Emile Durkheim

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Emile Durkheim

David Émile Durkheim (April 15, 1858 - November 15, 1917) is known as one of the originators of modern sociology. He founded the first European university department of sociology in 1895, and one of the first journals devoted to social science, L'Année Sociologique, in 1896. He developed insightful theories of the structure of society, the relationship between the individual and society, and the development of societies from simple to complex.

Although not universally accepted, or with the transformative power he originally sought, Durkheim's work provided a strong foundation for research on the structure of human society.


Durkheim was born in Épinal, in the Lorraine province of France. He came from a long line of devout French Jews—both his father and grandfather were rabbis. His Jewish background also shaped his sociology and his life—many of his students and collaborators were fellow Jews, and often blood relatives. Durkheim himself, after a brief period of interest in Catholicism, turned away from religious faith and became an agnostic. Nevertheless, he never lost interest in religious phenomena. Much of his work, in fact, was dedicated to demonstrating that religious phenomena stemmed from social rather than divine factors.

A precocious student, Durkheim entered the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in 1879. His class was one of the most brilliant of the nineteenth century and many of his classmates, such as Jean Jaurès and Henri Bergson, would go on to become major figures in France's intellectual life. There, Durkheim studied with Fustel de Coulanges, a classicist with a social scientific outlook. At the same time, he read Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer. Thus, Durkheim became interested in a scientific approach to society very early on in his career. This meant the first of many conflicts with the French academic system, which had no social science curriculum at the time. Durkheim was frustrated by his professors' emphasis on literary style and their lack of interest in what he considered important, with the result that he graduated almost at the bottom of his class in philosophy in 1882.

Durkheim's interest in social phenomena was also spurred on by politics. France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War had created a backlash against secular, republican rule and many considered a Catholic, vigorously nationalistic France the only way to rejuvenate France's fading power on the continent. Durkheim, a Jew and socialist, was thus in the political minority, a situation which galvanized him. The Dreyfus affair of 1894, in which Durkheim actively participated in the efforts to exonerate falsely accused Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus, strengthened his activist stance.

There was no way that a man of Durkheim's views could receive a major academic appointment in Paris, and so he took a succession of teaching positions in other parts of France. He spent a year studying sociology in Germany, where he met and was influenced by the pioneer of experimental psychology, Wilhelm Wundt. He traveled to Bordeaux in 1887, which had just started France's first teacher training center. There he taught both pedagogy and social science (a novel position in France) at the University of Bordeaux. From this position, Durkheim reformed the French school system and introduced the study of social science in its curriculum. Here, his tendency to reduce morality and religion to mere social facts earned him his fair share of critics.

The 1890s were a period of remarkable creative output for Durkheim. In 1893, he published The Division of Labor in Society, his fundamental statement of the nature of human society and its development. In 1895, he published Rules of the Sociological Method, a manifesto stating what sociology was and how it ought to be done. At that time, he founded the first European Department of Sociology at the University of Bordeaux. In 1896, he founded the journal L'Année Sociologique, in order to publish and publicize the work of what was by then a growing number of students and collaborators (this is also the name used to refer to the group of students who developed his sociological program). And finally, in 1897, he published Suicide, a case study that provided an example of what the sociological monograph might look like.

In 1902, Durkheim finally achieved his goal of attaining a prominent position in Paris when he became the chair of education at the Sorbonne. Because French universities are technically institutions for training secondary school teachers, this position gave Durkheim considerable influence: his lectures were the only ones that were mandatory for the entire student body. Despite what some considered being a political appointment, in 1912 Durkheim was permanently assigned the chair and renamed it the chair of education and sociology. It was also in this year that he published his last major work, Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.

World War I was to have a tragic effect on Durkheim's life. Durkheim's leftism was always patriotic rather than internationalist—he sought a secular, rational form of French life. But the coming of the war, and the inevitable nationalist propaganda that followed, made it difficult to sustain this already nuanced position. While Durkheim actively worked to support his country in the war, his reluctance to give in to simplistic nationalist fervor (combined with his Jewish background) made him a natural target of the now-ascendant French political right. Further undermining his influence was the fact that the generation of students that he had trained was drafted to serve in the army, with many of them perishing as the French were decimated in the trenches. Finally, Durkheim's own son died in the war—a mental blow from which Durkheim never recovered. Emotionally devastated and overworked, Durkheim collapsed and died of a stroke in 1917.

Theories and Ideas

Durkheim was concerned primarily with how societies could maintain their integrity and coherence in the modern era, when commonalities such as shared religious and ethnic background could no longer be assumed. In order to study social life in modern societies, Durkheim sought to create one of the first scientific approaches to social phenomena. It should be noted that Durkheim himself never undertook any fieldwork. Instead, he analyzed observations made by others. This was entirely consistent with his stance that concrete observations in and of themselves are not necessarily illuminating. He believed that it is the concepts, such as "totemism," that shed light on the nature of society. Along with Herbert Spencer, Durkheim was one of the first people to explain the existence and quality of different parts of a society by reference to what function they served in keeping the society healthy and balanced—a position that would come to be known as Functionalism.

Durkheim also insisted that society was more than the sum of its parts. Thus, unlike his contemporary Max Weber, he focused not on what motivates the actions of individual people (methodological individualism), but rather on the study of "social facts," a term which he coined to describe phenomena which have an existence in and of themselves and are not bound to the actions of individuals. He argued that social facts had an objective existence and could only be explained by other social facts rather than, say, by society's adaptation to a particular climate or ecological niche.

Durkheim was convinced that individuals' actions are often heavily influenced, if not totally predetermined, by aspects of social structure of which they are unaware. His grasp of the social domain was unique. Although he considered himself an objective scientist, he brought to the study of social phenomena a strong sense of morality. Durkheim believed that the regulation of egoistic impulses is necessary throughout civil society. He favored a "moral liberalism" that also emphasized self-discipline and the individual's duty to others. He feared that the call of conscience was losing effectiveness in moderating behavior and that people increasingly lacked a moral compass.

Division of Labor

In his 1893 work, The Division of Labor in Society, Durkheim examined how social order was maintained in different types of societies. He focused on the division of labor, and examined how it differed in traditional, or primitive, societies and modern societies. Authors before him, such as Herbert Spencer and Ferdinand Tönnies, had argued that societies evolved much like organisms, moving from a simple state to a more complex one resembling the workings of complex machines. Durkheim reversed this formula, adding his theory to the growing pool of theories of social progress, social evolutionism and social Darwinism. He argued that traditional societies were "mechanical" and were held together by the fact that everyone was more or less the same, and hence had things in common. Like the atoms in inorganic crystals, arranged in regularly ordered lattices, members of such societies do not move around of their own accord. In traditional societies, argued Durkheim, the "collective consciousness" entirely subsumes individual consciousnessnorms are strong and behavior is well-regulated.

In modern societies, he argued, the highly complex division of labor resulted in "organic" solidarity. Different specializations in employment and social roles created dependencies that tied people to one another, since people no longer could count on filling all of their needs by themselves. In "mechanical" societies, for example, subsistence farmers live in communities which are self-sufficient and knit together by a common heritage and common job. In modern "organic" societies, workers earn money, and must rely on other people who specialize in certain products (groceries, clothing, etc.) to meet their needs. The result of increasing division of labor, according to Durkheim, is that individual consciousness emerges distinct from collective consciousness—often finding itself in conflict with collective consciousness.

Durkheim also made a connection between the kind of solidarity in a given society and the nature of its penal system. He found that in societies with mechanical solidarity the law is generally repressive: the agent of a crime or deviant behavior would suffer a punishment, that in fact would compensate the collective conscience harmed by the crime—the punishment heals wounds and provides expiation so that the offense is removed from the collective consciousness. On the other hand, in societies with organic solidarity the law is generally restitutive: it aims not to punish, but instead to repair damage and restore the normal activity of a complex society.

Durkheim was generally optimistic that changes in the structure of society due to division of labor would lead to positive developments for both society and the individuals in society. However, he also noted that changes in society due to increasing division of labor might produce a state of confusion with regard to norms and increasing impersonality in social life, leading eventually to the breakdown of social norms regulating behavior. Durkheim labeled this state "anomie." He claimed that from the state of anomie come all forms of deviant behavior.

Social Integration

Durkheim further developed the concept of anomie in his 1897 publication, Suicide. In it, he explored the differing suicide rates among Protestants and Catholics, suggesting that stronger social control among Catholics resulted in lower suicide rates. According to Durkheim, people have a certain level of attachment to their groups, which he called "social integration." Abnormally high or low levels of social integration may result in increased suicide rates: low levels have this effect because low social integration results in disorganized society, causing people to turn to suicide as a last resort, while high levels cause people to kill themselves to avoid becoming burdens on society. According to Durkheim, Catholic society has normal levels of integration while Protestant society has low levels. This work, which influenced proponents of "control theory," is considered a classic sociological study.

Durkheim is also remembered for his work on "primitive" people, in books such as his 1912 volume The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life and the essay Primitive Classification that he wrote with Marcel Mauss. These works examined the role that religion and mythology have in shaping the worldview and personality of people in such societies.


Durkheim was also very interested in education. Partly, this was because he was professionally employed to train teachers, and he used his ability to shape the curriculum to further his own goal of having sociology taught as widely as possible. More broadly, though, Durkheim was interested in the way that education could be used to provide French citizens with the sort of shared, secular background that would be necessary to prevent anomie in a modern society. It was to this end that he also proposed the formation of professional groups to serve as a source of solidarity for adults.

Durkheim argued that education has many functions, such as reinforcing social solidarity, maintaining social roles, and maintaining division of labor. However, he also noted that education is an image or reflection of society, and so problems in education cannot be solved without first solving those problems in society.

Sociology of Religion

Durkheim’s last major published work was The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. He chose the Australian aborigines and their practice of totemism for an in depth case study because he felt they represented the most basic, elementary form of religion within a culture. To the dismay of most religious believers, through this study Durkheim concluded that society is the source of the action which dominates the religious life—not God.

Durkheim stated:

The general conclusion of the book ... is that religion is something eminently social. Religious representations are collective representations which express collective realities; the rites are a manner of acting which take rise in the midst of the assembled groups and which are destined to excite, maintain or recreate certain mental states in these groups (Durkheim 1912, 10).

He argued that a God or gods do not represent the essence of religion. Instead, the essence can be found in the division of the world into two categories: the sacred (that which pertains to the numinous, transcendental, or extraordinary) and the profane (the realm of everyday utilitarian activities). He noted that objects themselves are neither sacred nor profane; people bestow sacred meaning on an object or activity, and thus religion is "collective" by nature. Durkheim offered the following definition of religion itself:

A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a church all those who adhere to them (Durkheim 1912, 47).

However, this definition can only be fully appreciated by taking into account that it is the social life that determines what is sacred. He wrote:

The sacred principle is nothing more nor less than society transfigured and personified... If we should withdraw from men their language, sciences, arts and moral beliefs, they would drop to the ranks of animals. So the characteristic attributes of human nature come from society (Durkheim 1912, 347).

Durkheim believed that religion played a valuable role in providing cohesion and norms in a society. He worried about the potential consequences to the social order when a society loses its religiosity. In his work Moral Education, he emphasized that modern man must simply realize that his very dependence on society was always the foundation for any religious belief in the first place. Therefore, “e must discover the rational substitutes for these religious notions that for a long time have served as the vehicle for the most essential moral ideas”(Durkheim 1961, 9).

According to Durkheim, believers experience God as both a liberating and a constraining force. God uplifts, protects and inspires them, yet He also imposes a discipline that at times is unwelcome. He is a power that is simultaneously within and outside of believers. He speaks to them through the voice of the conscience. However, Durkheim’s observations do not imply any actual regard on his part for authentic religious experience between human beings and a Divine Creator. Rather, he regarded communion with God as best explained as a form of delirium:

It is certainly true that religious life cannot attain a certain degree of intensity without implying a physical exaltation not far removed from delirium. That is why the prophets, the founders of religions, the great saints, in a word the men whose religious consciousness is exceptionally sensitive, very frequently give signs of an excessive nervousness that is even pathological: these physiological defects predestined them to great religious roles (Durkheim 1912, 226).

Even though Durkheim discarded God as the source of religious faith and tradition, he was convinced that all religions reflect some fundamental aspect of human existence, because to reason otherwise would be to discard the prominent historical role religion has played, including its survival after the rise of empirical science.


In the latter part of the twentieth century, social scientists criticized almost everything that Durkheim championed. Many argued that he misunderstood capitalism and proposed ”through the modernization of medieval corporations” an impractical solution for its pitfalls. Many complained that his methodology and insistence that “the social realm is more than merely the sum of its individual members” was seriously flawed. Others argued that he failed to grasp the degree to which real societies are motivated by conflicting interests: in place of a high-minded Durkheimian consensus, they painted a disturbing picture of factions and interest groups vying ceaselessly for power and influence. Still others contended that his empirical research, while sophisticated for its day, fell far short of true science.

For many proponents of free markets, the concept of anomie is not viable, their ideal being that everyone should enjoy the greatest possible freedom through minimizing social regulation of personal choices. Durkheim, by contrast, argued that in the absence of regulation people's desires would always outstrip their capacity to realize them. His social conservatism is bothersome to those on the left, and his critique of free markets wouldn’t win him friends on the right. However, his non-socialist criticism of capitalism and his sincere belief in humanity’s potential for upholding the value of mutual prosperity remain as distinctive and valuable features of his work.

Durkheim not only founded the French school of sociology, he left behind a school of brilliant researchers who developed the field, often in directions quite different from Durkheim's original approach, testifying to his ability to encourage and inspire his students to go beyond him in their pursuit of knowledge. Durkheim's students included his nephew, Marcel Mauss, who later chaired the department of sociology at the College de France, influencing another generation of eminent sociologists, including Claude Lévi-Strauss, who developed the school of "structural anthropology."

Durkheim's influence went beyond sociology. Students studying philosophy, languages, history, and literature were required to take his sociology course, and it was said that he was such a masterful teacher that one had to avoid his class to escape his influence. Thus, while not achieving the transformation of society he passionately strove for, his ideas on society and how it is transformed remain foundational in the social sciences.

His Four Major Works

  • Durkheim, Emile. 1893. The Division of Labor in Society. The Free Press (reprint 1997). ISBN 0684836386
  • Durkheim, Emile. 1895. Rules of Sociological Method. The Free Press (reprint 1982). ISBN 0029079403
  • Durkheim, Emile. 1897. Suicide. The Free Press (reprint 1997). ISBN 0684836327
  • Durkheim, Emile. 1912. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. (English translation by Joseph Swain: 1915) The Free Press, (reprint 1965). ISBN 0-02-908010-X. New translation by Karen E. Fields 1995, ISBN 0029079373

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Coser, Lewis A. 1997. Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideas in Historical and Social Context, Second Edition. Forth Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. ISBN 0155551302
  • Durkheim, Emile. 1961. Moral Education. New York: The Free Press. ISBN 0029083303
  • Lukes, Steven. 1985. Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work, a Historical and Critical Study Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804712832

External links

All links retrieved February 13, 2024.


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