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The individual and society in Durkheim: unpicking the contradictions

Bowring, Finn ORCID: 2016. The individual and society in Durkheim: unpicking the contradictions. European Journal of Social Theory 19 (1) , pp. 21-38. 10.1177/1368431015585042

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In the revisiting of Durkheim’s humanism in recent years, attention has been drawn to his theory of moral individualism and the usefulness of his argument that a reformed democratic capitalism can reconcile individual freedom with collective constraint. Here I investigate Durkheim’s understanding of the relationship between individual and society in greater detail, showing in the process that his thinking was ambiguous and inconsistent. Although he flirted with the notion that capitalist modernity may actively foster and legitimise destructive forms of individualism, his default position was to attribute anti-social drives to a human nature set loose by weak or inadequate social norms, and then to idealise liberal humanism as the ethical remedy for this normative deficiency. I argue that the inconsistencies in his thinking are significant, however, because they testify to the underlying contradiction between the logic of capitalism and the ideals of moral individualism, and to the difficulty of locating the moral individual in a morally irrational world.

Item Type: Article
Date Type: Publication
Status: Published
Schools: Social Sciences (Includes Criminology and Education)
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HV Social pathology. Social and public welfare
Publisher: SAGE
ISSN: 1368-4310
Date of First Compliant Deposit: 30 March 2016
Date of Acceptance: 26 March 2015
Last Modified: 30 Oct 2022 16:31

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