Durkheim, émile

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life and career
the fundamental ideas

DURKHEIM, ÉMILE (1858–1917), French sociologist.

Although he built on the work of others, Émile Durkheim is arguably the most influential, and thus important, sociologist to have ever lived. Not only did he establish the discipline of sociology as a field of academic study in France, he also provided the concepts that continue to inspire sociological thought and research everywhere. The reason for his continuing influence lies in both the scientific pertinence of his work and its ideological applications. Although other "classical" social thinkers—such as Karl Marx, Auguste Comte, and Max Weber—are equally important to the evolution of modern social thought, it was Durkheim who laid the foundations of sociology.

life and career

David-Émile Durkheim was born on 15 April 1858 in Épinal, in the French province of Lorraine. The Prussian occupation of Lorraine in 1870 undoubtedly contributed to the intense nationalist sentiments Durkheim manifested throughout his life. He was the son of a prominent rabbi, and Durkheim's Jewish origins are also important in that they reinforced a preoccupation with social cohesion and national integration that must be considered a major source of his social thought.

A French patriot throughout his adult life, Durkheim was nevertheless strongly influenced by German philosophical and even political thinking. Educated in prestigious French schools, such as the Lycée Louis-le-Grand and the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, he also spent the academic year of 1885 to 1886 in the German universities of Marburg, Leipzig, and Berlin. During the next several years he taught philosophy in Troyes (1886–1887) and then social science and pedagogy at the University of Bordeaux. In 1893 he completed his doctoral dissertation, published as The Division of Labor in Society. In 1902 he was given a position at the Sorbonne in Paris, and in 1906 he became full professor there.

Throughout his career, Durkheim endeavored to accomplish two related goals. First, his scholarly production was designed to establish the conceptual and methodological foundations of sociology. Second, he waged a permanent campaign to obtain official recognition and formal academic acceptance of sociology as a professional and scientific discipline within the French system of national education.

Because he was concerned to establish sociology institutionally as much as scientifically, Durkheim actively collaborated with the Radical Republican and Radical-Socialist Party, which, contrary to what its name might imply to non-Europeans, was a moderate social reform party. His appointment to the Sorbonne immediately followed the victory of this political party in the national elections of 1902. The institutional acceptance of sociology was accomplished in stages. In 1913 his chair at the Sorbonne was renamed that of "Science of Education and Sociology." Sociology did not, however, become a separate degree program until the early 1960s.

the fundamental ideas

Strongly influenced by the ideas and social conceptualization he encountered during his residence in German universities as a student, Durkheim built upon them and, ultimately, adapted them to French social and political conditions. In his doctoral dissertation, The Division of Labor in Society, he introduced the distinction between "mechanical" and "organic" social organization. This binary typology constituted, in effect, a theoretical framework for the study of all societies.

Durkheim maintained that all societies and "social structures" must be understood in terms of how essential tasks are allocated and performed by their populations. "Mechanical" societies are those in which the division of labor is rudimentary, most people carrying out the same economic functions. In these relatively simple collectivities (which anthropologists and others might call "primitive," "traditional," or "preindustrial" societies), culture and social bonds are based on the similarity and relative simplicity of the tasks performed. Modern societies, in contrast, are those in which the division of labor is complex and the tasks performed demand specialized skills. The interdependence characterizing such complex forms of economic and social interaction produces a culture that is more integrated, which is why Durkheim calls it "organic."

The importance of Durkheim's conceptual dichotomy is best understood by comparing it to that which he wished to discredit. Durkheim's work was an attempt to refute the ideas of the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies as expressed in the latter's Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (1887; Community and Society), which argued that modern society was essentially destructive of human relationships because capitalism and industrialism progressively shatter communal bonds and rituals. Tönnies, seeing his work as continuing the conceptualization established by Karl Marx, focused on what he considered the characteristics of the new type of social collectivity created by capitalist production. Human contact was dramatically different in the environment created by what he called bürgerliche Gesellschaft (bourgeois society) because money relations condition all aspects of life and mentality. The disintegrating effects of capitalism meant that the very idea of Gesellschaft (society) presented a paradox in that a cohesive social entity had become impossible. Gesellschaft was thus only an idea of association; it was a speculative fiction. But at the same time the collectivity existed. There was an association of individuals in which each performed some task demanded by the capitalist system of production, but this very system subverted social cohesion.

By suggesting that modern societies were more "organic" than preindustrial societies, and not less, Durkheim reversed the paradigm established by Tönnies and provided contemporary sociology with a conceptual system that has been used consistently to discredit Marx's idea of an essentially unstable and conflictual society in which different forms of alienation predominate.

For Durkheim, society was becoming more cohesive, not less. The increasingly complex division of labor and greater population density created relations of greater mutual dependence and, in addition, a common culture or consciousness he called the "conscience collective." What was often understood to be evidence of social disintegration—socialist ideas, working-class organization and strikes, anarchist terror, and so on—were only temporary symptoms of the transition to a more cohesive social organism. Durkheim's work was an attempt to create a new idea of society, one in which industrial capitalism provided an integrative dynamic that showed Marx's ideas to be false. Much, if not most, sociological thought and practice in the twentieth century was based on these Durkheimian ideas.

In order to establish the new paradigm, Durkheim had shown that it resulted from a strict application of scientific method. In The Rules of Sociological Method (1895), he maintained that the scientific study of society involved a strict focus on what he called "social facts," as opposed to isolated, individual phenomena. The object of study must be collective institutions, their functional existence, and mass behavior, rather than historical development, political events, or economic processes. In this way, he asserted that a certain kind of "objectivity" is integral to the new discipline of sociology, in contrast to other disciplines purporting to explain social conditions.

Durkheim's most well-known and, perhaps, most successful application of his paradigm is found in Suicide (1897). In this work, he used statistical evidence to show that the incidence of suicide can be considered a measure of social disintegration taking the form of a feeling of estrangement from society and other individuals. He called this feeling "anomie," a psychological state resulting from the cultural confusion caused by industrialization and urbanization. Suicide was, and is, an extremely important study in the history of academic sociology because it represented the concrete application of the "rules of sociological method" elucidated in the book of that title published two years previously. It was a highly focused examination of one "social fact," an empirical study founded upon statistical evidence and offering a typology of suicide ("egotistical," "altruistic," and "anomic") that clarified social processes and historical development. Although it purported to be a strictly scientific study, Durkheim's analysis of suicide as a social phenomenon also responded to immediate preoccupations in France. A combination of labor agitation, the rise of socialist parties, and anarchist terrorism, he said, were other symptoms of "anomic" pathology occurring during a painful transition to modern society.

This combination of apparent scientific method and a tendency to respond to contemporary social questions was characteristic of Durkheim's work. This tendency can be seen, for example, in his The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (published in 1912, but elaborated early in the century as a series of lectures), considered to be a pioneering study of aboriginal religious practices. As in Suicide, Durkheim further developed and applied the paradigm that gave his work undoubted originality and a conceptual thrust that has informed social scientists since. However, coming at a time of controversy over church and state, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life was also a commentary on the religious mentality in general that strengthened a certain critique of religious schools during the imposition of a secular state-directed national education system. In spite of its scientific attributes and contributions, Durkheim's sociology consistently interpreted his social world in a way that was congruent with particular political objectives.

See alsoFrance; Positivism; Sociology; Weber, Max.


Primary Sources

Durkheim, Émile. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life: A Study in Religious Sociology. Translated by Joseph Ward Swain. London, 1915.

——. The Rules of Sociological Method. 8th ed. Translated by Sarah A. Solovay and John H. Mueller. Chicago, 1938.

——. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Translated by John A. Spaulding and George Simpson. Glencoe, Ill., 1951.

——. The Division of Labor in Society. Translated by George Simpson. Glencoe, Ill., 1964.

Secondary Sources

Lukes, Steven. Émile Durkheim, His Life and Work: A Historical and Critical Study. New York, 1972.

Nisbet, Robert A. Émile Durkheim. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1965. Reprint, Westport, Conn., 1976.

Parkin, Frank. Durkheim. Oxford, U.K., 1992.

Pickering, W. S. F. Durkheim's Sociology of Religion. London, 1984.

Larry Portis