Emile Durkheim Contribution To Sociology

What are some contributions made to sociology by Emile Durkheim and by Max Weber?

A central contribution to sociology by Emile Durkheim is the focus on group solidarity, the bonds that create cohesive societies. A central contribution by Max Weber is his theory that Protestant nations tend to thrive as capitalist economies.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The main focus of Durkheim's extensive work in sociology is on the glue that binds societies together. It is this glue—common institutions, cultural norms, shared experiences and perspectives—that makes a society work and which allows people to come together to work for the common good.

To this end, Durkheim developed the hugely influential theory of group solidarity to account for the functioning of modern societies. Such solidarity was achieved through what Durkheim called a collective consciousness, a shared form of thinking that emphasizes commonality in any given society. Group solidarity also came about due to collective engagement in rituals, both religious and secular, that served to remind us of shared interests and values.

Where there is a marked absence of group solidarity, there arises the problem of anomie, a concept developed by Durkheim to show the alienation that individuals often feel from society in the midst of rapid social change. Contemporary society has undergone even more profound and disruptive change than in Durkheim's day, which makes his theories of group solidarity and anomie even more relevant than ever before.

As for Weber, his main contribution to sociology lay in the link he established between capitalism and the Protestant work ethic. From this theory, he also developed the influential concept of the so-called iron cage, which demonstrates the extent to which the individual's life and worldview are irrevocably shaped by the society in which he or she lives.

Society, this great iron cage, imprisons us, forcing us to live out its dictates and reproducing its values, whether we intend to or not. The technological and economic relationships that grew out of capitalist production in turn become fundamental forces in society, conditioning and determining us to act in certain ways.

This theory has become especially influential for anti-capitalist thinkers seeking to provide a radical politics that breaks free once and for all from the iron cage of late capitalism.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Emile Durkheim’s major contribution to society was his thinking about how society is held together.  Earlier thinkers had realized that there had to be something holding society together, but Durkheim was the first to study this phenomenon carefully.  Durkheim argued that there were two different kinds of solidarity among people in a society.  The first type of solidarity appeared in more traditional societies.  In these societies, all of the people are of the same ethnic group, the same religion, and the same culture.  They are all similar to one another and that similarity holds them together as a society.  Durkheim called this “mechanical solidarity.”  In more modern societies, however, very different kinds of people are thrown together and expected to live together.  It is not at all clear what holds them together when they are so different.  Durkheim says that “organic solidarity” holds them together.  By this, he means that people need each other in an economic sense.  They depend on one another to keep their economy functioning.  This binds them together even though they do not hold all of their values in common.  This idea was Durkheim’s main contribution to sociology, but it was not his only one.  He also pioneered the use of statistics in sociology and he argued that society is a moral entity, not just a group of human beings acting in their rational self-interest.  All of these are important contributions to sociology.

Max Weber is important for two major contributions to sociology.  First, he is the author of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  This is one of the most important books in the history of sociology.  In that book, Weber tried to understand why some countries were more able than others to build strong, capitalist economies.  He theorized that religion was the key to this issue.  He argued that Protestantism was more compatible with capitalism and economic growth than other religions.  Scholars today do not necessarily agree with Weber, but his thesis was extremely important in sociology for a long time.  The idea that cultural aspects of a society can affect its economy remains important today.  Weber’s second contribution is that his ideas have given rise symbolic interactionism, one of the three main sociological perspectives that exist today.  Interactionism argues that society is created by the interactions between people in the society.  It further argues that these interactions are determined by the meanings that people give to events and aspects of society.  This perspective comes from Weber’s idea that society could only be studied by looking at the way its members understood it.

Both Weber and Durkheim made other contributions to sociology, but the ones mentioned here are the most important contributions they made.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial