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Émile Durkheim

(1858 – 1917)

Émile Durkheim was a French sociologist. Born in Epinal (Lorraine), France, of a long line of rabbinical ancestors, Durkheim initially prepared himself for the rabbinate. Although he never wrote directly on a Jewish topic, the interest in law, ethnology, and the ethical implications of social relations, which were aroused by his early training, stayed with him throughout his life. To be a sociologist always meant for him, essentially, to be a moral philosopher as well as a scientist of moral behavior; and although he became a free thinker early in life he remained conscious of his rabbinical heritage. Durkheim studied in Paris, where he was a pupil of the philosophers Emile Boutroux and Jules Monod and of the historian Fustel de Coulanges. He was also influenced by the French neo-Kantian Charles Renouvier and by his fellow students Lévy-Bruhl, *Bergson, and Jaurès.

Durkheim is a towering figure in the history of *sociology. The first chair in social science in Europe was established for him at the University of Bordeaux in 1887. In 1902 he became professor of sociology and education at the Sorbonne; a separate department of sociology, under his chairmanship, was established in 1913. Durkheim was a founder and editor in chief of L'Année Sociologique, which was published from 1898 until the beginning of World War I. Durkheim attempts to demonstrate that it is possible to trace regularities of behavior in human action regardless of the subjective motives of individuals. The physical, biological, and psychological factors operative in the social life of man must be taken into account. Yet, as soon as attention is focused on the interpersonal relationships characterizing group life, the special nature of "social facts" becomes apparent: group products, such as art, morals, and institutions are in the mind of the individual, and yet entities apart from him. These group products are irreducible facts which must be studied in their own right. Society's "collective representations" have an objective existence outside the individuals and, at the same time, exercise a constraining power over them. Even conceptual knowledge may be said to consist of collective representations having their roots in society.

The best exemplification of the fruitfulness of Durkheim's approach is his concept of social solidarity, as employed in his studies on the division of labor, religion, morality, conscience, and suicide. Because society, at the same time, is above man and penetrates man, it is ultimately the only thing that has the power to inspire awe and reverence in individuals and to submit them to rules of conduct, to privations, and to the kind of sacrifice without which society would be impossible. But society, on which the individual is absolutely dependent, is not sufficiently concrete to be an object of direct reverential submission. Instead, the individual experiences his dependence indirectly, by focusing his attention on everything essential to the maintenance of society: its principal norms, values, institutions, its sacred symbols. Especially, the notion of divine authority is a sublimation of society. Thus religion springs not from the nature of individual man, but from the nature of society. According to Durkheim, the effect of beliefs and acts with respect to essential norms and symbols is to create a more effective society. Similarly, suicide is not a function of race, climate, religious doctrine, and economic conditions, however close the correlations between any of these facts and the phenomenon of suicide itself may be. The clue, says Durkheim, lies in crucial social facts, that is, the breakdown of social solidarity and the ensuing normlessness, or "anomie." Groups with little social cohesion tend to have higher suicide rates than those providing strong psychic support to their members in the various crises of life.

Durkheim stresses the concept of "collective consciousness" (or "conscience"). Durkheim initially explained social control mainly in terms of external constraints. In his later work, however, he stressed the internalization of culture, the fact that social norms are "society living in us." On his conception of education he places no less heavy a burden. Through education, he holds, society implants general social values and discipline in the individual. "Discipline," he writes, "has its justification in itself." Yet, the nature of the discipline is not wholly a matter of indifference. It depends not only on society in general, but on the particular society in question. Not every society values the kind of individualism and democratic pluralism which Durkheim espoused in his personal and political thought.

Durkheim's early work, De la division du travail social (1893), still shows traces of evolutionary thought; but his opposition to the utilitarianism of the economists is clearly marked there. In his subsequent works, especially in Les règles de la méthode sociologique (1895; The Rules of Sociological Method, 1950) and in Le suicide: étude de sociologie (1897; Suicide, 1951), as well as in numerous scholarly papers published chiefly in L'Année Sociologique, he increasingly emphasized scientific method and the combination of empirical research with sociological theory. His major work, cast largely in the language of functionalism, is Les formes elémentaires de la vie religieuse: le système totémique en Australie (1912; The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, 1965). Other treatises with a strongly historical and philosophical bent are Education et sociologie (1922; Education and Sociology, 1956), Sociologie et philosophie (1929), L'éducation morale (1925), Le socialisme: sa définition, ses débuts, la doctrine Saint Simonienne (1928; Socialism and Saint-Simon, 1958), L'évolution pédagogique en France (1938), and Montesquieu et Rousseau; précurseurs de la sociologie (1953).


Analyses of Durkheim's approach to sociology abound. The most influential of these are contained in G. Gurvich, Essais de sociologie (1936), and in T. Parsons, Structure of Social Action (1937). Among book-length evaluations the best known are C.E. Gehlke, Emile Durkheim's Contributions to Sociological Theory (1915); P. Faconnet, The Durkheim School in France (1927); R. Lacombe, La Méthode sociologique de Durkheim (1926); E. Conze, Zur Bibliographie der Durkheim Schule (1927); and H. Alpert, Emile Durkheim and His Sociology (1939). A complete bibliography is found in K. Wolff (ed.), Emile Durkheim, 1858–1917 (1960).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.