Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) , a French sociologist and anthropologist, is often credited with having established sociology as a distinct science. Much of his work is meant to explain how sociology is unique within academia and thus must be recognized as its own academic discipline. Consequently, he paved the way for sociologists and anthropologists of the 20th century. His major works include Division of Labor in Society, The Rules of the Sociological Method, On the Normality of Crime, Suicide, and Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Durkheim holds a special place in the historical development of social thought. Furthermore, he viewed human values from a temporal perspective; his investigations viewed the development of societies, institutions, and human beings over the course of time.
Durkheim was born in Lorraine, France, into a devoutly Jewish family; his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had all been rabbis. Emile’s outlook, however, was essentially secular; he was interested in studying religions objectively and thus never affiliated himself with any formal religion.
As a child, Durkheim was a bright and diligent student. He was awarded numerous prizes and distinctions. He earned his baccalaureates in letters (1874) and sciences (1875) at the College d’Epinal, as well as high distinction in the Concours General. This facilitated his acceptance to the Lycee Louis-le-Grand in Paris. However, he was not content with having been accepted there and he studied fervently to be eventually accepted, after three tries, to the Ecole Normale Superieure, one of France’s most elite schools.
At Ecole Normale Superieure, Durkheim studied alongside other scholars who would attain fame, such as Jean Jaures, Pierre Janet, and Henri Bergson, and he often discussed with them the Republican cause, of which he was a strong proponent. Durkheim admired Leon Gambetta, one of the founders of the French Third Republic, and Jules Ferry, who introduced the anticlerical reforms that made education mandatory, free, and secular throughout France. It was also in college that he read Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer. Thus, he was exposed to the fathers of social science even though no such discipline was recognized by academia at the time. He majored in philosophy but was bored by the humanities that his college required him to study and therefore graduated second to last in his class.
Despite his apparent underachievement in college, he was not dissuaded from pursuing knowledge throughout the rest of his life. His own interest in education centered on teaching methods, which had long been literary but which he felt needed to be scientific, and it was this issue that drove him. He traveled to Germany, where social science was more accepted, and studied there for a year.
Durkheim received his first employment in 1887 in Bordeaux, teaching pedagogy and social science, which was still quite new and not fully legitimated within French academia. The social science part of the appointment had been tailored to fit his new ideas, and thus, sociology became part of the French academic curriculum.
Durkheim introduced several important concepts to the vocabulary of sociology. For one, he differentiated between two ideal types of society: the mechanical and the organic. Mechanical societies were small, simple, and traditional societies in which labor was not differentiated and in which norms were well regulated by collective consciousness and repressive corporal punishments. Organic societies were larger, more complex societies in which labor was differentiated and punishments for deviant behavior were aimed at rehabilitation. Durkheim also introduced the concept of anomie, which describes a lack of clear norms, leading to deviant behaviors within society. Also worth noting, Durkheim was one of the first to rigorously study and speculate upon the human phenomenon of suicide; he described anomie as the primary cause of one type of suicide (thus named anomic suicide), the three other types being egoistic, altruistic, and fatalistic, each with its own set of properties. Furthermore, he developed the religiosociological concept of collective effervescence, by which he theorized that humankind’s belief in God emerges from wonder at society.
Perhaps most importantly for the future of sociology, however, he rigorously advocated an empirical method applied to sociology so as to differentiate sociology from the other sciences. Consequently, he introduced the concept of a “social fact” to justify the new science, a concept he said denoted the existence of some institution in society that was not dependent upon particular individuals for its continued existence.
Durkheim’s thought, descended from that of the Enlightenment, helped to shape a new understanding of time and history. He made a point throughout his work of describing history as a process resulting from an intermingling of factors. He helped to further establish within Western society the scientific way of understanding time as a chain of cause and effect. For instance, Durkheim connected religious with social phenomena, suggesting that religious beliefs and practices, by influencing the way humans behave, also shape time. Social facts, in the form of large institutions such as religions or states, which span generations and exist independently of individuals, come to influence and shape not only individual lives but also the way time is viewed by human societies as a whole.
See also Bergson, Henri; Comte, Auguste; Evolution, Social; Spencer, Herbert; Values and Time
Alexander, J. C., & Smith, P. (2005). The Cambridge companion to Durkheim. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Baum, G. (1980). Sociology and human destiny: Essays on sociology, religion, and Society. New York: Seabury Press.
LaCapra, D. (1972). Emile Durkheim: Sociologist and philosopher. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Lukes, S. (1972). Emile Durkheim: His life and work, a historical and critical study. New York: Harper & Row.
Nisbet, R. A. (1974). The sociology of Emile Durkheim. New York: Oxford University Press.
Nisbet, R. A. (1965). Emile Durkheim. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Pickering, W. S. F. (2002). Durkheim today. New York: Berghahn Books.