Jean-Gabriel Tarde (March 12, 1843 – May 13, 1904), a French criminologist and sociologist, is one of the founding fathers of sociology. He opposed the dominant sociological model of his time, Emile Durkheim’s view of society as a collective unity, and instead regarded society as an aggregate of individuals.
Based on his view of the importance of the individual, Tarde analyzed human society, particularly human progress, to be the result of individuals engaged in relational behaviors according to each individual's characteristics and generally exemplifying one of three basic processes—"Invention," "Imitation," or "Opposition." For example, invention requires a gifted individual in a supportive social context. Although Tarde's work was generally not well received in France due to the dominance of Durkheim's views, his work on imitation did find relatively ready application in the field of criminology. Arguing against the Positivist criminology of Cesare Lombroso, which held that criminality was inherited, and that someone "born criminal"' could be identified by physical defects, Tarde suggested that the social environment is crucial both in the development of criminal behavior and its control.
Receiving a much more positive response in the United States than in Europe, Tarde's work has had a long-term impact on sociology, criminology, and social psychology, fields of study that seek to better understand the social nature of human beings and thus to support the development of healthy societies.
Jean-Gabriel Tarde was born on March 12, 1843 in Dordogne, Sarlat (now Sarlat-la-Canéda), about one hundred miles east of Bordeaux, France. He was the son of a military officer and judge. He was raised by his mother from the age of seven, when his father died. He was educated in a Jesuit school in Sarlat, obtaining classical training.
As he was confined to bed throughout most of his youth due to fragile health, he engaged himself in intellectual work, studying philosophy and social sciences. He also studied law in Toulouse and Paris. From 1869 to 1894 he held several legal posts near Sarlat, and served as a magistrate in Dordogne.
Tarde married Marthe Bardy Delisle in 1877, with whom he had three children.
Tarde gained public recognition through his articles on psychology, published in the Philosophical Review of Théodule Ribot. In them he criticized the "biological fatalism" of Cesare Lombroso, and in 1886 he published his well-known book, La Criminalité Comparée (Comparative Criminology).
After the death of his mother, Tarde left Sarlat and settled in Paris. He obtained a post as director of criminal statistics at the Ministry of Justice. He also lectured in numerous peripheral institutions outside the university and from 1900 held the chair position of the modern philosophy department at the Collège de France.
Tarde died in Paris, France in 1904.
Gabriel Tarde believed that three distinctive, yet interrelated processes characterize human society—Invention, Imitation, and Opposition. He wrote on those processes in his 1898 Les lois sociales (Social Laws).
Invention, according to Tarde, is the source of all progress. However, only one percent of people can make creative associations in their minds and can thus be regarded as gifted or inventive. Tarde believed that social factors contribute to inventiveness. For example, more coherent ties and better communication among gifted individuals can lead to mutual stimulation, resulting in greater flow of new ideas. Also, cultural values, like adventurousness or bravery, could lead to new discoveries, as in the time of Spanish explorers in the Golden Age.
Imitation, on the other hand, is much more widespread in society. Most people are not inventive, but only copy what they see from other people. Tarde codified his ideas in the “three laws of imitation”:
Opposition takes place when two or more inventions come into conflict with each other, or when new and old ideas collide. Oppositions may be associated with social groups, like nations, regions, or social classes, or may remain inside the minds of individuals. The outcome of opposition is often an adaptation.
Tarde was aware of the need to back up his ideas with data, and thus began the collection of information on different social phenomena—from crime rates, strikes, and industrial production, to church attendance, voting, and similar social acts. He believed that by analyzing such data sociologists would be able to trace shifts in public opinion.
Among other areas that Tarde worked on were the "group mind" and economic psychology, in which he anticipated a number of modern developments. He was supporter of mass-society, believing that people need to be together to disperse and apply new ideas and opinions more quickly. He believed that newspapers had a particularly crucial role in society, as they helped create public opinions and reinforce group loyalties.
Tarde’s subtle and individualistic sociology directly opposed Emile Durkheim's views of society as a collective unity. Tarde directly challenged Durkheim in many papers. However, as the university system in the French Third Republic was based on Durkheim’s sociology, Tarde lost the battle. It was only in the United States that his views were rediscovered several decades later.
Tarde left significant influence in the area of criminology. In his La Criminalité comparée (Comparative Criminality) (1886), Tarde opposed the extreme biological causation ideas of Cesare Lombroso and his school of Positivist Criminology. Lombroso claimed that criminality was inherited, and that biological predispositions lead one to become a criminal. Tarde, on the other hand, claimed that environment played a significant role in criminal behavior.
Tarde held that an elite was needed to govern society, keeping the balance between innovative ideas and traditional cultural patterns. Crime and social deviance arise when this elite starts to disintegrate. The process is further amplified when the elite comes in touch with deviant subcultures through migrations and other forms of social mobility.
Tarde devised a theory of "imitation and suggestion," through which he tried to explain criminal behavior. He believed that the origins of deviance were similar to the origins of fads and fashions, and that his “three laws of imitation” can explain why people engage in crime.
The law of close contact explains that people have a greater tendency to imitate the fashions or behaviors of those around them. If one is constantly surrounded by deviant behavior, one is more likely to imitate that type of behavior than any other, of which that person knows little. Direct contact with deviance fosters more deviance. Tarde believed that as society becomes denser, people will start to imitate each other more. He suggested that the mass media played a key role in the proliferation of crime, as criminals copied each other’s style, which they learned about through the media.
Tarde’s second law of imitation—the law of imitation of superiors by inferiors—explains that the poor or the young imitate the rich or the more experienced, and that crimes among the poor are in fact their attempts to imitate wealthy, high-status people. The third law—the law of insertion—says that new behaviors are superimposed on old ones and subsequently either reinforce or extinguish previous behavior. For example, if criminals start to use a new type of weapon, they will not use the old one any more.
Tarde’s three laws of imitation had an enormous impact on the study of deviance and social control.
Although Tarde had no direct followers in France, except for some criminologists, his ideas had a long-lasting influence on both sociology and criminology. His concept of the group mind was later taken up and developed by Gustave Le Bon. Le Bon advanced Tarde’s ideas to explain so-called herd behavior or crowd psychology. Everett Rogers furthered Tarde's "laws of imitation" in the 1962 book Diffusion of Innovations. Sociologists from the Chicago school of sociology took up some of Tarde's insights and further built on them. They influenced later thinking about the concepts of social psychology and the diffusion of social ideas.
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