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Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Emile Durkheim


Émile Durkheim (1858–1916) was the founder of theoretically grounded empirical sociology in France. He acknowledged the opacity of the social world and identified the ways in which an excessive reliance on experience tended to lead to a misrepresentation of its nature. He developed his own unique form of “scientific rationalism” in order to discover and clearly present its inherent properties, modes of existence, and forms of organization.


Durkheim was born in a small town in Alsace-Lorraine, in a family of modest means; his mother supplemented their family income with her embroidery shop. His father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were rabbis, but Émile decided while still a schoolboy that this was not to be his vocation. After attending his local school, he went to Paris to study and at his third attempt, gained admittance to the École Normale Supérieure. While he found the style of education there too humanistic and literary, he gained immensely from working with the historian Fustel de Coulanges and with the neo-Kantian philosopher Émile Boutroux. At that time, and indeed subsequently, he was also strongly influenced by Charles Renouvier, another neo-Kantian philosopher. In 1885, he visited Germany for a year, and then on his return, he taught philosophy for a short time in the Lycée de Troyes. In 1887, Durkheim was appointed to a post as chargé de cours of social science and pedagogy at the Faculty of Letters at Bordeaux, where he stayed for 15 years. In 1902, he returned to Paris and was appointed as chargé de cours in the Science of Education at the Sorbonne. While he was made a Professor of Education in 1906, it was only in 1913 that he was given the title of Professor of Education and Sociology.

METHODOLOGICAL ISSUES: The study of Social facts

Durkheim was a positivist. In his work on The Rules of Sociological Method ([1895] 1982), the French sociologist Durkheim defined social facts as ways of acting, thinking, and feeling that were external to individuals and exercised a constraint over them. Although the concept of social facts is closely identified with Durkheim, it is also relevant to the understanding of
any type of social theory that treats society as an objective reality apart from its individual members. In general, it can
be distinguished from theoretical paradigms that place a greater emphasis on social action or individual definitions of reality.

According to Durkheim, social facts are general to the whole society and have a distinctively collective character. They constitute the distinctive subject matter of sociology. They are often embodied in social institutions, such as religions, kinship structures, or legal codes. These institutions are the primary focus of sociology as a science. Durkheim stated that the sociologist should treat such social facts as things. The sociologist must study these social facts as realities in their own right, with their own objective laws of organization, apart from the representation of these facts in the individual’s consciousness. In
Durkheim’s view, if society does not exist as a distinct level of reality, then sociology has no subject matter. The social
and the psychological are distinguished as different and independent levels of analysis. For Durkheim and his followers,
this meant examining both the social substratum, or distribution of groups in space, as well as the collective representations
or collective psychology shared by most members of society.


Consider social facts as things

. . . . Social phenomena must be considered in themselves, detached from the conscious beings who form their own mental representations of them. They must be studied from the outside, as external things, because it is in this guise that they present themselves to us. . . .

At the moment when a new order of phenomena become the object of a science, they are already represented in the mind, not only through definite images, but also by some sort of crudely formed concepts. Before the first rudiments of physics and chemistry were known, men already had notions about physical and chemical phenomena which went beyond pure perception; such notions, for example, can be found intermingled with all religions. This is because reflection comes before science, which uses it more methodically. Man cannot live among things without developing ideas about them, according to which he regulates his behaviour. But, because these notions are closer to us and more within our grasp than the realities to which they correspond, we naturally tend to substitute them for the realities and even make them the subject of our speculation. Instead of observing, describing and comparing things, we are content to consider our ideas, and to analyse and compare them. Instead of creating a science concerned with realities, we merely carry out an ideological analysis. Certainly this analysis does not
Readings from emile durkheim 50 necessarily exclude all observation. One can appeal to the facts in order to confirm these
notions or the conclusions that are drawn. But the facts intervene only secondarily, as examples or confirmatory proofs: they are not the object of the science, which proceeds from ideas to things, not from things to ideas.[…]

All preconceptions must be systematically avoided.

Any scientific investigation is concerned with a specific group of phenomena that fall under the same definition. The first step of the sociologist must therefore be to define the things he is dealing with, so that we know, and he knows, what his subject matter is. This is the first and most necessary condition of any proof and verification; a theory can only be checked if one can recognize the facts of which it provides an account. Furthermore, since this initial definition determines the precise subject matter of science, whether or Readings from emile durkheim not this subject matter is a thing will depend on the way in which the definition is formulated.
In order to be objective, the definition must clearly express the phenomena as a function, not of an idea of the mind, but of their inherent properties.[…]


The subject matter of research should never be anything other than a group of phenomena that have previously been defined according to certain external characteristics, and all phenomena which fit this definition must be included.

But sense experiences can easily be subjective. Hence it is a rule in the natural sciences to discard sense data that are too subjectively dependent on the observer, retaining only those that present a suffi-cient degree of objectivity. Thus the physicist
substitutes for the vague impressions of temperature or electricity the visual representations of the thermometer or the voltmeter. The sociologist must take the same precautions.[…] In principle, one might say that social facts are more likely to be
objectively represented the more completely separated they are from their individual manifestations.[…]

We can then formulate the three following rules:

1 A social fact is normal for a given social type, viewed at a given phase of its development, when it occurs in the average society of that species, considered at the corresponding phase of its evolution.
2 The results of the preceding method can be verified by demonstrating that the general character of the phenomenon is related to the general conditions of collective life in the social type under consideration.
3 This verification is necessary when this fact relates to a social species which has not yet gone through its complete evolution.

Durkheim also distinguished between the normal and the pathological within the sphere of social facts. Phenomena such as crime and suicide are normal for a society if they correspond to its type of social organization and level of development. For example, crime is normal in a society that also prizes individual innovation, and no progress would be possible without the actions of those great criminals who represent in their individual person the new cultural tendencies and provide a focus for new outlets for emerging currents of public opinion.


Durkheim's purpose inTheDivisionofLabor inSociety (1893, translated1984) was to show that the increasingrate of occupational specialization in Western societies is a social fact which can be explained, both causally and functionally, by followingthe principles just described. Beginningwith the functional explanation, Durkheimpointedout that, whilewe like thosewho resemble us, we arealsodrawn toward thosewhoaredifferent. But ifdifference is thusasmucha source ofmutual attraction as likeness, only certain kinds of differences attract, i.e. wherewe seek in otherswhat we lack in ourselves. Associations are formed wherever there is such a true exchange of services ± in short, wherever there is a division of labor. Durkheimthus argued that the economic services rendered by the division of labor are trivial by comparison with its moral effect. The true function of the division of labor is that feelingof solidarity in two or more persons which it creates, renderingpossible societies which, without it, would not exist.

To determine the extent towhichmodern societies depend upon this kind of solidarity, Durkheimclassified different types of lawaccordingto the sanctions associatedwiththem: repressive sanctions (characteristicof criminal law) consist of some loss or sufferinginflicted on the agent; restitutive sanctions (characteristic of civil, commercial, procedural, administrative, and constitutional law) consist only of ``the re-establishment of troubled relations to their normal state'' (Durkheim, 1984, p. 69). Durkheim was thus able to define two types of solidarity. The first was mechanical solidarity, that type of solidarity characterized by the repressive sanctions imposed upon crimes. Since all crimes have one element in common ± i.e. they shock sentiments which, ``for a given social system, are found in all healthy consciences'' ± Durkheim was led directly to his important concept of the conscience collective: ``the totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average citizens of the same society'' (Durkheim, 1984, p. 79).Durkheimendowed the conscience collectivewithquite distinctive characteristics: it forms a determinate systemwith its own life; it is ``diffuse'' in each society and lacks a ``specific organ''; it is independent of the particular conditions in which individuals find themselves; it is the same in different locations, classes, and occupations; it connects successive generations rather than changing from one to another; and it is different from individual consciences, despite the fact that it can be realized only through them.

Durkheim thus introduced an idea which would assume increasingimportance in his laterwork ± the duality of human nature. Briefly, in each of us there are two consciences: one containingstates personal to each of us, representing and constitutingour individual personality; the other containingstates common toall, representingsociety, andwithoutwhichsocietywouldnot exist.Whenour conduct is determined by the first, we act out of self-interest; but when it is determined by the second, we act morally, in the interest of society. Thus the individual, by virtue of his resemblance to other individuals, is linked to the social order. This ismechanical solidarity, which, aswe have seen, ismanifested through repressive law; and the greater the number of repressive laws, the greater the number of social relations regulated by this type of solidarity. The nature of restitutive sanctions, however, indicates that there is adifferent type of social solidaritywhichcorresponds tocivil law; for the restitutive sanction is not punitive, vengeful, or expiatory at all, but consists only of a return of things to their previous, normal state. This is the type of solidarity that Durkheim called organic, i.e.wheremechanical solidaritypresumes that individuals resemble one another, organic solidarity presumes their difference; again, where mechanical solidarity is possible only in so far as the individual personality is submerged in the collectivity, organic solidarity becomes possible only in so far as each individual has a sphere of action peculiar to him. For organic solidarity to emerge, therefore, the conscience collective must leave untouched a part of the individual conscience, so that special functions, which the conscience collective itself cannot tolerate, may be established there; and themore this region of the individual conscience is extended, the stronger is thecohesionwhichresults from this particular kind of solidarity. Durkheim thus postulated two distinct types of social solidarity (mechanical and organic), each with its distinctive form of juridical rules (repressive and restitutive). Todetermine their relative importance in any given societal type, he simply compared the respective extent of the twokinds of rules. The preponderance of repressive rules over their restitutive counterparts, for example, should be just as great as the preponderance of the conscience collective over the division of labor; inversely, in so far as the individual personality and the specialization of tasks is developed, the relative proportion of the two types of lawought tobe reversed.On thebasisof these comparisons,Durkheimwas then able to argue that primitive societies are held together primarily by the conscience collective, while more advanced societies enjoy that type of solidarity associatedwith the division of labor.


Durkheim defined ``suicide'' as any death which is the immediate or eventual result of a positive or negative act accomplished by the victim himself, when the victim knows that death will be the result of his act (regardless ofwhether or not death is his goal). This definitionwas subject to two immediate objections. The first was that such foreknowledge is a matter of degree, varying considerably from one person or situation to another. At what point, for example, does the death of a professional daredevil or that of amanneglectful of hishealthcease to be an ``accident'' and start to become ``suicide''? But for Durkheim, to ask this questionwas less to raise anobjection tohis definition than to correctly identify its greatest advantage: that it indicates the place of suicidewithinmoral life as a whole. Suicides, accordingtoDurkheim, do not constitute a wholly distinctive group of ``monstrous phenomena'' unrelated to other forms of behavior; on the contrary, they are related to other acts, both courageous and imprudent, by an unbroken series of intermediate cases. Suicides, in short, are simply an exaggerated form of common practices.

Durkheimacknowledged that there were two kinds of extrasocial causes sufficiently general to have a possible effect on the social suicide rate: individual psychological factors (race, heredity, insanity, neurasthenia, alcoholism, etc.) which, varying from country to country, might explain variations in the suicide rates for those societies; and those aspects of the external physical environment (climate, temperature, etc.) which might have the same effect. When neither psychology nor the environment seemed to explain much of the social suicide rate, Durkheimturned to ``states of the various social environments'' ± religious confessions, familial and political society, occupational groups, etc. across which the variations in suicide rates occurred, and within which their causes might be found.

The four types of suicide and related social facts

low Egoistic suicide


high Altruistic Suicide

low Anomic suicide


high Fatalistic suicide


Durkheim's primary purpose in The Elementary Forms was to describe and explain the most primitive religion known toman, not for its own sake, but in order to better understand ``the religious nature of man'' (Durkheim, 1915, p. 13). As he had in Suicide, Durkheim began The Elementary Forms with the problemofdefininghis subjectmatter, includingarejectionof earlier attempts to
define religion as a belief in the ``mysterious,'' ``unknowable,'' ``supernatural,'' ``spiritual beings,'' etc.The difficulty with all suchattempts,Durkheimobserved, is that these ideas are frequently absent not only in primitive religions, but even in their more advanced counterparts. Emphasizingthat religion is less an indivisiblewhole thana complex systemof parts, and that magic though similar to religion in certain respects ± lacks a ``church,'' Durkheim arrived at his own definition: ``A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden±beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them'' (Durkheim, 1915, p. 62).

Durkheimthus considered totemism± theworship of animals and plants as the most elementary form of religion. The members of totemic clans consider themselves bound together by a special kindof kinship, basednot onblood, but on the mere fact that they share the same name. This name is taken from a determined species ofmaterial objects (an animal, less frequently a plant, and in
rare cases an inanimate object) with which the clan members are assumed to enjoy the same relations of kinship. But this ``totem'' is not simply a name; it is also anemblem,which is carved, engraved, or drawnuponother objects belonging to the clan, and evenupon the bodies of the clanmembers themselves. These designs seemtorenderotherwise commonobjects ``sacred,'' and their inscription upon the bodies of clanmembers indicates the approach of themost important religious ceremonies. Since the same religious sentiments aroused by these designs are aroused by the members of the totemic species themselves, clan members are forbidden to kill or eat the totemic animal or plant except at certain mystical feasts, and the violation of this interdiction is assumed to produce death instantaneously.


Further reading:

Emirbayer, M. (2003). Emile Durkheim: sociologist of modernity. Oxford: blackwell publishers

Thompson, K. (Ed.) (2004). Readings from Emile Durkheim. London: routledge

A brief class on Durkheim, bi-lingual, meant for my college students


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