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Society, the person and the secular soul: A Durkheimian perspective

Abernethie, Loraine (2001) Society, the person and the secular soul: A Durkheimian perspective. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Orthodox readings of Durkheim’s work place great emphasis upon his hypotheses concerning society, social structure and social order. Here, discussion is generally based upon his presupposition of the primacy of some ‘thing’ names society over the discrete individual. This thesis, however, argues that within Durkheim’s fundamentally sociological framework of social realism there is no such ‘thing’ as the discrete, isolated individual or society. Instead, society and its constituting individuals are revealed as being involved in both a necessary and reciprocal relationship. It is through an examination of a relatively neglected aspect of Durkheim’s work, namely his constitution of the human person (as distinguished from the individual), that further insight into his perception of the relationship between a society and its constituting persons is gained.

This requires the development of a deeper understanding of both Durkheim's idea that everything that is social consists in representations and his particular conception of the person as an individual plus a soul (itself a fragment of the collective soul). This, in turn, allows the development of three important arguments. First, Durkheim, as a resolutely sociological theorist of the person and of society, sees the relationship between society and the person as inherently reciprocal and in such a way that allows for the subjective and the objective world to be formed in relation to each other. Second, the particular vehicle for this person/society formation and mutual implication is the soul, which, for Durkheim, is a secular entity in the modem world. Third, as the need for order, harmony and social solidarity is generally considered a moral concern, Durkheim's conception of the person and the soul allows for the possibility of a morally autonomous individual existing within a moral, solidary society. That is, to be a moral, autonomous person is not to reject social solidarity. They are no longer contradictory or antagonistic states. The soul, as a complex element of both the individual person and of society, becomes the mechanism that facilitates the resolution of tensions in the individual/society relationship. Through the explication of these arguments, this thesis demonstrates that it is more appropriate to talk of the person (or the individual person) than of the individual per se. Furthermore, it is the notion of the person that should be borne in mind in any discussion of Durkheim's concern for society, social structure and social order. Society, by this reading, becomes a community of persons, rather than a society of discrete, atomistic, external individuals.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Division of Social Sciences, Humanities and Education
Notes: Note to the author: If you would like to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University Library's Research Repository, please contact: Thank you.
Supervisor(s): Wickham, Gary
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