Durkheim, Émile

(1858-1917) The most famous French sociologist, long acknowledged as the founding figure of functionalism, but more recently hailed by leading authorities on structuralism , sociolinguistics (see conversation analysis ), and post-modernism , all of whom have found in Durkheim's writings ideas and sentiments which are easy to incorporate.
Born of Jewish parents (his father was a rabbi), Durkheim was educated at the École Normale Supérieure, where he studied philosophy. After teaching this subject in provincial lycées for five years he obtained a post as a lecturer in social science and education at the University of Bordeaux in 1887. Ten years later he helped found L'Année sociologique, soon to become the most prestigious sociological journal in France, and a focus for an influential Durkheimian school of thought. Durkheim published regularly in the journal until his relatively early death at the age of 59 from a stroke.
Despite a brilliant career as a teacher and researcher, and the publication of a series of controversial monographs which sketched out the methods and subject-matter of the new science of sociology, it was a full fifteen years before Durkheim was eventually called to a Chair in Paris. Some have suggested that, in this, he was a victim of the anti-semitism of French intellectual life. However, it is also true that his single-minded championing of sociology as the most important social science gained him many enemies in the educational establishment, and his career is littered with bitter controversies involving those who rejected his vision of sociology.
Most of his major monographs were translated into English after his death and are, remarkably, still in print even in translation. The impelling logic of The Division of Labour in Society (1893), his controversial doctoral thesis defended after his stint in lycéeteaching, was swiftly followed by The Rules of Sociological Method (1895). Durkheim here stressed that sociology as a science would be characterized by observation (rather than abstract theory), the study of social (rather than psychological) facts, and provide both functional and causal explanations. His principles were applied in the complex and multi-dimensional argument of Suicide (1897), in which he seeks to demonstrate that this apparently most personal of acts is ultimately determined by society, and that the suicide-rate is therefore a ‘social fact’. He deploys an aetiological explanation in which the effects (suicides) are evidence of the underlying social currents. His lifelong interest in morality and moral authority (evident, for example, in the depiction of mechanical and organic solidarity in his doctoral thesis) culminated almost inevitably in writings on religion. The conclusion that ‘collective’ individuals worship society, stated most forcefully in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), is an apt epitaph for his work. Other major texts on socialism, morality, and education were published posthumously.
Throughout these publications one is struck by the breadth of vision displayed by Durkheim in his remorseless search for the social and moral bases of the emerging industrial society. He continues to be reappraised by commentators from both the left and right of the political spectrum. His label as a conservative thinker has long ago been discarded-rightly so, in the light of his contributions to the theory of equality of opportunity, evident for example in his writings on education.
In a definitive biography, Steven Lukes (Émile Durkheim: His Life and Work, 1973) conveniently identifies the key concepts, dichotomies, and arguments which identify the Durkheimian heritage. Collective conscience , collective representations , and social facts were concepts which argued for the distinctiveness of sociology against other social sciences (notably psychology). These concepts were suited to the object of sociological explanation-namely, collective phenomena not reducible to the individual actor or psyche. Furthermore, the central problem for sociology was to explicate the relationship between the individual and society, recognizing that these analytical levels were distinct. The association created by individuals has its own characteristics, its own ‘facticity’, which can only be explained by social facts located at that level. His strong opposition to methodological individualism pushed him in the direction of a holism which occasionally appeared to reify society itself (a charge also levelled against subsequent functionalists who looked at society in a similarly holistic way). Other dichotomies flowed from this key coupling of individual and society. For example, in the distinction between the sacred and the profane, the former was created by the collectivity while the latter expressed the private and individual life. The former was moral whereas the latter was sensual.
Durkheim saw his task as the creation of a science of sociology, with its own subject-matter, methodology, and explanatory models. In this he continued the work of Comte and Saint-Simon . Likewise, his concern for what might be termed social engineering derived from his belief that sociology could and should intervene scientifically, when social development did not produce order sui generis. He read and absorbed the work of his near contemporaries, including Karl Marx, and this perhaps explains why his thought has variously been depicted as idealist , realist , positivist and evolutionist . In truth his intellectual and personal concerns refracted these views into a mélange of concepts peculiarly his own. Lukes's biography gives an appreciative assessment. By comparison, Raymond Aron systematically treats all of Durkheim's major works to a thoughtful but fairly savage criticism, in his Main Currents in Sociological Thought, ii (1967). See also anomie ; division of labour ; dynamic density ; fatalism ; inflation ; law, sociology of ; moral community ; organic (or biological) analogy ; religion, sociology of ; ritual ; social order ; social solidarity ; suicide ; taxonomy.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.