- The Cost of Collaboration:Reflections Upon Randall Collins’ Theory of Collective Intellectual Production via Émile Durkheim: A Biography
When instructing his junior colleagues, Émile Durkheim argued that there was no point in reviewing a book for L’Année Sociologique only to itemize or describe the contents. There also had to be a theoretical contribution. The commentary, he said, should reflect and advance the wider agendas of the sociological discipline that they were pioneering. With fidelity to this spirit, it seems ceremonially appropriate to reflect on a noted application of Durkheimian sociology using Marcel Fournier’s newly translated biography of Durkheim as our stimulus.
In his social theory, Durkheim magically squared the circle between group morality and individualism in modernity. By insisting that the core value pattern of organic solidarity was the “cult of the individual,” he suggested that there was no contradiction between intense group belonging and personal freedom, between collective life and individual accomplishment. Yet [End Page 245] after reading Fournier, one wishes that what works so proficiently in theory could fare better in practice. Durkheim’s life is revealed as one in which group belonging had an ambivalent and surprisingly complex relationship with his own opportunities for creativity.
Let’s begin with a thought experiment. Imagine the following as a method to improve scholarly output and deep thinking. A truly brilliant and driven individual is placed in a cell. Books and food are passed through a hole in a door. Perhaps there are writing materials. Social interaction is minimized. This is not an absurd suggestion. It is a method used historically by monastic orders for precisely such a reason. Now, imagine a parallel universe in which the same scholar is engaged in intensive intellectual interaction. The scholar leads a team of students in collective activities, shares ideas, and experiences plenty of solidarity. Which method will lead to the maximum volume of quality work? What kind of output can each system of intellectual production sustain? Which path will generate the new ideas and books that will stand the test of time and still be read a century hence? Émile Durkheim provides an interesting test with which to reflect upon this very issue.
Conveniently, we have a new resource for our task. First published in French in 2007, Marcel Fournier’s monumental biography of Émile Durkheim is now available in English. It provides an exhaustive and thoroughly useful year-by-year account of his professional life.
For a long time, the best source of detailed biographical information has been that of Steven Lukes from the mid-1970s. Efforts by Giddens, Coser, and Alexander also stand out as oft-cited texts. These authors were concerned, albeit at varying levels of intensity, with reconstructing Durkheim’s thought or getting to its essence. The animating questions were: “What did he really mean?” and “Has scholarship interpreted him correctly?” They also situate Durkheim in terms of his contribution to social theory on, for example, the sources of social order, the nature of modernity, and forms of solidarity. Driven by current theoretical concerns, biographical information in such works has operated largely as a context or resource for particular readings of the master.
Fournier has a somewhat different approach. His organization is chronological rather than thematic. His interpretations of Durkheim’s ideas have a deft touch. One might use the term diplomatic. Avoiding controversy, he aims at consensus and somehow floats above ongoing disputes, such as whether or not Durkheim’s move to a religious sociology marked a deep epistemological break from his earlier stance as a positivist student of [End Page 246] social facts. Indeed, Fournier barely refers to present-day scholarship. One might have expected him to discuss ongoing efforts to reconfigure Durkheim as a theorist of the body, sexuality, or multiculturalism. Fournier plays it very straight with book-by-book, essay-by-essay summaries of the writings as they punctuate the life narrative. Often, he allows quotations to do the talking. What results is a work that is somehow less distracting if we want Durkheim himself—rather than our own wants from Durkheim—to be the center of attention...