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Émile Durkheim, along with Max Weber and Karl Marx, is commonly considered one of the founding fathers of modern sociology, as well as a profound shaper of the discipline of anthropology, especially in England. The British anthropologist Robin Horton claims that now more than ever it may be appropriate to “accord Durkheim the accolade of ‘The Master,’” owing to the longevity of his influence in those disciplines.

His writings cover such diverse topics as the evolution of social structure in De la division du travail social (1893; The Division of Labor in Society, 1933), sociological method in Les Regles de la methode sociologique (1895; The Rules of Sociological Method, 1938), and the sociology of suicide in Le Suicide: Etude de sociologie (1897; Suicide: A Study in Sociology, 1951). In 1898, he founded the periodical L’Annee sociologique (sociological yearbook), the forum in which he published, along with his nephew and pupil Marcel Mauss, his first substantial work on the sociology of knowledge: Primitive Classification.

The work, now seen as a precursor of Durkheim’s magnum opus on the sociology of religion and knowledge, Les Formes elementaires de la vie religieuse: Le Systeme totemique en Australie (1912; The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life: A Study in Religious Sociology, 1915), was essentially an extended journal article addressed to his peers in the scientific community. Taking the form of a long essay outlining a specific problem in the human sciences and indicating a new approach to its solution, Primitive Classification appears more as a provocative suggestion than as a definitive, self-contained work. Indeed, one gets the sense of having followed Durkheim and Mauss through the very process of thinking out their solution. The conclusion leaves the reader far from where he started; it points forward rather than summarizes.

The actual structure of the work parallels the authors’ conception of the nature of the problem. An introductory chapter outlines the question to be addressed—the nature and source of the “mechanism by virtue of which we construct, project, and localize in space our representations of the tangible world.” The introduction argues for a sociological approach to that question. Durkheim and Mauss follow the presumed evolution of the classificatory function in four chapters representing three stages in the evolution of human cognition: two on the Australians as the most “primitive,” followed by a chapter on the Zuni and Sioux Indians, and finally a chapter on the Chinese. Although they can prove no historical connections among these instances, it is argued that they represent three “stages” in the evolutionary process which culminates in nineteenth century Europe. The concluding chapter then purports to explain the essential nature of this evolution in terms of the role of sentiment, or emotion, in the ordering of ideas about the world.

Durkheim and Mauss hold that the human mind lacks an innate capacity for such ordering; thus, classification must be inspired by some extra-individual source. It is their contention that such a source is society itself, that the groupings into which people delineate in the course of social interaction provide the model for the articulation of the world, and that the relations among such social groups are the inspiration for the presumed relations between the categories. Their method for substantiating this view, as always, is to trace the development of the phenomenon from its most primitive, or simplest, manifestation through its subsequent development in order to find the golden thread of human cognition.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 99

Bloor, David. “Durkheim and Mauss Revisited: Classification and the Sociology of Knowledge,” in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science. XIII (1982), pp. 267-297.

Fenton, Steve. Durkheim and Modern Sociology, 1984.

Giddens, Anthony. Capitalism and Modern Social Theory: An Analysis of the Writings of Marx, Durkheim, and Max Weber, 1971.

Gieryn, Thomas. “Durkheim’s Sociology of Scientific Knowledge,” in Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. XVIII (1982), pp. 107-129.

Horton, Robin. “Levy-Bruhl, Durkheim, and the Scientific Revolution,” in Modes of Thought, 1973. Edited by Robin Horton and Ruth Finnegan.

Lukes, Steven. Émile Durkheim, His Life and Work: A Historical and Critical Study, 1972.


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