Authors: Émile Durkheim

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

French sociologist and theoretician

Author Works


De la division du travail social, 1893 (The Division of Labor in Society, 1933)

Les Règles de la méthode sociologique, 1895 (The Rules of Sociological Method, 1938)

Le Suicide: Étude de sociologie, 1897 (Suicide: A Study in Sociology, 1951)

“De quelques formes primitives de classification: Contribution à l’étude des représentations collectives,” 1903 (“On Several Primitive Forms of Classification: Contribution to the Study of Collective Representations in Primitive Classification,” 1963)

Les Formes élémentaires de la vie réligieuse: Le Système totémique en Australie, 1912 (The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, 1915)

Éducation et sociologie, 1922 (Education and Sociology, 1956)

Sociologie et philosophie, 1924 (Sociology and Philosophy, 1953)

L’Éducation morale, 1925 (Moral Education, 1961)

Le Socialisme, 1928 (Socialism and Saint-Simon, 1958)

L’Evolution pédagogique en France, 1938 (The Evolution of Educational Thought, 1977)

Leçons de sociologie, 1950 (Professional Ethics and Civic Morals, 1957)

Durkheim on Religion, 1975

Lettres à Marcel Mauss, 1998


Émile Durkheim (door-kehm), who was born in 1858 in Épinal, a mountain town in eastern France, shares with his predecessor and fellow countryman Auguste Comte an internationally recognized reputation as cofounder of the modern field of sociology. Moreover, in the broader social scientific field, his name has traditionally ranked alongside those of Karl Marx and Max Weber.{$I[AN]9810001227}{$I[A]Durkheim, Émile}{$I[geo]FRANCE;Durkheim, Émile}{$I[tim]1858;Durkheim, Émile}

Émile Durkheim

(Library of Congress)

He was the son of Moise Durkheim, who was rabbi of Épinal and chief rabbi of the départements of the Haute Marne and the Vosges. Despite the family’s hope that their son would continue a long tradition of rabbinical service, the young Durkheim left the local rabbinical school and began studies at the public Collège d’Épinal. He was an outstanding student, earning two baccalauréats (in letters in 1874 and in sciences in 1875). Restraints were imposed by his father’s bad health, however, and Durkheim was kept from progressing directly to the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris. After failing the entrance exams twice, he was finally admitted in 1879.

The experience of studying at the École Normale Supérieure allowed Durkheim intellectual interaction with several fellow students who would make their names in science, literature, and politics (Henri-Louis Bergson and Jean Jaurès among them). One of the main personal developments to come out of these years was Durkheim’s total rejection of his own Jewish background specifically and of religion as an influential factor in social evolution generally. Eventually he went much further than his mentors, who themselves taught that preconceived ideas were “the most common evil” of modern society. Durkheim would criticize one of his teachers, Fustel de Coulanges, for studying religion as a primary determinant of social organization. Durkheim’s nascent conception of what social scientific method should incorporate called for the opposite: explaining subjective phenomena such as religion in the light of observable elements of social organization.

As Durkheim emerged into his own following his studies at the École Normale Supérieure, he continued to acknowledge his debt to the great thinkers who had served as his mentors or as an inspiration for his first original work, especially Auguste Comte’s “school” of positivism. (The positivists held that one should cease to be concerned with the problem of some form of “inner being” in things and base all searches for knowledge on the observation of objective phenomena.) Already when he began teaching as a lycée instructor in the Paris region, however, and certainly when he received his first university post in Bordeaux (1887-1902), it was clear that Durkheim intended to forge his own path. In The Division of Labor in Society, for example, he established a thesis (simplified greatly here) that would not only characterize his work in sociology but also link him to emergent approaches to the field of anthropology. Durkheim held that, with increasing complexity in social organization and diversification of formal institutions comes a decreasing reliance on religion to provide bonds of social solidarity and a source of moral unity. This observation concerning religion fit within the broader sociological worldview that Durkheim attached to many of the subjects he taught. In these he would focus on the idea of “function,” which, in the broadest definition, means that any subject, be it in the domain of belief or action (punishments for penal offense, for example) needs to be studied in terms of the “social need” it satisfies.

Durkheim’s second most famous work, Suicide, explored the effects, on the individual, of deviations from the logical course that increasing division of labor and social differentiation should follow. For Durkheim, these effects could be classified into three social patterns, or levels, each with a corresponding pattern of development in the individual: altruistic, egoistic, and anomic. His subject, suicide, was associated with a lack of bonding between the individual and the social milieu in which he or she lives. Negative feelings of lost identity and alienation (Durkheim’s “anomie”) were–if not in Suicide, certainly in his other works relating to the sociology of education–held up for comparison with what might be called the positive by-product of changing social structure in the rapidly industrializing world of his time: individuation as a process and individualism as a value. Just as Durkheim had insisted that religious beliefs, or values, were best understood in terms of the social bases upon which they stood, his concepts of individualism as a value would be tied in the larger corpus of his work to successful emergence of the individual who remains part of society’s bonding matrix without sacrificing originality in his or her identity. Conflict, which was clearly a necessary focus for all Durkheim’s studies of sociology, was seen by Durkheim to be the product of disequilibrium between individual identity and needs and social identity and needs. Anomie was one such product. The deprivation of the increasingly discontented working classes to which Durkheim’s former schoolmate and founder of the French United Socialist Party, Jean Jaurès, spoke, was another.

Thus, Émile Durkheim’s contribution to world literature was, both in his own age and for many decades to follow, to be associated not only with the specific social scientific discipline of sociology but also with the connections between his work and the major questions of modern social, economic, and political existence.

BibliographyAllen, N. J., W. S. F. Pickering, and W. Watts Miller, eds. On Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life. New York: Routledge, 1998. An examination of Durkheim’s social and political thought.Fenton, Steve, et al. Durkheim and Modern Sociology. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1984. Examines Durkheim’s influence on modern sociology in various areas, including the division of labor, social conflict and deviance, state authority, education, and religion.Giddens, Anthony. Émile Durkheim. New York: Viking Press, 1979. A concise and informative introduction to the life and writings of Durkheim.Lehmann, Jennifer M. Durkheim and Women. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994. Discusses Durkheim’s viewpoints of women and their role in social conditions.Lukes, Steven. Émile Durkheim: His Life and Work. New York: Harper & Row, 1973. One of the leading authorities of Durkheim’s thought presents the reader with an account of his life and influence.Nielsen, Donald A. Three Faces of God: Society, Religion, and the Categories of Totality in the Philosophy of Émile Durkheim. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999. A very readable presentation of the influences in Durkheim’s thought.Pearce, Frank. The Radical Durkheim. London: Unwin Hyman, 1989. A radical stance on Durkheim, this text is exemplary of the various ways in which he can be interpreted.Schmaus, Warren. Durkheim’s Philosophy of Science and the Sociology of Knowledge: Creating an Intellectual Niche. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Through a revolutionary interpretation of Durkheim’s major works, Schmaus argues that Durkheim, in his empirical observations, demonstrated how a philosophy of science can bring about a new science.Walford, Geoffrey, and W. S. F. Pickering, eds. Durkheim and the Modern Education. New York: Routledge, 1998. A selection of revised papers highlighting Durkheim’s views on education.Watts, William Miller. Durkheim, Morals, and Modernity. Buffalo, N.Y.: McGill-Queens University Press, 1996. Examines Durkheim’s ethics, arguing that a failure to understand them has led to a misunderstanding of his sociology of the modern world.
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