Emile Durkheim Essay

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Emile Durkheim, often referred to as the founder of Sociology, was born April 15, 1858, in France. Appointed to the first professorship of Sociology in the world, he worked tirelessly over three decades as a lecturer and writer to establish Sociology as a distinct discipline with its own unique theoretical and methodological foundation. After an illustrious career, first in Bordeaux and then after 1902 in Paris at the Sorbonne, Durkheim died in November 1917, still a relatively young man, never having recovered from grief after most of the young sociologists he had trained, including his own son Andre, were killed in World War I.

Durkheim s basic argument was that the human rational being is a creation of social relations. His related arguments against individualism, and for a distinct sociological object and method, stand at the heart of Sociology as a discipline. Motivated by a recognition that the organization, rationality and morality of modern societies is different from traditional belief based social forms in fundamental ways, he argued that these differences pose serious challenges to contemporary society which has developed a practice based form of solidarity. He credited Rousseau and Montesquieu with inspiring his emphasis on justice and the social origin of the individual, which he holds in common with other classical social thinkers (e.g. Comte, Marx, Weber, and Mead). The individual as a social production, and the centrality of social phenomena in all aspects of human experience, are ideas that distinguish Sociology from other disciplines approaches to social order, social action, modernity, economic exchange, mutual intelligibility, and justice.

Durkheim s arguments have played a central role in the development of almost every aspect of Sociology since its inception. His position was popularized as functionalism by Talcott Parsons in the late 1930s, and as a focus on symbolic systems by Lucien Levy-Bruhl and Claude Levi-Strauss from the 1920s to the 1960s. Postmodernism and post-structuralism, which developed in the 1960s and remained popular through the turn of the century, are both reactions to the way these two earlier conflicting interpretations of Durkheim s arguments developed over time.

Major Contributions of Emile Durkheim

According to Durkheim the transformation of the individual biological being into a social being cannot be explained by either individual biology or psychology. Biological capacities exist, but require redirection and reformation by social processes. Reason, he argued, is a result of social processes and particular forms of association, or social bonding, are required to create and maintain social individuals which cannot exist except in the context of particular social configurations. Consequently, any position that begins with the individual, such as psychology, economics, or philosophy, and tries to explain social phenomena on the basis of aggregations of individual actions, will miss exactly what is important about society.

Durkheim elaborated these ideas in four major works, The Division of Labor in Society (1893), The Rules of the Sociological Method (1895), Suicide (1897), and The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912). Each was designed to illustrate a different point. In addition, Durkheim wrote a thesis on Montesquieu, countless articles for l’Annee sociologique (which he also edited), and lectured on Pragmatism, Socialism, Moral Education and Rousseau. Taken together these substantively different sociological studies make up a unified, empirically based theoretical view.

Durkheim s innovative use of statistics to demonstrate different forms of association in Suicide and his articulation of a sociological method of measuring what he called ”social facts in Rules, remain a foundation for sociological methodology today. His arguments with regard to the social origin of ideas in Elementary Forms inspired the development of the sociology of knowledge and, more recently, cultural sociology. His arguments regarding universes of discourse have also been taken up by the sociology of science where they rival Wittgenstein in their importance with regard to various sociologies of practice.

Durkheim s position was modern in crucial ways. For instance, whereas Freud s (1913) Totem and Taboo reflected the prejudices of the times by likening the primitive mind to the mentally ill, Durkheim s Elementary Forms, published a year earlier, insisted that aboriginal social forms and their corresponding beliefs were as rational as their modern counterparts. This was a surprisingly modern stand against the ethnocentrism of Durkheim s time. He regarded reason as a social product, rendering distinctions such as mental inferiority or superiority nonsensical, and infusing his sociology with a fundamental egalitarianism — a new moral philosophy grounded in social facts, and a new sociological epistemology with universal applicability.

Emile Durkheim’s Methodology

Durkheim used various qualitative and archival methods, particularly in his research on law and religion. Durkheim s method, whether statistical or qualitative, focused on the character of forms of association and on the consequences of those associations for the health of the social individual and/ or group. By contrast, statistics in contemporary

Sociology are generally used to measure relationships between the demographic character of individual actions and various institutional constraints (values, goals, sanctions). This has been the predominant sociological method since the 1940s and is often equated with ”macro sociological concerns. It is, however, a later interpretation of Durkheim s method, influenced by structuralism and not entirely consistent with his own approach.

Durkheim used statistics as indicators of social facts. For Durkheim, social facts in a modern differentiated society consist of forms and patterns of association, not beliefs and values. What matters are the ways in which members of various groups are associated with one another, not their orientation toward valued courses of action, which had been important in earlier social forms. Where statistics such as suicide rates provide indicators of these associations, they may be of use to sociologists.

Durkheim s approach did not correlate individual characteristics with value oriented behavior, however. It was Durkheim s position that social processes create entirely new dimensions of persons and associations between persons, creating social configurations in ways that add up to more than the sum of the individual parts. He used statistics to indicate the strength and character of various forms of association. For instance, if the forms of association in a group were very weak, then people in the group could be expected to have a greater number of moral and psychological problems. If the forms of association in a group were too strong, then people could be expected to sacrifice themselves for the group whenever necessary. The tricky part is specifying the ideal forms of association. Durkheim argued that this varies across societies. The Division of Labor worked out the difference between two forms of social solidarity whose forms of association were entirely different, and Suicide demonstrated that the conditions under which ties to the group would be too weak or too strong also differ. Suicide in traditional and modern societies would therefore have to be understood in entirely different terms — for Durkheim, more proof that suicide was a function of social relations.

It was Durkheim s position in Rules that sociologists should focus on the social facts of recurrent institutional and orderly social forms. He treated social order as a central topic for Sociology and argued that methods should treat the social as primary, avoid individualism, and be broadly scientific (i.e. consist of practices recognizable to other scientists). He did not argue for methodological hegemony and in Durkheim s work the character of particular social facts, and not some a priori prescription, seems to have determined the methods he used.

Emile Durkheim’s Relevance to the History of Contemporary Sociology

Durkheim created a blueprint for the discipline of Sociology that defined it in entirely new terms. Understanding social theory, and engaging in the practice of Sociology without contradiction, entails giving up philosophical positions like individualism from which the sociological object, as Durkheim defined it, is rendered absurd.

As Sociology has struggled over the decades to define itself against philosophical individualism and to establish the social at its center point, Durkheim has always been the inspiration. Structural functionalism, cultural anthropology, cultural sociology, postmodernism, post-structuralism, sociological studies of science, sociology of knowledge, and legal studies were all inspired by Durkheim s arguments, some negatively and some positively. The work of Garfinkel, Goffman, Symbolic Interaction, and social constructivism, are similarly indebted. Durkheim s arguments with regard to social character of the individual self, the importance of concrete forms of association between people, and the special characteristics of self-regulating practices in modern social contexts are an important foundation of these contemporary arguments.

The true importance of Sociology as Durkheim envisioned it was not to play handmaiden to philosophy. He envisioned a sociology that evaluated social facts on its own terms. He rejected the idea that social facts were contingent and wanted to establish that certain social forms and processes were necessary or, put another way, that certain social needs must be fulfilled in order for society to go on. Once this is established, those necessities become the non-contingent social facts against which arguments can be anchored.

Feminists sometimes argue that Durkheim s work ignored women, or adopted an insensitive stance toward them. He certainly did not theorize about women in any depth, but very few men were aware of women s issues at all in the 1890s. Even so, it is significant that Durkheim not only argued for the rational status of aboriginal people, but also had some awareness of the position of women. For instance, in Suicide he noted that there seemed to be a fourth form of suicide which he called ”fatalistic, that was particularly prevalent among women. While noting that he lacked sufficient evidence, he suggested that marriage, while beneficial to men, may have a negative effect on women.

Durkheim also noted in The Division of Labor that studies of aboriginal people suggest women were once as strong as men and that the development of society, and the positions women hold in modern societies, have made women weaker. Given the turn-of-the-century tendency to view women as innately gentle and weak, Durkheim s opinion in this regard is noteworthy.

Durkheim would have resisted allowing individualistic perspectives or disciplines to judge the validity of sociological arguments. He also would have disagreed with the currently popular position that the problem with Sociology is that it does not focus enough on individuals and on individual reason. Other disciplines would regard Sociology more favorably if it did so, but the point of Sociology from the beginning has been to challenge them in this regard. Sociology begins with the premise that individualism is wrong. There would be no Sociology if the individualism of philosophy, economics and psychology were accepted. Only if the social is primary does Sociology have a reason to exist as a discipline in the first place. On this foundation Durkheim hoped to ground a sociological understanding of the requirements for justice in modern society.


  1. Alexander, J. C. (ed.) (1988) Durkheimian Sociology: Cultural Studies. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  2. Giddens, A. (1971) Capitalism and Modern Social Theory. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  3. Lukes, S. (1973). Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work, a Historical and Critical Study. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.
  4. Parsons, T. (1937) The Structure of Social Action. Free Press, New York.

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