Durkheim, Émile

views updated May 17 2018


DURKHEIM, ÉMILE (18581917), known generally as France's first sociologist, was far more than that. David Émile Durkheim was also a historian and theorist of pedagogy, moral education, and morals; a student of traditional societies, ritual life, and the world's religions; an active agent of social reform and religious change in his own milieu; a writer of patriotic tracts during World War I; a prominent defender of Alfred Dreyfus; a champion of charitable relief efforts for Jews fleeing the Russian pogroms of the early twentieth century; and a lifelong, although thoroughly eclectic and radical, philosopher.

In terms of his own strategic intellectual goals and his reputation among his contemporaries, Durkheim sought to infuse a sociological apperception into all areas of human life, especially religion. As an academic, he raised this awareness of the social dimension first by systematically challenging the identities of the two leading humanistic disciplines of his dayhistory and philosophy. In doing so, he sought to radically reorient their practice. To Durkheim, the historians of his day were dull describers and documenters; Durkheim sought instead to explain events by revealing their underlying sociological causes. He likewise thought that philosophy had stagnated by remaining speculative and locked into psychological introspection. Durkheim argued that philosophy could solve its perennial problems only by seeking the empirical social causes to the conditions it considered. Exemplifying this attempt to surpass both history and philosophy by seeking the underlying, collective, empirical causes of human action was one of Durkheim's earliest books, Suicide (1897). In this book, he tried to show that while suicide seemed at first like a lonely, deeply internal, even metaphysical matter, it was to be explained by the conditions of membership in social groups, such as religious communities, to which individuals taking their own lives belonged. Durkheim's mature sociological approach to religion emerged a decade or so later, but it retained many of the same methodological priorities established in Suicide.

Durkheim's life followed a similarly innovative pattern. The teenage Durkheim abandoned Jewish religious practice. He thus passed up the professional calling prepared for him as the eldest son in a family with a long history of rabbinic service. He left his home in Épinal, Lorraine, for a new life in Paris, where he attended one of the classical collèges to prepare for entry into the exclusive École Normale Supérieure, the elite institution for educating the influential instituteurs who staffed the nationwide system of rigorously secular state-run lycées. After teaching philosophy for several years at provincial lycées, interrupted by a short study tour of German universities (18851886), in 1887 Durkheim joined the faculty of the University of Bordeaux in a position created for him in social science and pedagogy, where he remained for fifteen years. There, he produced his first trademark booksThe Division of Labor in Society (1893), The Rules of Sociological Method (1895), and Suicide and many germinal articles. In Bordeaux, Durkheim also began to develop an interest in ethnological topics, such as totemism, and also religion.

Durkheim lived the final fifteen years of his life in Paris, where he succeeded Ferdinand Buisson in the chair of the Science of Education at the Sorbonne. He likewise continued the work he had already begun in Bordeaux, organizing the annual review L'année sociologique, and pursuing his work on pedagogy, religion, and social science. In the capital, he produced the work for which he is justly most famous, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912). He died on the eve of the end of World War I, considerably wounded in spirit by the death of his son, André, on the field of battle, but writing what he considered would be his masterpiece, a book to have been entitled La Morale.

Durkheim's years at the École Normale Supérieure (18791882) gave the new life he had fashioned for himself a definite intellectual and personal formation. Among his classmates were such future luminaries as the philosopher Henri Bergson and the statesman and socialist Jean Jaurès. Among his instructors, Durkheim was greatly influenced by the "scientific" history of Gabriel Monod, and even more perhaps by the historian of Roman religion and domestic rituals, Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges. Among philosophers, the neo-Kantian Émile Boutroux exerted direct influence upon Durkheim with his notions about the independence of different levels of being, such as the social over the psychological. Linked with Boutroux in terms of Durkheim's emerging social realism was Alfred Espinas, a major figure in the "eclectic" tradition of philosophy and social thought in France. Durkheim credited Espinas with being the source of his sense of autonomous reality of the social realm over the realms of biology and personal psychology.

Another vital philosophical influence upon Durkheim was the neo-Kantian republican rationalist and founder of the periodical Critique philosophique, Charles Renouvier. Renouvier seems to have played a role in shaping Durkheim's reading of Immanuel Kant, as well as his passion for a science of morality. Renouvier's political liberalism, especially its affirmation of the sacredness of the individual human person, ran parallel to Durkheim's inclinations towards a "religion of humanity." Guided in large part by the values of Renouvier, and enhanced by his close friendship with the neo-Hegelian Renouvierian, Octave Hamelin, Durkheim articulated a form of humanistic liberalism that remained with him throughout his life. Like other progressives of his time and place, Durkheim's interest in Hegelian revisions of neo-Kantianism recalled not only Hamelin, but also such notables as the legendary promoter of left-wing Hegelianism, Lucien Herr. Over the dual extremes of a utilitarian individualism and materialism, on the one side, and a collectivist socialism and mystagogic spiritualism on the other, Durkheim sought to integrate an unruly French egoism with a broad, but concrete, communalism. His defense of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, articulated in terms of the French republic's collective valuation of the individual as a sacred being, captures what has aptly been called the eclectic "social individualism" at the core of Durkheim's values.

Although his years in Bordeaux were happy and productive, Durkheim's move to Paris in 1902 proved indispensable to the success of his celebrated periodical, L'année sociologique (18981913). Its success was facilitated in large part by his nephew, Marcel Mauss, and Mauss's close collaborator, Henri Hubert. These two Durkheimians also recruited members for what arguably was Durkheim's most important "work"that lively and extravagantly talented team of coworkers, the Durkheimian "équipe." This remarkable community not only absorbed and deployed Durkheimian ideas for generations, but would also shape a good deal of what and how Durkheim himself would think and write. As historians of religion themselves, Hubert and Mauss, for example, made significant contributions to Durkheim's articulation of the central notion of sacrifice in The Elementary Forms. Others associated with the équipe were Maurice Halbwachs, Robert Hertz, Célestin Bouglé, Antoine Meillet, Marcel Granet, Louis Gernet, Marc Bloch, Lucien Febvre, and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl. His location in Paris also placed Durkheim in the thick of the struggles over the future of the Third Rebublic against its Catholic adversaries, and along with that, all the attendant academic and national political struggles that shaped the times and Durkheim's work as well.

In terms of his study of religion, one can perceive the same socializing efforts that Durkheim had employed in regards to the fields of history and philosophy. At the time, the study of religion was dominated by various combinations of philosophy, psychology and Christian theologies. Bringing a social dimension to the study of religion meant that more attention would be accorded the collective, group, or institutional functions and contexts of religion. Durkheim thus spurred the study of religious communities like monastic groups, charismatics, local cults, "world" religions, ritual associations, ethnic and national religions, and such institutions as the church, synagogue, and so on. Further, insofar as his work concerned philosophical, psychological, or theological matters in religion, Durkheim wished to cast a social light upon them in order to show how they were dependent upon their social location for much of their form and content. How, for example, might the early Christian belief in the visitations of the Holy Spirit be related to the effervescent vitality of the young community and its avid ritual life? How and why was the notion and experience of the "sacred" so widely deployed in the religions of the world, and why was it so often linked with the identities of religious com-munities?

In this respect, the fruitfulness of the research fostered by this articulation of the social dimension of religion for modern religious studies far overshadows that upon which far too much attention has been focused by students of religionthe so-called sociological reduction of religion. Commonly regarded as the most important feature of Durkheim's thought about religiondoubtless because of the apologetic anxieties it stirsthis "reduction" takes the form of claiming that all talk of God can be reduced to talk about society. As a formula, this is to assert that society and God are identical. There is indeed ample warrant for the view that the Durkheimians believed that all talk of God was really about and derived from social experience. The religious experience of "spirit" is explainable in terms of the dynamics of crowd-induced enthusiasms in rituals. As atheists, the Durkheimians did not believe an experience of God or spirit was possible because gods or spirits either did not exist or were beyond the cognitive abilities of humans to experience. Ritual, on the other hand, was religion in tangible form.

On the other hand, the Durkheimian identity of society and God was also intended to be read as arguing that all social forms contained a spiritual or normative aspect to them. Materialists therefore attacked the Durkheimians for insisting upon the place of norms, values, consensus, beliefs, and other intangibles"spiritual" factorsin the makeup of human reality. So, on this reading of the God-society identity, the Durkheimians were asserting the "godly" quality of social reality. Societies, whether families, tribes, nations, and so on, were not therefore just agglomerations of particulars, but units of humanity linked together by the common values that at once constitute them and that they hold to be sacred. It is this side of the God-society identity that fits with the deeply held Durkheimian views of the importance of religion and of its primacy in time and agency among other social institutions.

The genesis of Durkheim's consuming interest in religion is a subject of some debate. William Robertson Smith's Lectures on the Religion of the Semites (1889) is frequently, and with good reason, cited for its influence upon Durkheim's turn to the study of both simple societies and religion. Durkheim's first two major books, The Division of Labor in Society and Suicide dealt with social problems of so-called advanced industrial societies, while his masterpiece in the study of religion, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, explored so-called primitive ritual and religion and dealt with such topics as the sacred, totem, taboo, sacrifice, ordeals, myth, and symbolismall set among the aboriginal folk of Australia. These were not the interests one might have expected from an author concerned mostly with the problems of the industrial society. Yet, in a way, a continuity may be discerned, at least from Suicide to The Elementary Forms, despite general agreement among scholars that around 1895 Durkheim shifted his interest to religion and to the so-called primitive societies. One might, for instance, argue that a social problem afflicting the France of his day was that of how to establish a secure and viable social order. How, given the threat of war with Germany or the fissiparous individualism bred by modern urban life (the political anarchism of the day was also a concern), could modern societies hope to maintain sufficient cohesion to continue surviving? Durkheim reasoned that the secrets of social integration and coherence were there to be learned in the "elementary forms of social life" in the societies of so-called primitive peoples, where coherence and well-regulated order was the norm. If one could isolate and identify the "elementary" institutions, practices, and mechanisms that "primitive" societies employed to secure their own coherence, then perhaps modern folk could either create or retrieve these aspects of a social technology of order and coherence for their own use. The Elementary Forms answered thisquestion by proposing Aboriginal Australian society and its elaborate sacrificial ritual religious life as a model for the France of its day. As ritual sacrifice functioned among the Aborigines to weld the people into a coherent whole, so also would the civic sacrifice of duty and devotion to country insure France's integrity against their foe.

A revival of interest in Durkheimian work, spurred by the publication of Steven Lukes's Émile Durkheim: His Life and Work (1972), shows no sign of letting up. Some of this may have to do with the steadily declining political and intellectual fortunes of Marxism. Despite their shared conviction about the social nature of human beings, Durkheimian social thought has escaped the downdraft in which Marxism was caught due to its links to a discredited totalitarianism. Even in his own time, while Durkheim's theories were seen as fully social, they were also seen as alternatives to the economic materialism of Marxism. Thus, Durkheim actually provided an alternative both to Marxian economic materialism and to the abstract individualist interpretations of human life that Marx attacked as well. Like Marx, Durkheim challenged the conventional wisdom of entrenched abstract individualism, and pushed people to seek the underlying social constraints and causes that shape the way they actwhether this be their religious behavior or anything else. Social and cultural constraints are thus paramount in Durkheim's view, and as such seem more subtle, complex, and diverse than Marx's economism would allow. Thus, today, when the sociocultural dimensions conditioning economic life itself are gaining new appreciation, Durkheim's emphasis upon the role of religion and kindred sociocultural factors in social formation will likely become more compelling as well.


Besnard, Philippe, ed. The Sociological Domain: The Durkheimians and the Founding of French Sociology. Cambridge, U.K., 1983.

Durkheim, Émile. Suicide. (1897). Translated by John A. Spaulding and George Simpson. New York, 1951.

Durkheim, Émile. "Individuals and the Intellectuals" (1898). In Durkheim on Religion, edited by W. S. F. Pickering, pp. 5973. London, 1975.

Durkheim, Émile. "Concerning the Definition of Religious Phenomena" (1899). In Durkheim on Religion, edited by W. S. F. Pickering, pp. 7499. London, 1975.

Durkheim, Émile. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life: A Study in Religious Sociology (1912). Translated by J. W. Swain. New York, 1915.

Durkheim, Émile. Professional Ethics and Civic Morals. Translated by Cornelia Brookfield. Westport, Conn., 1957.

Durkheim, Émile. "The Dualism of Human Nature and Its Social Conditions" (1914). In Essays on Sociology and Philosophy, edited by Kurt Wolff, pp. 325340. New York, 1960.

Durkheim, Émile. Moral Education: A Study in the Theory and Application of the Sociology of Education (1925). Translated by Everett K. Wilson and Herman Schnurer. New York, 1961.

Durkheim, Émile. "Individual and Collective Representations" (1898). In Sociology and Philosophy, translated by D. F. Pocock, pp. 134. New York, 1974.

Durkheim, Émile. "Contribution to Discussion 'Religious Sentiment at the Present Time.'" In Durkheim on Religion, edited by W. S. F. Pickering, pp. 181189. London, 1975.

Durkheim, Émile. The Evolution of Educational Thought: Lectures on the Formation and Secondary Education in France (1906). Translated by Peter Collins. 2d ed. London, 1977.

Durkheim, Émile. The Rules of Sociological Method and Selected Texts on Sociology and Its Method. Translated by W. D. Halls, edited by Steven Lukes. London, 1982.

Durkheim, Émile. "The Problem of Religion and the Duality of Human Nature" (1913). In Knowledge and Society: Studies in the Sociology of Culture, Past and Present, edited by Henrika Kuklick, vol. 5, pp. 144. Greenwich, Conn., 1984.

Jones, Robert Alun. "Durkheim in Context: A Reply to Perrin." Sociological Quarterly 15 (1975): 552559.

Jones, Robert Alun. "On Understanding a Sociological Classic." American Journal of Sociology 83, no. 2 (1977): 279319.

Jones, Robert Alun. "Robertson Smith, Durkheim and Sacrifice: An Historical Context for The Elementary Forms." Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 17, no. 2 (1981): 184205.

Jones, Robert Alun. "Demythologizing Durkheim." In Knowledge and Society: Studies in the Sociology of Culture, Past and Present, edited by Henrika Kuklick, vol. 5, pp. 6383. Greenwich, Conn., 1984.

Jones, Robert Alun. The Development of Durkheim's Social Realism. Cambridge, U.K., 1999.

Jones, Robert Alun, and Paul W. Vogt. "Durkheim's Defence of Les formes élementaires de la vie religieuse." In Knowledge and Society: Studies in the Sociology of Culture, Past and Present, edited by Henrika Kuklick, vol. 5, pp. 4562. Greenwich, Conn., 1984.

Karady, Victor. "The Durkheimians in Academe: A Reconsideration." In The Sociological Domain, edited by Philippe Besnard, pp. 7189. Cambridge, U.K., 1983.

Karady, Victor, ed. Émile Durkheim: Textes, vol. 1, Éléments d'une théorie sociale. Paris, 1975.

Karady, Victor, ed. Émile Durkheim: Textes, vol. 2, Religion, morale, anomie. Paris, 1975.

Karady, Victor, ed. Émile Durkheim: Textes, vol. 3, Fonctions sociales et institutions. Paris, 1975.

Loisy, Alfred. "Sociologie et religion." Revue d'histoire et de litterature religieuses 4 (1913): 4576.

Lukes, Steven. Émile Durkheim: His Life and Work, A Historical and Critical Study. New York, 1972; reprint, Stanford, Calif., 1985.

Pickering, W. S. F. Durkheim's Sociology of Religion: Themes and Theories. London, 1984.

Pickering, W. S. F. "Human Rights and the Cult of Individual: An Unholy Alliance Created by Durkheim?" In Individualism and Human Rights in the Durkheimian Tradition, edited by W. S. F Pickering and W. Watts-Miller, chap. 3. Oxford, 1993.

Strenski, Ivan. "Durkheim, Hamelin, and the French Hegel." Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques 16 (1989): 146149.

Strenski, Ivan. "The Rise of Ritual and the Hegemony of Myth: Sylvain Lévi, the Durkheimians, and Max Müller." In Myth and Method, edited by Wendy Doniger and Laurie Patton, pp. 5281. Charlottesville, Va., 1996.

Strenski, Ivan. Durkheim and the Jews of France. Chicago, 1997.

Strenski, Ivan. "Durkheim's Bourgeois Theory of Sacrifice." In On Durkheim's Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, edited by N. J. Allen, W. S. F. Pickering, and Willie Watts Miller, pp. 116126. London, 1998.

Strenski, Ivan. "The Ironies of Fin-de-Siècle Rebellions against Historicism and Empiricism in the École Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Fifth Section." In Religion in the Making: The Emergence of the Sciences of Religion, edited by Peter Pels and Arie L. Molendijk, pp. 159180. Leiden, 1998.

Strenski, Ivan. Contesting Sacrifice: Religion, Nationalism and Social Thought in France. Chicago, 2002.

Strenski, Ivan. Theology and the First Theory of Sacrifice. Leiden, 2003.

Tiryakian, Edward. "L'École Durkheimiennes à la recherche de la Société Perdue." Cahiers internationaux de sociologie 66 (1979): 97114.

Vogt, W. Paul. "Durkheimian Sociology versus Philosophical Rationalism: The Case of Celestin Bouglé." In The Sociological Domain: The Durkheimians and the Founding of French Sociology, edited by Philippe Besnard, pp. 231247. Cambridge, U.K., 1983.

Vogt, W. Paul, ed. "Obligation and Right: The Durkheimians and the Sociology of Law." In The Sociological Domain: The Durkheimians and the Founding of French Sociology, edited by Philippe Besnard, pp. 177198. Cambridge, U.K., 1983.

Ivan Strenski (2005)

Durkheim, Émile

views updated May 18 2018

Durkheim, Émile



Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) may be called one of the two principal founders of the modern phase of sociological theory, the other being his somewhat younger contemporary Max Weber. In his four major works, starting with The Division of Labor in Society of 1893 and ending with The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life of 1912, and in a large number of articles, monographs, and carefully worked out courses of lectures (several of which have been published posthumously), Durkheim established a broad framework for the analysis of social systems that has remained central to sociology and a number of related disciplines, particularly anthropology, ever since. Even those who basically disagree with it take it as a major point of reference. This frame of analysis underwent substantial development in the course of Durkheim’s own career, but it focused continually on the nature of the social system and the relation of that system to the personality of the individual.

Durkheim was born in the town of Épinal in the Vosges, not far from Strasbourg. He was of Jewish parentage, and some of his forebears were rabbis. Indeed he was expected to be a rabbi himself until he became an agnostic. He attended the famous École Norm ale Supérieure in Paris, together with such luminaries as Henri Bergson, Jean Jaurès, and Pierre Janet. His primary focus was on philosophy, but he already had the strong concern with political and social applications that he retained throughout his life. He was too rebellious to rank high among the agrégés of his year, and his first academic appointments were as teacher of philosophy in several provincial lycées.

In 1885–1886 Durkheim took a year’s leave of absence to study in Germany, where he was particularly impressed by the work of the psychologist Wilhelm Wundt. A professorship of sociology (combined with education), the first in France, was created for him in 1887 at Bordeaux, and he remained there until, in 1902, he realized the ambition of all French academics: he was called to a professorship in sociology and education at the Sorbonne in Paris. There he gathered round himself a distinguished group of younger men, including Henri Berr, Marcel Granet, Franücois Simiand, Maurice Halbwachs, and, not least, his own nephew, Marcel Mauss. In the most intimate relationship to his own work, Durkheim founded and edited the very important journal, L’année sociologique. On two significant occasions he became very much involved in political affairs: during the Dreyfus case and during World War I. And over a considerable period he was actively concerned with applied sociology, most notably perhaps in the field of education.

The first three of Durkheim’s four books, the Division of Labor, the Rules of Sociological Method, and Suicide, were all published during his Bordeaux period, in 1893, 1895, and 1897 respectively. Then there was an interval of 15 years before the Elementary Forms (1912) appeared. After the move to Paris, Durkheim was deeply involved both with his teaching and with the group discussions and activities centering on L’année sociologique. It is clear, however, that his thought was developing very rapidly and continuously during this period: witness such fundamentally important articles as “The Determination of Moral Facts” (1906) and “Primitive Classification” (Durkheim & Mauss 1903). The great book on religion, then, was the ripe harvest of a long process of intensive cultivation.

There is evidence that the war was a very great blow and strain to Durkheim. Not only was the cost to France high indeed: Peyre tells us (1960) that over half the class that entered the École Normale in 1913 was killed before the war ended; but Durkheim also lost his only son in 1916. These strains may well have helped to cause his own death from a heart attack, on November 15, 1917, at the age of 59.

Intellectual background. Despite some controversy about the influence of his stay in Germany, the evidence shows that Durkheim’s thought was rooted overwhelmingly in French intellectual history. In the remoter background, Descartes and Rousseau were the most important, although in quite different ways. Much closer to him were Saint-Simon, Auguste Comte, and his own teacher, Fustel de Coulanges, as well as such others as Émile Boutroux.

Durkheim’s deep concern with the prominent contemporary intellectual currents of other countries, especially England and Germany, was authentically French: it is no disparagement of the originality of French thought on problems of man and society to say that it filled a mediating position between the two wings of the main European trends of thought, British empiricism and utilitarianism and German idealism. In a crucial sense, modern sociology is a product of the synthesis of elements that have figured most prominently in these two traditions, and it seems to have been the mediating character of his French background that gave Durkheim a distinctive “place to stand,” from which he contributed so effectively to this synthesis. Hence a brief sketch of both “wings” will help in the understanding of Durkheim’s own orientation and statement of problems (see also Parsons 1937; 1965).

As both these traditions developed, perhaps the crucial problem was what happened as the Cartesian approach to the problem of knowledge was adapted to the analysis of action. The British position is clearest in the economic branch of utilitarian thought, although it dates from the earliest utilitarian formulation by Hobbes: man is conceived as having not only “sensations” or “ideas,” in the epistemological sense of Locke, but also what the economists called “wants” (and what Hobbes, speaking in a political context, went so far as to call “passions”). The wants define the goals of action, whereas knowledge of the situation in which action takes place provides guidance for the instrumental use of resources (including the individual’s own capacities) toward the satisfaction of these wants. Mere knowledge of the situation clearly does not suffice to satisfy wants; the situation must be changed in desired ways and prevented from changing in undesirable ways. Throughout, the point of reference is the conception of an individual acting in pursuit of his own “interests.”

This frame of reference provided the background for a most important development in the analysis of action, namely, a first technical analysis of the structuring of social means for the satisfaction of wants. The economists, by considering how a plurality of individuals, as producers and consumers, interact in the division of labor and exchange, ingeniously extended Hobbes’s formulation—of men interdependent in their interest in “power”—to a conception of social systems of action coordinated by the market and the monetary mechanism rather than of action by discrete individuals. As far as it went in classical economics, this conceptual venture was brilliantly successful; but its exceedingly limited scope gradually became evident in two borderline contexts.

One concerned the analysis of the bases of action of the individual. The inadequacy of classical economics here lay not only in its tendency to assume “wants” as given but also in its lack of a clear-cut way of establishing relationships among the different wants of a single individual, to say nothing of the different wants of several persons interacting in the same social system. Without concepts to establish these relationships, the treatment of wants as given easily shaded over into the assumption of their randomness. Likewise, shaky assumptions were made with respect to the problem of “rationality,” that is, of the relation between means and wants conceived as ends. In this context, the empiricist-utilitarian tradition tended to a reductionism that is still very much with us: it moves from consideration of the characteristics of the social system (in the economic case, a market system) to the consideration of the properties of constituent units (i.e., individuals rationally engaged in want-satisfaction), then to the wants, next to the psychological determinants of the wants, and eventually to their biological conditions.

The second problematic context bordering on classical economic analysis concerned what we now call the problem of order. How could the relational structure of a market economy be expected to have even a minimum level of stability when the individual participants were in the first instance bound to that structure only by “self-interest,” i.e., by their interest in the effective satisfaction of their several wants? Hobbes had presented a radical solution to this problem—the establishment of an absolute sovereign authority—in Leviathan, but, as Halévy made clear (Halevy 1901–1904), Hobbes’s influence was pushed aside by that of the Lockean wing of the utilitarian tradition, which assumed a “natural identity of interests.” The Lockean tradition did not really attempt to solve the problem of order but instead tried to justify the refusal to consider it. Although the Lockean approach facilitated certain valuable developments in economic analysis and in some forms of political analysis, it failed to provide that solution to the problem of order which was needed before a generalized interpretation of modern “economic individualism” could be developed. A notable version of the problem, which greatly influenced Ricardo and indirectly influenced Marx, was advanced by Malthus, but it remained for Durkheim to make a fundamental direct attack on the problem. In terms of substantive sociology, this is the main starting point of his more technical theory.

Before taking this up, however, a few words must be said about the other current of thought converging on the French “middle ground,” namely German idealism and the movements stemming from it.

The problems that social science must explain, in Durkheim’s view, lie on the subjective side of the Cartesian dichotomy, since the entire main tradition of epistemology, of which Descartes’s work was the focal point, virtually limited the external world to the world of objects as understood in terms of the new physical science. (It was, of course, possible—witness biologically based psychology and anthropology—to move into social science from the base of the object world, but this path was relatively unimportant to Durkheim.) Whereas the empiricist utilitarians had used this “subjective” element merely as a reference point for the study of behavior, failing conspicuously to structure it on its own terms, the idealists increasingly focused upon it and tended to treat it as a category of objects. In this respect Kant’s philosophy seems to have been transitional, while the Hegelian “objective spirit” (objektiver Geist) is the focal idealistic conception relevant here. This conception of Geist was primarily cultural, somewhat in the tradition of Platonic Ideas. As such it was transindividual, on quite a different level from the discrete wants of utilitarianism.

The Hegelian conception underwent various changes, only two aspects of which require mention here. One was the abandonment of the grandiose Hegelian Weltgeist in favor of the more restricted “spirits” of what many late nineteenth-century German scholars called discrete “historical individuals,” such as particular cultures or civilizations in particular epochs. This modification was perhaps most consistently expounded by Wilhelm Dilthey. The other was that developed by Marx. As the one who “set Hegel on his head,” Marx was ostensibly a materialist rather than an idealist. Nevertheless, his materialism belongs to the idealist tradition in that it treats human culture and motivated action as objects, and it tends to be “historical” in the special sense of handling “history” as a series of ideographic exemptions from treatment in terms of generalized analytical categories.

Durkheim accepted the crucial Cartesian statement of the problem of knowledge in terms of the relation between the knowing subject and the known world of external objects. In his initial orientation he was a Cartesian “rationalist,” in the sense that he approached the sociological problem as a problem of knowing “social facts” in terms of their place in the object world. However, as he shifted from the problem of knowledge to that of action, he became concurrently concerned with social facts as both the social scientist and the actor in society, as subjects, know them. The problem of the relation between the two references was the core problem of Durkheim’s scheme. Thus, although basically Cartesian, this scheme could not be developed without going beyond a Cartesian position in several respects.

Rousseau, as the primary philosopher of “democratic individualism” in his time, influenced Durkheim by his special point of view about the characteristics of social phenomena. While Rousseau shared the frame of reference of natural law and natural rights that was so prominent in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (and which, in important respects, came to France from England through Locke), he handled the problem of the social integration of those “born free” into a society without invoking the predominantly coercive sovereign of Hobbes or assuming the natural identity of interests, as did Locke. Rather, he postulated a resolution of interests at the level of integrative action processes in terms of the concept of “will.” More than any other, Rousseau’s famous concept of the volonté générate provided a conception of social solidarity that was neither economic in the sense of classical economics nor political in the sense of Hobbes or Austin. It was not a given “identity” of interests, but one achieved and institutionalized in the course of social process. Comte’s concept of “consensus,” which stood more immediately in Durkheim’s background and was explicitly defined as sociological, was transitional between Rousseau’s “general will” and Durkheim’s conception of solidarity, which lay at the core of his sociology.

The problem of order. Durkheim’s initial orientation to the study of society was twofold. The substantive aspect was developed in the Division of Labor and concerned the problem of order in a type of system we might call economic individualism. The methodological frame of reference was developed more fully in the Rules of Sociological Method, published two years later.

The critical starting point of the Division of Labor is its discussion of Herbert Spencer’s conception of a system of contractual relations (Division of Labor, book I, chapter 7). Durkheim clearly understood that order in a concrete system of contractual relations—in which the market figured prominently—could not be accounted for in the terms set forth by Spencer, whom Durkheim treated as a representative utilitarian. Unless controlled by other factors, a society dominated by the pure pursuit of self-interest would dissolve into a Hobbesian state of nature, a complete breakdown of order. The other factor or set of factors Durkheim formulated in two different ways, and on different levels. Closest to Spencer’s analysis was the conception of the “non-contractual elements of contract,” the important idea that contracts, i.e., the ad hoc agreements between parties, are always subject to generalized norms. These norms are not open to negotiation between parties; they exist prior to any such agreements, having evolved over time. In more comprehensive systems, these rules or norms are part of the formal law and are enforced by the legal sanctions of public authority. Their subject matter is the definition of the interests for which contracts may be entered into (for example, a man may not contract away his basic civil rights), the means by which such interests may legitimately be pursued (in general terms, coercion and fraud are excluded), and the bearing on contracts of interests other than those of the contracting parties (both the public interest and those of third private parties must be protected).

As noted, at one level the institution of contract is a prominent part of the legal system. Durkheim, however, wanted to go behind the establishment of norms by political authority to societal structures that may be said to “underlie” the mobilization of political authority for the enforcement of contracts. He introduced the concept of organic solidarity essentially to designate the capacity of a social system to integrate the diverse interests inherent in qualitative structural differentiation. Durkheim related solidarity, in turn, to a conception of its underlying ground, which he called conscience collective—translatable as either collective conscience or collective consciousness. The normative emphasis of the first translation was important to Durkheim himself: the conscience collective was a “system of beliefs and sentiments” held in common by the members of a society and defining what their mutual relations ought to be.

Clearly the conscience collective is a derivative of Rousseau’s “general will” and Comtek “consensus.” Equally clearly, it is not purely cognitive in reference. The most important step that Durkheim took beyond his predecessors, however, was to treat solidarity and with it, presumably, the conscience collective, not simply as given, but as variable entities. He made a distinction, therefore, between organic solidarity and mechanical solidarity. Organic solidarity is the analytical type characterized by the structural differentiation of the division of labor; modern society represents a case of predominantly organic solidarity. Mechanical solidarity, by contrast, is characterized by uniformity and lack of differentiation. With this distinction, Durkheim from the beginning built both historical—indeed, evolutionary—and comparative dimensions into his sociological analysis (Bellah 1959).

There is an initial difficulty in interpreting the relation between Durkheim’s two types of solidarity, on the one hand, and the concept of the conscience collective, on the other. Since the conscience collective stresses the commonness of the beliefs and sentiments that constitute it, this seems to identify it with mechanical solidarity and suggests that organic solidarity, associated as it is with differentiation in the social structure, must develop at the expense of the conscience collective. The broad solution to this difficulty, which becomes clearer in Durkheim’s later work, hinges on the functions attributed to values and norms in social systems of different degrees of differentiation. The focus of the conscience collective seems to be what we have come to call the values common to the members of any relatively well integrated social system; the sharing of common values is a constant feature of all such systems—at whatever level of differentiation. In the case of mechanical solidarity, these values are not clearly differentiated from the norms through which they are implemented, but in the organic case the norms come to have independent salience. In the relatively less differentiated social systems characterized by mechanical solidarity, common, in the sense of uniform, sentiments tend to be implemented directly in collective action, while in the case of organic solidarity the common element lies at a more general level and must be implemented in relation to different functions in the system through norms that are not identical for different sections of the collectivity.

Sociological method. The second main line of development of Durkheim’s analysis has to do with the fitting of these broad empirical considerations into what I have called his Cartesian frame of reference. The starting point is the conception of the actor as member of a social system and as oriented to the environment in which he acts. This actor, conceived on the model of the philosopher-scientist, observes and interprets the facts of the external world: the distinctive problem is not their status as facts (of the environment), but as social facts. Here Durkheim self-consciously and explicitly denied the physical environment its unique “reality.” The milieu social—for him the relevant environment—is, as part of society, a “reality sui generis,” to be studied in its own right. The central problem concerns the properties of this category of “reality.”

This problem in turn has two principal aspects. From the viewpoint of the scientific observer, this reality is clearly factual, or as we would say, empirical. But what was it from the viewpoint of the actor, in the second sense in which Durkheim was using the Cartesian scheme? A society is a given reality (it has “exteriority”) from the point of view of its own members, but it also regulates (”constrains”) their action. This it does not only in the sense in which the physical environment sets conditions that action must take into account but also by denning goals and normative standards for action. Durkheim quite early conceived of this constraint as more than a matter of given conditions; he saw it rather as a system of rules enforced by humanly imposed sanctions. In this theoretical development, Durkheim was evidently following up his previous analysis of the law (in the Division of Labor) as both an index of the structure of the society (e.g., of the nature and extent of its differentiation) and, when it is considered together with the beliefs and sentiments of the conscience collective, as a very important normative component of all societies.

There is, however, a still deeper aspect of the problem. A scientific observer of physical events is not in quite the same sense a “member” of the system he observes as is the social actor, although it is not acceptable to suggest that there is no sense in which they are similarly “members.” It was necessary, therefore, to relativize the sense in which the system that Durkheim calls society constitutes only an environment to the individual actor-members that compose it. This problem, then, came to be intertwined with that of the status of the normative aspects of a society.

The essential conclusion of Durkheim’s thinking is that for the sociologist the boundary between “individual” and “society” cannot be that of common sense. If we interpret the former concept as something like the human personality, it must include a sector of the social system, most specifically, the normative aspect of that system, the shared beliefs and sentiments that constitute the conscience collective. By this path Durkheim arrived at the crucially important view that essential elements of culture and social structure are internalized as part of the personality of the individual. In this he converged notably with Freud and with the movement in American social psychology from Charles H. Cooley to George Herbert Mead and W. I. Thomas. Durkheim’s quite revolutionary conclusion now seems to follow more or less inevitably from his premises, once he tried seriously to fit into the Cartesian frame of reference a distinctive normative level of the social system both as a “reality sui generis,” for the actor as well as for the observer, and as an environment that is much more than just an environment.

This meant a radical reinterpretation of Durk-heim’s original criteria of social facts—constraint and exteriority. The concept of social facts was developed, then, through three phases: first, exteriority, or the givenness of empirical existence, as in the case of the physical environment; second, constraint, or the effect of a normative rule to which sanctions are attached; and now, third, what Durkheim called the “moral authority” of internalized values and norms, which “constrain” the individual to conform by arousing guilt in his own conscience if he does not conform. An element of exteriority is involved in moral authority because, although internalized, the normative system must also objectively be part of a system extending beyond the individual. It is not “subjective” in the sense of being purely private to the individual, for it is also a “cultural object” in a sense relevant to the idealistic tradition.

The theoretical development at this highest level of generality—Durkheim’s decisively new conception of individuals interacting in a social system—did not fully crystallize until the early years of the present century, when Durkheim gave primary attention to the relations between moral norms and the process of education (1902–1906). Some of its roots in the more empirical emphases of the Division of Labor have already been indicated. Certainly the most notable transitional formulation of the concept of social fact is in his study of suicide. Durkheim’s sensitivity to the major problems of suicide went back to the Division of Labor and its critique of utilitarianism, more specifically the utilitarian claim that an increasing division of labor and the resultant economic progress would be accompanied by increasing “happiness.” Durkheim was struck by the fact that the economic progress of newly industrialized societies was everywhere accompanied by a rise in suicide rates. This was clearly an anomaly from the point of view of utilitarian theory and stimulated Durkheim to a major, if not complete, theoretical reconstruction in his classic monograph Suicide (1897).

Very advanced for its time as an empirical study, Suicide established a most important link between Durkheim’s theoretical work and the traditions of empirical research that have since become prominent, especially in the United States. Durkheim’s essential method was systematically to mobilize available statistical information on suicide rates and to relate their variations to a whole series of characteristics of the populations involved. In the nature of the case, he was limited to the modern Western world, which alone provided the kind of information he sought. With this limitation, he studied nationality, religion, age, sex, marital status, family size, place of residence, economic status, and variations in economic conditions, as well as the seasons of the year and even the times of day when suicides occurred. He showed great ingenuity and a capacity to take pains—for example, in breaking down the data published for France by departements into arrondissements, in order to reveal important variations masked in the larger units. As Bell ah points out (Bellah 1959), Durkheim brought together what information he could find from the broadest possible comparative range, even when it could not be stated quantitatively. For instance, he cited voluntary self-immolation on the part of Buddhist zealots as an example of what he called “altruistic” suicide.

Durkheim found the conventional classification of the “causes” of suicide, in terms of which the data were generally reported, quite unhelpful for his purposes. He introduced a highly original scheme of his own, built about the problem of the individual’s relations to the normative structuring of the social system in which he is involved. This scheme embodies two pairs of polar extremes, at which suicide rates are relatively high, and median continua between the poles, in which suicide rates are relatively low. The first pair of poles has altruisme and égoïsme at the extremes, the second anomie and fatalisme.

That Durkheim was no mere extoller of the virtues of solidarity (as is sometimes alleged) is shown by his conception of the first polar pair in general and of the concept of “altruistic” suicide in particular. In this type the claims of the collectivity are so strong that there is a repeated tendency to subordinate personal interests to them to the extent of sacrificing life, even when there does not appear to be a practical emergency that requires such sacrifice. Durkheim found military officers most prone to this in modern societies, but adduced numerous other examples from other societies. The antithesis of this type is “egoistic” suicide, which, for example, results in a higher rate of suicide among Protestants than among Catholics. This Durkheim explained by the social pressure inherent in Protestant norms toward a higher order of individual religious responsibility. It is a remarkable interpretation, both in itself and because it converges with the theme developed a few years later by Max Weber concerning the importance of the Protestant ethic in modern society. There is also, interestingly, an echo of Rousseau, in that Durkheim seemed to be citing an instance of the famous paradoxical formula about a man being “forced to be free,” adding that this enforced freedom may become too hard to bear.

The second pair of polar concepts that Durkheim advanced in this connection was that of anomie and fatalisme (the latter concept not being developed). Anomie has become one of the small number of truly central concepts of contemporary social science. It is best interpreted in terms of Durkheim’s Cartesian reference. The observer as actor is naturally concerned with the definiteness of the “reality” with which he is confronted. In a purely cognitive context, this is a matter of the adequacy of his information and analysis. Insofar, however, as the “reality” is man-made and, in one aspect, is normative for the actor, the problem of definiteness becomes that of “definition of the situation” in the sense established by W. I. Thomas and by reference-group theory more generally [seeReference groups].

The focus, then, is on what is expected of the actor and on the problem of the definiteness of expectations. In the case of the physical conditions of, for example, technological procedures, expectations can reasonably be defined in terms of the goals of the actors; they do not pertain to the external processes and technically defined probabilities concerning the environment itself, since it does not “act.” In a system of social interaction, on the other hand, “success” cannot simply be a function of “control” over the environment, but necessarily involves also the “sense” it makes to exert effort and, generally, to expend resources, unless the outcome to which the actor is committed is clearly desirable. The sense to ego of his goal-striving is thus a function both of alter’s action and of ego’s expectation concerning it. The meaning of success cannot be established without understanding the interplay between the motivation of the actor and the normative claims impinging upon him from his social environment. At the same time, the social environment of any given actor of reference is composed of other actors whose action must be analyzed in the same terms as the first. In this interactive framework anomie may be considered that state of a social system which makes a particular class of members consider exertion for success meaningless, not because they lack capacity or opportunity to achieve what is wanted, but because they lack a clear definition of what is desirable. It is a “pathology” not of the instrumental system but of the collective normative system.

Spelling out this concept leads to many refinements. In more contemporary terms, what is ill-defined may be ultimate beliefs, values, norms, or goals. Anomic uncertainty may affect either very generalized orientations or relatively specific goals; or the difficulties may arise from conflicting expectations, as in the classic instance of “cross-pressures.”

The two concepts of égoïsme and anomie epitomize Durkheim’s concern over the state of modern society. Because of the current preoccupation with problems of “meaning” in contemporary life, it is not surprising that anomie has attracted far more attention than égoïsme. It is my own view that the balance is in need of being redressed. Égoïsme, in Durkheim’s special sense, is a designation for one aspect of a prominent feature of modern social structure that can be called, more generally, “institutionalized individualism.” Another context in which Durkheim emphasized égoïsme was his discussion of the “cult of individual personality” (Neyer 1960). At least some aspects of the subject of “alienation” (discussed so often and with so much confusion) may also be interpreted in terms of égoïsme and altruisme. Thus, alienation appears to be the pathological extreme (anomic in certain aspects, cf. Tiryakian 1962) of institutionalized individualism at which “conformism” becomes associated with the altruistic tendencies, in Durkheim’s sense. The alienated person, then, is under such pressure to establish his independence from pressures to conform that he becomes unable to accept the essential normative conditions of a stable system of organized individual freedom.

Theory of culture. In the last major phase of his intellectual career, Durkheim dealt mainly with another set of themes that grew out of, but were distinct from, those outlined so far. These concerned religion, symbolic systems, and his somewhat new conception, “collective representations.” In short, he emphasized the theory of culture in relation to that of the social system. As early as the Preface to Volume 2 of L’année sociologique (1899), Durkheim acknowledged the strong emphasis on religion in that publication and outlined his conception of religion as the primordial “matrix,” out of which the principal elements of culture emerged by the process of differentiation. His concern with primitive religion, as well as with an articulated evolutionary perspective, was already clear in this statement. It is important for these later developments in Durkheim’s thought that the relatively new science of anthropology had arisen as a kind of mediator between utilitarianism and Darwinian biology. Anthropology became the “study of man” as part of the organic world, concerned especially with primitive societies, particularly with their magic and religion.

We have noted that Durkheim’s conception of society as a “reality sui generis” steadily changed; he placed an increasing emphasis on the normative components. While the legal norms constituted his initial prototype, he gradually focused upon more general aspects, moving toward the conception of what we would now call institutionalized values. He particularly stressed the attitude of moral respect as a component of internalized norms.

What is perhaps Durkheim’s most important single step in extending this perspective was stated as one of the primary orienting perspectives of the Elementary Forms. This was a double proposition: first, that the attitudinal distinction between treating things as sacred and as profane is basically the same as that between moral obligations and expediency or utility; and second, that the quality of sacredness does not reside in the intrinsic properties of the object treated as sacred, but in its properties as a symbol. From this it was a short step to relate sacred physical and social objects to the whole world of “cultural” objects, which, Although very close to Durkheim’s early category of beliefs and sentiments, he increasingly formulated as “representations.” We may certainly interpret them as symbolic systems, leaving open the question of the meaning references of various categories of symbols.

Durkheim was greatly impressed by the closeness of integration between the religious system of representations and the structure of the society itself, the attitude of moral respect being, as noted, the main connecting link. This integration seems particularly close in the case of primitive religion but it also exists in others. It justifies Durkheim’s emphasis on collective representations. Indeed, we can say that any symbolic system that can justifiably be called “cultural” must have a collective aspect; symbolization that is autistic—in the sense of being wholly private to one individual (the limiting case)—is no longer cultural, if indeed it can be truly symbolic. Language is perhaps the prototype here.

It seems to have been Durkheim’s view, a strongly defensible one, that the more primitive the society and the culture, the less differentiated they are from each other. He extensively analyzed the case of the Australian aborigines on the strength of this theory: the phenomena of the integration of culture and society could be seen there in their “elementary forms.” But his interest in these elementary forms does not mean that Durkheim did not have a broad understanding of the possibility and importance of differentiating conceptually between cultural and social systems, even though, as Bellah points out (Bellah 1959) he somewhat obscured this vital point by using the term “social” for both. Unfortunately, he never worked out a thorough analysis of the place of religion in a highly differentiated society—a task that might well have led him to clarify his conception of the relations between “representations” and social structure.

The problem of integration also arises internally to the system of collective representations, to culture itself. Durkheim presented the broad perspective on this problem several years before Elementary Forms in the monograph on primitive classification written in collaboration with Mauss (1903), although he developed it further in his book. His main point is that in primitive systems all culture is at the same time both religious and social, in a sense not true of more advanced systems. A particularly telling example is the categorization of physical space in terms directly corresponding to the arrangement of kinship groups in the camp.

This conception of twofold integration, between a cultural and a social system and among the different elements of a cultural system, is particularly significant for the broad problem area we now generally call the sociology of knowledge. Undoubtedly Durkheim was at least as important a founder of this discipline as was Karl Mannheim, and in many respects his views were the clearer and better analyzed.

Durkheim’s combined interest in cultural problems, religion, and evolutionary origins had a series of implications for the development of social science theory. Both the utilitarian tradition and that stemming from the French Enlightenment had tended not only to disparage traditional religion but even to deny its substantive importance. Evolutionary perspectives, however, focused attention on religion, partly because of the sheer empirical prominence of religion and magic in nonliterate societies, which were becoming increasingly well-known. The early Tylor-Spencer phase of social science tended strongly to consider these phenomena characteristic of the early stages of sociocultural evolution and destined to disappear with advancement—a position shared by Marx. Durkheim’s position established a quite new order of functional significance for religion in society. Durkheim made it clear that even at the later stages of sociocultural development, every society would require the “functional equivalent” of a religious system (whether or not it is called “religion” is primarily a semantic issue).

Beyond this, Durkheim established the groundwork for an exceedingly valuable conception of the morphology of social development—the conception of processes of structural differentiation and of attendant new, more general levels of integration. The conception of religion as the original matrix of both society and culture suggests further that society and culture themselves tend to become more completely differentiated from each other and that “secular” elements develop from this matrix on both the social and cultural levels. An important semantic point is that just because a relatively undifferentiated complex is called “religion” for an earlier stage of development and only one of its two or more differentiated derivatives retains that name for a later stage, it is not legitimate to assert that “religion has declined.” Thus, Durkheim viewed the secularization of education as an imperative of the stage of social differentiation that France had reached in his time, but he denied that this meant that the function of religion in French society had therefore been downgraded.

Durkheim’s combination of a comparative and evolutionary perspective with a special concern for cultural—symbolic systems should have been connected with a theoretical analysis of the processes of social and cultural change. Durkheim did not, to be sure, give this as much explicit attention as he did problems of social morphology, but the contributions he did make to an understanding of the process of change seem not to have been under-stood as fully as his more “static” analysis. In any case, it is clear that Durkheim provided the groundwork for a major theory of developmental change in societies and that he made important direct contributions to it himself.

His later work, in particular, tended to stress the importance of cultural creativity as a factor in change; one of the clearest statements is in his late essay “Value Judgments and Judgments of Reality” (1911), which stresses the incidence and salience of “effervescence” in periods of crisis in the development of the sociocultural system. At the same time, Durkheim was quite clearly a “multi-factor” theorist of social change.

Conclusion. Durkheim contributed substantially —and very eminently for the time in which he worked—to relatively specific empirical problems in sociology. To this day, analyses of the nature of contractual systems, of suicide rates, and of primitive religions cannot ignore his contributions. Equally, he was a highly effective entrepreneur of sociology—as teacher, as editor of a distinguished periodical, and as leader of a highly talented and creative group of research scholars.

These are not, however, the achievements that place him in the top rank among the founders of a scientific discipline. This higher eminence stems from the fact that Durkheim used the framework of solidly established intellectual traditions—those of English utilitarianism, in certain respects of German idealism, and of his own French background—to formulate a theoretical framework that was both solidly grounded in those traditions and yet highly original. As grounded in tradition, it was capable of taking full account of established knowledge; but it also went far beyond this. It was precise and clear in its logical structures and imaginative in opening up new ways of considering social phenomena, defining problems, and developing patterns of interpretation. In his special conception of the nature of “social reality,” which emphasized the involvement of normative components in both social reality and, through internalization, the personality of the individual, Durkheim was following, along with a few others, the major line of the theoretical development of social science. But he went even beyond this to link the social and personality systems thus conceived with a highly sophisticated analysis of cultural symbolic systems and to set the whole action structure in a comprehensive evolutionary framework. The resulting enrichment of the theoretical resources of the field of social science, of its insight into significant problems and its capacity to deal determinately with them, is incalculable. Only a very select few among the figures in intellectual history have contributed so crucially—at such a significant juncture—to the development of scientific culture.

Talcott Parsons

[For the historical context of Durkheim’s work, seeKnowledge, sociology of; Law, article onthe legal system; Religion; Sociology, article onthe development of sociological thought; Suicide, article onsocial aspects; Survey analysis, article onmethods of survey analysis; Utilitarianism; and the biographies ofComte; Descartes; Fustel de Coulanges; Hegel; Hobbes; Locke; Rousseau; Saint-Simon. For discussion of the subsequent development of Durkheim’s ideas, seeCommunity-society continua; Integratio; Interaction, article onsocial interaction; Punishment; Systems Analysis, article onSocial Systems; and the biographies ofGranet; Halb-Wachs; Mauss; Simiand.]


(1893) 1960 The Division of Labor in Society. Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → First published as De la division du travail social.

(1895) 1958 The Rules of Sociological Method. 8th ed. Edited by George E. G. Catlin. Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → First published in French.

(1897) 1951 Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → First published in French.

(1898–1911) 1953 Sociology and Philosophy. Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → Written between 1898–1911. First published in French in 1924.

(1899) 1960 Prefaces to L’annee sociologique: Preface to Volume 2. Pages 347–353 in Kurt H. Wolff (editor), Émile Durkheim, 1858–1917: A Collection of Essays With Translations and a Bibliography. Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press.

(1902–1906) 1961 Moral Éducation: A Study in the Theory and Application of the Sociology of Education. New York: Free Press. → Lectures first published in French.

(1903) 1963 Durkheim, Émile; and Mauss, Marcel. Primitive Classification. Translated and edited by Rodney Needham. Univ. of Chicago Press. → First published as “De quelques formes primitives de classification” in L’année sociologique.

(1906) 1953 The Determination of Moral Facts. Pages 35–62 in femile Durkheim, Sociology and Philosophy. Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → First published in French.

(1911) 1953 Value Judgments and Judgments of Reality. Pages 80–97 in fimile Durkheim, Sociology and Philosophy. Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → First published in French.

(1912) 1954 The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. London: Allen & Unwin; New York: Macmillan. → First published as Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse, le systeme totemique en Australie. A paperback edition was published in 1961 by Collier.


Alpert, Harry (1939) 1961 Émile Durkheim and His Sociology. New York: Russell.

Barnes, Harry E.; and Becker, Howard (1938) 1961 Social Thought From Lore to Science. 3d ed., rev. & enl. New York: Dover. → See especially Volume 2, Chapter 12.

Bellah, Robert N. 1959 Durkheim and History. American Sociological Review 24:447–461.

Davy, Georges 1960 Emile Durkheim. Revue francaise de sociologie 1:3–24.

Gehlke, Charles E. 1915 Émile Durkheim’s Contributions to Sociological Theory. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

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Halbwachs, Maurice 1918 La doctrine d’Émile Durkheim. Revue philosophique de la France et de I’etr anger 85:353–411.

HalÉvy, £Lie (1901–1904) 1952 The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism. New ed. London: Faber. → First published in French.

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Tiryakian, Edward A. 1962 Sociologism and Existentialism: Two Perspectives on the Individual and Society. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

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Durkheim, Émile

views updated May 23 2018

Durkheim, Émile 1858-1917


Émile Durkheim, the son of a rabbi from Eastern France, has long been recognized as a founding figure in modern sociology following his attempt to establish the subject as a respected scientific discipline in the academic world. Durkheim defined the subject matter of sociology as separate not only from that of natural sciences such as biology but also from other social sciences such as psychology and economics, which also studied the activities of the individual as a member of a group. Durkheims seminal contribution to the establishment of sociology centered upon his founding of the journal LAnnée sociologique in 1896, which addressed a whole range of issues including the economy, crime, law, and punishment. Journal entries on these and other topics allowed Durkheim to have an important influence in sociology and other social science disciplines.

Durkheim also advanced knowledge of the ideas of society, morality, and religion. One claim open to debate is that Durkheim was a social realist. This led him to challenge the assumption made by earlier Enlightenment philosophers that society was only a subjective and artificial entity because it was not part of nature. Instead, Durkheim argued that one should see society as an objective or observable reality that could be studied scientifically using empirical methods. To become scientific, sociology must study social facts. In Rules of Sociological Method (1895) Durkheim defined social facts as those emergent properties and realities of a collectivity which could not be reduced to the actions and motives of individuals, and that individuals were shaped and constrained by their external social environments. It was because social facts existed in their own right independently of individuals that Durkheim viewed society as a sui generis reality, which was subject to processes that could be understood only with reference to other social forces. Examples of social facts include language, religion, the economy, and law. These facts were real and should be studied as things. This meant that social phenomena could be known through observation which in turn made them capable of being analyzed as rigorously as objects or events in nature. Durkheims conceptualization of society was nevertheless criticized for being ambiguous. In Émile Durkheim: His Life and Work (1973) Steven Lukes noted that Durkheim used the term society in various senses to mean the association of individuals, cultural transmission, socially prescribed obligations, system of rules, symbolic representations, or a national entity such as French society. In 1894 Gabriel Tarde challenged Durkheims notion of social facts, suggesting that they could not exist in their own right independently of individuals because social phenomena were transmitted from individual to individual.

Closely linked to the idea of society was Durkheims original theory of morality. Here the obligation to act in accordance with moral rules came from society not nature, as earlier Enlightenment philosophers had supposed. Durkheim consequently saw morality as a collective social fact. Rules of moral conduct existed outside individuals and transcended personal likes and dislikes by being directed towards others in line with societys ideals and values concerning the common good. Observable laws and sanctions were imposed by society to prevent deviations from its moral rules. The scholar J. M. A. Darlu nevertheless objected, arguing in 1906 that Durkheims interpretation of morality prevented him from addressing the individuals capacity for reason and their scope for rebellion against an existing set of collectively agreed moral rules. Furthermore, other scholars often allege that Durkheims theory of moralityand indeed his sociology more generallyled him to ignore the phenomenon of social conflict. Marxist critics such as Tom Bottomore build upon this point when arguing that Durkheim placed an exaggerated emphasis on social order at the expense of paying adequate attention to social change. Anthony Giddens challenged the validity of this criticism when noting Durkheims deep concern with the turmoil affecting European societies in his own day. This concern was expressed through Durkheims conceptualization of the interests of the individual in conflict with those of society as a whole.

Durkheims understanding of society and morality were inextricably bound up with his sociological theory of religion, which advanced knowledge by challenging the ideas of traditional theology. In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), Durkheim saw religion as the source of everything social. Central to Durkheims definition of religion was the idea of the sacred. Sacred objects included symbolic things as diverse as a cross, flags, owls, or stones, all of which could be seen as extraordinary and set apart from the ordinary or profane things in everyday life. Beliefs and practices such as religious rituals also existed in relation to sacred things. Beliefs and practices generated the idea of moral community which in turn brought us back to the idea of sacred things. The sacred, beliefs and practices, and moral community, as the three basic elements of religion, were important because they bound individuals to the social group. Theological ideas about God and the supernatural were, however, missing from Durkheims definition of religion. Religion was not simply an individuals communion with God. It was above all a form of collective life, and a way for the faithful, in their relationships with the sacred, to understand their connections with one another in society.

Durkheims theory of religion has been criticized on a number of grounds. W. D. Wallis argued that religion was not essentially social and that the sociological viewpoint was only one among many. Contrary to Durkheims own view, it was necessary to include the concept of the supernatural into a definition of religion. In the 1990s critics such as Fernando Uricoechea claimed that Durkheim took the idea of the sacred for granted and did not account for its genesis or source. Stjepan Me°trović further suggested that there has been a failure in contemporary Western societies to renew shared moral values. This has led agreement about what is sacred to become splintered into a myriad of competing meanings. This last criticism nevertheless overstates the diminution of the sacred. Me°trovićs criticism, argued Jonathan Fish, was weakened through its failure to engage with Durkheims important insights on the recurrent nature of sacralizing and resacralizing tendencies as an enduring feature of social life.

Durkheims status as a founder of modern sociology was also linked up with his original theories of the division of labor, collective consciousness, and anomie in modern Western society. As societies industrialized, urbanized, and became more complex, specialized institutions concerned with government, industry, business, and education arose each with their own particular functions. A complex division of labor based on occupational specialization, diversification, and cooperation accompanied the emergence of these specialized institutions where people performed different work activities or occupational roles in society in line with their respective talents. Durkheim advanced sociological knowledge by rejecting the French philosopher Auguste Comtes earlier view of the division of labor. Instead of seeing this division as a negative force which eroded the sense of community between people, Durkheim viewed it in more positive terms as a potential source of social cohesion capable of binding individuals together through the performance of their specialized and yet interdependent work roles.

It was through the performance of these interconnected work roles that human beings could express their individuality. Individuality here referred to a persons singular capacity for thinking and acting. Individuality was part of modern societys collective consciousness. Collective consciousness referred to a body of ideas, attitudes, beliefs, and practices shared by all members of a society and which determined the relations of individuals to one another and society. A cult of the individual, which promoted the dignity and sacredness of the human person, emerged in support of this common belief in individuality. The problem in Durkheims own day was that the division of labor and shared belief in individuality were unable to establish strong social bonds between people because they were centered upon maximizing self-interest. The pursuit of selfish interests and desires also did much to produce the problem of anomie. In The Division of Labor (1893) and Suicide (1897), Durkheim referred to anomie as a situation of normlessness in which the norms or rules that regulated peoples lives did not function properly. When the norms and rules which kept peoples goals, expectations, and desires within achievable limits broke down, people began to pursue unattainable levels of pleasure and excitement which led them to feel uncertain about goals and values. The feelings of persistent unhappiness and disillusionment caused by such uncertainty also led to a rise in the suicide rate.

Durkheims conception of the social origins of morality also provided a useful backdrop for introducing moral individualism as a solution to the problem of anomie. Durkheims writings on this subject were of sociological importance because they challenged the nineteenth-century ideas of Jean-Marie Guyau who positively supported the idea of anomie, and a future society where fixed moral frameworks, norms, and rules would not exist. The concept of moral individualism, which was fully developed in Durkheims work Individualism and the Intellectuals (1898), remained the direct opposite of egoistic individualism. Whereas egoistic individualism was concerned with purely private, selfish interests, moral individualism, by contrast, stressed the importance of individual rights as a basis for creating genuinely new social bonds and common or shared identities across Western industrial societies. This transcendence of selfish interests would allow the moral ideal of individualism to attach individuals to society as never before by inspiring strong feelings of collective devotion. These feelings would in turn allow the common belief in individuality to generate strong social bonds which relieved individual uncertainties about values thereby solving the problem of anomie.

Durkheims proposed solution to anomie in the form of moral individualism also challenged the rise of orthodox or economistic forms of socialism, which attempted to solve this and other social problems in nineteenth-century Western societies by advocating a redistribution of wealth through centralized state control of the economy. Durkheim believed that these forms of socialism did not provide an adequate program for social reconstruction as the problem of anomie was neither class based nor did it have economic roots and therefore could not be solved by economic measures. The social problems facing modern society, which arose because industrialization, commercialization, and urbanization occurred too rapidly, were perceived by Durkheim as moral issues which required forms of moral authority capable of uniting individuals irrespective of their class position. Durkheims belief that socialism was primarily concerned with economic regulation has been challenged by Giddens when suggesting that this view merely forced socialist theories into a conceptual niche which he had prepared for them.

Problems in democracy were also highlighted in Durkheims writings. One major problem identified by Durkheim concerned isolated individuals who made electoral choices on purely selfish grounds rather than through informed and considered opinions about current political issues. In the 1902 preface to The Division of Labor, Durkheim argued that this problem could be overcome through the reemergence of occupational groups or associations comprised of people who performed the same specialized work roles. These small and yet diverse functional groups would be bound together through modern societys wider collective belief in individuality. Occupational groups would stand between the individual and the democratic state through their internal election of delegates to an elected chamber. Local representatives of the occupational group would then democratically elect other delegates to national government. This procedure removed the problem of unreflective and selfish patterns of voting by only requiring average citizens to vote on internal matters within their occupational experience. Durkheim believed that this two-tier electoral system would facilitate the Western democratic states reflection and effective promotion of informed opinion on the need for moral individualism in the future. Yet, as editor Robert Bellah pointed out in Émile Durkheim on Morality and Society (1973), this subordination of particular interests to the general interest has not occurred. Western society has not seen the revival of associational life that Durkheim originally hoped for.

Durkheim also addressed problems in education throughout his work. In Moral Education (1898-1899), Durkheim labeled as outdated traditional theological teachings of key elements in moral education such as the need for discipline and group attachment, following Catholicisms failure to adjust to the growth of individuality through occupational specialization in modern society. Durkheims solution to this problem was to support a purely secular education for school children based upon the principles of science and reason. Secular education was needed if the historical link between moral education and mythical, transcendent forces was to be broken and the social reality behind moral rules brought to the fore. Durkheim hoped that the secular teaching of discipline and group attachment would over time enable moral individualism, and its pursuit of a genuine type of collective self-understanding, to replace traditional religion at the center of collective consciousness in modern Western society. Durkheims belief in the ascendancy of secular education over traditional theological teachings has not, however, been realized in Western societies at the end of the twentieth-century. Ernest Wallwork noted that theologians have not only responded in a creative way to the intellectual challenges posed by sociology, they have found new ways of using traditional language to speak meaningfully of the human condition in this world. Although Durkheims prediction has not yet been realized it may be premature, argued Fish, to rule out the possibility that his secular vision might come to fruition sometime in the future.

SEE ALSO Morality; Suicide



Durkheim, Émile. [1893] 1964. The Division of Labor in Society. Trans. George Simpson. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.

Durkheim, Émile. [1895] 1938. Rules of Sociological Method. Trans. Sarah A. Solovay and John H. Mueller. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Durkheim, Émile. [1897] 1970. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Trans. John A. Spaulding and George Simpson. London: Routledge.

Durkheim, Émile. [1898] 1969. Individualism and the Intellectuals. In Émile Durkheim: Critical Assessments. Vol. 4. Trans. Steven Lukes and ed. Peter Hamilton. London: Routledge.

Durkheim, Émile. [18981899] 1961. Moral Education: A Study in the Theory and Application of the Sociology of Education. Trans. Everett K. Wilson and Herman Schnurer. New York: The Free Press.

Durkheim, Émile. [1912] 1995. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Trans. and with an Introduction by Karen E. Fields. New York: The Free Press.


Bellah, Robert. 1973. Introduction. In Émile Durkheim on Morality and Society, ed. Robert Bellah, ixlv. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bottomore, Tom. 1981. A Marxist Consideration of Durkheim. Social Forces 59 (3): 902-917.

Fish, Jonathan S. 2005. Defending the Durkheimian Tradition: Religion, Emotion and Morality. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate Publishing.

Giddens, Anthony. 1978. Durkheim. Glasgow: Fontana/Collins.

Lukes, Steven. 1973. Émile Durkheim: His Life and Work. London: Allen Lane.

Meštrović, Stjepan. 1997. Postemotional Society. London: Sage.

Uricoechea, Fernando. 1992. Durkheims Conception of the Religious Life: A Critique. Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions 37 (79): 155166.

Wallis, W. D. 1914. Durkheims View of Religion. Journal of Religious Psychology 7: 252267.

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

Jonathan S. Fish

Durkheim, Émile

views updated May 14 2018

Durkheim, Émile (1858–1917) The most famous French sociologist, long acknowledged as the founding figure of functionalism, but more recently hailed by leading authorities on structuralism, sociolinguistics (see CONVERSATION ANALYSIS), and post-modernism, all of whom have found in Durkheim's writings ideas and sentiments which are easy to incorporate.

Born of Jewish parents (his father was a rabbi), Durkheim was educated at the École Normale Supérieure, where he studied philosophy. After teaching this subject in provincial lycées for five years he obtained a post as a lecturer in social science and education at the University of Bordeaux in 1887. Ten years later he helped found L'Année sociologique, soon to become the most prestigious sociological journal in France, and a focus for an influential Durkheimian school of thought. Durkheim published regularly in the journal until his relatively early death at the age of 59 from a stroke.

Despite a brilliant career as a teacher and researcher, and the publication of a series of controversial monographs which sketched out the methods and subject-matter of the new science of sociology, it was a full fifteen years before Durkheim was eventually called to a Chair in Paris. Some have suggested that, in this, he was a victim of the anti-semitism of French intellectual life. However, it is also true that his single-minded championing of sociology as the most important social science gained him many enemies in the educational establishment, and his career is littered with bitter controversies involving those who rejected his vision of sociology.

Most of his major monographs were translated into English after his death and are, remarkably, still in print even in translation. The impelling logic of The Division of Labour in Society (1893), his controversial doctoral thesis defended after his stint in lycée teaching, was swiftly followed by The Rules of Sociological Method (1895). Durkheim here stressed that sociology as a science would be characterized by observation (rather than abstract theory), the study of social (rather than psychological) facts, and provide both functional and causal explanations. His principles were applied in the complex and multi-dimensional argument of Suicide (1897), in which he seeks to demonstrate that this apparently most personal of acts is ultimately determined by society, and that the suicide-rate is therefore a ‘social fact’. He deploys an aetiological explanation in which the effects (suicides) are evidence of the underlying social currents. His lifelong interest in morality and moral authority (evident, for example, in the depiction of mechanical and organic solidarity in his doctoral thesis) culminated almost inevitably in writings on religion. The conclusion that ‘collective’ individuals worship society, stated most forcefully in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), is an apt epitaph for his work. Other major texts on socialism, morality, and education were published posthumously.

Throughout these publications one is struck by the breadth of vision displayed by Durkheim in his remorseless search for the social and moral bases of the emerging industrial society. He continues to be reappraised by commentators from both the left and right of the political spectrum. His label as a conservative thinker has long ago been discarded—rightly so, in the light of his contributions to the theory of equality of opportunity, evident for example in his writings on education.

In a definitive biography, Steven Lukes (Émile Durkheim: His Life and Work, 1973) conveniently identifies the key concepts, dichotomies, and arguments which identify the Durkheimian heritage. Collective conscience, collective representations, and social facts were concepts which argued for the distinctiveness of sociology against other social sciences (notably psychology). These concepts were suited to the object of sociological explanation—namely, collective phenomena not reducible to the individual actor or psyche. Furthermore, the central problem for sociology was to explicate the relationship between the individual and society, recognizing that these analytical levels were distinct. The association created by individuals has its own characteristics, its own ‘facticity’, which can only be explained by social facts located at that level. His strong opposition to methodological individualism pushed him in the direction of a holism which occasionally appeared to reify society itself (a charge also levelled against subsequent functionalists who looked at society in a similarly holistic way). Other dichotomies flowed from this key coupling of individual and society. For example, in the distinction between the sacred and the profane, the former was created by the collectivity while the latter expressed the private and individual life. The former was moral whereas the latter was sensual.

Durkheim saw his task as the creation of a science of sociology, with its own subject-matter, methodology, and explanatory models. In this he continued the work of Comte and Saint-Simon. Likewise, his concern for what might be termed social engineering derived from his belief that sociology could and should intervene scientifically, when social development did not produce order sui generis. He read and absorbed the work of his near contemporaries, including Karl Marx, and this perhaps explains why his thought has variously been depicted as idealist, realist, positivist and evolutionist. In truth his intellectual and personal concerns refracted these views into a mélange of concepts peculiarly his own. Lukes's biography gives an appreciative assessment. By comparison, Raymond Aron systematically treats all of Durkheim's major works to a thoughtful but fairly savage criticism, in his Main Currents in Sociological Thought, ii (1967). See also ANOMIE; DIVISION OF LABOUR; DYNAMIC DENSITY; FATALISM; INFLATION; LAW, SOCIOLOGY OF; MORAL COMMUNITY; ORGANIC (OR BIOLOGICAL) ANALOGY; RELIGION, SOCIOLOGY OF; RITUAL; SOCIAL ORDER; SOCIAL SOLIDARITY; SUICIDE; TAXONOMY.

Durkheim, Émile

views updated May 09 2018


Sociologist and moral philosopher; b. Épinal (Vosges), Lorraine, April 13, 1858; d. Fontainebleau, France, Nov. 15, 1917.

Life. Of Jewish origin, with rabbinical forebears, Durkheim early broke with the Judaic faith and, though deeply interested in religion as an institution, remained the rest of his life an agnostic. Following a brilliant career in the secondary school of his native province, he went to Paris in 1879 to enter the École Normale Supérieure in a class that included Pierre Janet and others destined to win equal note as scholars and scientists. Among Durkheim's teachers were the philosopher Émile boutroux and the historian Fustel de Coulanges, from both of whom Durkheim acquired lasting interests and insights. Despite (or perhaps because of) a notable originality of mind and work, Durkheim finished nearer to the bottom than at the top of his class.

Undaunted, he began immediately a career of scholarship that eventually won him the chair of sociology at the Sorbonne and the honor of wide regard as one of the two seminal thinkers (the other being the German Max weber) on the theoretical nature of contemporary sociology. Durkheim's impact on cultural anthropology, largely through such men as A. R. Radcliffe-Brown and Bronislaw Malinowski, was almost equally great. Also, through his inspiring lectures at the Sorbonne, beginning in 1902, he became a major influence on some of France's leading jurists, historians, and classicists. He was a distinguished teacher, nowhere more tellingly than through the pages of the illustrious journal L'Année sociologique, which he founded in 1896 primarily as a medium for the ideas of his students and in which appeared, during its all too brief life, works by such men as Marcel Mauss, Georges Davy, Paul Fauconnet, and Maurice Halbwachs.

Durkheim's mind was one of fascinating paradox. Politically liberal (he was an active Dreyfusard), he nevertheless constructed his sociology around the conservative values of solidarity and consensus; religiously agnostic, he became the author of the most convincing demonstration of the indispensability of religion to society ever written by a social scientist; utterly dedicated to science and to ethical neutrality in the study of human phenomena, he nevertheless made the moral element primary in all of his studies; a pluralist in his view of authority and a cosmopolitan in culture, he became known in World War I (in which he lost a son and many lifelong friends) as an ardent French nationalist.

Contributions. The most fundamental contribution of Durkheim to modern social thought was his insistence on the primacy of society to the individual. By this, he did not mean ethical primacy, for he had a persisting sense of the dignity and value of the individual. What he meant and tirelessly demonstrated through his research was that explanations of human behavior must be made in social terms, that is, in terms of man's relationship to cultural values, institutions, and social groups rather than in terms of individual instincts or climatic and geographical factors, all of which were widely employed in Durkheim's age as posited causes of social behavior. Durkheim sometimes went too far in his stress on society, as in his concepts of the conscience collective and representations collective, in which even with the most generous interpretation the identity of discrete human beings becomes blurred. But in his empirical studiese.g., of suicide, industrial disorder, kinship, personality, and religionsociety is seen not as a monolith but as a perspective of understanding. More than any other single figure in modern social science, Durkheim was responsible for the abandonment of explanations of society that were strictly psychobiological and physical.

In his first major work, The Division of Labor in Society (1893), he advanced his notable distinction between "mechanical solidarity" and "organic solidarity," the first representing the kind of moral order ingrained in tradition, kinship, and community, and the second representing the more impersonal type of order resulting from division of labor and mutual interdependence of specializations. His conclusion was that society, however developed in type it may be, cannot dispense with the "mechanical" ties of tradition; that even in such rationalistic and individualistic activities as legal contract, it is the "noncontractual foundations" of tradition and social authority that alone give contract its efficacy.

In his second work, The Rules of Sociological Method (1895), he dealt methodologically with the ways by which the elements of tradition and constraint in society become fixed in human personality and thought. It was in this work that Durkheim explicitly advanced the logical concepts deriving from the claimed priority of society, and it was this work above all others that drew the fire of his critics, most notably that of a French contemporary and critic, Gabriel Tarde.

Next came Durkheim's momentous study Suicide (1896), in which he brought to bear on a specific, empirical problem the method and perspective previously dealt with in largely theoretical or ethnological terms. The problem was how to account for the variable incidence of suicide in human society. Others had given explanations in terms of instinct, climate, terrain, race, nationality, etc. Durkheim, working from the premise of society's constraining effect on the individual, was able to show that suicide varies inversely with the degree of social and moral constraint in a population. He distinguished three main types of suicide: (1) egoistic, in which social cohesion is weak; (2) anomic, in which moral integration breaks down; and (3) altruistic (rare in modern society), in which group solidarity is so intense that an offending individual feels impelled to take his life as self-punishment. Although this theory of suicide has been modified by later studies, its basic orientation remains unchallenged, and Durkheim's study is regarded as a classic not only for its explanation of suicide but for the theory of personality and the social order in which it is set.

Durkheim's final major work was The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), in many ways his most remarkable achievement. Still proceeding from the premise of society's anteriority to the individual and using the religion of the Australian aborigines as his material, he sought to show that the most fundamental conceptions of religion are subtilizations of social experience. He held the sovereign and universal characteristic of religion to be the distinction made by men between the sacred and the profane, a distinction that arises in, and is enjoined by, society. To Durkheim, it was from the felt power of the community that primitive man derived gradually his sense of a deity and of the binding power of the sacred. Agnostic though he was, Durkheim held religion to be man's most fundamental experience and religion and society to be but two sides of the same coin. In society, sanctified by religion, he saw the source of all man's major institutions and ideas. He was led even to advance a theory of the mind in these terms. Taking the problem of the origin of the categories of thought (time, mass, space, etc.) that David Hume and Immanuel Kant had posed, Durkheim proposed a solution in terms of the impact of societyits authority, its rituals, its totemic divisions, etc.on primitive man.

No modern sociologist has exceeded, and only two or three have equaled, Durkheim's masterful combination of theory and empirical investigation. Uniting all of his investigations and theoretical insights is his notable concept of function. The central task of the sociologist, Durkheim declared, is to determine what function is performed by any element in the social system of which it is a part, what needs it fulfills, and what social ends it serves. Durkheim's emphasis on function had much to do with the subsequent demise in sociology and ethnology of pretentious schemes of evolutionism and diffusionism in which social and cultural traits were dealt with as isolated, abstracted elements without relation to contexts.

See Also: religion (in primitive culture); society.

Bibliography: h. r. alpert, Émile Durkheim and His Sociology (New York 1939; reissue 1961). k. h. wolff, ed., Émile Durkheim, 18581917 (Columbus, OH 1960). r. a. nisbet, Émile Durkheim (Englewood Cliffs, NJ 1965).

[r. a. nisbet]

Durkheim, Émile

views updated Jun 08 2018


Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), the son and grandson of rabbis, was born in the Alsatian town of Épinal, Vosges, France, on April 15. In 1887 he married Louise Julie Dreyfus, and the death of their son in World War I hastened Durkheim's own premature end in Paris on November 15.

In 1870, when Durkheim was twelve, German troops occupied his home during the Franco-Prussian War, forcing him to confront a normless, anomic (unstable) social environment and loss of collective well-being that was later to figure as a theme in his sociological research. He attended the École Normale Superieure (1879–1882), France's best teachers' college, and formed an early friendship with Jean Jaurès (1859–1914), later a leading socialist, which broadened Durkheim's academic and political interests to include philosophy and political action. In 1887 he was named professor at the University of Bordeaux, where he became the first person to teach social sciences in France, and from which he moved to the University of Paris in 1902. As a youth he had been schooled in the traditional education of male Jews, but when still young found himself attracted to Catholic mysticism, eventually dispensing with formal religion altogether. Nevertheless, a deeply religious and ethically alert sensibility shaped virtually all his mature scholarship, though skillfully recast in secular, scientific terms.

Durkheim's central sociological argument, which extends from his earliest to his final works, holds that a scientifically crafted theory of societal morality could prevent the sort of "anomie" that he thought afflicted citizens within France's Third Republic (1870–1940), and that extended as well to all rapidly industrializing nations. He treated this topic in his dissertation, The Division of Labor in Society (1893), a book with now almost biblical significance in sociology. Durkheim posed this question: How might morally binding norms be promulgated within a secularized and diversified society? His answer was that such norms would have to be shaped through professional groups, each of which would be responsible for guiding and monitoring the behavior of its members.

Other important works include Suicide (1897), which demonstrates that killing oneself is as much a sociological as a psychological event, and The Rules of Sociological Method (1895), which points to the "social fact" as the foundation of social research, thus separating sociology from the work of the other social sciences. The book he regarded his masterpiece, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), is an exhaustive study of aboriginal religious practices compared with their modern progenies. With his nephew Marcel Mauss (1872–1950), Durkheim also cowrote Primitive Classification (1903), an innovative study in what came to be called "the sociology of knowledge." Highlighting as examples Australian aboriginals, the Zuni, Sioux, and Chinese, the two authors showed that the contrasting ways different societies arrange knowledge is a direct reflection of their particular forms of social organization; that is, they concluded, mental categories repeat social configurations. This was a direct attack on conventional epistemology, which held that all humans comprehend and analyze their environment in roughly the same way.

What gives Durkheim a unique status in the living tradition of classical social theory is his ability to blend science with ethics, as part of his lifelong effort to create what he called a "science of morality." To twenty-first-century ears this seems a quixotic venture, because science and ethical maxims have been severed one from the other (at least since Max Weber wrote "Science as a Vocation" in 1917, if not before), particularly among researchers whose principal allegiance is to scientific procedure. Yet even in his Rules of Sociological Method (still a key text for apprentice sociologists), he showed that identifying "social facts" is never an end in itself, but rather a realist propaedeutic (preparatory study) to understanding how norms operate in various societies, and how deviant behavior is curtailed or controlled.

In a famous essay, "The Dualism of Human Nature and Its Social Conditions," Durkheim invoked "the old formula homo duplex," explaining that "Far from being simple, our inner life has something that is like a double center of gravity. On the one hand is our individuality—and more particularly, our body in which it is based; on the other is everything that is in us that expresses something other than ourselves" (1973 [1914], p. 152; emphases added). Durkheim's deeply ambivalent relation to "pure" science originates in his divided loyalties as expressed in this essay: On one side stands the scientist looking for "laws" of social life; on the other is the ethicist and philosopher of culture, whose main goal is to identify, albeit via strictly scientific methods, the "something other" that encourages people to lay aside their natural egocentricity and embrace values that often conflict with their own best, individualized interests.

From his earliest work in Division of Labor and Suicide up through his masterly Elementary Forms, Durkheim always sang the praises of modern science and insisted that sociology be imbued with rigorous positivism. Yet never far away from his gaze were the "larger questions" that had troubled ethicists since Plato and Confucius, culminating in Leo Tolstoy's famous question: "What constitutes a life worth living?" To this pressing query, science has no answer, as Durkheim well knew.

In addition to his virtuosic sociological research, Durkheim also established the first scholarly journal of sociology in France, trained an entire generation of anthropologists and sociologists (many of them, along with his son, slaughtered in World War I), and wrote a posthumously published history of education in France that remains a standard work. Given all these scholarly achievements, many argue that Durkheim is indeed the father of modern sociology and the first to lay out in exact terms how the sociological viewpoint differs from that of its allied disciplines.


SEE ALSO Communitarianism;French Perspectives;Parsons, Talcott;Professions and Professionalism;Sociological Ethics.


Durkheim, Émile. (1915 [1912]). The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, trans. Joseph Ward Swain. London: Allen and Unwin.

Durkheim, Émile. (1933 [1893]). The Division of Labor in Society, trans. George Simpson. New York: Free Press.

Durkheim, Émile. (1938 [1895]). The Rules of Sociological Method, 8th edition, trans. Sarah A. Solovay and John H. Mueller, and ed. George E. G. Catlin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Durkheim, Émile. (1951 [1897]). Suicide, trans. John A. Spaulding and George Simpson. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Durkheim, Émile. (1973 [1914]). "The Dualism of Human Nature and Its Social Conditions." In Émile Durkheim on Morality and Society, ed. Robert Bellah. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Durkheim, Émile, and Marcel Mauss. (1963 [1903]). Primitive Classification, trans. and ed. Rodney Needham. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

LaCapra, Dominick. (1972). Emile Durkheim: Sociologist and Philosopher. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lukes, Steven. (1972). Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

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


Weber, Max. (1917). "Science as a Vocation." In From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, ed. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford University Press (1946). Available from http://www2.pfeiffer.edu/~lridener/DSS/Weber/scivoc.html.

Durkheim, Émile

views updated May 23 2018

Durkheim, Émile

Émile Durkheim (18581917) is considered one of the most influential figures in the founding of modern sociology. Born in the eastern part of France, Durkheim descended from a long line of rabbis and trained to follow in their footsteps. As a young man, he turned away from organized religion and became an agnostic. While studying in Germany, he became convinced of the value of using scientific methods, properly modified, in the study of human behavior. Recognized as a promising scholar, Durkheim wrote several important works on the methods of sociology, the division of labor, the scientific study of religion, and how imbalances in the relations between self and society can lead to death.

One of Durkheim's most influential books is a detailed study of suicide. When it was published in 1897, Le Suicide not only changed the way in which suicide was understood, it fundamentally transformed the way sociological research was subsequently conducted. In that work, Durkheim created what became the standard structure for sociological research. On the first page of the book's introduction, he began defining the central term under discussion and proceeded to sketch out the tentative outlines of an explanation for suicide that would be informed by social science, replete with tables of suicide statistics.

In critically reviewing the existing suicide literature, which largely viewed acts of self-destruction as having physiological or psychological origins, Durkheim wondered why people from similar genetic origins did not have similar rates of suicide. Why did rates vary within one region over time? If it was related to weakness of character, why was it unrelated to levels of alcoholism? Utilizing logic and statistics, Durkheim challenged both popular and academic explanations. In doing so, he indicated that the tentative sociological approach he had begun to develop in the book's introduction offered greater explanatory power. The majority of the book lays out what became a classic sociological explanation for suicide. There are four major types, all related to group cohesion or solidarity.

Egoistic suicide, Durkheim argued, was most common among groups of individuals with few connections to social groupings of any kind. Thus, loosely bound liberal Protestant groups had higher suicide rates than Catholics and Jews, for whom regular religious participation was expected; married people committed suicide at lower rates than singles; and nations undergoing political crises experienced lower rates because competing interests and parties became tightly integrated under stress.

While egoistic suicide made sense to most readers, Durkheim's second category, that of altruistic suicide, was more controversial. Durkheim argued that certain types of suicide occurred among tightly knit groups when they came under severe threat and their members were prepared to die in the group's defense. Because suicide was widely understood as the act of sick or disturbed individuals, Durkheim's argument that soldiers who knowingly gave up their lives for their country were committing suicide appeared to diminish the valor of those actions. Durkheim delineated three types of altruistic suicide, based largely on a group's expectations that its members would undertake self-destruction in its defense.

The third type of suicide, anomic, was identified with an abrupt shift in an individual's circumstances, shifts that removed him or her from membership in what had been a well-integrated group. Durkheim showed that nations where divorce was common experienced higher suicide rates than nations where the practice was illegal. Similarly, economic crisis could lead to personal crises for individuals who once thought of themselves as important providers for their families, but when confronted with persisting unemployment found themselves evicted from their homes, their credit rejected, and prospects for improvement dim. If these individuals and their friends were accustomed to thinking of poor people as responsible for their circumstances, then they found themselves condemned by their own categories of thought. Faced with humiliation and a lack of connection with groups who might ease their self-doubts, such individuals might commit anomic suicide.

Durkheim's final category of suicide, fatalistic, is relegated to a footnote. This type of suicide occurred within tightly knit groups whose members sought, but could not attain, escape, whose "futures are pitilessly blocked and passions violently choked by oppressive discipline" (Durkheim 1951, p. 276). Prisoners of war or slaves who were bound into distinct groups dominated by other groups might commit suicide in order to escape group membership or to demonstrate control over their lives.

Suicide concludes by moving from what had been a taxonomy of suicide types toward an explanation of how social, political, and economic forces produced those types. For instance, Durkheim explored links between suicide and urbanization, developing how cities atomize individuals, producing egoistic suicides.

Sociologists admire Durkheim's book for a variety of reasons. Not only does the work present a clear understanding of what a sociological perspective was and how it differed from the perspectives offered by other emerging academic disciplines, it provides a clear and well-documented argument advocating the practical value of that discipline's perspective. Durkheim's reliance on statistics for calculating and comparing suicide rates was innovative for the time, as was his realization that the effects of some variables had to be controlled. Although he recognized problems in the comparability of data drawn from different regions or within one region in different periods, his work contributed to an emerging body of scholarship in comparative historical sociology.

Several sociological studies have been conducted in the century since Suicide 's original publication, and while some have qualified Durkheim's observations, none has seriously challenged his overall approach or conclusions. While his earlier work contains some optimism about the potentially liberating effects of industrialization and urbanization, it also reveals concerns for disruptions caused by change that occurs too rapidly. As time went on, Durkheim saw these strains become more frequent and troubling. The Dreyfus affair led him to doubt the hearts and consciences of the French citizenry, and the outbreak of World War I revealed how destructive the potentially liberating forces of industrialization can be. The war claimed the life of his only son and intellectual heir in late 1915, a blow from which Durkheim never recovered. He died in 1917, his writing having shifted from scientific objectivity to the study of ethics.

See also: Suicide Types: Theories


Coser, Lewis A. Masters of Sociological Thought. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1977.

Durkheim, Émile. Suicide. New York: Free Press, 1951.

Giddens, Anthony, ed. Émile Durkheim: Selected Writings. London: Cambridge University Press, 1972.

Lukes, Steven. Émile Durkheim, His Life and Work: A Historical and Critical Study. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1985.


Émile Durkheim

views updated May 23 2018

Émile Durkheim

The French philosopher and sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) was one of the founders of 20th-century sociology.

Emile Durkheim was born at Épinal, Lorraine, on April 15, 1858. Following a long family tradition, he began as a young man to prepare himself for the rabbinate. While still in secondary school, however, he discovered his vocation for teaching and left Épinal for Paris to prepare for theÉcole Normale, which he entered in 1879. Although Durkheim found the literary nature of instruction there a great disappointment, he was lastingly inspired by two of his teachers: the classicist Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges and the philosopher Émile Boutroux. From Fustel he learned the importance of religion in the formation of social institutions and discovered that the sacred could be studied rationally and objectively. From Boutroux he learned that atomism, the reduction of phenomena to their smallest constituent parts, was a fallacious methodological procedure and that each science must explain phenomena in terms of its own specific principles. These ideas eventually formed the philosophical foundations of Durkheim's sociological method.

From 1882 to 1885 Durkheim taught philosophy in several provincial lycées. A leave of absence in 1885-1886 allowed him to study under the psychologist Wilhelm Wundt in Germany. In 1887 he was named lecturer in education and sociology at the University of Bordeaux, a position raised to a professorship in 1896, the first professorship of sociology in France.

On his return from Germany, Durkheim had begun to prepare review articles for the Revue philosophique on current work in sociology. In 1896, realizing that the task was too much for a single person to do adequately, he founded the Année sociologique. His purpose, he announced, was to bring the social sciences together, to promote specialization within the field of sociology, and to the E make evident that sociology was a collective, not a personal, enterprise. In 1902 Durkheim was named to a professorship in sociology and education at the Sorbonne. There he remained for the rest of his career.

Achieving Consensus

The Division of Labor, Durkheim's doctoral thesis, appeared in 1893. The theme of the book was how individuals achieve the prerequisite of all social existence: consensus. Durkheim began by distinguishing two types of "solidarities," mechanical and organic. In the first, individuals differ little from each other; they harbor the same emotions, hold the same values, and believe the same religion. Society draws its coherence from this similarity. In the second, coherence is achieved by differentiation. Free individuals pursuing different functions are united by their complementary roles. For Durkheim these were both conceptual and historical distinctions. Primitive societies and European society in earlier periods were mechanical solidarities; modern European society was organic. In analyzing the nature of contractual relationships, however, Durkheim came to realize that organic solidarity could be maintained only if certain aspects of mechanical solidarity remained, only if the members of society held certain beliefs and sentiments in common. Without such collective beliefs, he argued, no contractual relationship based purely on self-interest could have any force.

Collective Beliefs

At the end of the 19th century, social theory was dominated by methodological individualism, the belief that all social phenomena should be reduced to individual psychological or biological phenomena in order to be explained. Durkheim therefore had to explain and justify his emphasis on collective beliefs, on "collective consciousness" and "collective representations." This he did theoretically in The Rules of Sociological Method (1895) and empirically in Suicide (1897). In the first, he argued that the social environment was a reality and therefore an object of study in its own right. "Sociological method," he wrote, "rests wholly on the basic principle that social facts must be studied as things; that is, as realities external to the individual." The central methodological problem was therefore the nature of these realities and their relationship to the individuals who compose society.

In Suicide Durkheim demonstrated his sociological method by applying it to a phenomenon that appeared quintessentially individual. How does society cause individuals to commit suicide? To answer this question, he analyzed statistical data on suicide rates, comparing them to religious beliefs, age, sex, marital status, and economic changes, and then sought to explain the systematic differences he had discovered. The suicide rate, he argued, depends upon the social context. More frequently than others, those who are ill-integrated into social groups and those whose individuality has disappeared in the social group will kill themselves. Likewise, when social values break down, when men find themselves without norms, in a state of "anomie" as Durkheim called it, suicide increases.

From what source do collective beliefs draw their force? In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) Durkheim argued that the binding character of the social bond, indeed the very categories of the human mind, are to be found in religion. Behind religion, however, is society itself, for religion is communal participation, and its authority is the authority of society intensified by being endowed with sacredness. It is the transcendent image of the collective consciousness.

During his lifetime Durkheim was severely criticized for claiming that social facts were irreducible, that they had a reality of their own. His ideas, however, are now accepted as the common foundations for empirical work in sociology. His concept of the collective consciousness, renamed "culture," has become part of the theoretical foundations of modern ethnography. His voice was one of the most powerful in breaking the hold of Enlightenment ideas of individualism on modern social sciences.

Durkheim died in Paris on Nov. 15, 1917.

Further Reading

Robert A. Nisbet presents a comprehensive analysis ofDurkheim's ideas in Émile Durkheim (1965). A collection of essays on various aspects of Durkheim's work appears in Kurt Wolff, ed., Émile Durkheim, 1858-1917: A Collection of Essays with Translations and a Bibliography (1960). See also Charles Elmer Gehlke, Émile Durkheim's Contribution to Sociological Theory (1915), and Harry Alpert, Émile Durkheim and His Sociology (1939). A more general study is Talcott Parsons, The Structure of Social Action: A Study in Social Theory with Special Reference to a Group of Recent European Writers (1937; 2d ed. 1964).

Additional Sources

Giddens, Anthony, Emile Durkheim, New York: Penguin Books, 1979.

Lukes, Steven, Emile Durkheim, his life and work: a historical and critical study, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1985.

Mestrovic, Stjepan Gabriel, Emile Durkheim and the reformation of sociology, Totawa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1988. □

Durkheim, Émile

views updated May 18 2018


DURKHEIM, ÉMILE (1858–1917), French sociologist. Born in Epinal (Lorraine), France, of a long line of rabbinical ancestors, Durkheim initially prepared himself for the rabbinate. Although he never wrote directly on a Jewish topic, the interest in law, ethnology, and the ethical implications of social relations, which were aroused by his early training, stayed with him throughout his life. To be a sociologist always meant for him, essentially, to be a moral philosopher as well as a scientist of moral behavior; and although he became a free thinker early in life he remained conscious of his rabbinical heritage. Durkheim studied in Paris, where he was a pupil of the philosophers Emile Boutroux and Jules Monod and of the historian Fustel de Coulanges. He was also influenced by the French neo-Kantian Charles Renouvier and by his fellow students Lévy-Bruhl, *Bergson, and Jaurès.

Durkheim is a towering figure in the history of *sociology. The first chair in social science in Europe was established for him at the University of Bordeaux in 1887. In 1902 he became professor of sociology and education at the Sorbonne; a separate department of sociology, under his chairmanship, was established in 1913. Durkheim was a founder and editor in chief of L'Année Sociologique, which was published from 1898 until the beginning of World War i. Durkheim attempts to demonstrate that it is possible to trace regularities of behavior in human action regardless of the subjective motives of individuals. The physical, biological, and psychological factors operative in the social life of man must be taken into account. Yet, as soon as attention is focused on the interpersonal relationships characterizing group life, the special nature of "social facts" becomes apparent: group products, such as art, morals, and institutions are in the mind of the individual, and yet entities apart from him. These group products are irreducible facts which must be studied in their own right. Society's "collective representations" have an objective existence outside the individuals and, at the same time, exercise a constraining power over them. Even conceptual knowledge may be said to consist of collective representations having their roots in society.

The best exemplification of the fruitfulness of Durkheim's approach is his concept of social solidarity, as employed in his studies on the division of labor, religion, morality, conscience, and suicide. Because society, at the same time, is above man and penetrates man, it is ultimately the only thing that has the power to inspire awe and reverence in individuals and to submit them to rules of conduct, to privations, and to the kind of sacrifice without which society would be impossible. But society, on which the individual is absolutely dependent, is not sufficiently concrete to be an object of direct reverential submission. Instead, the individual experiences his dependence indirectly, by focusing his attention on everything essential to the maintenance of society: its principal norms, values, institutions, its sacred symbols. Especially, the notion of divine authority is a sublimation of society. Thus religion springs not from the nature of individual man, but from the nature of society. According to Durkheim, the effect of beliefs and acts with respect to essential norms and symbols is to create a more effective society. Similarly, suicide is not a function of race, climate, religious doctrine, and economic conditions, however close the correlations between any of these facts and the phenomenon of suicide itself may be. The clue, says Durkheim, lies in crucial social facts, that is, the breakdown of social solidarity and the ensuing normlessness, or "anomie." Groups with little social cohesion tend to have higher suicide rates than those providing strong psychic support to their members in the various crises of life.

Durkheim stresses the concept of "collective consciousness" (or "conscience"). Durkheim initially explained social control mainly in terms of external constraints. In his later work, however, he stressed the internalization of culture, the fact that social norms are "society living in us." On his conception of education he places no less heavy a burden. Through education, he holds, society implants general social values and discipline in the individual. "Discipline," he writes, "has its justification in itself." Yet, the nature of the discipline is not wholly a matter of indifference. It depends not only on society in general, but on the particular society in question. Not every society values the kind of individualism and democratic pluralism which Durkheim espoused in his personal and political thought.

Durkheim's early work, De la division du travail social (1893), still shows traces of evolutionary thought; but his opposition to the utilitarianism of the economists is clearly marked there. In his subsequent works, especially in Les règles de la méthode sociologique (1895; The Rules of Sociological Method, 1950) and in Le suicide: étude de sociologie (1897; Suicide, 1951), as well as in numerous scholarly papers published chiefly in L'Année Sociologique, he increasingly emphasized scientific method and the combination of empirical research with sociological theory. His major work, cast largely in the language of functionalism, is Les formes elémentaires de la vie religieuse: le système totémique en Australie (1912; The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, 1965). Other treatises with a strongly historical and philosophical bent are Education et sociologie (1922; Education and Sociology, 1956), Sociologie et philosophie (1929), L'éducation morale (1925), Le socialisme: sa définition, ses débuts, la doctrine Saint Simonienne (1928; Socialism and Saint-Simon, 1958), L'évolution pédagogique en France (1938), and Montesquieu et Rousseau; précurseurs de la sociologie (1953).


Analyses of Durkheim's approach to sociology abound. The most influential of these are contained in G. Gurvich, Essais de sociologie (1936), and in T. Parsons, Structure of Social Action (1937). Among book-length evaluations the best known are C.E. Gehlke, Emile Durkheim's Contributions to Sociological Theory (1915); P. Faconnet, The Durkheim School in France (1927); R. Lacombe, La Méthode sociologique de Durkheim (1926); E. Conze, Zur Bibliographie der Durkheim Schule (1927); and H. Alpert, Emile Durkheim and His Sociology (1939). A complete bibliography is found in K. Wolff (ed.), Emile Durkheim, 1858–1917 (1960).

[Werner J. Cahnman and

Joseph Maier]

Durkheim, Emile

views updated May 23 2018

Durkheim, Emile (1858–1917). Only rivalled by Max Weber as the father of social science. He founded the Année Sociologique, a group which made major contributions to the study of religion, ‘représentations collectives’ (collective representations), modes of thought, and forms of classification. Jewish by birth, Durkheim adopted a positivistic attitude towards religion. His classic The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912; tr. 1915) utilized Australian aboriginal material to attempt to show that religious life originates as a response to experiences of society. It is now generally taken for granted that comprehensive understanding of religions involves a social perspective. See also SACRED AND PROFANE (including his definition of religion).