Emile Durkheim 1858-1917
A prominent figure in the French school of Sociology, Durkheim is best known for his establishment of a social theory which views sociology as a natural science subject to empirical study. Unlike his contemporaries, including English philosopher Herbert Spencer and anthropologist Edward Tylor, who emphasized the role of the individual in the development of cultural phenomena, Durkheim asserted the converse, maintaining that, although individuals comprise society, society is a separate and distinctive entity or reality, a causal result of the associations, reactions, and combinations of individuals' behaviors and psychic realities. His most influential contribution to social theory is his concept of the social fact, which he defines as "ways of acting, thinking, and feeling, exterior to the individual and endowed with a power of coercion."
Durkheim was born in Epinal, France. The son of a rabbi, Durkheim also was intended for the rabbinate; his early religious education contributed to his scholarly command of Talmudic law and biblical history, which he synthesized into his later studies on religion. In 1879 he entered the Ecole Normale Superieure, where he studied philosophy under Emile Boutroux and two historians, Fustel de Couleanges and Gabriel Monod. After graduating he taught at various lycees near Paris. Taking a leave of absence in 1885, he visited Germany, where he became influenced by the work of renowned psychologist Wilhelm Wundt, from whose work on individual representations Durkheim derived his analogous theory to social phenomena, collective representations. Returning to France in 1886, he obtained a teaching position at the University of Bordeaux and established a reputation as a dynamic and inspiring instructor whose well-prepared lectures were widely attended. With the publication in 1893 of his doctoral dissertation for the University of Paris, De la division du travail social: etude sur l'organisation dès societes superieurs (The Division of Labor in Society), he established a reputation as one of the leaders of social theory in France. In 1896 he attained full professorship at Bordeaux and in 1898 founded the journal L'Année sociologique, serving as editor for the next twelve years. Consisting of reviews aimed at scholars in the field of sociology, the journal featured articles in the fields of anthropology or sociology and Durkheim was a frequent contributor, publishing his ethnographic studies on incest, totemism, and the marriage practices of Australian aboriginal tribes. In 1902 he was summoned to teach philosophy at the prestigious University of Paris, gaining full professorship in 1906 as chair of the department of Science of Education, which later became the department of Science of Education and Sociology specifically on behalf of Durkheim's teachings. Durkheim maintained his position in Paris until his death in 1917 following a protracted illness.
Durkheim's works focus on a wide spectrum of societal institutions and social phenomena such as labor, religion, education, suicide, and morality. His seminal study on labor, The Division of Labor in Society, uses a comparative method and borrows from the Darwinian system of survival of the fittest and the Malthusian theory of population density to explain the morphological changes in labor in preindustrial and postindustrial societies. Noting that labor differentiation tended to increase in proportion to the social complexity and size of the population, Durkheim characterized labor in primitive societies as "mechanical solidarity" for its homogenous nature, and its industrial counterpart as "organic solidarity," signifying its heterogenous nature. In his next major work, Les regles de la methode sociologique (The Rules of the Sociological Method), he explained his positivistic and statistical methodology, which was purely empirical, and established the fundamental basis of sociology as a discipline consisting of all the "beliefs, tendencies, [and] practices of the group taken collectively." In Le suicide (Suicide), Durkheim sought to explain, through a concise, statistical method, the phenomenon of suicide. He established his theories of altruism, anomie, fatalism, and egoism, explaining their contingencies upon social and cultural forces rather than individual psychological manifestations. Later, Durkheim turned his attention to the study of religion, and in 1912 he published Les formes elementaires de la vie religieuse (Elementary Forms of Religious Life). Following a comparative method, he analyzed religious beliefs, practice, symbols, rituals, and the structural organization among Australian aboriginal tribes, as well as Indians of South America and the American Northwest coast. His conclusions, although deeply flawed according to many commentators, established the premise that religion and society are synonymous because the totem, a spiritual symbol, was also a symbol of the group or clan itself. Throughout his career, Durkheim was concerned with the French educational system and its significance in the socialization process. He published numerous articles on the topic, and his study Education et sociologie (Education and Sociology) was published posthumously in 1922.
De la division du travail social: Etude sur l'organisation dès societes superieures [The Division of Labor in Society] (nonfiction) 1893
Les regles de la methode sociologique [The Rules of Sociological Method] (nonfiction) 1895
Le suicide: etude de sociologie [Suicide: A Study in Sociology] (nonfiction) 1897
La prohibition de l'inceste et ses origines [The Origins and the Development of the Incest Taboo] (nonfiction) 1898
"Deux lois de l'evolution penale" (essay) 1901; published in journal L'annne sociologique
"De quelques formes primitives de classification: contribution a l'tude dès representations collectives" (essay) 1903; published in journal L'anne sociologique
Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse: le systeme totemique en Australie [The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life: A Study in Religious Sociology] (nonfiction) 1912
"La famille conjugale: conclusion du cours sur la famille" (lecture) 1921; published in journal L'anne sociologique
Sociologie et philosophie [Sociology and Philosophy] (nonfiction) 1924
L'éducation morale [Moral Education: A Study in the Theory and Application of the Sociology of Education] (nonfiction) 1925
Le socialisme [Socialism and Saint-Simon]...
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[In the following review of Les formes elementaires de la vie religieuse, originally published in American Anthropologist in 1915, Goldenweiser refutes all of Durkheim's "cardinal doctrines" discussed in the work.]
A contribution by Émile Durkheim always commands attention. His Les règes de la méthode sociologique, De Is division du travail social, and Le Suicide have exercised an appreciable influence on sociological theory and are still remembered and read. As editor of L'Année sociologique, Durkheim deserves credit for a methodical and extensive survey of anthropological and sociological literature. In this task he was ably assisted by his disciples and sympathizers, Hubert, Mauss and others. It is to be regretted that this excellent annual has now gone out of existence, its place having been taken by a triennial publication supplemented by occasional monographs constituting a series of Travaux de L'Année sociologique, of which La vie religieuse is the fourth volume.
As the title indicates, the work deals with Australian totemism, but is also meant as a general theoretical inquiry into the principles of religious experience. Durkheim is a veteran in Australian ethnology. It will be remembered that the first volume of L'Année sociologique (1896-1897) contained a study from his pen devoted to "La prohibition de l'inceste et ses origines."...
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[In the following mixed review of The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, the critic, while praising Durkheim's methods for their brilliance and originality, questions the validity of his conclusion that all forms of religion have the same totemistic, rather than naturalistic or animistic, origins.]
It was in 1912 that Les Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse [The Elementary Forms of the Religous Life] appeared; and English readers are fortunate that not more than four years were allowed to elapse before the publication of an English edition. Mr. Swain's translation is hardly brilliant, and in a very few cases his understanding of the French and his choice of English words are not all that could be desired. But his sentences are invariably clear and his version is faithful to the original.
The book is probably the most important contribution to the study of primitive religions that this century has as yet produced. After a careful analysis and critique of the animistic and naturalistic hypotheses, the author passes to an exposition of totemistic beliefs and rites in the light of his own sociology. The major part of the book is devoted to this elaborate exposition and analysis. For his facts Durkheim is dependent chiefly upon Spencer and Gillen and upon Strehlow—though he has practically exhausted the literature of his subject and draws liberally upon all the more important...
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[Simpson is an American professor, translator, and author who specializes infield work on religious cults in the Caribbean and religious sects in South America, the United States, Canada, and England. In the following essay, he analyzes Durkheim's social realism and the validity of his positivistic methodology in the study of society.]
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[An English-born educator and author, Stone was a leading scholar of international jurisprudence and wrote many works concerning the sociological aspects of law. Below, he assesses the development of Durkheim's theories on the role of law in society in his On the Division of Labor in Society.]
For those who cannot read Durkheim in the French, Mr. Simpson has done a very real service. Emile Durkheim has long been recognized as the successor in France of Auguste Comte, and his later and perhaps most important work—Les Regles de la Mihthode Sociologique (1895)—marks what Dean Pound calls the stage of unification of sociological thinking. For the student of jurisprudence the present work, first published in 1893, is itself rich in ideas of wide ramifications… .To read De la Division du Travail Social in 1934 is to see in procession before one's eyes the ghosts of the dead as well as the spirits of the then unborn.
Here is the battle-cry of positivist jurisprudence. "This book is pre-eminently an attempt to treat the facts of the moral life according to the method of the positive sciences." Moral facts being phenomena, it must "be possible to observe them, describe them, classify them, and look for the laws explaining them." Durkheim's theme is that social life rests upon a two-fold basis. In undeveloped societies men have similar needs, economic and cultural, and each member...
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[Merton is a leading American social theorist, educator, and author of the popular Social Theory and Social Structure (1949). In the following review of De la division du travail social, he identifies some flaws in Durkheim's methods.]
In a pedestrian, and somewhat infelicitous, fashion, Durkheim's De la division du travail social has been accorded a belated English translation, forty years after its initial  publication. This testimony to the continued esteem with which Durkheim's work is regarded provides the impetus for a reconsideration of the first magnum opus of this hegemonic protagonist of the sociologistic school. The value of such an examination is twofold: it permits a re-estimation of the rôle played by Durkheim in the development of modern sociological thought, and it brings to a focus several conceptions fundamental to much of contemporary research.
An analysis of the theoretical context in which this work was written is of moment in appreciating its contributions. Deep in the current of the positivistic thought which stemmed from Comte, Durkheim's Division embodies many of its characteristic features. It seeks to adopt the methods and criteria of the physical sciences for the determination of those mechanically induced social laws, which, under given conditions, obtain with an ineluctable necessity. Explicit in this procedure is, of course, the...
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[Parsons was a prominent American figure in the social sciences whose theories on social systems were considered highly controversial In the following excerpt from The Structure of Social Action, Parsons examines Durkheim's theory of suicide and compares it with the conceptual framework employed in On the Division of Labor in Society.]
Le suicide seems at first glance to be concerned...
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[In the following essay, originally published in 1938 in the journal Sociology and Social Research, Alpert explains Durkheim's theory of the function of ritual in Book III of his Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse.]
Functionalism in sociology is seen at its best, perhaps, in Durkheim's analysis of ceremony and ritual. The French sociologist inquired into the nature and functions of ceremonial and ritualistic institutions in Book III of Les Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse. His mode of analysis here follows his general theory of religion which he perceives as an expression, in symbolic form, of social realities. He first determines the religious functions of ceremonial and ritualistic behavior and then tries to get behind the symbolic beliefs and behavior to the social realities which they are purported to express. In thus "substituting reality for symbol," he brings religion down to earth, so to speak, and hence is able to ascertain the social functions of the religiously symbolic conduct.
A study of the proscribing rites—i.e., taboos and interdicts ("the negative cult")—and of the prescribing ones—such as sacrificial, imitative, commemorative, and piacular rites ("the positive cult")—reveals that ritualistic institutions have a number of vital social functions which vary, of course, with the nature of the particular ceremony being performed. The following are...
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[Benoit-Smullyan was an American economist who specialized in the economics of disarmament and who served as a consultant to the United States Department of Defense in the 1960s. In the following essay, he discusses the origins and development of Durkheim's sociologism.]
Sociologism, as we use the term here, is a synthesis of a positivistic methodology with a particular set of substantive theories, for which we have invented the name "agelecism" (from αγελη, meaning "group"). By "agelecism" we mean the general sociological doctrine which maintains the reality sui generis or the causal priority of the social group qua group. Agelecism in its modern form was introduced into the stream of French social thought by [Louis] De Bonald and [Joseph-Marie] De Maistre, who maintained that the social group precedes and constitutes the individual, that it is the source of culture and all the higher values, and that social states and changes are not produced by, and cannot be directly affected or modified by, the desires and volitions of individuals.
Positivism, the doctrine that the social sciences should adopt the methods or schemas of the physical sciences, was first given self-conscious development by Saint-Simon, who sketched a program for a "social physics" or "social physiology" which would search for the "necessary" laws of social development. He laid the basis for a sociologistic...
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[In the excerpt below, Worsley draws from recent ethnographic evidence to reassess Durkheim's theory of knowledge, as exemplified by his study of totemism among aboriginal tribes in his Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.]
As a theorist, Emile Durkheim is perhaps unique amongst recent writers in the extent of his influence upon both sociologists and anthropologists, though it is particularly the thinking of a whole generation of anthropologists which bears the impress of Durkheim's influence—either as a result of direct study of his works, or, indirectly, via the teachings of Radcliffe-Brown. In his comparative sociology, he never hesitated to utilize material from primitive society because such material shed light upon human institutions in their simpler forms.
But sociologists have also recognised Durkheim as a major theorist, even where he has taken his material from primitive society. What is conventionally an anthropological study, his Elementmy Forms of the Religious Life, has been read as widely by sociologists as by anthropologists.
Many partial criticisms of this work have been made since its first appearance in 1912, but there appears to have been little attempt to revalue it more specifically in the light of the data on aboriginal society accumulated since Durkheim's day. Following the tradition of Durkheim himself in disregarding conventional barriers between...
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[Schnore is an American sociologist and educator who specializes in the sociology of urban life. In the following essay, he identifies three domimant themes in Durkheim's work, explicates his theories, and faults earlier critics for misrepresenting his methods and conclusions.]
Émile Durkheim, of course, was not himself a human ecologist. The ecological viewpoint did not develop within sociology until near the end of Durkeim's life, and then in America. There is no evidence that this new approach to social phenomena exerted any profound influence upon his thought, despite the fact that he regarded "social morphology" as one of the major branches of sociology. In Durkheim's scheme, this field was to be devoted to two major inquiries: (1) the study of the environmental basis of social organization and (2) the study of population phenomena, especially size, density, and spatial distribution. These areas of interest obviously converge with those of human ecology as it was originally formulated.
This paper consists of an exegesis and a critique of one of his major theoretical contributions and a consideration of the broad implications of his "morphological" analysis for contemporary human ecology. It is concerned, for the most part, with Durkheim's doctoral dissertation, De In division du travail social: etude sur l'orgaiwstion dès sociétés supérieures, first published in 1893. More particularly,...
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[In the following essay, Alpert lauds Durkheim's establishment of and contribution to the social sciences.]
Emile Durkheim was born on April 15, 1858, just seven months and ten days after the death of Auguste Comte. Comte had conceived the potentialities of a science of society and had provided sociology with its barbaric and controversial cognomen, but Durkheim was needed to provide the persistent efforts, by means of theoretical formulations and empirical demonstrations, which made possible the release of the new discipline from the near-pariah status it had acquired in France. Despite the warning of a Sorbonne professor of philosophy that sociological study leads to insanity, Durkheim dedicated himself to the establishment of sociology as a legitimate and respected science and as an instrument of rational social action.
The richness of Durkheim's sociological contributions serves as the dominant theme of this centennial celebration. One clear indication of the wealth of his permanent additions to sociological science is the variety of positions and movements with which he has been identified. That these positions are often contradictory suggests that textual exegesis is still a fine art and not a science.
To some, Durkheim is an arch nationalist and ideological father of Turkish despotic nationalism. To others, he is the philosopher of French secular republicanism and the spiritual...
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[In the following essay, Dohrenwend provides a conceptual analysis of Durkheim's four types of suicide.]
In recent years, there has been a growing number of empirical studies of relations between environmental factors and mental illness. Such work is confronted by large theoretical problems. Not the least of these is how to conceptualize social and cultural sources of psychological stress. Although existing theory in sociology offers no readymade solution, it does contain some major guideposts. Perhaps the single most important source of these is Emile Durkheim's study of suicide. For in this study, Durkheim locates diverse social conditions or states as major sources of stress for individuals exposed to them.
The most dazzling of Durkheim's conceptions in his descriptions of these social conditions is that of anomie. It is so provocative, in fact, that there has been a tendency to overlook the conditions labeled by the companion-concepts of egoism and altruism; and the footnoted stepchild, fatalism, has been all but ignored. It may well be that failure to utilize the concepts Durkheim set forth in relation to anomie is in part responsible for the contradictory or divergent conceptions advanced in current approaches which acknowledge his work as their mainspring.
Yet it is not only preoccupation with anomie which has led to neglect of the other three concepts. There is a more general problem...
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[The author of Tokugawa Religion (1957), Bellah is an American educator and writer with a special interest in Far Eastern and Middle Eastern societies. The following essay, first published in the August 1959 edition of American Sociological Review, discusses the importance of history to Durkheim's comparative method.]
History was always of central importance in Durkheim's sociological work. Without understanding this, a full appreciation of his contribution to sociology is impossible. From his earliest to his latest work, Durkheim urges the closest rapprochement between sociology and history. In one of his earliest published papers, ["Introduction a la sociologie de la famille," in Annales de lafaculte dès lettres de Bordeaux, 10, 1888], he stresses the importance of history for sociology and of sociology for history. In the Prefaces of Volumes I (1898) and II (1899) of L'Année Sociologique, he lays down the policy of including a large proportion of historical works among the books reviewed, a policy from which L'Annie never deviated, and addresses his colleagues: "It has appeared to us that it would be useful to call these researches to the attention of sociologists, to give them a glimpse of how rich the material is and of all the fruits which may be expected from it." In 1905 he calls to his students' attention the importance of history for the understanding of the sociology of education...
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[In the following essay, Giddens discusses Durkheim's conception of socialism and its current value in his political writings.]
My aim in what follows will not be to offer a textual examination of the various discussions and comments on socialism that are to be found scattered through Durkheim's writings. Rather, I want to pose the question: is there anything in Durkheim's account of socialism that remains of value today, when we inhabit a world which has changed profoundly since Durkheim's time? I do not write as a particular admirer of Durkheim's views about sociology. These views have had an enormous influence, in varying ways and contexts, upon the subsequent development of the social sciences, but in my opinion this influence has not always been a fruitful one. I do want to argue, however, that Durkheim's analysis of socialism—not an aspect of his work which has been debated as frequently as some others—contains some ideas that are a stimulus to reflection about contemporary political problems.
Let me first sketch in a few of the elements of Durkheim's discussion. Durkheim draws a distinction between 'communist' and 'socialist' doctrines. 'Communist' ideas, in Durkheim's use of the term, have existed at various different periods of history. Communist writings typically take the form of fictional utopias: examples are to be found in the diverse works of Plato, Thomas More and [Tommaso] Campanella. Such...
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[Lockwood is an English educator and author of works examining class consciousness and labor. In the following essay, he discusses Durkheim's concept of fatalism and why it "remains Durkheim's hidden theory of order. '
The significance of Durkheim's concept of fatalism [in Suicide] is wholly unappreciated. The idea is seldom discussed and then only in relation to the study of suicide. Unlike anomie, it has had a most undistinguished sociological career. This is curious because if anomie can serve to illuminate in a quite general way the nature of social disorder, why should fatalism not be regarded as having the capacity to provide an explanation of order that is of equally wide scope? The aim of this essay is to show that hidden in the concept of fatalism there is indeed such a theory, though it bears little resemblance to what is taken to be Durkheim's major contribution to the analysis of social integration.
It is understandable that fatalism should have been neglected because Durkheim devotes no more than a few lines to the concept, and then only, it would seem, out of a logical instinct for symmetry. It appears as the opposite social state to anomie, which is a condition in which normative rules suddenly lose their power of regulating the wants of individuals. Consequently, fatalism is defined as 'excessive regulation', 'excessive physical or moral despotism', as a situation in which the future is...
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Alpert, Harry. Emile Durkheim and His Sociology. New York: Columbia University Press, 1939, 233 p.
Discusses Durkheim's conception of sociology as a "natural, objective, specific, yet synthetic, collective, independent and unitary science of social facts."
Beach, Walter Greenwood. "Attempts at Psychological Social Interpretation: Tarde and Durkheim." In his The Growth of Social Thought, pp. 175-81. 1939. Reprint. Port Washington, N. Y.: Kennikat Press, 1967.
Study of Durkheim's contribution to the development of social thought, comparing and contrasting his ideas about group behavior and social psychology with those of his contemporary, Gabriel Tarde.
Bierstedt, Robert. Emile Durkheim. London: Weindenfeld and Nicolson, 1966, 247 p.
Analysis of Durkheim's last four prominent works: The Division of Labor in Society, The Rules of Sociological Method, Suicide, and The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.
Bogardus, Emory S. "Durkheim and Collective Representations." In The Development of Social Thought, pp. 418-35. New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1940.
Explains the function of collective representations in Durkheim's theories of the division of labor, religion, and suicide.
Bowle, John. "Modern Sociologists: Durkheim on Environment:...
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