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Organization & Environment

http://oae.sagepub.com Durkheim on the Environment: Ex Libris or Ex Cathedra? Introduction to Inaugural Lecture to a Course in Social Science, 1887-1888
Eugene A. Rosa and Lauren Richter Organization Environment 2008; 21; 182 DOI: 10.1177/1086026608318740 The online version of this article can be found at: http://oae.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/21/2/182

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Archives of Organizational and Environmental Literature

Durkheim on the Environment

Ex Libris or Ex Cathedra? Introduction to Inaugural Lecture to a Course in Social Science, 1887-1888
Eugene A. Rosa Lauren Richter
Washington State University

Organization & Environment Volume 21 Number 2 June 2008 182-187 2008 Sage Publications 10.1177/1086026608318740 http://oae.sagepub.com hosted at http://online.sagepub.com

Pioneer environmental sociologists, Riley E. Dunlap and William R. Catton Jr., successfully laid the foundation of environmental sociology by pointing out the anthropocentric bias of mainstream sociology. The exemplary intellectual source of this bias could be found in the works of French sociologist mile Durkheim whose methodological dictum stated that social facts could only be explained by other social facts. Here we call for a re-evaluation of Durkheims role as perpetrator of the anthropocentric bias behind the Human Exemptionalist Paradigm dominating mainstream sociology. We do this from several directions but mostly by re-visiting his foundational writing on the topic, his inaugural lecture in sociology given at the University of Bordeaux in 1887. Our critical examination of that lecture makes it clear that Durkheim's idea of social facts was far richer, more nuanced, and more mindful of biological and other environmental factors than typically recognized in the sociology literature. We conclude that it might profit scholars to re-visit Durkheim, not as the party guilty for dismissing the environment, but as a foundation for understanding the dynamics between human and environmental systems. Keywords: environmental sociology; social facts; mile Durkheim; human exemptionalist paradigm

n a series of germinal articles nearly three decades ago, pioneer environmental sociologists William R. Catton, Jr., and Riley E. Dunlap set the stage for the subfield of environmental sociology. Arguably those articles had an unparalleled impact on how the subfield evolved. Their aims were clear: to bring to the larger discipline of sociology a recognition of its outmoded anthropocentric worldview, a legacy of its European origins; to adumbrate a programmatic plan for incorporating environmental variables and issues into sociology; and to identify the specific intellectual sources that had led sociology down a path of environmental blindness. Addressing the first two aims, Catton and Dunlap organized a distinction between sociologys prevailing worldview and the emergent one they wished to promote by borrowing from the then popular terminology paradigm, from the philosophy of science landmark
Authors Note: We thank Andrew Appleton for pointing us toward Durkheims inaugural address discussed in this article and to John Bellamy Foster for editorial help. 182
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Rosa, Richter / Durkheim on the Environment


book by Thomas Kuhn (1962), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. They referred to the prevailing sociological paradigm as the human exceptionalist paradigm, or HEP, later modified to the human exemptionalist paradigm and to the emerging paradigm as the new environmental paradigm, or NEP (Catton & Dunlap, 1978; Dunlap & Catton, 1979a). HEP, the human exemptionalist paradigm, was unequivocal in its explicit denial of the importance of the environment in shaping what humans can do, what they consume, what they structure, what they waste, and the recursive changes in the environment from all these actions. As for the third aim, who was responsible for this exemptionalist worldview? For Catton and Dunlap, there was no question that the principal intellectual source of sociologys environmental blindness could be traced to French sociologist and holder of the first chair in sociology anywhere, mile Durkheim. It was Durkheims preoccupation with establishing sociology as a scientific discipline distinct from psychology and economics and an obsession with methods distinct from those other disciplines where the foundation of the problem could be found. As illustrated in Table 1, in virtually every Catton and Dunlap publication on the paradigm tug of war between the old worldview and the new, it is Durkheims methodological dictumto explain social facts only with other social factsthat is the cause of environmental blindness in sociology. And nothing seems to have interrupted their interpretation in the decades between their first and most recent publications. From a contemporary vantage point, it might be an appropriate time to ask whether it is valid to finger Durkheim as the perpetrator of the exemptionalist paradigm, the HEP. There are at least three bases for raising the question. First, there is the question of whether the idea of social facts as exclusively self-referential is as pervasive in sociology as claimed by Catton and Dunlap. After all, Marx might claim that social facts are to be found embedded in economic facts, Homans might claim they are to be found in the rational actions of individuals, or Garfinkel might claim that social facts never crystallize because all social life is a transitory emergence of negotiated rituals. A full answer to this question of pervasiveness would require an extensive review of the competing orientations in sociology, a topic clearly beyond our compass here. A second potential challenge to the appropriateness of fingering Durkheim can be found in Durkheims simple, two-step evolutionary theory. In The Division of Labor in Society, Durkheim (1893/1964) is very clear about the connections between humans, nature, and society: Man depends upon only three kinds of environment: the organism, the external world, and society (p. 285). He went on to identify two stages in the evolution of society, a mechanical stage consisting of small populations of tightly knit, kinship-based, cooperative, face-to-face relationships and an organic stage consisting of large populations of individualized citizens with specialized skills who often interact on a contractual basis. The lynchpin of this evolutionary change was the division of labor. But what drove labor specialization and division in the first place? For Durkheim, it was the sheer growth of population accompanied by increased competition over ecological resources. (A more detailed explication of this nexus, as well as Simmels recognition of the human-environment coupling, can be found in Gross, 2000.) Recent empirical work from ecologists (Ehrlich & Holdren, 1971) as well as sociologists (Dietz & Rosa, 1994; Rosa, York, & Dietz, 2004; York, Rosa, & Dietz, 2003) has identified an unequivocal connection between population and ecological impacts. On the surface of

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Organization & Environment / June 2008

Table 1
Publication Catton & Dunlap The American Sociologist 13: 41-49 Date 1978 Quote(s) 1. Efforts of sociologists to assimilate into their favorite theories some of the astounding events that have shaped human societies within the last generation [viz. environmental crises] have sometimes contributed more to the fragmentation of the sociological community than to the convincing explanation of social facts (p. 41). 2. It began to appear that, in order to make sense of the world, it was necessary to rethink the traditional Durkheimian norm of sociological purityi.e., that social facts can be explained only by linking them to other social facts (p. 44). 3. However, we believe that only by taking into account such factors as declining energy resources can sociologists continue to understand and explain social facts (p. 45) 1. . . . environmental sociologist depart from the traditional sociological insistence that social facts can only be explained by other social facts (p. 244). 2. Thus researchers focusing on the physical environment . . . share in a mutual departure from the Durkheimian dictum that social facts must be explained only with other social facts (p. 255). 1. . . . [sociologists] . . . defending their claim to scientific legitimacy by reiterating the idea that sociological concern with social facts was different from the concerns of other disciplines. In particular, modern sociologists have inherited a strong aversion to reductionism from Durkheim (1950), who insisted that social facts could be explained only by other socialas opposed to psychological, biological, or physicalfacts (p. 58). 2. . . . it became more apparent that in order to explain social facts sociologists would have to be willing to consider all socially significant factseven if some of them were more biological or physical than social in their nature and origins (p. 60). 1. In order to establish their new discipline the founders of sociology, both in Europe and America, strongly asserted the uniqueness of the subject matter and its perspectives. Of fundamental importance in this regard was the Durkheimian emphasis on the objective reality of social facts such as norms, groups, and institutions, and the irreducibility of such facts to the psychological properties of the individuals involved (p. 18). 2. . . . Durkheim . . . [emphasized] . . . what we may call his anti-reductionism taboo [a principle] general enough so that it also ruled out the use of biological and physical variables as explanations of social phenomena (p. 19). 1. The Durkheimian emphasis on explaining social phenomena only in terms of other social facts, plus an aversion to earlier excesses of biological and geological determinisms, had led sociologists to ignore the physical world (p. 805). 1. Of special importance was Durkheims emphasis on the objective reality of social facts and the irreducibility of such facts to the psychological properties of individuals (p. 17) 2. The resultant antireductionism taboo also legitimated sociological rejection of biological and physical variables as . . . explanations of physical phenomena (p. 17).

Dunlap & Catton Annual Review of Sociology 5: 243-273


Dunlap & Catton Pp. 57-85 in Progress in Resource Management and Environmental Planning


Catton & Dunlap American Behavioral Scientist 24: 15-47


Dunlap & Rosa Encyclopedia of sociology of Sociology 2nd ed., 800-813 Dunlap Organization & Environment 15: 10-29



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Rosa, Richter / Durkheim on the Environment


the matter, then, Durkheim may have been more mindful of the environment than a number of thinkers have given him credit for. A third approachthe one we emphasize hereis to ask the following question: What, in fact, did Durkheim really mean by the term social facts? Exploring this question can shed light on Durkheims role in the emergence of sociology as an environment-blind discipline. One way of doing that is to go to the original source itself, described by its translator as the paradigm-creating impulse (Layne, 1974, p. 189). Thus, what follows is the inaugural lectureScience Sociale et LActiongiven by Durkheim on the occasion of his appointment at the University of Bordeaux in 1887. It is clear from Durkheims inaugural lecture here that his goal is to emphasize the idea that social action could be studied scientifically and that sociology is capable of establishing law-like relationships, just as the already established biological sciences. As he states:
We might even say that of all the laws, the best one established experimentallyfor we do not know of a single exception, and this has been repeatedly verified, is the one which states that all natural phenomena evolve according to laws. So if societies exist in nature, they also have to obey this general law which both results from and directs science.

This meant replacing the pre-analytic Platonic idealism dominating social thought at the time with an Aristotelian empiricism amenable to scientific procedures. With this emphasis, Durkheim, remarkably enough, anticipates by nearly a century a similar presuppositional confrontation in the late 20th century: the science wars. The challenge to science came from the same rejection of the Aristotelian legacy of naturalism and empiricism to which Durkheim pointed, which has underpinned the various versions of social constructivism and postmodernism, resting as they do on the fundamental claim that there is no ontological there there. Equally clear is his introduction and elaboration of the term social facts, consistent with the claims of Catton and Dunlap and many other writers. However, we also find several points introduced or developed in this launching of sociology that are worthy of consideration in assessing what Durkheim actually meant by social facts. We can first ask the following: Are his social facts grounded in the anthropocentrism often attributed to this term by others? If this were so, it would preclude recognition of the biological and ecological foundations of human societies. But Durkheims use of social facts does not sustain the charges of anthropocentrism, for he chose the book by Alfred Espinas (from an 1877 dissertation at the University of Paris) on animals, Les Socits Animales, as the exemplar of the sociological method he wishes to promote. He is explicit about this when he writes, He was the first to have studied social facts in order to make a science of them. . . . His book constitutes the first chapter of Sociology. There is also little question over Durkheims antireductionistic orientation encapsulated in the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, that society is a real organism sui generis. Every sociologist is taught this. But less understood is this metatheoretical presuppositions connection to biology. To say that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts is equivalent to the idea of emergent properties in biology, the idea that individual components in an environment come together to create ostensible, collective, and interactive

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Organization & Environment / June 2008

properties and functions. Emergent properties, therefore, are at the core of the entire science of systems biology. And in biology, a system is a group of parts that come together, interacting and interdependent, to form a more complex entity. The important point here is that the understanding of systems, especially the interaction of human and natural systems, is the core challenge of environmental sociology. The connection to biology does not end there. For Durkheim further borrows directly from biology the macroframing for this emergent field, sociology, with the idea of structure and function. It is specially with regard to societies that one may truthfully say that structure presupposes function and derives from it. Later structural-functionalism in America under the influence of Talcott Parsons in the 1950s and 1960s would become the dominant orientation in sociology, eventually to be abandoned. In biology, structure and function refers to the complementary relationship between the configuration and purposes served by living systems at all levels of organization. In societies, such a relationship can only be claimed metaphorically, not on the basis empirical proof. In retrospect, the idea of seeing societies as real organisms operating under the same structural-functional principles as other living systems is everywhere judged nave and misplaced. Indeed, perhaps, this was sociologys version of phrenology. But as nave as phrenology was, it did orient thinking toward looking at functional specializations in different regions of the brainan idea that would later reach scientific status as the neurosciences. Similarly, the idea of sustainability embeds the presupposition that there exists a functional relationship between the biological processes of ecosystems and the structural adaptability and continuity of societies. This framing of structural-functionalismnot the historical one of turning the term social facts into an exclusively anthropocentric one offers genuine promise for deepening our understanding of sustainability and for providing a boost to environmental sociology. In view of these excerpts from Durkheims inaugural lecture, what can we say about his meaning of social facts, the sin qua non of his sociology? On the basis of this evidence alone, it would be an overstatement to conclude that Durkheim clearly included biological and ecological phenomena as part of his meaning. Nevertheless, his lecture does cast a shadow over the long-standing interpretation by over a century of sociological writings that the adjective social was to be taken in its most narrow sense, as referring to elements of human collectivities only. Perhaps the most important lesson is that environmental sociology would profit by revisiting Durkheim, not as the party guilty for dismissing the environment from sociological inquiry but as a source for improving our understanding of the mutual shaping of human and natural systems.

Catton, W. R., & Dunlap, R. E. (1978). Environmental sociology: A new paradigm. The American Sociologist, 13, 41-49. Catton, W. R., & Dunlap, R. E. (1980). A new ecological paradigm for post-exuberant sociology. The American Behavioral Scientist, 24(1), 15-47. Dietz, T., & Rosa, E. A. (1994). Rethinking the environmental impacts of population, affluence and technology. Human Ecology Review, 1, 277-300. Dunlap, R. E. (2002). Environmental sociology: A personal perspective on its first quarter century. Organization & Environment, 15(1), 10-29.

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Dunlap, R. E., & Catton, W. R., Jr. (1979a). Environmental sociology. Annual Review of Sociology, 5, 243-273. Dunlap, R. E., & Catton, W. R., Jr. (1979b). Environmental sociology: A framework for analysis. In T. ORiordan & R. C. dArge (Eds.), Progress in resource management and environmental planning (Vol. 1, pp. 57-85). Chichester, UK: Wiley. Dunlap, R. E., & Rosa, E. A. (2000). Environmental sociology. In E. F. Borgatta & R. J. V. Montgomery (Eds.), Encyclopedia of sociology: Second edition (Vol. 2, pp. 800-813). New York: Macmillian. Durkheim, . (1887). Course in social scienceInaugural lecture. Revue Internationale de lEnseignement, XV, 23-48 (Reprinted in Sociological Inquiry, 44, 193-204, 1974). Durkheim, . (1950). The rules of sociological method. New York: Free Press. (Originally published 1895) Durkheim, . (1964). The division of labor in society. New York: Free Press. (Originally published 1893) Ehrlich, P. R., & Holdren, J. P. (1971). Impact of population growth. Science, 171, 1212-1217. Gross, M. (2000). Classical sociology and the restoration of nature: The relevance of Emile Durkheim and Georg Simmel. Organization & Environment, 13, 277-291. Kuhn, T. (1962). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Layne, N. (1974). mile Durkheims inaugural lecture at Bordeaux. Sociological Inquiry, 44, 189-204. Rosa, E. A., York, R. F., & Dietz, T. (2004). Tracking the anthropogenic drivers of ecological impacts. AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment, XXXIII, 509-512. York, R., Rosa, E. A., & Dietz, T. (2003). Footprints on the Earth: The environmental consequences of modernity. American Sociological Review, 68, 279-300. Eugene (Gene) Rosa is a professor of sociology, the Edward R. Meyer Professor of Natural Resource and Environmental Policy, affiliated professor of environmental science, affiliated professor of fine arts, and faculty associate in the Center for Integrated Biotechnology. His current research interests include global environmental change (including climate change), risks to sustainability, democratizing environmental decision-making, and science policy. Coincidentally, he will be teaching a course in structural human ecology and sustainability at the University of Bordeaux in 2009. Lauren Richter is a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at Washington State University. Her research interests include organization-level response to environmental degradation and risk, and the epistemological challenges of interdisciplinary environmental research.

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