Émile Durkheim Introduction - Essay


Emile Durkheim 1858-1917

French sociologist.

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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.