This article provides an introduction to Durkheim’s thinking on social structures, using his writing on suicide and religion as examples. The article also shares briefly about Durkheim’s life, providing a good introduction to his thinking and biography.
These two articles work well in highlighting how social solidarity and tribal thinking can push people to ignore what their eyes or the scientific data indicate. Marcus’ article examines the reasons that some people, especially politically conservative men, refused to wear masks during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, while Green’s article highlights how some politically liberal people wore masks and resisted leaving lockdown even after vaccines became available.
Drawing on research and theory by psychologist Shira Gabrial and sociologists Randall Collins and Émile Durkheim, this article highlights how collective effervescence contributes to collective identity and community. It also suggests ways to create new rituals for people who were (at the time) physically distancing because of Covid-19, providing potential in-class activity or assignment as students design their own rituals to foster collective effervescence.
Freakonomics Podcast on “The Suicide Paradox” and related content
The Freakonomics guys–economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner–take a look at why suicide rates rise as a country’s standard of living increases, just as Durkheim would have suspected. The podcast and related content can be found here.
In this interview, psychologist Michele Gelfland discusses the differences between tight cultures--those whose members adhere tightly to social norms--and loose cultures, which tend to take norms more flexibly. The episode fits well in helping students think about Durkheim’s approach to regulation, social health, and suicide. The episode also highlights culture as a social fact outside of the individual.
These episodes examine the social construction of reality. In Reality, the hosts visit a small Minnesota town where people come to hold oppositional views about a local population of black bears. Some residents see the bears as friendly, gentle creatures that you can hand feed, while others see them as dangerous killers. One group’s views eventually win out, highlighting the real-world consequences for how we construct reality. Bubble hopping (Reality Part Two) examines one programmer’s attempt to get out of his reality “bubble” through an app that he built which highlights random local public events posted on Facebook. The episode follows the programmer as he builds his social life and daily decisions around whatever the app tells him to do, driving him to experience realities which he otherwise never would have.
In this interview, former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy discusses the importance of relations to mental and social health and the consequences of Covid-19 in distancing people from one another. The episode helps explain the importance of social integration and the rise of suicides during periods of limited integration.
This episode examines the importance of rituals for people’s lives and highlights the social construction of new ones during Covid-19, as family and friends gather together over Zoom to have a funeral for a deceased loved one. The episode fits well with Durkheim’s writing on religion, ritual, and collective effervescence.
This interview with social psychologist Azzim Shariff explores the functionality of religion to societies across history, highlighting how religious beliefs--particularly the idea of punitive gods--helped foster solidarity and coerce people into following social norms. The episode would work well with the readings from The Elementary Forms and The Division of Labor.
This episode draws on social identity theory and motivated reasoning to explain why people often choose “team” loyalty over concrete evidence that goes against their side’s position on contentious issues. The episode highlights well the negative side of social solidarity and pairs well with Durkheim’s writing in The Division of Labor.
In this interview, behavioral economist Sam Bowles argues that in creating legal norms aimed at punishing bad behavior, societies can inadvertently drive people to abandon the moral solidarity that keeps society functioning. The episode would work well accompanying the reading from The Division of Labor.
In this interview, Durkheim expert Steven Lukes shares about Durkheim’s life and discusses several of his most important theoretical contributions, including social facts, social solidarity, suicide, and religion.
This documentary follows Amish teens as they enter rumspringa – the rite of passage in which they enter the “English” world of sex, drugs, and alcohol at age 16 – and decide to remain or leave their tight-knit communities. Click here for more information.
A Life Apart: Hasidism in America
A documentary exploring how one Orthodox Jewish subculture maintains a strict sense of the sacred in a secular world. A great film companion to Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life.
The Lost Children of Rockdale County
This PBS Frontline documentary about a 1996 syphilis outbreak in an affluent Atlanta suburb is a poignant depiction of Durkheim’s theory of anomie and the breakdown of social bonds during periods of rapid social change.
The Suicide Tourist
This PBS Frontline documentary (which can be watched in full online) examines the assisted-suicide system in Switzerland, the only country in the world where outsiders can enter for the sole purpose of ending their lives. Consider showing it for a lively discussion for what Durkheim might have said about so-called “suicide tourism.”
This documentary examines the conflict between the state and a religious community in Idaho that, in rejecting modern medicine, has let many children die when they could have been cured. The film provides opportunities for discussing organic vs. mechanical solidarity; religion, ritual, and collective effervescence; regulation and integration; moral communities; and the negatives of social solidarity and strong collective conscience.
Feature Films and Clips
The Awful Truth
For vivid examples of “breaching experiments” (with a Marxist twist), check out Michael Moore’s television series, “The Awful Truth,” in which the filmmaker reveals the absurdity of everyday social situations and exposes powerful institutions. Click here for more information.
This charming film explores how a 1950s community undergoes widespread social change when two 1990s teenagers enter and begin to disrupt the social fabric. Read more about how it can be used in classroom here.
Barry, Dan. “This Land” column. New York Times.
These compelling stories of how communities across America are coping with the recession provide a glimpse into the everyday world of social solidarity. Each of his columns can be read here using the “search” input and typing “this land.&rdquo
Berger, Peter. 1967. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. Garden City: Doubleday.
Berger extends his theory of social constructionism to illustrate how religion gives cosmic support to more precarious social institutions.
This foundational work by cultural theorist and anthropologist Mary Douglas introduces her ideas on “group” commitments and “grid” regulations. Consider pairing her chapter, “Away from Ritual,” with Durkheim’s Elementary Forms. Full text courtesy of Routledge.
Hacking, Ian. 1999. The Social Construction of What? Harvard University Press.
In the decades since Berger and Luckmann’s famous treatise, the paradigm of social constructionism has exploded into a veritable theoretical industry. In this very smart and useful book, the philosopher Ian Hacking tells us that to sort out what social construction actually means as a theoretical paradigm, we need to think more critically about what exactly people are arguing is being constructed. A critical but even-handed guide to social constructionism as it is used today.
Latour, Bruno. 2007. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford University Press.
Inspired by fieldwork in scientific laboratories and ethnomethodological insights, a prominent social theorist introduces readers to Actor-Network-Theory, a novel approach that argues non-humans are just as integral a part of making social order as humans.
Merton, Robert. 1957. Social Theory and Social Structure. New York: Free Press.
Merton’s classic outlines the foundations for a functionalist sociology. This work includes his classic work on manifest and latent functions, an excellent companion to the work of Parsons and Shils.
Meyrowitz, Joshua. 1986. No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. New York: Oxford University Press.
Meyrowitz examines the effect electronic media, most notably television, has had on not only how we interact with one another, but also what we know of each other and how we experience reality itself
Sherif, Muzafer, O.J. Harvey, William R. Hood, Carolyn W, Sherif, and Jack White. 1961. The Robbers Cave Experiment: Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma.
This “true life” Lord of the Flies describes a classic experiment by social psychologist Muzafer Sherif in which 24 twelve year-old boys experience in-group solidarity and out-group hostility on a campground in an Oklahoma state park.
Smith, Christian. 2003. Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture. New York: Oxford.
Smith argues that humans are fundamentally moral and believing animals, providing a nuanced take on social constructionism and a rethinking of Durkheim’s view of the sacred and the social order.
Turkle, Sherry. 2011. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books.
A leading sociologist of technology explores technology’s effects on contemporary social order, especially the quality of human relationships.
Watts, Duncan J. 2004. Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age. New York: WW Norton.
An explanation of network theory, a cutting-edge science of social order, by one its most prominent proponents.
Case, Anne and Angus Deaton. 2021. Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Press.
Economists Case and Deaton examine the rise of what they call “deaths of despair”--deaths from drug overdose, suicide, and alcoholism--among people without college degrees. The authors argue that modern capitalism increasingly redistributes working class people’s wages toward the ultra-wealthy. The book and short New Yorker Excerpt illustrate the experience of anomie.
Best, Joel. 2020. Social Problems. 4th edition. New York, NY: Norton.
This book takes a social construction approach to the creation of social problems, examining how societies come to recognize some issues as social problems through the labor of claimsmakers and how those problems become structured into policy. While the text is aimed primarily at courses on social problems, it provides an easy-to-understand introduction to the social construction of reality and its real-life implications.
Tajfel, Henri & Turner, John C. 2004. “The Social Identity Theory of Intergroup Behavior.” In J. T. Jost & J. Sidanius (Eds.), Political Psychology: Key readings (pp. 276–293). New York, NY: Psychology Press.
This article introduces students to social identity theory, highlighting how people develop group-based identities that exclude and stereotyping outsiders. The reading works well alongside Durkheim’s writing on social solidarity, as it illustrates the negative side of solidarity: exclusion and deindividuation of “the other.”
De León, J., & Wells, M. (2015). The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail (1st ed.). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
This book examines the suffering and death along the US Southern Border caused by US immigration policies. The text provides a difficult-to-read but important and contemporary application of Latour’s Actor-Network Theory in highlighting how US immigration authorities use desert inanimate objects and animals as tools of immigration prevention.
Howard, Philip N. 2013. Castells and the Media. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Press.
Howard condenses and makes more accessible some of Castells’ writing on media and the network society.