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Emile Durkheim

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David Emile Durkheim

Sociological Theory

Rosanna Ashley

May 1, 2008

I. Biography

David Emile Durkheim was one of the founders of sociology. He was born April 15, 1858 at Epinal in the Eastern French province of Lorraine. He was the fourth child and second son of Moise and Melanie Durkheim. His family was Ashkenazic Jewish, and his father was a rabbi. It was said that young Emile would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a rabbi as well. (Ashley, 2005)

However at the young age of thirteen, he took up with a Catholic woman teacher, who influenced him. He decided to move to Paris and study Catholicism. This was a short-lived experience for young Emile, as he realized that he preferred to study religion from an agnostic standpoint, as opposed to being indoctrinated. Emile still remained close to his family and the Jewish family. (Coser, 1971)

Durkheim was a bright student. He attended College d’ Epinal and was awarded several honors and recognitions. Afterwards he transferred to a French high school, The Lycee Louis-le-Grand in Paris. While attending he prepared himself for exams that later would open doors to the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure, a traditional training ground for the Elite persons of France. It took Durkheim three times to pass the entrance exam (his third attempt was his successful one in 1879). He was a wonderful, hardworking student and he met and made friends with many people who later became political figures of the Third Republic. His friends gave him a nickname while attending Ecole Normale. The called him “the metaphysician”. (coser, 1971)

Emile was a very dissatisfied with the school. He felt that the school made far too many concessions to the spirit of dilehanism and tended to reward elegant dabbling and the quest for novelty and originality of expression rather than solid and systematic learning. Although he maintained many close friends, his professors repaid him for his apparent dissatisfaction and graduated him at the bottom of his class in 1882. (coser, 1971)

Shortly after graduation, he wanted to devote himself to a guidance of the affairs of contemporary society. More so, he wished to make a contribution to the political consolidation of the Third Republic, which in those days was still a fragile and embattled structure. This is when he decided to dedicate himself to the scientific study of society. He decided to construct a scientific sociological system. (coser, 1971)

At this time sociology was not a subject taught at the colleges or universities. From 1882 to 1887 he taught philosophy at numerous colleges and universities. While teaching he took a leave of absence to study in Germany. He spent most of his time in Berlin and Leipzig studying moral philosophy and social sciences. He greatly approved of the efforts of various German social scientists and philosophers. They stressed the notion of moral duty and sought to make ethics an independent and positive discipline. (coser, 1971)

Durkheim was recognized at age twenty – nine as a promising figure in social sciences and in social philosophy. In 1887 he was appointed to the staff at the University of Bordeaux. A social science course was created for Durkheim at this university. He was attached to the department of philosophy where he was charged with courses in both sociology and pedagogy. Education was a privileged, applied field where sociology could make its most important contribution to the regeneration of society for which he aimed so passionately. (coser, 1971)

Just as Durkheim began a career at Bordeaux, he married the former Louise Dreyfus. They had two children, Andre and Marie. Louise was a devoted and loving wife. She followed the traditional Jewish family lifestyles. She took care of her family as well as helping her husband with secretarial duties and proofreading his work. (coser, 1971)

Durkheim had produced many articles and reviews, as well as books before his death in 1915. Teonnies’ Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft and the openings of some of his lectures were published as articles. In 1893 he defended his French doctoral thesis, The Division of Labor and his Latin thesis on Montesquieu. Two years later he produced The Rules of Sociological Method and two more years later he wrote Le Suicide. These became Durkheim’s three major works, and moved him into the forefront of the academic world. (coser, 1971)

In 1898 he founded a scholarly journal called L’Anne Sociologique. He also published a famous paper on Individual and Collective Representations and a series of seminal papers. These include: “The Determination of Moral Facts”, “Value Judgments and Judgments of Reality”, “Primitive Classification”, and “The Definition of Religious Phenomena”. (coser, 1971)

Nine years after joining the faculty at the University of Bordeaux, he was promoted to a full time professor in social science, the first position in France; he became the chairman of the department for six years. In 1902 he was called to the Sorbonne, First as a charge de cours, then in 1906 as a professor of education. (coser, 1971)

The last few years at Bordeaux, he had become interested in the study of religious phenomena; he turned to the study of primitive religion. This point in his life led to the publication in 1912 of his last major work, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Shortly after his fourth and final work him felt obliged when the war came. He became the secretary of the committee for the Publication of Studies and Documents on the war. (coser, 1971)

Just before Christmas in 1915, Durkheim was notified that his son Andre died in a Bulgarian Hospital from war wounds. Durkheim never recovered from the death of his son, and two years later in November he died of pneumonia at age fifty-nine, but not before he began working on another project, a treatise on ethics. (coser, 1971)

II. Influences

Durkheim was influenced by many people along his journey in life. One of those people was Herbert Spencer. He was one of the first men to explain the existence and quality of different parts of a society by reference to what function they served in keeping the society healthy and balanced a position that would later become known as functionalism. (

Another influence of Durkheim’s was Max Weber. He focused not on what motivates the actions of individual people, but on the study of social facts. (

Fustel de Coulanges, the author of Ancient City, who became a teacher of a school while Emile attended. Later Durkheim dedicated his Latin thesis to Fustel and also dedicated his French thesis to another gentleman. Emile Boutroux was another professor that Durkheim had and he dedicated The Division of Labor to him. Durkheim admired Coulanges and learned from him, the use of critical and rigorous methods in historical research. To Boutroux he owed an approach to the philosophy of science that stressed the basic dicounterinties between different levels of phenomena and emphasized the novel aspects that emerged as one moved from one analysis to another. (zeitlin, 1968)

While staying in Paris, he spent time in the Latter City at the famous psychological Laboratory of Wilhelm Wundt. Durkheim was impressed and in his reports on German experiences he talked about what he learned at Wundt’s that he never could have learned elsewhere. (zeitlin, 1968)

Robertson Smith and the British School of Anthropology influence him to turn to the study of primitive religion. Coser, 1971)

The last influence was Auguste Comte’. Comte’ placed sociology as a branch o philosophy and was not interested in the social world in his religion to humanity. He also influenced him to do a positive constructive philosophy to counteract the negative critical philosophy of the socialist. (zeitlin, 1968)

Durkheim thought the Spencerian approach to the social realm maintained that society cannot be derived from the propensity of individuals to trade or bartered in order to maximize their own happiness. As for Comte’ he did not follow his attempt to institute a new humanitarian cult. Comte’ along with Saint Simon, was eager to give moral unity to a disintegrating society. (Zeitlin, 1968)

Durkheim clearly established the functional approach to the study of social phenomena. Although Spencer and Comte’ played a part, Durkheim set a clear distinction between historical and functional types of inquiry, and between functional consequences and individual motivations. (Coser, 1971)

III. Major Concepts

Durkheim had many major concepts during his life span. Social facts, social norms (anomie), Mechanical and Organic solidarity, as well as Collective Conscience are some of his concepts. (coser, 1971)

Social facts, as Durkheim defined, are social structures and cultural norms and values that are external to and coercive of, actors. Observation and experimentation was the determining factors to social facts. Durkheim described material and nonmaterial facts. Material facts are directly observable and nonmaterial are moral forces. Durkheim believed their interaction will obey laws on their own. (coser, 1971)

Social norms, otherwise known as anomie, defined as regulating behavior. This state comes from all forms of deviant behavior, most commonly known as suicide. (coser, 1971)

Mechanical and Organic solidarity was another set of concepts Durkheim had. Mechanical Solidarity is where individual differences are minimized and the members of society are much alike in their devotion to common will. Organic solidarity faces tasks and responsibilities together and develops out differences, rather than the likeliness between individuals. (Coser, 1971)

The last major concept Emile had was collective conscience. His definition is individual consciousness norms are strong and behavior is well and regulated. There are four dimensions of collective conscience. Volume is the number of people enveloped by the collective conscience; Intensity is how deeply the individual feels about it. Rigidity is how clearly it is defined, and content is the form that the collective conscience takes in society. (coser, 1971)

IV. GENERAL Theoretical Orientation

Durkheim primarily was concerned with how societies could maintain integrity and coherence in the modern era. Durkheim sought to create the first scientific approaches to social phenomena. Spencer original thoughts, with Durkheim’s sociological advancements created what is known today as functionalism. (

In 1983 while Durkheim had been working on his Division of Labor thesis he examined how social order was different in traditional societies vs. modern societies. He said that traditional societies were mechanical and were held together by the fact that everyone was more or less the same, and they had things in common. He also stated that in traditional societies the collective consciousness subsumes individual consciousness—norms are strong and behavior is well regulated. (

In modern societies he said that the highly complex division of labor resulted in organic solidarity. People were more dependent on one another, and people could not feel all their own needs by themselves. He says that the rapid change in society due to the division of labor causes a state of confusion; this state is referred to as anomie. (

Later when he produced suicide, he developed the concept of anomie. In his book he talked about the different suicide rates among different religions. His conclusion was that people had certain attachments to their groups, he called this social integration. High or low integration may result in increasingly high suicide rates, causing people to turn on themselves and commit suicide. His theory on suicide convinced he proponents of the control theory. (

He was very interested in education, because he was a teacher himself, and enjoyed teaching others. He was interested in the way education could be used to provide citizens the background that would be necessary to prevent anomie in modern societies. (

Durkheim is remembered for his work on primitive people in books such as his essay on primitive classification and the Elementary forms of religious life. These works examine the role that religion and mythology have in shaping the worlds view and personality of people in mechanical societies. (

Bibliography Emile Durkheim. Retrieved March 11, 2008,

Ashley, David, and David M. Orenstein. Sociological Theory (Classical Statements). 6th ed. Pearson Education, Inc, 2005.

Coser, Lewis A. Masters of Sociological Thought Ideas in Historical and Social Context. New York at Stoney Brook: Harcourt Brace Jevanovich, Inc, 1971.

Zeitlin, N. M. (1968). Idealoghy and the Development of Sociological Theory In (N. J. Smelser, Ed.). Englewood cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Inc.

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