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Article abstract: Along with his contemporary Max Weber, Durkheim was one of the founders of modern sociology. He demonstrated that the discipline was not reducible to psychology or biology and received the first sociology professorship in France. His notion of society as a moral construct has had a great impact...

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Article abstract: Along with his contemporary Max Weber, Durkheim was one of the founders of modern sociology. He demonstrated that the discipline was not reducible to psychology or biology and received the first sociology professorship in France. His notion of society as a moral construct has had a great impact on anthropology, history, religion, law, and political theory and, during his own lifetime, had considerable influence on republicans and socialists of the Third Republic.

Early Life

Émile Durkheim was born April 15, 1858, to a family of rabbinical scholars living in the Vosges region of France. Although he broke with his Judaic heritage by becoming an agnostic, the ordered and respectable nature of his home life would have a lasting effect upon his attitudes and interests. After studying at the Collège d’Épinal and the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris, he entered in 1879 the famous École Normale Supérieure, receiving instruction from the philosopher Émile Boutroux and the historian Fustel de Coulanges. Although his mental brilliance and serious demeanor earned for him the nickname “The Metaphysician,” Durkheim did not do well at the École Normale, whose academic standards he thought were marred by literary dilettantism, and he finished second to last among successful graduates in 1882. Over the next five years, he taught at lycées in Sens, Saint-Quentin, and Troyes, except for 1885-1886, which he spent in Germany, visiting there the psychophysical laboratory of Wilhelm Wundt. In 1887, he married Louise Dreyfus; the couple eventually had two children, Marie and André. The same year he was appointed to teach a social science course created especially for him at the University of Bordeaux, nine years later being promoted to the first sociology chair in France.

Among the early influences on Durkheim’s thinking were the philosophers Immanuel Kant and Charles Renouvier, both concerned with establishing objective grounds for morality, and the English anthropologist of religion Robertson Smith. Work and contact with Alfred Espinas led to the development of the important Durkheimian notion of collective representations, the common ideas and symbols of a community. In this, Durkheim was also influenced by Auguste Comte’s notion of a social consensus, and he especially identified with his predecessor’s efforts to establish an autonomous science of sociology. In his second dissertation, Quid secundatus politicae scientiae instituendae contulerit, written in Latin and published in 1892, he recognized Montesquieu as being the first to attempt an understanding of society in terms of universal laws. With the addition of an essay on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the work appeared in English as Montesquieu and Rousseau: Forerunners of Sociology (1960). Durkheim’s eloquent and forceful defense of this thesis before hostile examiners did much to advance his reputation as a spokesman for sociology.

Life’s Work

For Durkheim, the primal union that created society also created religion; the totem represented not only god but also the clan. No religion was “false” inasmuch as all served a social function. Public rituals reaffirmed the identification between the state and its religious origins, wrapping social authority in an inviolable aura of sanctity that served to make antisocial aggressions unthinkable. While Durkheim was interested in the ethical foundation of society from the earliest stages of his career, it was only in teaching a course on religion in 1895 that the subject per se became a principal focus of his work, most extensively addressed in his last book, Les Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse (1912; The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, 1915).

Another well-known aspect of Durkheimian sociology, closely related to his ideas about the religious foundations of society, is the concept of the conscience collective, a term having a dual meaning inasmuch as conscience can be translated as both consciousness and conscience. Durkheim recognized that the social order was ultimately dependent upon an implicit system of values shared by members of a society. These values were developed intellectually in a society’s culture and were internalized emotionally in the personality of its members.

Durkheim developed these concepts against both empirical utilitarianism, the belief that social union arose in the pursuit of mutual interests, scientifically recorded, and German idealism, the philosophy that the universe could be understood through subjective consciousness, known intuitively. In the first case, he attacked a long tradition stretching from Thomas Hobbes to Herbert Spencer, which under the banner of “science” insisted that man was a self-interested animal motivated solely by his wants. In the second case, he criticized the lack of empiricism in the idealists’ notion of a transindividual consciousness. Collective representations were “social facts” that could be studied empirically in cultural, religious, and legal practices, and thus the social system was as much a reality determining collective human experience and being subject to scientific observation as the physical environment. The utilitarian notion that social systems were simply arrangements of power and law that allowed the plurality of individuals to pursue their own interests Durkheim found reductive. Instead, he developed a philosophy that understood social causation in terms other than individual interest or individual action. Human motivations were also rooted in collective spiritual experiences that in cultural and legal institutions existed outside, and in fact acted upon, individual consciousness.

Durkheim showed an interest in the problem of establishing a moral order in modern industrial society from his earliest work. In De la division du travail social: Étude sur l’organisation des sociétés supérieures (The Division of Labor in Society, 1933), his doctoral dissertation published in 1893, Durkheim addressed the question of how to achieve stability in a society in which citizens were motivated by what has become known as possessive individualism. Utilitarians, who saw society as simply a system of contractual relations satisfying private wants, held that the increasing division of labor in modern society promoted greater happiness because it led to economic prosperity. In fact, Durkheim noted, newly industrialized societies were characterized by increasing rates of suicide. Social life began before both the division of labor and the exchange of goods, and a more primary form of social cohesion prevented differentiation and competition from degenerating into a Hobbesian state of war among all. Contracts were themselves dependent upon preexisting noncontractual elements; cooperation had its own intrinsic morality.

Social solidarity came in two forms, depending on its stage of development. Mechanical solidarity, by which individuals were attached directly to the group and mutually dependent, was characteristic of the primitive horde. Here the force of collective sentiments, like-minded and undifferentiated, was powerful and required no formal legal codification. Organic solidarity, by which more advanced societies integrated subgroups into the collectivity, used functional divisions of labor to create interdependence and regulated conflicts of interest by constraints and punishments. Nevertheless, collective identification with common underlying principles, such as the value of individuality, was still necessary under these more complex social arrangements.

Increasing differentiation in industrial society had, however, disintegrated the mechanical unity of the collective conscience, as was evident in the increase in deviant and anomic behavior. These were problems explored in his famous work on suicide published in 1897. In its subtle correlation of data concerning nationality, religion, age, sex, marital status, family size, geographic location, and economic conditions, Le Suicide: étude de sociologie (Suicide: A Study in Sociology, 1951) became a model for later sociological studies that used statistical evidence to support theory. Breaking with conventional categorizations, Durkheim explained suicide in terms of an individual’s relationship to normative structures. The taking of one’s own life was to be understood basically in terms of three attitudes: “egoism,” arising from the isolation of an individual from others; “anomie,” arising from the collapse of individual faith in an ordered worldview; and “altruism,” arising from individual sacrifice to a great cause. An anomic social environment, where there was no longer collective agreement about regulatory norms, occurred when failed expectations about reality make meaningless an individual’s orientation toward society.

In 1902, Durkheim was invited to the Sorbonne as a lecturer in education, but, as a measure of continued academic resistance against sociology, he only became a professor of the discipline by name in 1913. As an educator, Durkheim wanted to apply sociological ideas about the moral health of society to the Third Republic. Since rejecting the glitteringly superficial intellectual life of the École Normale Supérieure, he had argued that a science of society would have to have practical application. Yet his remedy for social ills prescribed neither conservativism nor revolution. The distinction between “normal” and “pathological” forms of social behavior was actually relative to a particular stage in the development of a society; deviant beliefs simply led to the formation of new normative codes. As he argued in The Division of Labor in Society, individualism was not symptomatic of a pathological condition in modern society but, on the contrary, was a normal characteristic of the transformations engendering more advanced forms of social solidarity. Such a line of reasoning, developed by subsequent sociologists into “functionalism,” was open to criticism from radical thinkers inasmuch as it appeared to legitimate the status quo. For Durkheim, the sociologist, like a doctor, should try to maintain the normal state.

Nevertheless, social and ethical reform was a concern running throughout his lectures, most published posthumously. His political ideas were rooted in a Rousseauean notion of democratic individualism, by which the personal will defined itself in the general will and individual freedom was understood as moral action in the community. He was profoundly shaken by the Dreyfus affair at the turn of the century and in 1898 published an article defending the ideal of moral individualism, under whose principles intellectuals had the right to denounce social injustices. With the outbreak of World War I, which took the lives of more than half of his former students at the École Normale Supérieure as well as that of his only son, Durkheim wrote several nationalistic pamphlets that are markedly in contrast to his scholarly work. The strain of the war undoubtedly weakened his health, and he died of a heart attack in Paris on November 15, 1917.


Émile Durkheim recruited around his journal, Année sociologique, begun in 1898, a distinguished group of disciples, such as Henri Berr, Célestin Bouglé, Georges Davy, Marcel Granet, Maurice Halbwachs, Marcel Mauss, Robert Hertz, and François Simiand, who were to define the “French school” of sociology for years to come. Because their focus upon the moral order coincided so neatly with pedagogical reforms of the Third Republic, the school had considerable influence upon university appointments in France, exaggeratedly referred to as “State Durkheimianism.” A large number of twentieth century sociologists and anthropologists can be said to be working within the tradition of Durkheimian sociology. Jean Piaget and Claude Lévi-Strauss have recognized Durkheim’s importance in the development of structuralism. Alfred Radcliffe-Brown brought Durkheimian ideas into British anthropology. The development of “functionalism” in America, in the work of Talcott Parsons, for example, is particularly indebted to Durkheim. Contemporary scholarly work on contractual systems, suicide rates, primitive religions, and symbolic representations of authority is still very much influenced by his work.


Bierstedt, Robert. Émile Durkheim. New York: Dell, 1966. A concise and informative introduction to the work of Durkheim that systematically treats each of his principal works.

Fenton, Steve, et al. Durkheim and Modern Sociology. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1984. The book examines the influence of Durkheim on contemporary sociology, particularly in the areas of the division of labor, social conflict and deviance, state authority, education, and religion. In opposition to functionalist interpretations, it makes an assessment of the radical dimensions of Durkheim’s thought.

Giddens, Anthony. Émile Durkheim. New York: Viking Press, 1979. A brief, easy-to-read account of the life and writings of Durkheim by an authority on the intellectual origins of modern sociological theory.

LaCapra, Dominick. Émile Durkheim: Sociologist and Philosopher. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1972. A critical examination of the historical and intellectual contexts of the work of Durkheim, explicating his work in the political and social context of the Third Republic and comparing it to the development of the ideas of Weber and Marx.

Lukes, Steven. Émile Durkheim: His Life and Work. New York: Harper & Row, 1973. A magisterial account of Durkheim’s life by one of the leading defenders of his thought.

Nisbet, Robert. A., ed. Émile Durkheim. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965. A collection of essays placing Durkheim in historical context and examining his major works; in addition to the editor, the contributors Robert K. Merton, Hanan C. Selvin, Harry Alpert, Morris Ginsberg, and Robert N. Bellah are representative of contemporary scholars working in the Durkheimian tradition.

Pearce, Frank. The Radical Durkheim. London: Unwin Hyman, 1989. An example of recent attempts to establish a radical interpretation of Durkheim.

Wolff, Kurt H., ed. Essays on Sociology and Philosophy, with Appraisals of Durkheim’s Life and Thought. New York: Harper, 1964. A collection of essays, several by members of the French school of sociology, exploring different aspects of Durkheim’s thought and situating it in the intellectual currents of his time.

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