Emile Durkheim – Major Concepts and Works

Emile Durkheim is a French sociologist and philosopher who is considered the father of the French school of sociology.
Emile Durkheim Sociology

Early Life of Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim is a French sociologist and philosopher who is considered the father of the French school of sociology. He was very popular for his methodology that combines sociological theory and empirical research.

He was born on April 15, 1858, in a town named Epinal in northeastern France. He belonged to a religious French Jewish family with generations of rabbis, and Durkheim was also expected to become one. Though he was enrolled in a rabbinical school, he quit and decided to study religion from an agnostic point of view. A bright student like him eventually entered the prestigious École Normale Superieure in Paris.

Career

Emile Durkheim was unhappy with the French academic system because it had no social science program. After graduating in philosophy in 1882, Durkheim could not get a suitable academic appointment in Paris, so he taught at various local schools for the next five years. In 1885, Durkheim went to Germany to study sociology for two years. He published many articles on German philosophy and social science in Germany, which helped him get an appointment at the University of Bordeaux in 1887. The same year he married Louise Dreyfus, and they had two children.

At the University of Bordeaux, Durkheim introduced social science to the curriculum and contributed to reforming the French academic system.

Durkheim was appointed as the chair of education in Sorbonne, Paris, in 1902. He became one of the most popular teachers, the first sociology professor, and the founder of the first sociology journal, L’Année sociologique, in France. 

Ideological Objectives 

Emile Durkheim had three primary goals:

  1. Establishing sociology as an empirical discipline on par with the natural sciences.
  2. Analyzing how societies could maintain integrity and coherence in modern times when there are diverse individuals and groups from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. Along these lines, he wrote on the effects of religion, education, law, and similar forces on society and social integration.
  3. He was interested in the practical implications of scientific knowledge. 

Key Concepts of Emile Durkheim

Social Facts

One of Emile Durkheim’s goals was to understand how society holds itself together even though everyone has different interests. He attempted to answer this through a scientific study of social facts. He defined social facts as “manners of acting, thinking, and feeling external to the individual, which are invested with a coercive power by virtue of which they exercise control over him.” 

Durkheim believed that sociology is a systematic study of these unique facts. He also prepared a methodology for studying these social facts. 

Collective Consciousness  

Collective consciousness (also called collective conscience or conscious) refers to a set of ideas, beliefs, knowledge, and attitudes that a society or social group shares. Durkheim defined it as “the totality of beliefs and sentiments common to average citizens of the same society.” According to him, collective consciousness is a nonmaterial social fact that informs the sense of identity, belonging, and behavior. Durkheim used this concept to explain how different individuals are bound together into social groups or societies, i.e., collective units. 

Social Solidarity

Durkheim also studied how society was held together even when it comprised individuals with specialized roles and responsibilities. He analyzed this in his work The Division of Labor in Society by attributing this solidarity to an external indicator – the law. He defined two types of solidarity – mechanical and organic. 

Mechanical solidarity 

Societies with mechanical solidarity are small and not very complex. They are based on shared sentiments and responsibilities and have more religious commitment. People usually have the same jobs and roles, indicating a low division of labor.

Organic solidarity

On the other hand, societies with organic solidarity are more secular. The specialization of each task characterizes them, thus making them more individualistic; it is more complex with a higher division of labor. 

Emile Durkheim states that societies shift from mechanical to organic solidarity through the division of labor. As more and more people started moving to the cities, competition for resources increased. Some people won the competition, and they were able to keep their jobs, and the others who lost had to specialize. This kind of differentiation is a key element in the division of labor, which creates various interdependencies among people and some important elements of organic solidarity, such as weaker collective conscience. 

Anomie

Durkheim asserted that societies with organic solidarity created social solidarity not by similarities but through interdependence. He argued that this solidarity could be abnormal, causing anomie. Durkheim did not define this term clearly, but we can define it as a feeling of disconnection from society’s moral rules and norms. When there is anomie in a society, there is less moral regulation to counteract the individualism that accompanies the complex division of labor. A society that encourages individualism runs the risk of getting into a state of normlessness. 

Social Cohesion

According to Emile Durkheim, social cohesion can be defined as a characteristic of a society that demonstrates the interdependence among individuals. It is the level of solidarity and connectedness among groups in a society. This social process reduces inequality and socioeconomic disparities in society and attempts to consolidate the plurality of citizenship. 

Social cohesion has two dimensions – the relationships between members of a community and the sense of belonging to a community. 

Durkheim states that in a socially cohesive society, there is a lack of social conflicts, such as those related to race, ethnicity, wealth, etc. There is also an existence of strong social bonds, such as impartial law enforcement, responsive democracy, civic society, etc.

Functionalism

When there is a disruption in the order of a system, society needs to adjust to achieve a state of equilibrium. Durkheim states that a society should be examined and described in terms of functions. Every society has interrelated parts, and no one part can function without the other; if one part changes, it affects the whole society. 

For instance, the government provides free education to children. The families of the children pay taxes that are used for education. These children become law-abiding, working individuals who, in return, pay taxes to the government. However, if there is a disruption in this system, such as poor education quality, the children drop out of school and become criminals. In this case, the system will adjust by improving education and rehabilitating criminals, like using jails, to help them become law-abiding citizens.

Durkheim saw crime and delinquent behavior as normal and important for the functioning of a social system. The crime led to shared reactions from society, which are then used to arrive at a common consensus regarding moral and ethical norms. These common values and norms created rules and boundaries for everyone in society.

Sacred and Profane

Durkheim discussed religion in terms of separating the sacred from the profane. The sacred is the collective representation that transcends the routine of everyday life and is set apart from society. Everything else comes under profane – the humdrum of every day, like jobs and commuting. Religion marks and maintains a distance between these two realms. One example is rituals; they reaffirm the meaning of the sacred by acknowledging that it is separate. 

Major Works of Emile Durkheim

In 1886, Emile Durkheim completed his dissertation in Germany, which became one of his most influential works – The Division of Labour in Society. This book, published in 1893, defined the concept of ‘anomie’ – breaking down the effect of social norms on individuals in a society. 

He published his second major book, The Rules of Sociological Method, in 1895, which stated what sociology is and how it is expected to be practiced. Durkheim established sociology as a positivist social science through this work and argued that social sciences should be treated with the same scientific method as the natural sciences. 

In 1897, he published another popular work, Suicide: A Study in Sociology. This study was a case study on the suicide rates in Protestants and Catholics. Durkheim argued that since social control was stronger among Catholics, they had a lower rate of suicides. 

In 1912, Emile Durkheim published The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, another popular book that examines religion as a social phenomenon.

The Division of Labour in Society

This work was one of Durkheim’s most influential works that pushed sociological thought and theories. In this book, he describes how societies maintained social order based on social solidarity, discussed earlier, and the shift from primitive to advanced industrial societies. 

Durkheim argued that social order is maintained in a primitive society with mechanical solidarity and a shared collective conscience. He said that in such a society, crime would be considered an act that “offends strong and defined states of the collective conscience,” even though Durkheim saw crime as a normal social fact. In such societies, social ties are standardized and weak, so the law becomes stricter when responding to offenses of the common conscience. 

In an industrial, capitalist society, the complex division of labor leads to people in the society being allocated according to merit, causing social inequality. In such a society, moral as well as economic regulation is needed, according to Durkheim, to maintain order. Law is less penal here – it restores instead of punishes. He said transitioning from primitive to advanced could lead to crisis, anomie, or major societal disorder. Still, once it has reached the advanced stage, the society emerges much stronger. He saw these problems in transition as pathological phenomena in modern society.

Suicide

This book is a case study of suicide; it exemplifies what sociological monographs should look like. It was the first methodological study of a social fact in the context of a society.  

Emile Durkheim believed that there are varying degrees of imbalance in two social forces – moral regulation and social integration – that result in four different kinds of suicide:

Egoistic suicide

Prolonged sense of not belonging leads to this suicide. Durkheim asserted that this is caused by not being integrated into society; he called this detachment’ excessive individuation.’ He found that suicide was more common in unmarried people, particularly men, who were not sufficiently bound to social groups that would connect them to stable social goals and norms.

Altruistic suicide

When an individual is overwhelmed by a society’s goals and beliefs, it leads to this kind of suicide. In such a society, there is a high level of integration, and individual needs are given less importance than society’s needs. An example of such suicide is a person in military service who dies for the country/society.

Anomic suicide

It is caused by an individual’s lack of social direction and moral confusion, which is connected to dramatic social and economic upheaval. According to Durkheim, people are not sure about where they fit in their society; there is a state of moral disorder where people are disappointed because they do not know the limits of their wishes. It happens when there is an extreme change in wealth, like economic depression or winning a lottery.

Fatalistic suicide

Fatalistic happens when there is an extreme discipline in a person’s life – where there is excessive regulation, futures are blocked, and passions choked. Such suicide occurs in oppressive societies. For example, prisoners might prefer to die than stay in prison. 

Politics and Later years of Emile Durkheim

Like Weber and Marx, Durkheim was also active in politics. A staunch supporter of social justice, and a Jew, Durkheim actively supported the overturn of the conviction of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish colonel wrongly accused of being a German spy. He also criticized the rise of French nationalism at the beginning of World War I. What deeply affected him was the death of his son André, who was killed in the war in 1915. Durkheim never fully recovered from this event, and he died from a stroke two years later, on November 15, 1917, in Paris. 

 

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