose only purpose is to make a living, etc.) that led to gridlock.

Social conservatives like Margaret Thatcher claim that “there is no such thing as society” because all they see is the totality of human beings pursuing their self-interest whose actions are coordinated by an “invisible hand.” These individuals engage in transactions and enter into contracts with each other, and that’s all that’s needed to establish a social order. In defending Thatcher, Charles Moore wrote the following:

What Mrs Thatcher said was this: “I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand ‘I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it’ … and so they are casting their problems upon society, and who is society? There are individual men and women and there are families, and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then after our neighbour … and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations.” A little further on, she repeated her point, using the exact words, “There is no such thing as society.”. . .

She cared passionately about social order and social obligations, and was hostile to the egoistic hedonism of the Sixties. In inspecting the use of the word “society”, she was behaving like the scientist which, by education, she was. “What is this substance made of?” she was asking, and she tried to supply the answer. Once people understood that society was made up of them, rather than having some mysterious independent existence, they would have more sense of their obligations, more care for their neighbour.

Charles Moore. “No Such Thing as Society: a good time to ask what Margaret Thatcher really meant.”

But society is not just “made up of them.” For Durkheim, there are social constraints, laws, traditions, institutions, etc., that no human being created. Herbert Spencer and the Utilitarian philosophers only saw collections of individuals who enter into contracts. They somehow overlooked the fact that we are born into social groups and that socialization precedes the emergence of real individuality. Thus, for Durkheim, we must consider social action, not merely human action. In an article on Luhmann and Durkheim in Journal of Classical Sociology , Éva Debray wrote,

Against Spencer, Durkheim (2013) argues that, without “social action, properly so termed” (p. 160), no social order is possible. On the one hand, Durkheim highlights similarities between his analysis of modern societies and Spencer’s examination of “industrial societies,” both of which stress the differentiation of functions, or the “division of labour” that characterizes them and the corresponding decrease in homogenizing social control. On the other hand, Durkheim states that Spencer wrongly infers from this that the “social harmony” of industrial societies could rest on the unconstrained pursuit of one’s own interest, making exchange a source of order in its own right. . . .

The form of exchange Durkheim refers to when depicting Spencer’s thought is “market exchange.” One key idea behind Spencer’s position is that this exchange is possible without its participants pursuing anything but their own interests. According to Spencer’s approach, “particular contracts” can be viewed as the “normal form of exchange” (Durkheim, 2013: 158), in that these conventions ensure that each co-contracting party will actually proceed to exchange in conformance with the terms of agreement. Furthermore, this contractual form of exchange implies the possibility for the co-contracting parties not to make an exchange, if they consider that it is not in their interest to do so. . . .

Durkheim, against Spencer’s view and that of those he calls “the economists,” repeats this idea and concludes that society represents a “specific reality”; individual actions cannot, as such, be viewed as a source of social order, the constraining “social action” of society being an essential condition of it. Durkheim elaborates on this idea when he criticizes Hobbes’ and Rousseau’s theories of social contract. While both authors considered that, for “common life” to be possible, “constraint must be exercised upon” individuals (Durkheim, 1982: 142), they conceived of this constraint as the result of a general, social contract. Durkheim points out that, in this view, the constraining force necessary for social common life could be regarded as exclusively derived from individual members of society because it would be considered as intentionally produced by them. Against this hypothesis, Durkheim stresses “the complete contradiction that exists in admitting that the individual is himself the creator of a machine whose essential role is to exercise domination and constraint over him”; these theories assume that the individuals could by “an act of volition” produce an “organisation, that is designed to constrain and contain him,” which, according to Durkheim, is a contradiction in terms. Accordingly, the source of social constraint making social order possible cannot lie in individuals as such but is external to them. This external source is nothing but society itself, thus, considered to have a “sui generis” reality.

Thus, in Durkheim’s view, the individual person is not self-sufficient. It is necessary to take notice of the “social components” of an individual’s action, these components being an essential condition of social order. Durkheim stressed for this reason what might be called the social conditions of action without which social order is impossible.

Debray, Éva. “The Politics of the Individual: Luhmann Reading Durkheim.” Journal of Classical Sociology 17, no. 4 (2017): 361-81.

The idea of social constraints being external to human actors led, at least in part, to Luhmann’s controversial, often misunderstood claim that people exist in the environment of society.


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