Émile Durkheim: The Division of Criminal Labor


Of From the social work department (1893), The rules of the sociological method (1895), the suicide (1897) and The Elemental Forms of Religious Life (1912), Emile Durkheim laid the foundation of French sociology by distinguishing it from psychology and philosophy, its original discipline. The revolution he brought in the field of human sciences was to consider: “social facts as things”, which led him, in order to understand our actions and our thoughts, to attach himself to the social structures that define them. Durkheim thus remained the patron of a deterministic or dispositional sociology, even if he did not rule out individualistic reasoning. The publication in 2022 of an unpublished text, Lessons in Criminal Sociology (Flammarion) – a course taught in 1892-93, the year of his thesis defense, one before the publication of the Rules of sociological method, four years earlier the suicide – comes to enrich the construction of his thinking and his method, matrix of a sociology of social forces, as opposed to a sociology of individual motives. Discovered in a private library by a Durkheim specialist, Matthew Beraeditor-in-chief of social studies, this unpublished text sheds light on his entire work by focusing on the subject of crime. In other words, as much as suicide or religious living, a social fact that we are still trying to understand today what motivates and explains it.

A typology of crimes

Divided into thirteen lessons, knocked down at the time by the sociologist’s nephew, Marcel Mauss The course itself is thus presented by Durkheim: “What are the constituent features of the offence? But if the crime has constitutive features, there are variable characters: what is the evolution of the crime? What are the factors of crime: anthropological, physiological, social? Clarity will be provided by looking at the various causes of crime. The first part of the course, “ontological”relates to the “constant characters” and the essence of the crime. The second, history “bends over his “variable characters”, depending on time and context. The next two parts, described by Durkheim as:etiological” focus on the causes of the crime. Here the sociologist distinguishes himself from the dominant biological and psychological theories. In the same way he would commit suicide four years later, by proposing a typology of suicides “selfish, altruistic, anomic and fatalistic”, Durkheim proposes here a typology of crimes classified according to their social causes, which could be superimposed almost on top of that of suicide. He distinguishes four types: “anomic, altruistic, ataxic and alcoholic crimes”† Each type of crime corresponds to a social cause. Breach of trust, bankruptcy … for crimes anomic † codes of honor, murders for crimes altruists † insults for crimes alcoholics † theft and vagabondage for crimes ataxic† The notion of altruistic crime apparently remains the strangest: when Durkheim describes murders as: “altruistic crimes”It is because he who kills, does so by being moved by values ​​and ideals that oblige him to do so. Murder would therefore be the crime of those whose actions are motivated by collective ties that drive him to crime, of those who are ideologically under the command of collectives. Family, religious, political… the murdere can almost always be explained by this “centrifugal force” that causes the individual to no longerbelong”notes Béra in a valuable critical apparatus. Likewise, ataxic crimes refer to the crimes of those who are not coordinated by society, over whom collective life has lost its grip, neither in terms of social activity nor in terms of collective feelings. Ataxic crimes are those of individuals “without anchor” who therefore live in a “unstable state”

A social fact today

Supplied in unedited condition, many of Durkheim’s comments are debatable, doubtful, sometimes weak” admits Matthieu Bera. But most importantly, in the discovery of this text, it goes beyond the merits of a typology that is clearly too reductive. By revolutionizing the view of crime in the late 1800se century, breaking with a psychologizing and biologicalizing tradition, Durkheim especially introduced the power of the social into the analysis of violence, at a time when doctors had a virtual monopoly on scientific discourse on social issues. Though taught 130 years ago, these lessons still resonate widely today, both on an epistemological and political level. “Debates in which proponents of natural causality compete with proponents of cultural causality of human actions regularly arise on a variety of topics: gender, crime, health, risky behavior, education, cognitive skills, etc.”, says Matthieu Bera. Sociologists specializing in criminal matters are increasingly drawn to biosocial explanations, by introducing genetic factors into their reasoning and relativizing sociological causality. These biologic and naturalistic representations of “crime” permeate political circles, to the point that certain leaders (such as Nicolas Sarkozy in its crime prevention policy in the mid-2000s), wish “we identify “hyperactive” children from kindergarten to consider their psychiatric follow-up and avoid potential criminal destinies”† Today we often rely on MRIs, genetics, to find ” in nature “ the causes of antisocial or criminal behaviour. If we can’t explain them, we want to identify and chemically “treat” them. Sociological explanations of crime are thus far from triumphing. In addition to representing an editorial event in the history of French sociology, the discovery of this text thus has the merit of recalling how much reflection on the crimes and crimes of the contemporary world and its political and judicial treatment, in Durkheim sources intact intellectual values, which unfortunately unjustly obscured the repressive impulses of the time. Recent debates on, for example, the issue of terrorist radicalism and its origins (social, ideological, etc.) remind us today of the complexity of an issue for which these Lessons in Criminal Sociologyopen fruitful avenues in their general theoretical ambition.

Lessons in Criminal Sociology, by Émile Durkheim, has just been published by Éditions Flammarion. 416 pages, €23.90, available here.

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