Why bother with Durkheim? Using (classical) social science to understand the social dynamics of social-ecological systems

Reflections on a PhD Course at the Resilience Research School, Thursday 30th January

A guest post form Simon West, from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, at Stockholm University.

 This Thursday we began a new 5-week PhD course at the Resilience Research School (RRS). “Why bother with Durkheim?’ will introduce PhD students at the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) to some classical social science thinkers – Karl Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Thorstein Veblen. Each class will encourage students to extrapolate the insights of a classical thinker to understand the social dynamics of social-ecological systems (SES). The plan is to run the course in future semesters with a changing roster of ‘classics’ each time. We will be summarizing class discussions in a weekly blog post here on Resilience Science, with the aim of widening the discussion beyond the RRS to the international community of resilience and sustainability researchers. This week – why bother with ‘the classics’ at all?

As course coordinator Wijnand Boonstra has pointed out in a previous blog, the classics often look weird in a contemporary scientific centre devoted to trans-disciplinary sustainability research. In fact, the motivation for this course came from the comments Wijnand received when he was scanning pages from a battered book, published 1949. I had a similar experience when preparing the course reading material this week. A fellow PhD student pointed at the small, well-worn 1924 edition of Thorstein Veblen’s Absentee Ownership I held in my hands and exclaimed, “are you reading the Bible?!” For many researchers it might as well have been, given the ostensible relevance of the work for their research. In our PhD reading group here at the SRC, articles written as recently as 2005 can be dismissed as ‘old news.’

Our aim through this course, however, is to change the perception of the classics as curiosities of a bygone age, and demonstrate their relevance to the study of social-ecological systems. Indeed, the increasing willingness and need for social and natural sciences and the humanities to work together, for example to examine processes of global environmental change in the Future Earth research programme, suggests that interdisciplinary sustainability researchers will need to become much more familiar with the classics in the years to come. As Michel Foucault (1980) has indicated, there is no better tribute to a classic than to “use it, deform it, make it groan and protest.” We look forward to the various deformations applied by course participants in the coming weeks, coming from such varied backgrounds as ecology, literature, industrial engineering, political science, computer science and modeling, and development studies.

What are the social science ‘classics’?

Understanding ‘the classics’ is essential for grasping not only some of the core debates in the social sciences, but also the conceptual tools used by social science research to produce knowledge. But what are the classics? Alexander (1987: 22) defines classics as “earlier works of human exploration which are given a privileged status vis-à-vis contemporary explorations in the same field.” For Alexander privileged status means that, “contemporary practitioners of the discipline in question believe that they can learn as much about their field through understanding this earlier work as they can from the work of their own contemporaries.” The classics of sociology (the disciplinary focus for the coming lectures) are generally thought of as the works of Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. But these ‘big three’ are often complemented by a host of other thinkers that are cited as ‘minor’ classics in the social science canon, e.g. August Comte, Georg Simmel, Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton.

What makes a classic classic? The factors that determine which books and thinkers becomes classic and which are simply forgotten are multiplex. In fact there is a whole sub-field of research on this topic – Reception Theory. As Baehr (2002: 111) notes, to find answers we must not look at classicality as a quality inherent to particular works but rather “as a dialectic in which the text, its evaluation and re-evaluation define what is exemplary.” There are several crucial factors that help to explain the development of classics’ privileged status.

Firstly, death. Dead authors are less likely to compete with others for prestige and academic standing, and therefore living academics can valorize them without fear of being superseded. Death also signifies the passing of time, which provides context to works and separates classic work from the chaff. Death also prevents authors from ‘fighting back’ against the dispersion, re-interpretation and appropriation of their work – all necessary components for the spread and use of ideas. Stinchcombe (1982: 3) joked that aspiring social scientists therefore better first find “a dead German who said it first” before they publish anything.

Secondly, cultural resonance. Texts do not become classic simply because they are ‘better’ or ‘truer’ than others, but because they are provocative and strike a chord about enduring aspects of human existence. Merely providing solutions to a discrete problem may prevent a text becoming a classic because it provides “no challenges for contemporaries to embrace and successors to ponder” (Baehr 2002: 118). So classics become classics because of the questions they pose and the mistakes they make, as much as the answers they provide. For instance Durkheim’s 1894 book The Rules of Sociological Method is widely regarded as a classic – yet it is just as widely panned. Indeed, it has been criticized and demolished repeatedly for over one hundred years because of the usefulness of its mistakes.

Thirdly, academic and social circumstances. While Durkheim became known fairly rapidly after his death as a founder of sociology, for Marx it took more than seventy years to be recognized as a classic sociologist. This difference in reception is a product of academic discovery and re-interpretation, but also linked to Marx’s posthumous entanglement with events in ‘the real world.’ As John Gray has written in a recent review of Jonathan Sperber’s book Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, “if World War I had not occurred and caused the collapse of tsarism, if the Whites had prevailed in the Russian Civil War as Lenin at times feared they would and the Bolshevik leader had not been able to seize and retain his hold on power … Marx would now be a name most educated people struggled to remember.”

Finally, textual suppleness. Texts must contain enough ambiguity to mean different things to different people in different situations. As this is a course at the SRC, we can say that they must have the ability to adapt to change through transformation – they must be resilient.

Why are there no natural science classics?

The idea of providing privileged status to works published over one hundred years ago would seem bizarre to many natural and interdisciplinary sustainability scientists. You do not hear SRC researchers continually debating and publishing on what Norbert Wiener ‘really meant’ in his 1948 complex systems classic, Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Most will have never heard of Wiener. Why not?

The classics highlight the predominantly discursive character of the social sciences. Alexander (1987: 22-23) argues that social sciences proceed primarily through argument and reasoning rather than through prediction or attempts at verification or falsification. This reasoning is conducted at a greater level of generality and speculation than normally takes place in the natural sciences (see Baehr 2002: 82). This is not because the social sciences are inherently more discursive than the natural sciences. It is widely accepted in the philosophy of science that knowledge produced by natural science relies on similarly metaphysical assumptions, but the natural sciences are simply better at hiding their discursive elements. These assumptions can be black-boxed and ‘normal science’ can progress through debate purely about the operational elements of research (see Kuhn 1970), without the need for classics.

Some would argue that the social sciences should therefore just ditch the classics and follow the model of the natural sciences. Indeed, this narrative was what motivated many early founders, and classics, of sociology – especially Durkheim. But to do this, argues Alexander (1987), would be to run away from the crucial problems that face the social sciences in the first place: the non-linear, complex and essentially discursive dynamics that drive human social behavior and shape human knowledge. Instead of modeling the study of social dynamics on the natural sciences, sustainability researchers should perhaps embrace the classics – in search of novel ways of knowing and becoming truly transdisciplinary.

What is the use of the social science classics for the study of social-ecological systems?

Firstly, the classics deal with key questions concerning the dynamics of social change, the origins of social action, the (in)stability of social systems – all essential for analyzing social dynamics today. Knowing the classics helps interdisciplinary sustainability researchers to avoid past mistakes and stimulates new hypotheses.

Secondly, the treatment of human-nature relationships in the classics has fundamentally shaped the academic landscape of today – take for example the influence of Marx in political ecology and the lineage of Durkheim’s functionalist approach in systems theory. Study of the classics can therefore help to contextualize social-ecological systems approaches in the wider academic terrain and help researchers to grasp the context of criticisms relating to, for example, the supposed neglect of power relations and conflict in social-ecological systems research.

Thirdly, while social-ecological systems research has long recognized the desirability of becoming trans-disciplinary, it is fair to say that SES research to date has been driven by researchers versed primarily in the natural sciences. However, the concept of the Anthropocene and the role of humans in generating global environmental change is mobilizing closer collaboration between social scientists, humanities researchers and natural scientists. Classics literacy among sustainability researchers will enhance ability to collaborate productively. Such intermingling of epistemological traditions offers real potential to create new ways of thinking and knowing the Anthropocene.

Fourth, study of the classics prompts sociological interpretation of social-ecological systems research. While in many ways transcending the origins of their birth, the classics came from somewhere at some time. Durkheim posed his central question, ‘what social bonds hold men together?’ in a cultural climate where fear of societal collapse was widespread. Indeed, sociology as a discipline emerged through attempts to understand mass transformation in human organization and relationships with nature (including the rise of capitalism and industrialism). Durkheim’s personal fears about the imminent collapse of society arguably led to a conservative approach focused on maintaining social order. Reflection on the social factors influencing SES research as a product of its time (e.g. economic collapse, teleconnected vulnerabilities) may help researchers to reflexively assess the assumptions underlying their own work.

Next week, Karl Marx …


  • Alexander, J. 1987. ‘The Centrality of the Classics.’ In A. Giddens and J.H. Turner (eds.) Social Theory Today. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Baehr, P. 2002. Founders, Classics, Canons: Modern Disputes over the Origins and Appraisal of Sociology’s Heritage. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers.
  • Foucault, M. 1980. Gordon C (ed.). Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon.
  • Kuhn, T.S. 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Stinchcombe, A.L. 1982. Should Sociologists Forget Their Mothers and Fathers. The American Sociologist 17(1): 2 – 11.

12 thoughts on “Why bother with Durkheim? Using (classical) social science to understand the social dynamics of social-ecological systems”

  1. This sounds like a great and timely class.

    However, I’d point out that Science does have a number of important classics that we should not neglect as well. Darwin’s work is the most obvious, but I would also elevate Elton’s Animal Ecology, work by Howard and Eugene Odum, work by GE Hutchinson (esp. Homage to Santa Rosalia), and also work by Stephen Jay Gould as classics to which we all should regularly refer.

  2. According to Google Scholar

    Émile Durkheim
    Cited by 87582

    Charles Robert Darwin
    Cited by 89997

    Comparing the boys using google-ngram

    In order: Marx, Weber, atop Darwin, with the three of them well above Durkheim & Veblen, who loom above Elton, Hutchinson. But all of them are persistently mentioned over time.

  3. I think it is true that those founding fathers of ecology are classics, in the sense that their work opened whole new subfields and their theory and conceptual refinement has been at the core of ecological thinking for decades, and will probably remain like this. However, I think there is something else to the nature of ‘a classic’ when Simon uses the word. The difference can be perceived in the fact that current research in biodiversity patterns, for example, does not need to go to the original publication by Hutchinson to reinterpret his words. The insights form that original publication are likely already defined: some accepted and found in a stylized fashion on the textbooks, while that which has been proved wrong (or not useful) has just been abandoned. But the point that Simon makes, as I understand it, is that the classics in social science are always revisited with new eyes, dissected again and again, and reinterpreted.

    Darwin is a case apart. It fulfills, perhaps more than any other one of the criteria Simon outlined above: He managed to “strike a chord about enduring aspects of human existence.” But precisely because of that reason the long list of citations is build-up not only of publications from natural sciences, but also on social sciences and humanities.

  4. Interesting to see the stats! I think it would be very telling though to see the ways in which these authors are cited.

    I would suggest that while there are of course ‘classic works’ in the natural sciences, there is a distinction – perhaps not made explicitly enough in the blog – between the ways that classics are used in natural and social sciences. That is to say that the meaning and use of ‘the classics’ in each discipline varies hugely.

    In sociology the classics are not simply examples of important work that introduce new concepts – they act as shorthand for a range of epistemological and ontological commitments. Therefore they are integral to the practice and production of sociological research on a daily basis. This is why social scholars today feel duty-bound to set out their academic lineage – neo-Marxian, symbolic interactionist, Durkheimian etc. – in very different ways to the natural sciences. To give an example, I’ve seen many citations to Vernadsky’s classic ‘Biosphere’ concept in the natural sciences, but these authors generally have not felt the need to delve into the ontological/epistemological baggage behind that concept.

    It would be a really interesting project to trace the different ways in which those references are made (though perhaps not all 89,997 of them!) …

  5. Great reflections! I totally agree. I am sociologist and a master degree on interdisciplinary environmental sciences. In my master’s thesis I used the clasics of sociology and I recived the same kind of comment posted here. My colleagues from natural sciences said that I should use the clasics of biology or ecology. They did had not idea how social sciences can help to understand sustainability. We all have to much work to do to improve interdisciplinary collaboration.

  6. I hear you, but I’m not convinced entirely. I think that a number of these works do offer epistemological and/or ontological commitments that require regular reassessment. I think it is a mistake that so many students in the natural sciences are taught that it is sufficient to refer only to the derivative works. If you don’t go back to Odum, you end up with a generation of students just “believing” in ecosystems as real things in the same way so many people have come to believe in culture as a real thing.

    Hutchinson is another example. In Homage, he takes careful attention to one observable phenomena and asks, what sorts of things can we ask of that phenomena? What can we learn from it? Why do we care? Biodiversity here is an entire frame of reference. The paper is as much about research “on biodiversity” as it is on the phenomenology of science.

    There are lots of examples in science right now where people are only relying on the recent, derivative works, and I think this slowly moves science out of knowledge production and in the direction of appeal to authority. It also hamstrings the ability of many natural scientists, I think, especially those with interdisciplinary interests who move into areas such as human adaptation and see fit to cite only a paper by Adger or or Smit and call it good, as if the matter of what constitutes “adaptation” is settled. That is exactly why I think this class is a great exercise.

  7. I agree. Such constant reflection could and should also be more frequently regarded as a fundamental part of academic culture in natural sciences. The label of ‘classic’ is then not referring just to a quality of the author and his/her work on itself, but rather it refers to a way in which a wider community of scholars in a discipline (or several disciplines) directly and critically engage with it over and over again.
    The fact that, in principle, this applies to any academic field could be a parallel insight from this course.

  8. I agree that revisiting and rethinking classic works is useful.

    However, I think the example of the lack of reflection on past systems scientists is not a good example. I think would be useful if SRC scientists, or sustainability scientists in general, reflected and discussed the work of early systems scientists.

    I think Weiner is not the best or richest systems scientists to re-examine.

    I am not the only scholar to think so. Well known sociologist of science Andrew Pickering devoted his fun, provocative and informative recent book The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future to a reconsideration of 60s British systems scientists.

    In a review the book, historian of biology Tara H. Abraham echoes the title of this post when she writes:

    Why should we care about cybernetics?

    She then explains

    Pickering sees something vitally important in British cybernetics, and this explains the book’s subtitle. Put simply, cybernetic practice can be seen as a model for future practice. We are increasingly confronted with problems that require different solutions—the “exceedingly complex systems” that modern sciences cannot tackle. There are systems that surprise us, that fall outside of the framework of calculability and prediction.

    The aspect of cybernetics that is most important and compelling for Pickering is its assumption of an ontology of unknowability. The term captures, for Pickering, what was novel and important about what the British cyberneticians were doing. This unknowability and awesome complexity is not cause for despair—in fact there are ways that scientists can be constructive and creative in tackling such systems—and Pickering’s cyberneticians show us how.

    The author sees cybernetic science as fundamentally democratic: it forces us to have respect for the other, and it displaces the anthropomorphic stance we have on nature as a result of the dominance of modern sciences. Following political scientist James Scott’s list of “high modernist” projects that “aim at the rational reconstruction of large swathes of the material and social worlds,” Pickering discusses the “dark side” of modernity. Here he includes projects that have had very disastrous consequences, such as the reform of agriculture with its effects on world famine and the effects of industrialization on global warming. It is in combating such projects—and the modernist attitude that fuels them—that Pickering sees the greatest merit in cybernetic ontology. It suggests that there is a way we might act differently. There is enormous value in adopting this different ontological stance, in which the world is not ours for the taking.

  9. Nice passage from the Pickering review – for me one of the most interesting things about a course like this is the discussions it provokes about the epistemology and ontology of scientific production (whether ‘natural,’ ‘social’ or ‘interdisciplinary’).

    I think that, if we had time, reading texts from the philosophy and sociology of science alongside ‘classics’ from both sides would have been a great way to compare and contrast the different ways in which facts are produced and shaped. Sticking with Andrew Pickering, I’ve found his concept of the ‘mangle of practice’ useful for thinking about the ways both natural and social sciences enter into a ‘dialectic of resistance and accommodation’ with their material. (Like I mention in the blog, natural sciences are not fundamentally different with regard to ontological/epistemological assumptions, just better at hiding them). This moves the debate away from traditional problems of realism and objectivity and therefore, I think, provides an epistemological ground from which interdisciplinary sustainability science can better work with all kinds of disciplinary knowledge.

    The ‘ontology of unknowability’ that this move suggests – and that could be obtained by putting classics of both sides into dialogue more often – would help to negate dogmatism in all disciplines. When reading the classics one is reminded of the ‘real-world’ problems created through a simple representational approach to understanding knowledge. Marx, Durkheim, Darwin – all have, to paraphrase Stephen Turner, ‘blood on their hands.’

  10. Dogmatism, branding and protectionism is prevalent in all disciplines of academia and the most obvious obstacle in inter-discplinare science.

    I like to have a pragmatic relation to different theories in my work, using them as ‘tools’ for analysing data and for creating scientific narratives. Just like when building a house, different hand-tools are useful for different purposes; the crafting of inter-disciplinare science must use different theories for ‘seeing’ different pictures or taking different view-points. An example:

    “A CAS-lens is great to map interrelated parts (human-nature) and to analyse dynamics and mechanics of a social-ecological system on many scales, both across time and space (=4 dimensions), but does little when e.g. analysing how meanings or injustices are produced and perceived (adding another 2 dimensions to the SES),which in turn may be linked to leverage points in the greater SES in question.”

    In my work (which also has perceived some healthy criticism) I found great value in using Durkheims disciple Halbwachs (1925) when forming thinking about social-ecological memory. Even if it was never supported or mentioned, I thought it would be the most ‘honest’ thing to go all the way back to the original thinker about Collective Memory. I recognised very early that the examples used by Halbawchs somewhat were out of fashion-but his logic about how social groups construct and negotiate the past was illuminating indeed-very new to me. The difficulties still in inter-displinary work arises during the combination and merging of theories from different disciplines (linked with the often not articulated ontological differences mentioned in the discussion above by West, Petersen, Ospina, Loring and Rocha). Here lies an often forgotten and important process of interpretation and translation. My experiences teaches me that the formation of a new and agreed upon (by all) vocabulary is central for any success, where concepts and ideas from the various perspectives must be discussed and explained in detail. Often mis-communication is due to the past formation of different ‘scientific languages’ un-reflectively used by scholars. It has in fact been quite a deal of cross-fertilization between economics-sociology and economics in the past (Such as those between Marx, Darwin and Smith). Protecting brands and positions will do no good in such process. (I can sense some protectionism in some contributions above and the readers can decide for themselves to which I refer). It therefore becomes very important to find partners in inter-dsicplinary work that are willing to give up some of their (great) ego-in the formation of a new combined analytic lenses. In resilience thinking (at least in Stockholm) a ecosystem lens is often used for obvious reasons, but informed by economic theories, social theories, or even theories developed within the humanities such as psychology or architecture. It has been quite successful, but the ‘great divide’ is still not bridged. I like the attempt from Wijnand, Simon and Ospina and others in trying to bridge ‘the great (and persisting) divide’. It is much needed and it gives me hope for the next generation of RA-scholars. As my generation of PhDs in Stockholm never really got accepted by the first generations of RA-scholars in our attempts to try to bridge the divide (as published by John Parker), I see very promising attempts for the next generation, especially at the ‘boundaries’ of RAYS. Cannot wait for the next ‘classic’!

  11. Good to know those heavy books on Simon’s desk were put to good use! There’s a common thread that sustainability is limited to the social and natural sciences, which seems to support the argument that we need to go back to the classics behind our collective areas of study.

    Garry brought up a great example with cybernetics and systems science. These have a background in the behavioral sciences (contrasted to the social sciences), mathematics, engineering and the medical sciences when exploring neural networks, as well as social and natural/biological sciences.

    As an emerging discipline or practice that is interdisciplinary, sustainability and associated sciences have a very diverse literature base that is embedded in its history.

  12. A comment on revisiting classics and reductionist approaches of natural science.

    Part of the failure to reconcile these notions of objective vs discursive knowledge is explained by failing to recognise the implications of the needed blending of approaches in sustainability science. There are few sciences that can claim to use formal poofs as the only way of progressing knowledge, e.g., mathematics, philosophy, and some instance natural science that must be considered as almost equally objective, e.g., Physics, although even this can be discussed as the scientific method of validation and peer reviewing has fundamental biases (See Economist “How science goes wrong”, 2013, Oct 19th, for an interesting recent read on this). But, with some simplification, and for the sake of argument; in Physics we do tend to get layers upon layer of “truths” and leave old models behind, and as Daniel points out above. The model of the atom is a classic example. From the classic notions of the Greeks, to Bohr’s model, to quantum mechanics, and onward. Without these reductionist approaches where old models and knowledge’s are abandoned, we would have few artefacts such as mobile phones or X-rays or virtually any technology at all, and still believe that reality is constituted by “fire” “earth” and other esoteric mediums. The basic process is actually observable in how social learning operates at a fundamental level; We do mimic, and fully abandon models of knowledge that, e.g., say that it is ok to bathe bleeding among hungry alligators, if this apparently lead to friends trying this being eaten by the animal in question. Scientific method in action 🙂 We do not linger with old models of truth, or revisit earlier and thoroughly eaten scholar’s knowledge of alligator behaviour. It is phased out, and not contested unless you enter a situation without knowledge (e.g., without social-ecological memories), which is in principle never the case (unless you firmly reduce the metal capability of the subject of the thought experiment). Likewise, it is not relevant to talk about only classical mechanics at the border of a black hole; else we will never be able to explain why they in some instances emit light. We do leave knowledge behind. But as soon as we move in to, or just touch upon the sphere of social science, and introduce malleable concepts (e.g., a certain R-word) that borrow from a range of disciplines, we need to embrace both the reductionist and reflexive approaches of natural and social science. E.g., this forces scientist from natural sciences to engage with concepts from social science with a long history, as soon as they introduce “the precautionary principle” into a framework such as Planetary Boundaries, or dare to define a concept such as general resilience of all and everything. This move is more often than not quite difficult, can easily lead to confusion on both sides, and I firmly encourage efforts to discuss the fundamental reasons as to this is the case. Revisiting some classics is a great start.

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