Halbwachs, Maurice

views updated May 29 2018

Halbwachs, Maurice



Maurice Halbwachs (1877–1945), a sensitive and humane scholar whose works are among the most important in the sociology of the first half of the twentieth century, was arrested by the Gestapo in Paris in July 1944 and died about eight months later in the Buchenwald concentration camp.

Halbwachs was born in Rheims. For three years one of his teachers at the Lycée Henri iv in Paris was Henri Bergson, who influenced him greatly. He completed his studies at the ficole Normale Su-perieure with a well-written book on Leibniz (1907) and participated in the preparation of the Cataloguedes manuscrits leibniziens. Soon, however, the so cial sciences attracted his interest. He worked with Simiand, Lévy-Bruhl, and especially Durkheim and helped edit L’année sociologique. His dissertation, La classe ouvriére et les niveaux de vie (1913a), marked the beginning of his extensive studies in social psychology.

This study is characteristic of Halbwachs’ work. It reveals his sense for the concrete and his concern for getting down to reality. Only after immersing himself in concrete data did he develop general ideas, working hypotheses, theories, and laws. Moreover, Halbwachs made specific methodological and theoretical contributions in this study. By discovering what the group accepted as the proper or der of importance of expenditures, he established a scale of working-class needs. He revealed the pri mary importance in these choices of the group’s representation and of what is consistent with it. Clearly, Halbwachs was here applying Durkheim’s theory of collective representations.

This scientific study of the scale of working-class needs was supported by a theory of the worker’s position in modern capitalist societies, a theory that now seems questionable at certain points. According to Halbwachs, these societies assign to the working class the task of mastering matter, and since the members of this class are thereby limited to contact with things, they become isolated from the rest of mankind. In their isolation as a group from other groups in society, the solidarity among the members of the working class becomes en hanced, and it is only by virtue of their class consciousness that they remain attached to the larger society at all.

A later work, L’évolution des besoins dans les classes ouvrieres (1933), applied the principal conclusions of the 1913 thesis to those social groups in the great industrial nations of the West that oc cupy positions analogous to that of the older working class.

Georges Gurvitch raised some questions about Halbwachs’ criteria of social-class membership, but he gave him credit for having been clearly aware of the great complexity of social class phenomena and for having kept his concepts entirely separate from all philosophy of history and all political positions (Gurvitch 1950).

Halbwachs displayed a distinct tendency to explain needs by relative and subjective factors. He admitted that trends of opinion are important factors in defining needs, but he did not consider the extent to which objective elements also enter into the subjective experience of need. For example, a real lack of food or clothing is felt by the workers when they compare their standard of living with that of the middle class, or the bourgeoisie.

Halbwachs’ influence as a pioneer in research on the definition of needs, as well as on budgets and consumption patterns, has been stressed by P. Chombart de Lauwe in his book La vie quotidienne des families ouvrieres (1956). Chombart de Lauwe also points out that Halbwachs was the first to make a genuinely sociological study of the development of workers’ budgets.

Halbwachs’ study Les causes du suicide (1930) extends and refines Durkheim’s classic work on the same subject. For Durkheim, religious factors are most important in determining the extent of an in dividual’s integration into a society (and he related a lack of integration to a high rate of suicide). Halbwachs felt that the nature and importance of the religious factor vary with the social and psy chological context and that this context, in turn, varies in different countries.

He was interested in the influence of collective memory and tradition on beliefs, and his essay La topographie légendaire des évangiles en terre sainte (1941) was a specific study of this influence. Thus, in various periods of history, the appearance attrib uted to the holy places has changed according to the needs and hopes of the Christian groups de scribing these places.

In his recent book on social psychology, Jean Stoetzel (1963) shows how Halbwachs influenced the study of memory by distinguishing between in dividual memory, i.e., the present knowledge of the past, and collective memory and by seeking the patterns governing this collective, or group, memory. Halbwachs’ contributions in this area are only now beginning to be appreciated outside France.

During the last years of his life, Halbwachs be came increasingly preoccupied with social morphol ogy and demography. He contributed an important article on demographical statistics to the Encyclo pédic française. He also developed the concept of social morphology that appears in a rudimentary and rather abstract form in Durkheim’s work. Halb wachs was frequently able to discern the social and economic structure behind morphological data, es pecially the influence of social classes. In his Psychology of Social Class (1938), he examined moti vation among the peasant classes, the bourgeoisie, industrial workers, and the lower middle classes.

It is possible here only to suggest the importance of the results of Halbwachs’ studies and the orig inality of his methods. He invariably looked at real ity from many different perspectives. There is no rigidity or dogmatism in any of his work. He culled important elements from several intellectual traditions: he was inspired by Durkheim’s vigorous mind and was concerned to use such new scientific approaches as those of American sociology, but he also incorporated Marxist sociology in certain broad orientations of his work.

Georges Friedmann

[For the historical context of Halbwachs’ work, see the biographies ofDurkheim; Le Play; LÉvy-Bruhl; Simiand. For discussion of the subsequent development of Halbwachs’ ideas, seeSuicide, article onsocial aspects.]


1907 Leibniz. Paris: Delaplane.

1913a La classe ouvriére et les niveaux de vie: Recherches sur la hierarchie des besoins dans les sociétés industrielles contemporaines. Paris: Alcan.

1913b La théorie de I’homme moyen: Essai sur Queteletet la statistique morale. Paris: Alcan.

1930 Les causes du suicide. Paris: Alcan. 1933 L’evolution des besoins dans les classes ouvrieres. Paris: Alcan.

(1938) 1959 The Psychology of Social Class. With an Introduction by Georges Friedmann. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press; London: Heinemann. → First published as Analyse des mobiles dominants qui orientent I’activité des individus dans la vie sociale.

1941 La toyographie légendaire des Evangiles en Terre Sainte: Etude de mémoire collective. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

(1949) 1950 La mémoire collective. Edited by Jeanne Alexandre. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. → Published posthumously.


Alexandre, Jeanne 1949 Maurice Halbwachs. Année sociologique 3d Series [1940-1948] 1:3–10.

Canguilhem, Georges 1947 Maurice Halbwachs (1877–1945). Volume 103, pages 229-241 in Strasbourg, Universite, Faculte des Lettres, Mémorial des annees: 1939–1945. Paris: Belles Lettres.

Chombart De Lauwe, Paul H. 1956 La vie quotidienne des families ouvrieres: Recherches sur les comporte-ments sociaux de consommation. Paris: Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.

Gurvitch, Georges (1950)1957-1963 La vocation ac-tuelle de la sociologie. 2d ed., 2 vols. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. → Volume 1: Vers la sociologie differentielle. Volume 2: Antécédents et per spectives.

Stoetzel, Jean 1963 La psychologie sociale. Paris: Flammarion.

Halbwachs, Maurice

views updated May 23 2018


HALBWACHS, MAURICE (1877–1945), French sociologist. In social psychology he investigated the problems of memory considered as a social fact and the influence of collective memory and tradition on beliefs, and traced the delicate interconnections between psychology and sociology. He combined an avid concern with sociographic investigation in various fields with his strong bent for theorizing in works on demographical statistics, on which subject he contributed to the Encyclopédie Française. He taught at the universities of Caen, Strasbourg, and Paris (after 1935), and a few months before his deportation and murder by the Nazis he was nominated to occupy the chair of social psychology at the College de France. He perished in the Buchenwald concentration camp. Among his works were La théorie de l'homme moyen: Essai sur Quetelet et la statistique morale (1913), Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire (1925, 19522), L'évolution des besoins dans les classes ouvrières (1933), Morphologie sociale (1934), Esquisse d'une psychologie des classes sociales (in Enquêtes Sociologiques…, 1938; repub. posthum., 1955; The Psychology of Social Class, 1958), La topographie légendaire des Evangiles en Terre Sainte (1941),Psychologie collective (1942), and Mémoire et Société (1949), posthumous.


Alexandre, in: Année Sociologique, 1 (1949), 3–10; Cuvielier, in: J.S. Roucek, Contemporary Sociology (1958), 716ff.; G. Gurvitch and E. Moore (eds.), Twentieth Century Sociology (1945). add. bibliography: C. Baudelot and R. Establet, Maurice Halbwachs: consommation et société (1994); G. Namer, Halbwachs et la mémoire sociale (2000); A. Becker, Maurice Halbwachs: un intellectuel en guerres mondiales, 19141945 (2003).

[Ephraim Fischoff]

Halbwachs, Maurice

views updated May 29 2018

Halbwachs, Maurice (1877–1945) An early French sociologist, much influenced by Émile Durkheim (see his Les Causes du suicide, 1930
), and one of the first in that country to write systematically about the nature of social class. His most innovative work concerned the nature of collective memories.

About this article

Maurice Halbwachs

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic