Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) was born in the northeastern French town of Épinal. He came from a long line of French Jews, though he would only go to rabbinical school for a few years before denouncing religion. Always a gifted student, Durkheim entered the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in 1879, studying the classics and reading early social theorists like Herbert Spencer and Auguste Comte, who pushed early on for more scientific approaches to understanding social behavior. Disappointed with the French academic system, which had no social science curriculum, Durkheim taught philosophy in France before moving to Germany and completing his dissertation in 1886. Durkheim’s dissertation later became The Division of Labor in Society, forever setting a high benchmark for sociology graduate students after him. In 1887, he married Louise Dreyfus, with whom he had two children.
Always productive, Durkheim published some of the most influential works in classical sociology at a fast clip, including Division of Labor in Society in 1892, Rules of Sociological Method in 1895, and Suicide, his most famous work, in 1897. In 1902, he was appointed to a faculty position at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he would remain as an influential teacher and scholar. In addition to becoming France’s first sociology professor, he would also go on to found its first sociology journal. It is no wonder he is often cited as the father of sociology.
Like Weber and Marx, he was also active in politics, oftentimes finding himself in the minority as a socialist sympathizer. As a Jew and a staunch supporter of social justice, Durkheim was active in the effort to overturn the conviction of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish colonel wrongly accused of acting as a German spy. He was also critical of the rise of French nationalism at the onset of World War I, though his spirit wasn’t truly crushed until the death of his son André, who was killed in battle in 1915. It was a tragic event from which Durkheim never fully recovered. He died from a stroke in 1917, leaving behind not just a legacy but also an entire discipline.
Many of us never realize the amount of control and constraint that society places on us. Yet, those of us who have taken a sociology class or two are aware of our own social locations, and being cognizant of it can be jarring. Durkheim gives us a framework for making sense of the stability of life and the layers of integration, control, and regulation that maintain it. Whereas Marx had an eye for conflict and disruption, Durkheim asks us to think of social solidarity and stability as something special to be explained, not as a default or taken-for-granted experience. For example, in the Rules of Sociological Method, Durkheim shows how crime is actually normal in society because without it, we would have no sense of what is morally acceptable. Durkheim’s theories remain central to a number of sociological subfields, including the sociologies of religion, criminology, law and deviance, culture, and more.
Unlike Marx, Durkheim was heavily invested in making sociology an empirical discipline on par with the natural sciences. More specifically, Durkheim wanted to know: how does society hold itself together despite the fact we all have different interests? Durkheim hoped to answer this question through the scientific study of what he called “social facts.” According to Durkheim, social facts are “manners of acting, thinking, and feeling external to the individual, which are invested with a coercive power by virtue of which they exercise control over him.” For Durkheim, sociology is the systematic study of these peculiar types of facts. Durkheim also proposed a methodology or set of rules for studying these social facts, which you can learn more about by reading The Rules of the Sociological Method in the Social Theory Re-Wired print reader.
Durkheim was primarily interested in what holds society together when it is made up of people with specialized roles and responsibilities. In The Division of Labor in Society, Durkheim provides an answer by turning to an external indicator of solidarity—the law—to uncover two types of social solidarity, mechanical solidarity and organic solidarity. Societies with mechanical solidarity tend to be small with a high degree of religious commitment, and people in a mechanical society oftentimes have the same jobs and responsibilities, thus indicating a low division of labor. In other words, it is not a very complex society, but rather one based on shared sentiments and responsibilities. Societies characterized by organic solidarity, on the other hand, are more secular and individualistic due to the specialization of each of our tasks. Put simply, organic solidarity is more complex with a higher division of labor.
Durkheim argues that societies move from mechanical to organic solidarity through the division of labor. As people began to move into cities and physical density mounted, competition for resources began to grow. Like in any competition, some people won and got to keep their jobs, whereas others lost and were forced to specialize. We now know this form of differentiation to be a key element in the division of labor. As a consequence, the division of labor generated all sorts of interdependencies between people, as well as key elements of organic solidarity, like a weaker collective conscience.
Following the discussion above, Durkheim argued that societies characterized by organic solidarity generated social solidarity not through sameness, but through interdependence. However, Durkheim also stated that this solidarity is precarious and can be abnormal, producing anomie as a consequence. Although Durkheim does not give a clear definition of anomie, it can loosely be defined as a feeling of disconnection from the moral norms and rules of a society. Under a state of anomie, there is not enough moral regulation in a society to counteract the individualism associated with a complex division of labor. In other words, a society that celebrates individualism runs the risk of forgetting to tell individuals what they can and cannot do. We can also think of it as a state of normlessness. (For more on anomie, see the Interactive Reading for Suicide.)
For Durkheim, religion is about the separation of the sacred from the profane. The sacred refers to those collective representations that are set apart from society, or that which transcends the humdrum of everyday life. The profane, on the other hand, is everything else, all those mundane things like our jobs, our bills, and our rush hour commute. Religion is the practice of marking off and maintaining distance between these two realms. Rituals, for example, reaffirm the meaning of the sacred by acknowledging its separateness, such as when religious devotees pray to a particular statue or symbol. You can read more about Durkheim’s theory of religion by reading The Elementary Forms of Religious Life in the Social Theory Re-Wired reader.
Durkheim’s life and thought continues to attract the attention of many of today’s most prominent social theorists. See, for example,
Steven Lukes’ book on Durkheim’s life and work:
or Mustafa Emirbayer’s take on Durkheim as a preeminent theorist of modernity:
or Jeffrey Alexander’s book on Durkheim’s relevance for cultural studies: