An article in the discipline of anthropological and sociological epistomology exploring the philosophical relationship between Durkheim and Mannheim, Mills and Merton.

Anthropological Epistomology and Durkheim

Comparing the epistemological presuppositions of Durkheim in his text The Rules of Sociological Method, with those of Mannheim, Mills' and Merton as outlined by Phillips' in ' Epistemology and the Sociology of Knowledge: The Contributions of Mannheim, Mills and Merton', illustrates the epistemological nuances in the theoretical frameworks of these four sociologists ( Bryant 1985, Durkheim 1938, Phillips 1974).

For Durkheim, sociology is a purely scientific endeavour, as is evidenced when he argues that “in reality there is in every society a group of phenomena which may be differentiated from those studied by the other natural sciences (Durkheim 1938: 1)”. Durkheim's manifold 'phenomena' are 'social facts'; observable ubiquitous cultural and social forces that in his view constrain and shape the individual, such as the legal frameworks of a society (Durkheim 1938, Bryant 1985). Due to the directly observable widespread occurrence of 'social facts', Durkheim argues that consequently they assume a form of crystallisation, representing an aspect of objective society (Durkheim 1938, Bryant 1985). Durkheim perceives society as existing independently of individuals, and argues that instead of individuals, society is the source of social facts: “their substratum can be no other then society” (Durkheim 1938: 3). He reifies society as an objective reality that can be observed by the sociologist. Therefore the correspondence theory of truth is invoked, through the truth statements of sociology reflecting a directly observable objective society that “exists independently of our conceptions of it (get ref)” (Durkheim 1938, David 2005).

Establishing a dichotomy between the context of discovery and the context of validation in scientific endeavours, Merton argues that while truth may be established for the investigator during the context of discovery, during the context of validation science is revealed as a socially constructed, methodological process of reaching consensus regarding truth statements (Phillips 1974). However for Merton the socially constructed, and therefore somewhat coherent nature of scientific knowledge, in opposition to Durkheim's epistemology, is merely superficial: “in the… institution of science…the intellectual criteria… transcend extraneous group allegiances” (Phillips 1974: 74). Merton is clearly stating that science is transcendental of social context, and therefore

In contrast to Durkheim, who argues that truth can only be obtained through natural science observing the objective world, on one level Mannheim explicitly evokes the coherence theory of truth, arguing that all statements of truth can only be true in relation to other statements of truth in a particular context: “the concept of truth itself is dependent upon the already existing types of knowledge”(Young 2001, Phillips 1974: 65). However in order to accommodate the epistemological consequences of his position of 'relationism', namely that as sociology is itself a methodological, socially constructed process of forming consensus regarding truth statements, it can make no claim as to being 'closer' to the 'truth' then any other socially mediated system of knowledge or truth. Mannheim states that natural science, including sociology “is largely detachable from the historical – social perspective of the investigator (Phillips 1974: 67)”; in this way Mannheim attempts to elicit an epistemological compromise, arguing for a coherence model regarding truth statements which contrasts with Durkheim's epistemology, except when the truth statement originates from the 'detachable' paradigm of the natural sciences, in which case, echoing Durkheim, a correspondence theory of truth is 'largely' evoked. Mills' situates the epistemology of his theoretical framework one dimension deeper into 'relationism' then Mannheim, arguing from a coherence perspective that not only do truth statements take on significance in relation to other conceptions of truth and knowledge, but also that this is true of science itself: “Criteria, or observational and verificatory models, are not transcendental (Phillips 1974: 70).” On this level Mills is making a radical departure from Durkheim's positivism, in perceiving that scientific, or “observational and verificatory models”, do not reflect an objective reality through a form of correspondence, but take on significance in relation to other conceptions of truth in a particular context (David 2005). However in an attempt to overcome the same epistemological quandary Mannheim encounters, Mills perceives his theoretical framework as exempt from the epistemological consequences of his own position, arguing that the sociology of knowledge itself “refer[s] to a degree of truth (Phillips 1974: 72)”. In a similar way to Mannheim, Mills is still fundamentally utilising a version of the correspondence theory of truth, replacing Durkheim's natural science with the sociology of knowledge as a 'transcendental' method of perceiving a 'degree' of objective truth.

In order of the degree of departure from Durkheim's epistemology, the epistemological presuppositions of Merton, Mannheim and Mills' theoretical frameworks consist of applying inconsistent syntheses of coherent and correspondent approaches to sociological explications of 'reality'. In opposition to Durkheim, on one level they argue that truth statements are valid only in relation to other conceptions of truth in a particular context (Phillips 1974, Durkheim 1938). However, in response to the epistemological consequences of their position of 'relationism', Merton, Mannheim and Mills still evoke a form of the correspondence theory of truth, their theoretical models in Mills' words referring “to a degree of truth (Phillips 1974: 70)”. In a less extreme form of Durkheim's positivism, their sociological projects' implicitly seek to interpret an objective reality. Merton, Mannheim and Mills' approaches take the form of an arguably unsatisfactory epistemological compromise, and can be seen as either semi-coherent, or semi-correspondent, in contrast to the more pure form of correspondence advocated by Durkheim.


Bryant, C. G. A., 1985, Positivism in Social Theory and Research (Contemporary Social Theory: Theoretical Trends in the Social Sciences), Houndmills: Macmillan, Chapter 2: The French Tradition of Positivism: From Positive Philosophy to Positive Polity, pp. 11-56

David, Marian, “The Correspondence Theory of Truth”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2005 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Durkheim, E., 1938, The Rules of Sociological Method, G.E.G Catlin, ed., S.A Solovay & J.H. Mueller, trans., New York: The Free Press, Chapter 1: What is a Social Fact?, pp. 1-13

Phillips, Derek L., 1974, Epistemology and the Sociology of Knowledge: The Contributions of Mannheim, Mills, and Merton, Theory and Society , 1 (1), pp. 59-88

Young, James O., “The Coherence Theory of Truth”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2001 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

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