Published online by Cambridge University Press: 14 January 2010
One of sociology's ancestral figures, Emile Durkheim, with whom DeSaussure is often linked, is known (among many other contributions) for the claim that “the social” is not reducible to the psychological or the biological, or the sum of any individual attributes. It is, he said, an emergent phenomenon, a distinct level of organization; it is, he said, a reality sui generis – unto itself, of its own sort (Durkheim, 1938 , 1951, among others). Some cynical (or astute, depending on one's point of view) students of intellectual history, of the history of sociology and of the social sciences more generally, and practitioners of the sociology of knowledge have remarked that this claim needs to be understood as part of a struggle to find a place for sociology in the structure of French academic life at the turn of the century. To have as the object of one's study a domain which was autonomous, which could not be reduced to other people's work and subject matter, was arguably one prerequisite for establishing one's own organizational niche, for establishing one's own standards of quality work, of important problems, of acceptable methods, of distinctive theories, and the like, and the professional license and mandate – the professional autonomy – to administer them.
None of this – even if true – has any bearing, of course, on the theoretical or empirical merit of Durkheim's claim. To hold otherwise would be to commit the so-called genetic fallacy.