Perhaps we should be referring to Proudhon as the father of sociology: thinking through Mauss and Durkheim


If I were to try and capture what I see as Mauss’ political orientation in ‘The Gift’ – which is overtly political despite the way academia has come to characterise it – I would say Mauss was something of a mutualist. This may be because I have long suspected that Mauss was influenced by the ideas of Pierre Joseph Proudhon via his uncle Durkheim.

If I was to look for hints of Proudhon’s influence in The Gift, per esempio, I would point to his consideration of the ‘archaic contract’. This was clearly not the social contract as per Hobbes, Locke or Rousseau. It does, however, reflect much of Proudhon’s ‘voluntaristic’ notion of the social contract and his associated approach to ‘justice’ as free association.

‘The Gift’ is in many ways a direct extension or ‘study of Durkheim’s notion of social solidarity as produced and reproduced through socio-economic differentiation-cum-division, which, under the right conditions (primarily those that do not pit ‘morality’ against ‘law’), form the basis for ongoing reciprocity, interdependence and social solidarity (~ very Yolŋu!).

From Mauss to Durkheim – while the latter was certainly no mutualist I’m almost-very-near-sure that he was influenced by Proudhon’s political sociology. To illustrate, in part, how or why I have come to this conclusion I have typed up a few excerpts from a paper by Aaron Nolan (1967, ‘Pierre Joseph Proudhon: Socialist as Social Scientist (in) American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 26, No. 3).

While these are about Proudhon one could almost be mistaken in thinking the author is writing of Durkheim:

‘The problem, in Proudhon’s view, was not to formulate a constitution for the social order on the basis of logic, or common sense, or personal wishes, or on the basis of generous sentiments such as fraternity or charity. The essence of the matter was not to legislate into existence the true order of society but to discover what are – and, indeed, have always been – the fundamental principles and processes that were organique, regulateur and souverain (see Proudhon 1858, ‘Justice in the Revolution and the Church’)’ (Nolan 1967, p. 317).

As society was, in Proudhon’s definition, “the sum total of human relationships”, the point of departure for an investigation into the nature of the social order must be man himself (see Proudhon 1840, ‘What is Property: An enquiry into the Principle and Right of Government’). But society was not just the sum total of individuals composing it in his mind:

‘It was an entity sui generis, possessing characteristics and sources of energy that were quite distinct from those of an individual; and yet a society was just as real, just as much a vital entity as a human being. A society was “a living being, endowed with an intelligence and activity appropriate to itself, governed by special laws that observation alone can discover and whose existence is manifested not in a physical form, but through the intimate, coordinated solidarity of all its members”. To use Proudhon’s metaphors, society was “un homme collectif, une personne collective,” and “intelligence, spontaneity, development, and life – all that constitutes in the highest degree the reality of the being – are all essential to society as to man” (see Proudhon 1846, ‘System of Economic Contradictions’) (Nolan 1967, p. 319).

Proudhon characterised society as an organism in many of his works, which is seen as a hallmark of Durkheim’s approach. When I read and cross-checked the following I was almost-convinced-once-and-for-all that Proudhon was a source of inspiration and influence for Durkheim and his sociological approach:

‘The creation of society altered the existential status of man and determined the line of his development by bringing into being new forms of energy, energies which Proudhon called collective force (force collective), ‘collective reason’ (raison collective), and ‘collective conscience’ (conscience collective). An examination of these notions takes us to the heart of Proudhon’s sociology’ (Noland, A 1967, p. 319).

As you can probably guess – for Proudhon the key variable that determines the line of development is the division of labor. This is, once again, something closely associated with Durkheim’s approach. Finally,  last excerpt – which again, is about Proudhon but could very well be written of Durkheim:

‘When work became, with the creation of society, collective in character, the principle of the division of labor [..] came into operation. This development, in turn, was an important determinant in the structuring of society. To Proudhon, the division of labor was itself “founded on the speciality of vocations” (specialite des vocation), and its operation in society tended to promote the increasingly greater dependency of individuals upon one another and thus to make the intricate web of human relations ever more complication’ (Nolan 1967, p. 321).


Filed under Anthropological Awesome, Anthropology, General personal writings

5 responses to “Perhaps we should be referring to Proudhon as the father of sociology: thinking through Mauss and Durkheim

  1. Hello I’m from Brazil. I liked his observations on the sociology of Proudhon. The sociologist Gurvitch also conducted an analysis of the sociology of Proudhon, see the book Gurvitch, Georges. Proudhon. Presses Universitaires de France.

    • Hi Raphael – yes, Proudhon is one of my favourite anarchist theorists I think. Earnest and old, but wonderful and impressive.

      Thanks for the reference too, I’ll definitely look that up!

      B. x

  2. I’m studying the Paris Commune of 1871 in a group of students, and one of them said Durkheim lived between France and Germany. So I started to look for a Durkheim text on the Commune. I found a wikipedia article about “collective efferverscence”, that said “According to Durkheim, “god and society are one of the same…”. Well, this idea is the same Proudhon express in the first charpter of “System of economic contradictions”! I think Durkheim read Proudhon.

    PS: I’m brazilian too.

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