Skip to main content
Select Source:

Durkheim, Émile

Durkheim, Émile



Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) may be called one of the two principal founders of the modern phase of sociological theory, the other being his somewhat younger contemporary Max Weber. In his four major works, starting with The Division of Labor in Society of 1893 and ending with The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life of 1912, and in a large number of articles, monographs, and carefully worked out courses of lectures (several of which have been published posthumously), Durkheim established a broad framework for the analysis of social systems that has remained central to sociology and a number of related disciplines, particularly anthropology, ever since. Even those who basically disagree with it take it as a major point of reference. This frame of analysis underwent substantial development in the course of Durkheim’s own career, but it focused continually on the nature of the social system and the relation of that system to the personality of the individual.

Durkheim was born in the town of Épinal in the Vosges, not far from Strasbourg. He was of Jewish parentage, and some of his forebears were rabbis. Indeed he was expected to be a rabbi himself until he became an agnostic. He attended the famous École Norm ale Supérieure in Paris, together with such luminaries as Henri Bergson, Jean Jaurès, and Pierre Janet. His primary focus was on philosophy, but he already had the strong concern with political and social applications that he retained throughout his life. He was too rebellious to rank high among the agrégés of his year, and his first academic appointments were as teacher of philosophy in several provincial lycées.

In 1885–1886 Durkheim took a year’s leave of absence to study in Germany, where he was particularly impressed by the work of the psychologist Wilhelm Wundt. A professorship of sociology (combined with education), the first in France, was created for him in 1887 at Bordeaux, and he remained there until, in 1902, he realized the ambition of all French academics: he was called to a professorship in sociology and education at the Sorbonne in Paris. There he gathered round himself a distinguished group of younger men, including Henri Berr, Marcel Granet, Franücois Simiand, Maurice Halbwachs, and, not least, his own nephew, Marcel Mauss. In the most intimate relationship to his own work, Durkheim founded and edited the very important journal, L’année sociologique. On two significant occasions he became very much involved in political affairs: during the Dreyfus case and during World War I. And over a considerable period he was actively concerned with applied sociology, most notably perhaps in the field of education.

The first three of Durkheim’s four books, the Division of Labor, the Rules of Sociological Method, and Suicide, were all published during his Bordeaux period, in 1893, 1895, and 1897 respectively. Then there was an interval of 15 years before the Elementary Forms (1912) appeared. After the move to Paris, Durkheim was deeply involved both with his teaching and with the group discussions and activities centering on L’année sociologique. It is clear, however, that his thought was developing very rapidly and continuously during this period: witness such fundamentally important articles as “The Determination of Moral Facts” (1906) and “Primitive Classification” (Durkheim & Mauss 1903). The great book on religion, then, was the ripe harvest of a long process of intensive cultivation.

There is evidence that the war was a very great blow and strain to Durkheim. Not only was the cost to France high indeed: Peyre tells us (1960) that over half the class that entered the École Normale in 1913 was killed before the war ended; but Durkheim also lost his only son in 1916. These strains may well have helped to cause his own death from a heart attack, on November 15, 1917, at the age of 59.

Intellectual background. Despite some controversy about the influence of his stay in Germany, the evidence shows that Durkheim’s thought was rooted overwhelmingly in French intellectual history. In the remoter background, Descartes and Rousseau were the most important, although in quite different ways. Much closer to him were Saint-Simon, Auguste Comte, and his own teacher, Fustel de Coulanges, as well as such others as Émile Boutroux.

Durkheim’s deep concern with the prominent contemporary intellectual currents of other countries, especially England and Germany, was authentically French: it is no disparagement of the originality of French thought on problems of man and society to say that it filled a mediating position between the two wings of the main European trends of thought, British empiricism and utilitarianism and German idealism. In a crucial sense, modern sociology is a product of the synthesis of elements that have figured most prominently in these two traditions, and it seems to have been the mediating character of his French background that gave Durkheim a distinctive “place to stand,” from which he contributed so effectively to this synthesis. Hence a brief sketch of both “wings” will help in the understanding of Durkheim’s own orientation and statement of problems (see also Parsons 1937; 1965).

As both these traditions developed, perhaps the crucial problem was what happened as the Cartesian approach to the problem of knowledge was adapted to the analysis of action. The British position is clearest in the economic branch of utilitarian thought, although it dates from the earliest utilitarian formulation by Hobbes: man is conceived as having not only “sensations” or “ideas,” in the epistemological sense of Locke, but also what the economists called “wants” (and what Hobbes, speaking in a political context, went so far as to call “passions”). The wants define the goals of action, whereas knowledge of the situation in which action takes place provides guidance for the instrumental use of resources (including the individual’s own capacities) toward the satisfaction of these wants. Mere knowledge of the situation clearly does not suffice to satisfy wants; the situation must be changed in desired ways and prevented from changing in undesirable ways. Throughout, the point of reference is the conception of an individual acting in pursuit of his own “interests.”

This frame of reference provided the background for a most important development in the analysis of action, namely, a first technical analysis of the structuring of social means for the satisfaction of wants. The economists, by considering how a plurality of individuals, as producers and consumers, interact in the division of labor and exchange, ingeniously extended Hobbes’s formulation—of men interdependent in their interest in “power”—to a conception of social systems of action coordinated by the market and the monetary mechanism rather than of action by discrete individuals. As far as it went in classical economics, this conceptual venture was brilliantly successful; but its exceedingly limited scope gradually became evident in two borderline contexts.

One concerned the analysis of the bases of action of the individual. The inadequacy of classical economics here lay not only in its tendency to assume “wants” as given but also in its lack of a clear-cut way of establishing relationships among the different wants of a single individual, to say nothing of the different wants of several persons interacting in the same social system. Without concepts to establish these relationships, the treatment of wants as given easily shaded over into the assumption of their randomness. Likewise, shaky assumptions were made with respect to the problem of “rationality,” that is, of the relation between means and wants conceived as ends. In this context, the empiricist-utilitarian tradition tended to a reductionism that is still very much with us: it moves from consideration of the characteristics of the social system (in the economic case, a market system) to the consideration of the properties of constituent units (i.e., individuals rationally engaged in want-satisfaction), then to the wants, next to the psychological determinants of the wants, and eventually to their biological conditions.

The second problematic context bordering on classical economic analysis concerned what we now call the problem of order. How could the relational structure of a market economy be expected to have even a minimum level of stability when the individual participants were in the first instance bound to that structure only by “self-interest,” i.e., by their interest in the effective satisfaction of their several wants? Hobbes had presented a radical solution to this problem—the establishment of an absolute sovereign authority—in Leviathan, but, as Halévy made clear (Halevy 1901–1904), Hobbes’s influence was pushed aside by that of the Lockean wing of the utilitarian tradition, which assumed a “natural identity of interests.” The Lockean tradition did not really attempt to solve the problem of order but instead tried to justify the refusal to consider it. Although the Lockean approach facilitated certain valuable developments in economic analysis and in some forms of political analysis, it failed to provide that solution to the problem of order which was needed before a generalized interpretation of modern “economic individualism” could be developed. A notable version of the problem, which greatly influenced Ricardo and indirectly influenced Marx, was advanced by Malthus, but it remained for Durkheim to make a fundamental direct attack on the problem. In terms of substantive sociology, this is the main starting point of his more technical theory.

Before taking this up, however, a few words must be said about the other current of thought converging on the French “middle ground,” namely German idealism and the movements stemming from it.

The problems that social science must explain, in Durkheim’s view, lie on the subjective side of the Cartesian dichotomy, since the entire main tradition of epistemology, of which Descartes’s work was the focal point, virtually limited the external world to the world of objects as understood in terms of the new physical science. (It was, of course, possible—witness biologically based psychology and anthropology—to move into social science from the base of the object world, but this path was relatively unimportant to Durkheim.) Whereas the empiricist utilitarians had used this “subjective” element merely as a reference point for the study of behavior, failing conspicuously to structure it on its own terms, the idealists increasingly focused upon it and tended to treat it as a category of objects. In this respect Kant’s philosophy seems to have been transitional, while the Hegelian “objective spirit” (objektiver Geist) is the focal idealistic conception relevant here. This conception of Geist was primarily cultural, somewhat in the tradition of Platonic Ideas. As such it was transindividual, on quite a different level from the discrete wants of utilitarianism.

The Hegelian conception underwent various changes, only two aspects of which require mention here. One was the abandonment of the grandiose Hegelian Weltgeist in favor of the more restricted “spirits” of what many late nineteenth-century German scholars called discrete “historical individuals,” such as particular cultures or civilizations in particular epochs. This modification was perhaps most consistently expounded by Wilhelm Dilthey. The other was that developed by Marx. As the one who “set Hegel on his head,” Marx was ostensibly a materialist rather than an idealist. Nevertheless, his materialism belongs to the idealist tradition in that it treats human culture and motivated action as objects, and it tends to be “historical” in the special sense of handling “history” as a series of ideographic exemptions from treatment in terms of generalized analytical categories.

Durkheim accepted the crucial Cartesian statement of the problem of knowledge in terms of the relation between the knowing subject and the known world of external objects. In his initial orientation he was a Cartesian “rationalist,” in the sense that he approached the sociological problem as a problem of knowing “social facts” in terms of their place in the object world. However, as he shifted from the problem of knowledge to that of action, he became concurrently concerned with social facts as both the social scientist and the actor in society, as subjects, know them. The problem of the relation between the two references was the core problem of Durkheim’s scheme. Thus, although basically Cartesian, this scheme could not be developed without going beyond a Cartesian position in several respects.

Rousseau, as the primary philosopher of “democratic individualism” in his time, influenced Durkheim by his special point of view about the characteristics of social phenomena. While Rousseau shared the frame of reference of natural law and natural rights that was so prominent in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (and which, in important respects, came to France from England through Locke), he handled the problem of the social integration of those “born free” into a society without invoking the predominantly coercive sovereign of Hobbes or assuming the natural identity of interests, as did Locke. Rather, he postulated a resolution of interests at the level of integrative action processes in terms of the concept of “will.” More than any other, Rousseau’s famous concept of the volonté générate provided a conception of social solidarity that was neither economic in the sense of classical economics nor political in the sense of Hobbes or Austin. It was not a given “identity” of interests, but one achieved and institutionalized in the course of social process. Comte’s concept of “consensus,” which stood more immediately in Durkheim’s background and was explicitly defined as sociological, was transitional between Rousseau’s “general will” and Durkheim’s conception of solidarity, which lay at the core of his sociology.

The problem of order. Durkheim’s initial orientation to the study of society was twofold. The substantive aspect was developed in the Division of Labor and concerned the problem of order in a type of system we might call economic individualism. The methodological frame of reference was developed more fully in the Rules of Sociological Method, published two years later.

The critical starting point of the Division of Labor is its discussion of Herbert Spencer’s conception of a system of contractual relations (Division of Labor, book I, chapter 7). Durkheim clearly understood that order in a concrete system of contractual relations—in which the market figured prominently—could not be accounted for in the terms set forth by Spencer, whom Durkheim treated as a representative utilitarian. Unless controlled by other factors, a society dominated by the pure pursuit of self-interest would dissolve into a Hobbesian state of nature, a complete breakdown of order. The other factor or set of factors Durkheim formulated in two different ways, and on different levels. Closest to Spencer’s analysis was the conception of the “non-contractual elements of contract,” the important idea that contracts, i.e., the ad hoc agreements between parties, are always subject to generalized norms. These norms are not open to negotiation between parties; they exist prior to any such agreements, having evolved over time. In more comprehensive systems, these rules or norms are part of the formal law and are enforced by the legal sanctions of public authority. Their subject matter is the definition of the interests for which contracts may be entered into (for example, a man may not contract away his basic civil rights), the means by which such interests may legitimately be pursued (in general terms, coercion and fraud are excluded), and the bearing on contracts of interests other than those of the contracting parties (both the public interest and those of third private parties must be protected).

As noted, at one level the institution of contract is a prominent part of the legal system. Durkheim, however, wanted to go behind the establishment of norms by political authority to societal structures that may be said to “underlie” the mobilization of political authority for the enforcement of contracts. He introduced the concept of organic solidarity essentially to designate the capacity of a social system to integrate the diverse interests inherent in qualitative structural differentiation. Durkheim related solidarity, in turn, to a conception of its underlying ground, which he called conscience collective—translatable as either collective conscience or collective consciousness. The normative emphasis of the first translation was important to Durkheim himself: the conscience collective was a “system of beliefs and sentiments” held in common by the members of a society and defining what their mutual relations ought to be.

Clearly the conscience collective is a derivative of Rousseau’s “general will” and Comtek “consensus.” Equally clearly, it is not purely cognitive in reference. The most important step that Durkheim took beyond his predecessors, however, was to treat solidarity and with it, presumably, the conscience collective, not simply as given, but as variable entities. He made a distinction, therefore, between organic solidarity and mechanical solidarity. Organic solidarity is the analytical type characterized by the structural differentiation of the division of labor; modern society represents a case of predominantly organic solidarity. Mechanical solidarity, by contrast, is characterized by uniformity and lack of differentiation. With this distinction, Durkheim from the beginning built both historical—indeed, evolutionary—and comparative dimensions into his sociological analysis (Bellah 1959).

There is an initial difficulty in interpreting the relation between Durkheim’s two types of solidarity, on the one hand, and the concept of the conscience collective, on the other. Since the conscience collective stresses the commonness of the beliefs and sentiments that constitute it, this seems to identify it with mechanical solidarity and suggests that organic solidarity, associated as it is with differentiation in the social structure, must develop at the expense of the conscience collective. The broad solution to this difficulty, which becomes clearer in Durkheim’s later work, hinges on the functions attributed to values and norms in social systems of different degrees of differentiation. The focus of the conscience collective seems to be what we have come to call the values common to the members of any relatively well integrated social system; the sharing of common values is a constant feature of all such systems—at whatever level of differentiation. In the case of mechanical solidarity, these values are not clearly differentiated from the norms through which they are implemented, but in the organic case the norms come to have independent salience. In the relatively less differentiated social systems characterized by mechanical solidarity, common, in the sense of uniform, sentiments tend to be implemented directly in collective action, while in the case of organic solidarity the common element lies at a more general level and must be implemented in relation to different functions in the system through norms that are not identical for different sections of the collectivity.

Sociological method. The second main line of development of Durkheim’s analysis has to do with the fitting of these broad empirical considerations into what I have called his Cartesian frame of reference. The starting point is the conception of the actor as member of a social system and as oriented to the environment in which he acts. This actor, conceived on the model of the philosopher-scientist, observes and interprets the facts of the external world: the distinctive problem is not their status as facts (of the environment), but as social facts. Here Durkheim self-consciously and explicitly denied the physical environment its unique “reality.” The milieu social—for him the relevant environment—is, as part of society, a “reality sui generis,” to be studied in its own right. The central problem concerns the properties of this category of “reality.”

This problem in turn has two principal aspects. From the viewpoint of the scientific observer, this reality is clearly factual, or as we would say, empirical. But what was it from the viewpoint of the actor, in the second sense in which Durkheim was using the Cartesian scheme? A society is a given reality (it has “exteriority”) from the point of view of its own members, but it also regulates (”constrains”) their action. This it does not only in the sense in which the physical environment sets conditions that action must take into account but also by denning goals and normative standards for action. Durkheim quite early conceived of this constraint as more than a matter of given conditions; he saw it rather as a system of rules enforced by humanly imposed sanctions. In this theoretical development, Durkheim was evidently following up his previous analysis of the law (in the Division of Labor) as both an index of the structure of the society (e.g., of the nature and extent of its differentiation) and, when it is considered together with the beliefs and sentiments of the conscience collective, as a very important normative component of all societies.

There is, however, a still deeper aspect of the problem. A scientific observer of physical events is not in quite the same sense a “member” of the system he observes as is the social actor, although it is not acceptable to suggest that there is no sense in which they are similarly “members.” It was necessary, therefore, to relativize the sense in which the system that Durkheim calls society constitutes only an environment to the individual actor-members that compose it. This problem, then, came to be intertwined with that of the status of the normative aspects of a society.

The essential conclusion of Durkheim’s thinking is that for the sociologist the boundary between “individual” and “society” cannot be that of common sense. If we interpret the former concept as something like the human personality, it must include a sector of the social system, most specifically, the normative aspect of that system, the shared beliefs and sentiments that constitute the conscience collective. By this path Durkheim arrived at the crucially important view that essential elements of culture and social structure are internalized as part of the personality of the individual. In this he converged notably with Freud and with the movement in American social psychology from Charles H. Cooley to George Herbert Mead and W. I. Thomas. Durkheim’s quite revolutionary conclusion now seems to follow more or less inevitably from his premises, once he tried seriously to fit into the Cartesian frame of reference a distinctive normative level of the social system both as a “reality sui generis,” for the actor as well as for the observer, and as an environment that is much more than just an environment.

This meant a radical reinterpretation of Durk-heim’s original criteria of social facts—constraint and exteriority. The concept of social facts was developed, then, through three phases: first, exteriority, or the givenness of empirical existence, as in the case of the physical environment; second, constraint, or the effect of a normative rule to which sanctions are attached; and now, third, what Durkheim called the “moral authority” of internalized values and norms, which “constrain” the individual to conform by arousing guilt in his own conscience if he does not conform. An element of exteriority is involved in moral authority because, although internalized, the normative system must also objectively be part of a system extending beyond the individual. It is not “subjective” in the sense of being purely private to the individual, for it is also a “cultural object” in a sense relevant to the idealistic tradition.

The theoretical development at this highest level of generality—Durkheim’s decisively new conception of individuals interacting in a social system—did not fully crystallize until the early years of the present century, when Durkheim gave primary attention to the relations between moral norms and the process of education (1902–1906). Some of its roots in the more empirical emphases of the Division of Labor have already been indicated. Certainly the most notable transitional formulation of the concept of social fact is in his study of suicide. Durkheim’s sensitivity to the major problems of suicide went back to the Division of Labor and its critique of utilitarianism, more specifically the utilitarian claim that an increasing division of labor and the resultant economic progress would be accompanied by increasing “happiness.” Durkheim was struck by the fact that the economic progress of newly industrialized societies was everywhere accompanied by a rise in suicide rates. This was clearly an anomaly from the point of view of utilitarian theory and stimulated Durkheim to a major, if not complete, theoretical reconstruction in his classic monograph Suicide (1897).

Very advanced for its time as an empirical study, Suicide established a most important link between Durkheim’s theoretical work and the traditions of empirical research that have since become prominent, especially in the United States. Durkheim’s essential method was systematically to mobilize available statistical information on suicide rates and to relate their variations to a whole series of characteristics of the populations involved. In the nature of the case, he was limited to the modern Western world, which alone provided the kind of information he sought. With this limitation, he studied nationality, religion, age, sex, marital status, family size, place of residence, economic status, and variations in economic conditions, as well as the seasons of the year and even the times of day when suicides occurred. He showed great ingenuity and a capacity to take pains—for example, in breaking down the data published for France by departements into arrondissements, in order to reveal important variations masked in the larger units. As Bell ah points out (Bellah 1959), Durkheim brought together what information he could find from the broadest possible comparative range, even when it could not be stated quantitatively. For instance, he cited voluntary self-immolation on the part of Buddhist zealots as an example of what he called “altruistic” suicide.

Durkheim found the conventional classification of the “causes” of suicide, in terms of which the data were generally reported, quite unhelpful for his purposes. He introduced a highly original scheme of his own, built about the problem of the individual’s relations to the normative structuring of the social system in which he is involved. This scheme embodies two pairs of polar extremes, at which suicide rates are relatively high, and median continua between the poles, in which suicide rates are relatively low. The first pair of poles has altruisme and égoïsme at the extremes, the second anomie and fatalisme.

That Durkheim was no mere extoller of the virtues of solidarity (as is sometimes alleged) is shown by his conception of the first polar pair in general and of the concept of “altruistic” suicide in particular. In this type the claims of the collectivity are so strong that there is a repeated tendency to subordinate personal interests to them to the extent of sacrificing life, even when there does not appear to be a practical emergency that requires such sacrifice. Durkheim found military officers most prone to this in modern societies, but adduced numerous other examples from other societies. The antithesis of this type is “egoistic” suicide, which, for example, results in a higher rate of suicide among Protestants than among Catholics. This Durkheim explained by the social pressure inherent in Protestant norms toward a higher order of individual religious responsibility. It is a remarkable interpretation, both in itself and because it converges with the theme developed a few years later by Max Weber concerning the importance of the Protestant ethic in modern society. There is also, interestingly, an echo of Rousseau, in that Durkheim seemed to be citing an instance of the famous paradoxical formula about a man being “forced to be free,” adding that this enforced freedom may become too hard to bear.

The second pair of polar concepts that Durkheim advanced in this connection was that of anomie and fatalisme (the latter concept not being developed). Anomie has become one of the small number of truly central concepts of contemporary social science. It is best interpreted in terms of Durkheim’s Cartesian reference. The observer as actor is naturally concerned with the definiteness of the “reality” with which he is confronted. In a purely cognitive context, this is a matter of the adequacy of his information and analysis. Insofar, however, as the “reality” is man-made and, in one aspect, is normative for the actor, the problem of definiteness becomes that of “definition of the situation” in the sense established by W. I. Thomas and by reference-group theory more generally [seeReference groups].

The focus, then, is on what is expected of the actor and on the problem of the definiteness of expectations. In the case of the physical conditions of, for example, technological procedures, expectations can reasonably be defined in terms of the goals of the actors; they do not pertain to the external processes and technically defined probabilities concerning the environment itself, since it does not “act.” In a system of social interaction, on the other hand, “success” cannot simply be a function of “control” over the environment, but necessarily involves also the “sense” it makes to exert effort and, generally, to expend resources, unless the outcome to which the actor is committed is clearly desirable. The sense to ego of his goal-striving is thus a function both of alter’s action and of ego’s expectation concerning it. The meaning of success cannot be established without understanding the interplay between the motivation of the actor and the normative claims impinging upon him from his social environment. At the same time, the social environment of any given actor of reference is composed of other actors whose action must be analyzed in the same terms as the first. In this interactive framework anomie may be considered that state of a social system which makes a particular class of members consider exertion for success meaningless, not because they lack capacity or opportunity to achieve what is wanted, but because they lack a clear definition of what is desirable. It is a “pathology” not of the instrumental system but of the collective normative system.

Spelling out this concept leads to many refinements. In more contemporary terms, what is ill-defined may be ultimate beliefs, values, norms, or goals. Anomic uncertainty may affect either very generalized orientations or relatively specific goals; or the difficulties may arise from conflicting expectations, as in the classic instance of “cross-pressures.”

The two concepts of égoïsme and anomie epitomize Durkheim’s concern over the state of modern society. Because of the current preoccupation with problems of “meaning” in contemporary life, it is not surprising that anomie has attracted far more attention than égoïsme. It is my own view that the balance is in need of being redressed. Égoïsme, in Durkheim’s special sense, is a designation for one aspect of a prominent feature of modern social structure that can be called, more generally, “institutionalized individualism.” Another context in which Durkheim emphasized égoïsme was his discussion of the “cult of individual personality” (Neyer 1960). At least some aspects of the subject of “alienation” (discussed so often and with so much confusion) may also be interpreted in terms of égoïsme and altruisme. Thus, alienation appears to be the pathological extreme (anomic in certain aspects, cf. Tiryakian 1962) of institutionalized individualism at which “conformism” becomes associated with the altruistic tendencies, in Durkheim’s sense. The alienated person, then, is under such pressure to establish his independence from pressures to conform that he becomes unable to accept the essential normative conditions of a stable system of organized individual freedom.

Theory of culture. In the last major phase of his intellectual career, Durkheim dealt mainly with another set of themes that grew out of, but were distinct from, those outlined so far. These concerned religion, symbolic systems, and his somewhat new conception, “collective representations.” In short, he emphasized the theory of culture in relation to that of the social system. As early as the Preface to Volume 2 of L’année sociologique (1899), Durkheim acknowledged the strong emphasis on religion in that publication and outlined his conception of religion as the primordial “matrix,” out of which the principal elements of culture emerged by the process of differentiation. His concern with primitive religion, as well as with an articulated evolutionary perspective, was already clear in this statement. It is important for these later developments in Durkheim’s thought that the relatively new science of anthropology had arisen as a kind of mediator between utilitarianism and Darwinian biology. Anthropology became the “study of man” as part of the organic world, concerned especially with primitive societies, particularly with their magic and religion.

We have noted that Durkheim’s conception of society as a “reality sui generis” steadily changed; he placed an increasing emphasis on the normative components. While the legal norms constituted his initial prototype, he gradually focused upon more general aspects, moving toward the conception of what we would now call institutionalized values. He particularly stressed the attitude of moral respect as a component of internalized norms.

What is perhaps Durkheim’s most important single step in extending this perspective was stated as one of the primary orienting perspectives of the Elementary Forms. This was a double proposition: first, that the attitudinal distinction between treating things as sacred and as profane is basically the same as that between moral obligations and expediency or utility; and second, that the quality of sacredness does not reside in the intrinsic properties of the object treated as sacred, but in its properties as a symbol. From this it was a short step to relate sacred physical and social objects to the whole world of “cultural” objects, which, Although very close to Durkheim’s early category of beliefs and sentiments, he increasingly formulated as “representations.” We may certainly interpret them as symbolic systems, leaving open the question of the meaning references of various categories of symbols.

Durkheim was greatly impressed by the closeness of integration between the religious system of representations and the structure of the society itself, the attitude of moral respect being, as noted, the main connecting link. This integration seems particularly close in the case of primitive religion but it also exists in others. It justifies Durkheim’s emphasis on collective representations. Indeed, we can say that any symbolic system that can justifiably be called “cultural” must have a collective aspect; symbolization that is autistic—in the sense of being wholly private to one individual (the limiting case)—is no longer cultural, if indeed it can be truly symbolic. Language is perhaps the prototype here.

It seems to have been Durkheim’s view, a strongly defensible one, that the more primitive the society and the culture, the less differentiated they are from each other. He extensively analyzed the case of the Australian aborigines on the strength of this theory: the phenomena of the integration of culture and society could be seen there in their “elementary forms.” But his interest in these elementary forms does not mean that Durkheim did not have a broad understanding of the possibility and importance of differentiating conceptually between cultural and social systems, even though, as Bellah points out (Bellah 1959) he somewhat obscured this vital point by using the term “social” for both. Unfortunately, he never worked out a thorough analysis of the place of religion in a highly differentiated society—a task that might well have led him to clarify his conception of the relations between “representations” and social structure.

The problem of integration also arises internally to the system of collective representations, to culture itself. Durkheim presented the broad perspective on this problem several years before Elementary Forms in the monograph on primitive classification written in collaboration with Mauss (1903), although he developed it further in his book. His main point is that in primitive systems all culture is at the same time both religious and social, in a sense not true of more advanced systems. A particularly telling example is the categorization of physical space in terms directly corresponding to the arrangement of kinship groups in the camp.

This conception of twofold integration, between a cultural and a social system and among the different elements of a cultural system, is particularly significant for the broad problem area we now generally call the sociology of knowledge. Undoubtedly Durkheim was at least as important a founder of this discipline as was Karl Mannheim, and in many respects his views were the clearer and better analyzed.

Durkheim’s combined interest in cultural problems, religion, and evolutionary origins had a series of implications for the development of social science theory. Both the utilitarian tradition and that stemming from the French Enlightenment had tended not only to disparage traditional religion but even to deny its substantive importance. Evolutionary perspectives, however, focused attention on religion, partly because of the sheer empirical prominence of religion and magic in nonliterate societies, which were becoming increasingly well-known. The early Tylor-Spencer phase of social science tended strongly to consider these phenomena characteristic of the early stages of sociocultural evolution and destined to disappear with advancement—a position shared by Marx. Durkheim’s position established a quite new order of functional significance for religion in society. Durkheim made it clear that even at the later stages of sociocultural development, every society would require the “functional equivalent” of a religious system (whether or not it is called “religion” is primarily a semantic issue).

Beyond this, Durkheim established the groundwork for an exceedingly valuable conception of the morphology of social development—the conception of processes of structural differentiation and of attendant new, more general levels of integration. The conception of religion as the original matrix of both society and culture suggests further that society and culture themselves tend to become more completely differentiated from each other and that “secular” elements develop from this matrix on both the social and cultural levels. An important semantic point is that just because a relatively undifferentiated complex is called “religion” for an earlier stage of development and only one of its two or more differentiated derivatives retains that name for a later stage, it is not legitimate to assert that “religion has declined.” Thus, Durkheim viewed the secularization of education as an imperative of the stage of social differentiation that France had reached in his time, but he denied that this meant that the function of religion in French society had therefore been downgraded.

Durkheim’s combination of a comparative and evolutionary perspective with a special concern for cultural—symbolic systems should have been connected with a theoretical analysis of the processes of social and cultural change. Durkheim did not, to be sure, give this as much explicit attention as he did problems of social morphology, but the contributions he did make to an understanding of the process of change seem not to have been under-stood as fully as his more “static” analysis. In any case, it is clear that Durkheim provided the groundwork for a major theory of developmental change in societies and that he made important direct contributions to it himself.

His later work, in particular, tended to stress the importance of cultural creativity as a factor in change; one of the clearest statements is in his late essay “Value Judgments and Judgments of Reality” (1911), which stresses the incidence and salience of “effervescence” in periods of crisis in the development of the sociocultural system. At the same time, Durkheim was quite clearly a “multi-factor” theorist of social change.

Conclusion. Durkheim contributed substantially —and very eminently for the time in which he worked—to relatively specific empirical problems in sociology. To this day, analyses of the nature of contractual systems, of suicide rates, and of primitive religions cannot ignore his contributions. Equally, he was a highly effective entrepreneur of sociology—as teacher, as editor of a distinguished periodical, and as leader of a highly talented and creative group of research scholars.

These are not, however, the achievements that place him in the top rank among the founders of a scientific discipline. This higher eminence stems from the fact that Durkheim used the framework of solidly established intellectual traditions—those of English utilitarianism, in certain respects of German idealism, and of his own French background—to formulate a theoretical framework that was both solidly grounded in those traditions and yet highly original. As grounded in tradition, it was capable of taking full account of established knowledge; but it also went far beyond this. It was precise and clear in its logical structures and imaginative in opening up new ways of considering social phenomena, defining problems, and developing patterns of interpretation. In his special conception of the nature of “social reality,” which emphasized the involvement of normative components in both social reality and, through internalization, the personality of the individual, Durkheim was following, along with a few others, the major line of the theoretical development of social science. But he went even beyond this to link the social and personality systems thus conceived with a highly sophisticated analysis of cultural symbolic systems and to set the whole action structure in a comprehensive evolutionary framework. The resulting enrichment of the theoretical resources of the field of social science, of its insight into significant problems and its capacity to deal determinately with them, is incalculable. Only a very select few among the figures in intellectual history have contributed so crucially—at such a significant juncture—to the development of scientific culture.

Talcott Parsons

[For the historical context of Durkheim’s work, seeKnowledge, sociology of; Law, article onthe legal system; Religion; Sociology, article onthe development of sociological thought; Suicide, article onsocial aspects; Survey analysis, article onmethods of survey analysis; Utilitarianism; and the biographies ofComte; Descartes; Fustel de Coulanges; Hegel; Hobbes; Locke; Rousseau; Saint-Simon. For discussion of the subsequent development of Durkheim’s ideas, seeCommunity-society continua; Integratio; Interaction, article onsocial interaction; Punishment; Systems Analysis, article onSocial Systems; and the biographies ofGranet; Halb-Wachs; Mauss; Simiand.]


(1893) 1960 The Division of Labor in Society. Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → First published as De la division du travail social.

(1895) 1958 The Rules of Sociological Method. 8th ed. Edited by George E. G. Catlin. Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → First published in French.

(1897) 1951 Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → First published in French.

(1898–1911) 1953 Sociology and Philosophy. Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → Written between 1898–1911. First published in French in 1924.

(1899) 1960 Prefaces to L’annee sociologique: Preface to Volume 2. Pages 347–353 in Kurt H. Wolff (editor), Émile Durkheim, 1858–1917: A Collection of Essays With Translations and a Bibliography. Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press.

(1902–1906) 1961 Moral Éducation: A Study in the Theory and Application of the Sociology of Education. New York: Free Press. → Lectures first published in French.

(1903) 1963 Durkheim, Émile; and Mauss, Marcel. Primitive Classification. Translated and edited by Rodney Needham. Univ. of Chicago Press. → First published as “De quelques formes primitives de classification” in L’année sociologique.

(1906) 1953 The Determination of Moral Facts. Pages 35–62 in femile Durkheim, Sociology and Philosophy. Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → First published in French.

(1911) 1953 Value Judgments and Judgments of Reality. Pages 80–97 in fimile Durkheim, Sociology and Philosophy. Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → First published in French.

(1912) 1954 The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. London: Allen & Unwin; New York: Macmillan. → First published as Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse, le systeme totemique en Australie. A paperback edition was published in 1961 by Collier.


Alpert, Harry (1939) 1961 Émile Durkheim and His Sociology. New York: Russell.

Barnes, Harry E.; and Becker, Howard (1938) 1961 Social Thought From Lore to Science. 3d ed., rev. & enl. New York: Dover. → See especially Volume 2, Chapter 12.

Bellah, Robert N. 1959 Durkheim and History. American Sociological Review 24:447–461.

Davy, Georges 1960 Emile Durkheim. Revue francaise de sociologie 1:3–24.

Gehlke, Charles E. 1915 Émile Durkheim’s Contributions to Sociological Theory. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Gurvitch, Georges 1937 La science des faits moraux et la morale theoretique chez E. Durkheim. Archives de philosophic du droit et de sociologie juridique [1937], no. 1/2:18–44.

Gurvitch, Georges (1950) 1957–1963 La vocation actuelle de la sociologie. 2d ed., 2 vols. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. → Volume 1: Vers la sociologie differentielle. Volume 2: Antecedents et perspectives.

Halbwachs, Maurice 1918 La doctrine d’Émile Durkheim. Revue philosophique de la France et de I’etr anger 85:353–411.

HalÉvy, £Lie (1901–1904) 1952 The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism. New ed. London: Faber. → First published in French.

Hughes, Henry Stuart 1958 Consciousness and Society: The Reorientation of European Social Thought, 1890–1930. New York: Knopf.

LÉvi-Strauss, Claude 1945 French Sociology. Pages 503–537 in Georges Gurvitch and Wilbert E. Moore (editors), Twentieth Century Sociology. New York: Philosophical Library.

Malinowski, Bronislaw (1916–1941) 1948 Magic, Science and Religion, and Other Essays. Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1954 by Doubleday.

Merton, Robert K. 1934 Durkheim’s Division of Labor in Society. American Journal of Sociology 40:319–328.

Merton, Robert K. (1938) 1957 Social Structure and Anomie. Pages 131–160 in Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure. Rev. & enl. ed. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Neyer, Joseph 1960 Individualism and Socialism in Durkheim. Pages 32–76 in Kurt H. Wolff (editor), Émile Durkheim, 1858–1917: A Collection of Essays With Translations and a Bibliography. Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press.

Parsons, Talcott 1937 The Structure of Social Action. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Parsons, Talcott 1965 Unity and Diversity in the Modern Intellectual Disciplines: The Role of the Social Sciences. Daedalus 94:39–65.

Peyre, Henri 1960 Durkheim: The Man, His Time, and His Intellectual Background. Pages 3–31 in Kurt H. Wolff (editor), Émile Durkheim, 1858–1917: A Collection of Essays With Translations and a Bibliography. Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press.

Simpson, George 1933 fimile Durkheim’s Social Realism. Sociology and Social Research 18:2—11.

Sorokin, Pitirim A. 1928 Contemporary Sociological Theories. New York: Harper. → A paperback edition was published in 1964 as Contemporary Sociological Theories Through the First Quarter of the Twentieth Century.

Tiryakian, Edward A. 1962 Sociologism and Existentialism: Two Perspectives on the Individual and Society. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Wolff, Kurt H. (editor) 1960 Émile Durkheim, 1858–1917: A Collection of Essays With Translations and a Bibliography. Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1964 by Harper as Essays on Sociology and Philosophy, With Appraisals of Durkheim’s Life and Thought.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Durkheim, Émile." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Durkheim, Émile." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (December 15, 2017).

"Durkheim, Émile." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from

Durkheim, Émile

Durkheim, Émile 1858-1917


Émile Durkheim, the son of a rabbi from Eastern France, has long been recognized as a founding figure in modern sociology following his attempt to establish the subject as a respected scientific discipline in the academic world. Durkheim defined the subject matter of sociology as separate not only from that of natural sciences such as biology but also from other social sciences such as psychology and economics, which also studied the activities of the individual as a member of a group. Durkheims seminal contribution to the establishment of sociology centered upon his founding of the journal LAnnée sociologique in 1896, which addressed a whole range of issues including the economy, crime, law, and punishment. Journal entries on these and other topics allowed Durkheim to have an important influence in sociology and other social science disciplines.

Durkheim also advanced knowledge of the ideas of society, morality, and religion. One claim open to debate is that Durkheim was a social realist. This led him to challenge the assumption made by earlier Enlightenment philosophers that society was only a subjective and artificial entity because it was not part of nature. Instead, Durkheim argued that one should see society as an objective or observable reality that could be studied scientifically using empirical methods. To become scientific, sociology must study social facts. In Rules of Sociological Method (1895) Durkheim defined social facts as those emergent properties and realities of a collectivity which could not be reduced to the actions and motives of individuals, and that individuals were shaped and constrained by their external social environments. It was because social facts existed in their own right independently of individuals that Durkheim viewed society as a sui generis reality, which was subject to processes that could be understood only with reference to other social forces. Examples of social facts include language, religion, the economy, and law. These facts were real and should be studied as things. This meant that social phenomena could be known through observation which in turn made them capable of being analyzed as rigorously as objects or events in nature. Durkheims conceptualization of society was nevertheless criticized for being ambiguous. In Émile Durkheim: His Life and Work (1973) Steven Lukes noted that Durkheim used the term society in various senses to mean the association of individuals, cultural transmission, socially prescribed obligations, system of rules, symbolic representations, or a national entity such as French society. In 1894 Gabriel Tarde challenged Durkheims notion of social facts, suggesting that they could not exist in their own right independently of individuals because social phenomena were transmitted from individual to individual.

Closely linked to the idea of society was Durkheims original theory of morality. Here the obligation to act in accordance with moral rules came from society not nature, as earlier Enlightenment philosophers had supposed. Durkheim consequently saw morality as a collective social fact. Rules of moral conduct existed outside individuals and transcended personal likes and dislikes by being directed towards others in line with societys ideals and values concerning the common good. Observable laws and sanctions were imposed by society to prevent deviations from its moral rules. The scholar J. M. A. Darlu nevertheless objected, arguing in 1906 that Durkheims interpretation of morality prevented him from addressing the individuals capacity for reason and their scope for rebellion against an existing set of collectively agreed moral rules. Furthermore, other scholars often allege that Durkheims theory of moralityand indeed his sociology more generallyled him to ignore the phenomenon of social conflict. Marxist critics such as Tom Bottomore build upon this point when arguing that Durkheim placed an exaggerated emphasis on social order at the expense of paying adequate attention to social change. Anthony Giddens challenged the validity of this criticism when noting Durkheims deep concern with the turmoil affecting European societies in his own day. This concern was expressed through Durkheims conceptualization of the interests of the individual in conflict with those of society as a whole.

Durkheims understanding of society and morality were inextricably bound up with his sociological theory of religion, which advanced knowledge by challenging the ideas of traditional theology. In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), Durkheim saw religion as the source of everything social. Central to Durkheims definition of religion was the idea of the sacred. Sacred objects included symbolic things as diverse as a cross, flags, owls, or stones, all of which could be seen as extraordinary and set apart from the ordinary or profane things in everyday life. Beliefs and practices such as religious rituals also existed in relation to sacred things. Beliefs and practices generated the idea of moral community which in turn brought us back to the idea of sacred things. The sacred, beliefs and practices, and moral community, as the three basic elements of religion, were important because they bound individuals to the social group. Theological ideas about God and the supernatural were, however, missing from Durkheims definition of religion. Religion was not simply an individuals communion with God. It was above all a form of collective life, and a way for the faithful, in their relationships with the sacred, to understand their connections with one another in society.

Durkheims theory of religion has been criticized on a number of grounds. W. D. Wallis argued that religion was not essentially social and that the sociological viewpoint was only one among many. Contrary to Durkheims own view, it was necessary to include the concept of the supernatural into a definition of religion. In the 1990s critics such as Fernando Uricoechea claimed that Durkheim took the idea of the sacred for granted and did not account for its genesis or source. Stjepan Me°trović further suggested that there has been a failure in contemporary Western societies to renew shared moral values. This has led agreement about what is sacred to become splintered into a myriad of competing meanings. This last criticism nevertheless overstates the diminution of the sacred. Me°trovićs criticism, argued Jonathan Fish, was weakened through its failure to engage with Durkheims important insights on the recurrent nature of sacralizing and resacralizing tendencies as an enduring feature of social life.

Durkheims status as a founder of modern sociology was also linked up with his original theories of the division of labor, collective consciousness, and anomie in modern Western society. As societies industrialized, urbanized, and became more complex, specialized institutions concerned with government, industry, business, and education arose each with their own particular functions. A complex division of labor based on occupational specialization, diversification, and cooperation accompanied the emergence of these specialized institutions where people performed different work activities or occupational roles in society in line with their respective talents. Durkheim advanced sociological knowledge by rejecting the French philosopher Auguste Comtes earlier view of the division of labor. Instead of seeing this division as a negative force which eroded the sense of community between people, Durkheim viewed it in more positive terms as a potential source of social cohesion capable of binding individuals together through the performance of their specialized and yet interdependent work roles.

It was through the performance of these interconnected work roles that human beings could express their individuality. Individuality here referred to a persons singular capacity for thinking and acting. Individuality was part of modern societys collective consciousness. Collective consciousness referred to a body of ideas, attitudes, beliefs, and practices shared by all members of a society and which determined the relations of individuals to one another and society. A cult of the individual, which promoted the dignity and sacredness of the human person, emerged in support of this common belief in individuality. The problem in Durkheims own day was that the division of labor and shared belief in individuality were unable to establish strong social bonds between people because they were centered upon maximizing self-interest. The pursuit of selfish interests and desires also did much to produce the problem of anomie. In The Division of Labor (1893) and Suicide (1897), Durkheim referred to anomie as a situation of normlessness in which the norms or rules that regulated peoples lives did not function properly. When the norms and rules which kept peoples goals, expectations, and desires within achievable limits broke down, people began to pursue unattainable levels of pleasure and excitement which led them to feel uncertain about goals and values. The feelings of persistent unhappiness and disillusionment caused by such uncertainty also led to a rise in the suicide rate.

Durkheims conception of the social origins of morality also provided a useful backdrop for introducing moral individualism as a solution to the problem of anomie. Durkheims writings on this subject were of sociological importance because they challenged the nineteenth-century ideas of Jean-Marie Guyau who positively supported the idea of anomie, and a future society where fixed moral frameworks, norms, and rules would not exist. The concept of moral individualism, which was fully developed in Durkheims work Individualism and the Intellectuals (1898), remained the direct opposite of egoistic individualism. Whereas egoistic individualism was concerned with purely private, selfish interests, moral individualism, by contrast, stressed the importance of individual rights as a basis for creating genuinely new social bonds and common or shared identities across Western industrial societies. This transcendence of selfish interests would allow the moral ideal of individualism to attach individuals to society as never before by inspiring strong feelings of collective devotion. These feelings would in turn allow the common belief in individuality to generate strong social bonds which relieved individual uncertainties about values thereby solving the problem of anomie.

Durkheims proposed solution to anomie in the form of moral individualism also challenged the rise of orthodox or economistic forms of socialism, which attempted to solve this and other social problems in nineteenth-century Western societies by advocating a redistribution of wealth through centralized state control of the economy. Durkheim believed that these forms of socialism did not provide an adequate program for social reconstruction as the problem of anomie was neither class based nor did it have economic roots and therefore could not be solved by economic measures. The social problems facing modern society, which arose because industrialization, commercialization, and urbanization occurred too rapidly, were perceived by Durkheim as moral issues which required forms of moral authority capable of uniting individuals irrespective of their class position. Durkheims belief that socialism was primarily concerned with economic regulation has been challenged by Giddens when suggesting that this view merely forced socialist theories into a conceptual niche which he had prepared for them.

Problems in democracy were also highlighted in Durkheims writings. One major problem identified by Durkheim concerned isolated individuals who made electoral choices on purely selfish grounds rather than through informed and considered opinions about current political issues. In the 1902 preface to The Division of Labor, Durkheim argued that this problem could be overcome through the reemergence of occupational groups or associations comprised of people who performed the same specialized work roles. These small and yet diverse functional groups would be bound together through modern societys wider collective belief in individuality. Occupational groups would stand between the individual and the democratic state through their internal election of delegates to an elected chamber. Local representatives of the occupational group would then democratically elect other delegates to national government. This procedure removed the problem of unreflective and selfish patterns of voting by only requiring average citizens to vote on internal matters within their occupational experience. Durkheim believed that this two-tier electoral system would facilitate the Western democratic states reflection and effective promotion of informed opinion on the need for moral individualism in the future. Yet, as editor Robert Bellah pointed out in Émile Durkheim on Morality and Society (1973), this subordination of particular interests to the general interest has not occurred. Western society has not seen the revival of associational life that Durkheim originally hoped for.

Durkheim also addressed problems in education throughout his work. In Moral Education (1898-1899), Durkheim labeled as outdated traditional theological teachings of key elements in moral education such as the need for discipline and group attachment, following Catholicisms failure to adjust to the growth of individuality through occupational specialization in modern society. Durkheims solution to this problem was to support a purely secular education for school children based upon the principles of science and reason. Secular education was needed if the historical link between moral education and mythical, transcendent forces was to be broken and the social reality behind moral rules brought to the fore. Durkheim hoped that the secular teaching of discipline and group attachment would over time enable moral individualism, and its pursuit of a genuine type of collective self-understanding, to replace traditional religion at the center of collective consciousness in modern Western society. Durkheims belief in the ascendancy of secular education over traditional theological teachings has not, however, been realized in Western societies at the end of the twentieth-century. Ernest Wallwork noted that theologians have not only responded in a creative way to the intellectual challenges posed by sociology, they have found new ways of using traditional language to speak meaningfully of the human condition in this world. Although Durkheims prediction has not yet been realized it may be premature, argued Fish, to rule out the possibility that his secular vision might come to fruition sometime in the future.

SEE ALSO Morality; Suicide



Durkheim, Émile. [1893] 1964. The Division of Labor in Society. Trans. George Simpson. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.

Durkheim, Émile. [1895] 1938. Rules of Sociological Method. Trans. Sarah A. Solovay and John H. Mueller. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Durkheim, Émile. [1897] 1970. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Trans. John A. Spaulding and George Simpson. London: Routledge.

Durkheim, Émile. [1898] 1969. Individualism and the Intellectuals. In Émile Durkheim: Critical Assessments. Vol. 4. Trans. Steven Lukes and ed. Peter Hamilton. London: Routledge.

Durkheim, Émile. [18981899] 1961. Moral Education: A Study in the Theory and Application of the Sociology of Education. Trans. Everett K. Wilson and Herman Schnurer. New York: The Free Press.

Durkheim, Émile. [1912] 1995. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Trans. and with an Introduction by Karen E. Fields. New York: The Free Press.


Bellah, Robert. 1973. Introduction. In Émile Durkheim on Morality and Society, ed. Robert Bellah, ixlv. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bottomore, Tom. 1981. A Marxist Consideration of Durkheim. Social Forces 59 (3): 902-917.

Fish, Jonathan S. 2005. Defending the Durkheimian Tradition: Religion, Emotion and Morality. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate Publishing.

Giddens, Anthony. 1978. Durkheim. Glasgow: Fontana/Collins.

Lukes, Steven. 1973. Émile Durkheim: His Life and Work. London: Allen Lane.

Meštrović, Stjepan. 1997. Postemotional Society. London: Sage.

Uricoechea, Fernando. 1992. Durkheims Conception of the Religious Life: A Critique. Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions 37 (79): 155166.

Wallis, W. D. 1914. Durkheims View of Religion. Journal of Religious Psychology 7: 252267.

Wallwork, Ernest. 1972. Durkheim, Morality and Milieu. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jonathan S. Fish

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Durkheim, Émile." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Durkheim, Émile." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (December 15, 2017).

"Durkheim, Émile." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from

Durkheim, Émile

Durkheim, Émile

Émile Durkheim (18581917) is considered one of the most influential figures in the founding of modern sociology. Born in the eastern part of France, Durkheim descended from a long line of rabbis and trained to follow in their footsteps. As a young man, he turned away from organized religion and became an agnostic. While studying in Germany, he became convinced of the value of using scientific methods, properly modified, in the study of human behavior. Recognized as a promising scholar, Durkheim wrote several important works on the methods of sociology, the division of labor, the scientific study of religion, and how imbalances in the relations between self and society can lead to death.

One of Durkheim's most influential books is a detailed study of suicide. When it was published in 1897, Le Suicide not only changed the way in which suicide was understood, it fundamentally transformed the way sociological research was subsequently conducted. In that work, Durkheim created what became the standard structure for sociological research. On the first page of the book's introduction, he began defining the central term under discussion and proceeded to sketch out the tentative outlines of an explanation for suicide that would be informed by social science, replete with tables of suicide statistics.

In critically reviewing the existing suicide literature, which largely viewed acts of self-destruction as having physiological or psychological origins, Durkheim wondered why people from similar genetic origins did not have similar rates of suicide. Why did rates vary within one region over time? If it was related to weakness of character, why was it unrelated to levels of alcoholism? Utilizing logic and statistics, Durkheim challenged both popular and academic explanations. In doing so, he indicated that the tentative sociological approach he had begun to develop in the book's introduction offered greater explanatory power. The majority of the book lays out what became a classic sociological explanation for suicide. There are four major types, all related to group cohesion or solidarity.

Egoistic suicide, Durkheim argued, was most common among groups of individuals with few connections to social groupings of any kind. Thus, loosely bound liberal Protestant groups had higher suicide rates than Catholics and Jews, for whom regular religious participation was expected; married people committed suicide at lower rates than singles; and nations undergoing political crises experienced lower rates because competing interests and parties became tightly integrated under stress.

While egoistic suicide made sense to most readers, Durkheim's second category, that of altruistic suicide, was more controversial. Durkheim argued that certain types of suicide occurred among tightly knit groups when they came under severe threat and their members were prepared to die in the group's defense. Because suicide was widely understood as the act of sick or disturbed individuals, Durkheim's argument that soldiers who knowingly gave up their lives for their country were committing suicide appeared to diminish the valor of those actions. Durkheim delineated three types of altruistic suicide, based largely on a group's expectations that its members would undertake self-destruction in its defense.

The third type of suicide, anomic, was identified with an abrupt shift in an individual's circumstances, shifts that removed him or her from membership in what had been a well-integrated group. Durkheim showed that nations where divorce was common experienced higher suicide rates than nations where the practice was illegal. Similarly, economic crisis could lead to personal crises for individuals who once thought of themselves as important providers for their families, but when confronted with persisting unemployment found themselves evicted from their homes, their credit rejected, and prospects for improvement dim. If these individuals and their friends were accustomed to thinking of poor people as responsible for their circumstances, then they found themselves condemned by their own categories of thought. Faced with humiliation and a lack of connection with groups who might ease their self-doubts, such individuals might commit anomic suicide.

Durkheim's final category of suicide, fatalistic, is relegated to a footnote. This type of suicide occurred within tightly knit groups whose members sought, but could not attain, escape, whose "futures are pitilessly blocked and passions violently choked by oppressive discipline" (Durkheim 1951, p. 276). Prisoners of war or slaves who were bound into distinct groups dominated by other groups might commit suicide in order to escape group membership or to demonstrate control over their lives.

Suicide concludes by moving from what had been a taxonomy of suicide types toward an explanation of how social, political, and economic forces produced those types. For instance, Durkheim explored links between suicide and urbanization, developing how cities atomize individuals, producing egoistic suicides.

Sociologists admire Durkheim's book for a variety of reasons. Not only does the work present a clear understanding of what a sociological perspective was and how it differed from the perspectives offered by other emerging academic disciplines, it provides a clear and well-documented argument advocating the practical value of that discipline's perspective. Durkheim's reliance on statistics for calculating and comparing suicide rates was innovative for the time, as was his realization that the effects of some variables had to be controlled. Although he recognized problems in the comparability of data drawn from different regions or within one region in different periods, his work contributed to an emerging body of scholarship in comparative historical sociology.

Several sociological studies have been conducted in the century since Suicide 's original publication, and while some have qualified Durkheim's observations, none has seriously challenged his overall approach or conclusions. While his earlier work contains some optimism about the potentially liberating effects of industrialization and urbanization, it also reveals concerns for disruptions caused by change that occurs too rapidly. As time went on, Durkheim saw these strains become more frequent and troubling. The Dreyfus affair led him to doubt the hearts and consciences of the French citizenry, and the outbreak of World War I revealed how destructive the potentially liberating forces of industrialization can be. The war claimed the life of his only son and intellectual heir in late 1915, a blow from which Durkheim never recovered. He died in 1917, his writing having shifted from scientific objectivity to the study of ethics.

See also: Suicide Types: Theories


Coser, Lewis A. Masters of Sociological Thought. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1977.

Durkheim, Émile. Suicide. New York: Free Press, 1951.

Giddens, Anthony, ed. Émile Durkheim: Selected Writings. London: Cambridge University Press, 1972.

Lukes, Steven. Émile Durkheim, His Life and Work: A Historical and Critical Study. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1985.


Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Durkheim, Émile." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Durkheim, Émile." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. . (December 15, 2017).

"Durkheim, Émile." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from

Émile Durkheim

Émile Durkheim

The French philosopher and sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) was one of the founders of 20th-century sociology.

Emile Durkheim was born at Épinal, Lorraine, on April 15, 1858. Following a long family tradition, he began as a young man to prepare himself for the rabbinate. While still in secondary school, however, he discovered his vocation for teaching and left Épinal for Paris to prepare for theÉcole Normale, which he entered in 1879. Although Durkheim found the literary nature of instruction there a great disappointment, he was lastingly inspired by two of his teachers: the classicist Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges and the philosopher Émile Boutroux. From Fustel he learned the importance of religion in the formation of social institutions and discovered that the sacred could be studied rationally and objectively. From Boutroux he learned that atomism, the reduction of phenomena to their smallest constituent parts, was a fallacious methodological procedure and that each science must explain phenomena in terms of its own specific principles. These ideas eventually formed the philosophical foundations of Durkheim's sociological method.

From 1882 to 1885 Durkheim taught philosophy in several provincial lycées. A leave of absence in 1885-1886 allowed him to study under the psychologist Wilhelm Wundt in Germany. In 1887 he was named lecturer in education and sociology at the University of Bordeaux, a position raised to a professorship in 1896, the first professorship of sociology in France.

On his return from Germany, Durkheim had begun to prepare review articles for the Revue philosophique on current work in sociology. In 1896, realizing that the task was too much for a single person to do adequately, he founded the Année sociologique. His purpose, he announced, was to bring the social sciences together, to promote specialization within the field of sociology, and to the E make evident that sociology was a collective, not a personal, enterprise. In 1902 Durkheim was named to a professorship in sociology and education at the Sorbonne. There he remained for the rest of his career.

Achieving Consensus

The Division of Labor, Durkheim's doctoral thesis, appeared in 1893. The theme of the book was how individuals achieve the prerequisite of all social existence: consensus. Durkheim began by distinguishing two types of "solidarities," mechanical and organic. In the first, individuals differ little from each other; they harbor the same emotions, hold the same values, and believe the same religion. Society draws its coherence from this similarity. In the second, coherence is achieved by differentiation. Free individuals pursuing different functions are united by their complementary roles. For Durkheim these were both conceptual and historical distinctions. Primitive societies and European society in earlier periods were mechanical solidarities; modern European society was organic. In analyzing the nature of contractual relationships, however, Durkheim came to realize that organic solidarity could be maintained only if certain aspects of mechanical solidarity remained, only if the members of society held certain beliefs and sentiments in common. Without such collective beliefs, he argued, no contractual relationship based purely on self-interest could have any force.

Collective Beliefs

At the end of the 19th century, social theory was dominated by methodological individualism, the belief that all social phenomena should be reduced to individual psychological or biological phenomena in order to be explained. Durkheim therefore had to explain and justify his emphasis on collective beliefs, on "collective consciousness" and "collective representations." This he did theoretically in The Rules of Sociological Method (1895) and empirically in Suicide (1897). In the first, he argued that the social environment was a reality and therefore an object of study in its own right. "Sociological method," he wrote, "rests wholly on the basic principle that social facts must be studied as things; that is, as realities external to the individual." The central methodological problem was therefore the nature of these realities and their relationship to the individuals who compose society.

In Suicide Durkheim demonstrated his sociological method by applying it to a phenomenon that appeared quintessentially individual. How does society cause individuals to commit suicide? To answer this question, he analyzed statistical data on suicide rates, comparing them to religious beliefs, age, sex, marital status, and economic changes, and then sought to explain the systematic differences he had discovered. The suicide rate, he argued, depends upon the social context. More frequently than others, those who are ill-integrated into social groups and those whose individuality has disappeared in the social group will kill themselves. Likewise, when social values break down, when men find themselves without norms, in a state of "anomie" as Durkheim called it, suicide increases.

From what source do collective beliefs draw their force? In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) Durkheim argued that the binding character of the social bond, indeed the very categories of the human mind, are to be found in religion. Behind religion, however, is society itself, for religion is communal participation, and its authority is the authority of society intensified by being endowed with sacredness. It is the transcendent image of the collective consciousness.

During his lifetime Durkheim was severely criticized for claiming that social facts were irreducible, that they had a reality of their own. His ideas, however, are now accepted as the common foundations for empirical work in sociology. His concept of the collective consciousness, renamed "culture," has become part of the theoretical foundations of modern ethnography. His voice was one of the most powerful in breaking the hold of Enlightenment ideas of individualism on modern social sciences.

Durkheim died in Paris on Nov. 15, 1917.

Further Reading

Robert A. Nisbet presents a comprehensive analysis ofDurkheim's ideas in Émile Durkheim (1965). A collection of essays on various aspects of Durkheim's work appears in Kurt Wolff, ed., Émile Durkheim, 1858-1917: A Collection of Essays with Translations and a Bibliography (1960). See also Charles Elmer Gehlke, Émile Durkheim's Contribution to Sociological Theory (1915), and Harry Alpert, Émile Durkheim and His Sociology (1939). A more general study is Talcott Parsons, The Structure of Social Action: A Study in Social Theory with Special Reference to a Group of Recent European Writers (1937; 2d ed. 1964).

Additional Sources

Giddens, Anthony, Emile Durkheim, New York: Penguin Books, 1979.

Lukes, Steven, Emile Durkheim, his life and work: a historical and critical study, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1985.

Mestrovic, Stjepan Gabriel, Emile Durkheim and the reformation of sociology, Totawa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1988. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Émile Durkheim." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Émile Durkheim." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . (December 15, 2017).

"Émile Durkheim." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from

Durkheim, Émile

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 lycée teaching, 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.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Durkheim, Émile." A Dictionary of Sociology. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Durkheim, Émile." A Dictionary of Sociology. . (December 15, 2017).

"Durkheim, Émile." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from

Durkheim, Émile

Émile Durkheim (dûrk´hīm, Fr. āmēl´ dürkĕm´), 1858–1917, French sociologist. Along with Max Weber he is considered one of the chief founders of modern sociology. Educated in France and Germany, Durkheim taught social science at the Univ. of Bordeaux and the Sorbonne. His view that the methods of natural science can be applied to the study of society was influenced by the positivist philosophy of Auguste Comte. Durkheim held that the collective mind of society was the source of religion and morality and that the common values developed in society, particularly in primitive societies, are the cohesive bonds of social order. In more complex societies, he suggests, the division of labor makes for cohesiveness, but the loss of commonly held values leads to social instability and disorientation of the individual. Durkheim studied suicide to show the importance of anomie, the loss of morale that accompanies decline in social identity. To support his theories he drew extensively on anthropological and statistical materials. His important works include The Division of Labor in Society (1893, tr. 1933), The Rules of Sociological Method (1895, tr. 1938), Le Suicide (1897), and The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912, tr. 1915).

See biographies by S. Lukes (1985) and M. Fournier (2012); studies by S. Lukes (1972), R. A. Nisbet (1965 and 1974), N. Smelser (1963), and D. La Capra (1985).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Durkheim, Émile." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Durkheim, Émile." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 15, 2017).

"Durkheim, Émile." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from

Durkheim, Emile

Durkheim, Emile (1858–1917). Only rivalled by Max Weber as the father of social science. He founded the Année Sociologique, a group which made major contributions to the study of religion, ‘représentations collectives’ (collective representations), modes of thought, and forms of classification. Jewish by birth, Durkheim adopted a positivistic attitude towards religion. His classic The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912; tr. 1915) utilized Australian aboriginal material to attempt to show that religious life originates as a response to experiences of society. It is now generally taken for granted that comprehensive understanding of religions involves a social perspective. See also SACRED AND PROFANE (including his definition of religion).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Durkheim, Emile." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Durkheim, Emile." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . (December 15, 2017).

"Durkheim, Emile." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from

Durkheim, Emile

Durkheim, Emile (1858–1917) French sociologist. Influenced by the positivism of Auguste Comte, Durkheim used the methods of natural science to study human society, and is considered (along with Max Weber) a founder of sociology. In The Division of Labour in Society (1893) and the Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), Durkheim argued that religion and labour were basic organizing principles of society. The Rules of the Sociological Method (1895) set out his methodology. Suicide (1897) outlines his theory of alienation (anomie).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Durkheim, Emile." World Encyclopedia. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Durkheim, Emile." World Encyclopedia. . (December 15, 2017).

"Durkheim, Emile." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from