Durkheim, Émile (1858–1917)

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The French sociologist and philosopher Émile Durkheim was born in Épinal (Vosges). At an early age Durkheim decided not to follow the rabbinical tradition of his family. On leaving the Collège d'Épinal Durkheim went to Paris, first to the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, and then, in 1879, to the École Normale Supérieure. He was dissatisfied with what he saw as a too literary, unscientific style of education, connected with a superficial dilettantism in contemporary philosophy. On graduating in 1882, he decided to devote his career to sociology with the aim of establishing an intellectually respectable, positive science of society to replace, or at least supplement, speculative philosophy and provide an intellectual foundation for the institutions of the Third Republic. At an early stage, then, Durkheim developed a preoccupation which was to dominate his whole intellectual lifeto establish a genuine science of social life, which would include a science of ethics and thus provide a reliable guide to social policy.

Influences and Intellectual Development

From 1882 to 1887 he was professor of philosophy at lycées in Sens, Saint-Quentin, and Troyes, during which time various intellectual influences helped him to fill out his conception of a social science. His study of Herbert Spencer instilled in him a predilection for biological models, which was most pronounced in his early work. His reading of Alfred Espinas, and later personal contact with him, led him to his central conception of the "collective consciousness" of a society and the related conviction that the laws of social life are sui generis and not reducible, for instance, to laws of individual psychology. In "Individual and Collective Representations" (1898) he argued that we should not attempt to infer social laws from biological laws, but that the findings of biology should be compared subsequently with independently established social laws on the assumption that "all organisms must have certain characteristics in common which are worth while studying." His conception of a positive science of ethics received a powerful new impetus from a visit to Wilhelm Wundt's psychophysical laboratory in Leipzig while on a leave of absence during the school term of 18851886. In 1887 he was appointed chargé de cours at the University of Bordeaux, becoming the first to teach social science at a French university; he also taught pedagogy and thus began to develop an enduring interest in the relevance of sociology to educational questions.

In 1896 Durkheim was promoted to professor of social science at Bordeaux. In 1898 he founded and became editor of L'année sociologique, a journal designed to unify the social sciences and encourage specific research projects. He moved to the University of Paris as chargé de cours in 1902, becoming professor of education in 1906 and professor of education and sociology in 1913. The outbreak of war in 1914 moved Durkheim to write a number of pamphlets with a strongly nationalistic tone, not always easy to reconcile with the views developed in his earlier, more scholarly works.

the Collective Conscience

Durkheim's determination to establish an autonomous, specialized science of sociology led him to investigate the possibility of viewing human societies as irreducible, sui generis, entities. From there he was led to the central conception in his work, that of "collective representations," whose system in a given society constitutes its "collective conscience." Collective representations have both an intellectual and an emotional aspect. As examples Durkheim offered a language, a currency, a set of professional practices, and the "material culture" of a society; but he also included the phenomenon of group emotions, such as may be generated, for example, at a lynching, and which cannot be accounted for as a mere summation of the individual emotions of the several participants.

Durkheim said that collective representations are "collective" rather than "universal"; they "exist outside the individual consciousness," on which they operate "coercively." It is possible to determine collective representations directlynot merely via the thoughts and emotions of individualsby examining their permanent expressions in, for instance, systems of written law, works of art, and literature, and by working with statistical averages. Thus, in Suicide Durkheim said that the "social fact" was the statistical suicide rate, not the circumstances attending individual suicides. His treatment of the relations between collective and individual representations, however, was often obscure, and he would pass from statements about the social determinants of the suicide rate to statements like this: "Human deliberations are often only purely formal, with no object but confirmation of a resolve previously formed for reasons unknown to consciousness." His important conception of social forces thus took on a questionable, metaphysical complexion.

Normal and Pathological Social Types

The conception of "social solidarity" went with that of collective representations and provided Durkheim with a means of distinguishing social types. The simplest form of social group is the "horde," which exhibits a "mechanical" solidarity in which individuals are attached directly to the group by adherence to a common set of powerful collective sentiments. The "clan" is the horde considered as an element in a more extensive group, and the most primitive form of durable social group is the segmental society organized in clans. More complex societies exhibit "organic" solidarity with extensive division of labor: the collective conscience is weak and individuals are attached to functional groups, while the society's cohesion is to be seen in the complex interdependence of these groups.

The distinction between social types led to a conception of "normal" and "pathological" forms, which provided a basis for Durkheim's account of the practical, ethical relevance of sociology. The normal is so only relative to a given social type at a particular stage of development. It may thus be difficult to determine, particularly during transitional phases. But once we have determined it in a particular case, the normal will merge with the average, though the sociologist must also attempt to show how the normal condition of a species follows logically from its nature. Durkheim believed that we can thus distinguish between social "health" and "disease" by means of "an objective criterion, inherent in the facts themselves"; for, he argued, on Darwinian lines, the dissemination of a characteristic throughout a species would be inexplicable if we did not suppose it to be on the whole advantageous. The sociologist, like the physician, should try "to maintain the normal state."

Durkheim applied this precept in the practical conclusions he drew from his study of suicide. It is important to maintain collective sentiment against suicide, at least those types of suicide most characteristic of organic solidarity, since the general ideal of humanity is the sole remaining strong collective sentiment, and the practice of suicide offends this sentiment. He advocated making use of the special nature of societies with organic solidarity in order to counteract suicide, by strengthening occupational groups and allowing them to take a firmer grip on the lives of individuals.

Durkheim's most influential discussion of a pathological social situation concerned "anomie." Anomie is characteristic of advanced organic societies and comes about when diverse social functions are in too tenuous or too intermittent mutual contact. Anomic division of labor exhibits itself in commercial crises, conflicts between capital and labor, and the disintegration of intellectual work through specialization. In relation to individuals the result of anomie is that "society's influence is lacking in the basically individual passions, thus leaving them without a check-rein." Durkheim used this concept to explain such phenomena as the high correlation between suicide and widowhood and between the suicide rate and the divorce rate.

Function and Cause

Closely connected with his position on suicide and collective sentiments is Durkheim's concept of "function" as a mode of sociological explanation. He defined "function" as a relation between a system of vital movements and a set of needs. The prime need of any social collectivity is solidarity among its members, and Durkheim's main attempts at functional explanation, as in his treatments of the social division of labor, punishment, and primitive religion, were designed to show how such institutions or practices contribute to the type of solidarity peculiar to the societies in which they occur. The function of a practice is not to be confused with any aims of its practitioners; this would be to confuse sociology with psychology. But neither did Durkheim identify the function of a practice with its cause. The function of a fact does not explain its origin or nature: that would imply an impossible anticipation of consequences. Explanations of origins require the concept of an "efficient cause," though the persistence of a practice may be explained by the fact that its function helps to maintain a preexisting cause.

The causes of social facts are always to be found in preceding social facts, in the "internal constitution of the social group," or "social milieu." This concept, Durkheim held, is what makes sociology possible, by facilitating the establishment of genuinely social causal relations. Without it there could be only historical explanation, showing how events were possible, but not how they were predetermined. The social milieu was defined in terms of the volume of the group, the degree of communication between its members, and their concentration. Durkheim used this last concept to explain the development of the division of labor. Greater density of population brings with it a sharpened struggle for existence between individuals and this, in turn, makes necessary a greater degree of specialization. The division of labor is thus a "mellowed dénouement" of the struggle for existence.

Durkheim regarded causation as a species of logical relation; it was J. S. Mill's failure to recognize this, Durkheim held, that led him to speak erroneously of a possible plurality of causes. The most important method of establishing causal relations in sociology is that of concomitant variations, which can establish a genuine "internal bond" between phenomena as opposed to a merely "external" relation.

Primitive Religion and Categories of the Intellect

In his treatment of primitive religion Durkheim was more immediately interested in functional than in causal questions, though he did not distinguish these as carefully as in The Division of Labor in Society, using apparently interchangeable phrases like "respond to the same needs" and "depend on the same causes." He also seems to have confused questions about the function of religions with questions about their meaning and truth. All religions "hold to reality and express it"; all "are true in their own fashion; all answer, though in different ways, to the given conditions of human existence." Durkheim rejected both the animistic account of primitive religions offered by Spencer and E. B. Tylor and the naturalistic account originating with Max Müller; both went astray, he felt, in masking such religions vast systems of error. Durkheim saw totemism as the most fundamental feature of primitive religions; he tried to show that the totem symbolizes not merely the totemic principle (or "god"), but also the clan itself, and this is possible because "the god and society are only one." Religion is "primarily a system of ideas with which the individuals represent to themselves the society of which they are members, and the obscure but intimate relations which they have with it." He thus regarded the explicit content of religious ideas as relatively unimportant. The reality they express is a sociological one, concealed from the worshipers themselves.

Durkheim regarded religion as the mother of thought. The categories of the intellect, such as "class," "force," "space," and "time," originate with religion. Moreover, since the reality expressed by religion is a social one, these categories themselves originally correspond to forms of social organization and activity. Because totemism involves the idea of forces permeating both the natural and the human realms, it solves the Kantian problem of how men can apply these categories to nature. The a priori necessity of these categories is a reflection of society's coercive insistence on the ritual performances in terms of which such concepts are originally used.

See also Mill, John Stuart; Philosophy of Social Sciences; Social and Political Philosophy; Society; Sociology of Knowledge.


works by durkheim

De la division du travail social. Paris: Alcan, 1893. Translated by G. Simpson as The Division of Labor in Society. Glencoe, IL, 1952.

Les règles de la méthode sociologique. Paris: Alcan, 1895. Translated by S. A. Solovay and J. H. Mueller as The Rules of Sociological Method. Glencoe, IL, 1950.

Le suicide. Paris: Alcan, 1897. Translated by J. A. Spaulding and G. Simpson as Suicide. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1951.

Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse. Paris: Alcan, 1912. Translated by J. W. Swain as The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. London: Allen and Unwin, 1915; Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1954.

Education et sociologie. Paris: Alcan, 1922. Translated by Sherwood D. Fox as Education and Sociology. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1956.

Sociologie et Philosophie. Paris: Alcan, 1924. Translated by D. F. Pocock as Sociology and Philosophy. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1953. Includes "Individual and Collective Representations."

L'éducation morale. Paris: Alcan, 1925. Translated by Herman Schnurer as Moral Education, edited by Everett K. Wilson. New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1961.

Leçons de sociologie: physique de moeurs et du droit. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1950. Translated by C. Brookfield as Professional Ethics and Civic Morals. London: Routledge, 1957. The last three books, published posthumously, contain the ideas developed in Durkheim's university lectures.

On Morality and Society: Selected Writings. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973.

Durkheim and the Law. Edited by Steven Lukes and Andrew T. Steven. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983.

Durkheim's Philosophy Lectures: Notes from the Lycée de Sens Course, 18831884. Edited and translated by Neil Gross, Robert Alun Jones, and André Lalande. Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

works on durkheim

Alpert, Harry. Émile Durkheim and His Sociology. New York: Columbia University Press, 1939.

Cladis, Mark Sydney. A Communitarian Defense of Liberalism: Émile Durkheim and Contemporary Social Theory. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992.

Hall, Robert T. Émile Durkheim: Ethics and the Sociology of Morals. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.

Jones, Robert Alun. The Development of Durkheim's Social Realism. Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Jones, Robert Alun. Émile Durkheim: An Introduction to Four Major Works. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1986.

LaCapra, Dominick. Émile Durkheim: Sociologist and Philosopher. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972.

Lehmann, Jennifer M. Durkheim and Women. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.

Lukes, Steven. Émile Durkheim: His Life and Work, a Historical and Critical Study. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.

Mestrovic, Stjepan Gabriel. The Coming Fin de Siècle: An Application of Durkheim's Sociology to Modernity and Postmodernism. London; New York: Routledge, 1991.

Mestrovic, Stjepan Gabriel. Durkheim and Postmodern Culture. New York: A. de Gruyter, 1992.

Nandan, Yash. The Durkheimian School: A Systematic and Comprehensive Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977.

Nielsen, Donald A. Three Faces of God: Society, Religion, and the Categories of Totality in the Philosophy of Émile Durkheim. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.

Nisbet, Robert A. Émile Durkheim. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1965.

Parsons, Talcott. The Structure of a Social Action. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1937; Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1949.

Pickering, W. S. F. Durkheim: Essays on Morals and Education. London; Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979.

Pickering, W. S. F. Durkheim's Sociology of Religion: Themes and Theories. London; Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984.

Poggi, Gianfranco. Durkheim. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Schmaus, Warren. Durkheim's Philosophy of Science and the Sociology of Knowledge: Creating an Intellectual Niche. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Wallwork, Ernest. Durkheim: Morality and Milieu. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972.

Wolff, Kurt H., ed. Émile Durkheim, 18581917; a Collection of Essays, with Translations and a Bibliography. Columbus, OH, 1962.

Peter Winch (1967)

Bibliography updated by Michael J. Farmer (2005)