Sociology is a study that examines and evaluates the patterns of social relationships and interactions in everyday life. The societal constructions within which individuals situate themselves are one of the key elements that theorists Max Weber, Emile Durkheim and among others have examined over time. However, according to both, there are two different ways in which sociologists should study the relationships between individuals and society. According to Weber, sociologists should study Social Action, to understand why human behaviors vary depending on the social context. In other words, interpreting the actions of individuals hence every action is motivated by a greater force. On the other hand, Durkheim suggests that the most appropriate way of studying society is by understanding the Social Facts, which is to understand how cultures and institutions within a society affect the behaviors of individuals. Ultimately, this essay will discuss and compare the two distinctive theories of Social Action and Social Fact in greater depth, using empirical studies of both theorists to come to a conclusion about which theory effectively demonstrates the relationship between individuals and society.
Discussing the key aspect of social action
As one of the three founders of Sociology, German philosopher Max Weber distinguished himself as being a subjective analyst of society, meaning he had an ideological way of examining society. In fact, Weber believed that Sociology should examine the interpretative understanding of the actions of individuals in a society which he originally called the theory of Verstehen which was later translated to the theory of Social Action. Weber defined Social Action by explaining that every action an individual enacts is meaningful and purposeful. With that being said, behind every action, there is a greater purpose to be achieved. This concept is illustrated in his text The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism as he explains the ways in which Protestants particularly Calvinists demonstrated this theory. Calvinists believed in the idea of Pre-destination, which is the belief that God had already decided who was saved and belonged in heaven. With that being said, the way Calvinists would prove themselves to be worthy enough to be chosen, was through work. Therefore, Calvinists devoted themselves to their work, building their own business’ and contributed to their community. One can conclude, that the actions conducted were motivated by a greater force. Furthermore, the actions were purposeful and could be interpreted by understanding how each individual had an end goal, therefore exemplifying the theory of Social Action.
Discussing and comparing social facts
In contrast, French philosopher Emile Durkheim, distinguishes himself as being an objective analyst of society, meaning he had a scientific way of studying society. He believed that just like the human body society is made up of many different organisms used to help society function properly. That is to say, institutions and cultures transcend the individual and operate to socially control individuals, this is the theory he called Social Facts. Unlike Weber, who believed that individuals enacted based on presumed beliefs and purpose, Durkheim believed that there is a structure in place which influences and dictates the actions of individuals. This theory of Social Fact is best exemplified in the concept of solidarity. Solidarity is defined as a form of moral relationship that exists within a group or society. Furthermore, different societies have two distinguishable types of solidary: Mechanical and organic that are based on the collective conscience, which are the shared values and norms within a society. Mechanical solidarity is synonymous with small traditional societies and the conventional wisdom is for everyone to be specialized at the same industrial task. Oppositely, Organic Solidarity is synonymous with modern societies and it is based on individual specialized tasks. One can conclude, based on the concept of solidarity the behaviors and actions are highly dictated and predetermined by societal structures which exemplifies the theory of social fact.
Suicide and Social action
Theoretically, suicide is the intentional killing of oneself. Although Weber did not study this social phenomenon in such depth as Durkheim, it is important to understand how he would have used his theory of Social Action to explain suicide. Firstly, Weber would have emphasized that suicide is strictly an individual matter, that unlike Durkheim suicide has no collective significance, therefore every individual has their own personal and psychological reasons for committing this self-destructive act. That is to say, Weber would have aerobe deeper into the lives of people to gain an in-depth understanding of how the way people might live might motivate such actions. Therefore, Weber would have used his theory of Social action to have a clear and individual-based understanding of why people commit suicide.
Suicide and Social Fact
In direct contrast to Weber, Durkheim took a holistic perspective by analyzing different factors in the study of suicide. By applying his theory of Social Facts within the social context and through his empirical study of suicide, Durkheim came to a conclusion that the act of suicide was not purely motivated by personal feelings or psychological conditions as Weber would have emphasized, but it was mostly influenced by the Social facts that impinge on individuals therefore, Durkheim argued that there was a very strong link between social structures and people committing suicide and it is due to a lack of social integration and moral regulation. Social integration is referred to the idea that individuals attached themselves to a group to feel accepted and wanted within a group. On the other hand, moral regulation is the idea that individuals need to be following the rules of the group they are integrated into. Both concepts were both key elements in his empirical study of suicide in which it was to examine and understand why suicide rates in Europe over the 19th century increased from traditional to modern societies. It was concluded that both societies had two different societal conditions. Traditional societies were highly socially integrated and oriented to religion. People knew how to relate to one another and knew their place within society. However, “Durkheim maintains that modern societies chronically anomic and characterized by a lack of regulation of the individual by the collective” (Applerouth and Edles:108). That is to say, modern society, over the preceding century had suffered from a loss of social integration. With that being said, the social fact of suicide is that the social conditions and social structures are the underlying roots of suicide, which Durkheim believed was often overlooked by the idea of motive which Weber emphasized.
Religion and Social Action
Generally, Weber sought to objectively examine the institution of religion by attempting to understand the relationship between individuals and the beliefs that different religions reinforce. In fact, Weber emphasized that religion had a profound impact on the actions of individuals, by how people were able to remove themselves from the “real world” and embed themselves in what he called a mastery of the world, meaning people would use religion to justify their action. The bases of social action in terms of religion is oriented on embodying the religious codes that are morally guiding the actions of individuals. Furthermore, beliefs in which Weber emphasized, was the key motivator to how individuals would justify their actions, this is what he called the calling, which is the motivating force that influences the individual to pursue their own goals. In The Protestant Ethic and the spirit of Capitalism text, it illustrates that “Here we have only attempted to trace the fact and the direction of its influence to their motives in one through a very important point. But it would also further be necessary to investigate how Protestant Asceticism was in turn influenced in its development and its character by the totality of social conditions especially economic” (Applerouth and Edles 165). That is to say, the quest for salvation for the Calvinists was a purposeful act based on beliefs which are granted to Weber for proving his theory of Social Action within a religious context.
Religion and social fact
On the other hand, Durkheim defined religion to be a social institution that is based on a unified system practice that recognizes the sacred and the profane. The sacred is translated to any ritual or object that communities give meaning to, however, the profane is the distinctive beliefs within each religion. However, unlike Weber, Durkheim refuses to acknowledge beliefs as the primary function of religion, thus he implies that beliefs are based on personal opinions and does not reflect the collective thinking. Therefore, Durkheim indicates three major functions of religion that contribute to the operation of society. Firstly, religion helps establish social cohesion by uniting people around shared symbols, norms and values. He argued that churches act as gathering places, forming the foundation of social life for many people. Secondly, societies use religion as a form of social control, meaning people behaved well to remain in their God’s good graces. Thirdly, religion provides people with a sense of purpose in life meaning in terms of social solidarity, religion and churches are the factors that hold individuals and social groups together. Therefore, the social fact in the context of religion is used to maintain the social order and social solidarity.
In conclusion, this essay introduced, examined and compared several theories and concepts of Max Weber and Emile Durkheim. Although their methods are quite different, they serve a purpose in society. In fact, both concepts could be true within all contexts in which structures do exist independently from the individual as well as the fact that understanding what an individual is thinking, the motivations that enable such actions is also extremely important to understand and examine. However, it is important to mention that the relationship between individuals and society is very complex, and it is composed of many different factors which ultimately demonstrates that Emile Durkheim, effectively demonstrated the relationship between society and individuals, based on the fact that society is composed of many different cultures and institution in which are separated from the individual. However, in contrast with Durkheim individual action is not dictated by these structures but it is nevertheless prescribed to individuals, hence individuals unknowingly enact certain behaviors because it is personally desired.