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Summary Article: Durkheim, Émile
from Theory in Social and Cultural Anthropology: An Encyclopedia

David Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), the French philosopher, and founder of the French school of sociology and of the journal L'Année Sociologique, made significant contributions to the anthropology of religion and developed the structural-functional approach to society.

Biography and Major Works

Durkheim was born in Éastern France, the youngest of four children. His father was a rabbi, as was his paternal grandfather. The young Emile appeared destined to follow this family tradition but had a change of heart while still a schoolboy and abandoned all religious belief by the time he left his home town of Épinal to prepare for the entrance exam to the École Normale in Paris.

By the time he passed his agrégation (the examination required one to be eligible to teach in state secondary schools), Durkheim had decided that the topic of his doctoral dissertation in philosophy would be the relations between individualism and socialism. The problem he was concerned with was the development and maintenance of social cohesion in the face of the conflicting demand of modern life toward increasing specialization and individualization. This concern with the glue that held society together was a driving issue for Durkheim and stemmed in part from the social situation of France in the 19th century, a period rife with recurrent political crises. He refined his conception of this work throughout 1884-1886, during which period he visited Germany and studied with the pioneering psychologist Wilhelm Wundt, among others. Durkheim's interest at this point was clearly directed toward the creation of a science of ethics, which was to be part of sociology.

On his return from Germany, Durkheim wrote several articles on social science in Germany, which attracted the attention of Louis Liard, the director of Higher Education at the Ministry of Public Education, and in 1887, he was appointed chargé de cours (junior lecturer) of social science and pedagogy, a post especially created for him, at the Faculty of Letters of Bordeaux. It was under this guise that sociology first entered the French university system.

Durkheim's Bordeaux period (1887-1902) was extremely productive. He completed his doctorate and published his two doctoral theses, La Division du travail social (1893; translated as The Division of Labor in Society) and a Latin dissertation on Montesquieu (1892). He further published Les Règles de la Méthode Sociologique (1895; translated as The Rules of Sociological Method), Le Suicide (1897; translated as Suicide), and articles studying specialized social phenomena including social solidarity, family and kinship, incest, totemism, suicide, crime, religion, and law. In 1898, he founded the journal L'Année Sociologique around which gathered, over time, an impressive team of collaborators, including Durkheim's nephew, Marcel Mauss, and Henri Hubert, Robert Hertz, Célestin Bouglé, and Maurice Halbwachs. This journal provided an annual survey of the field of social sciences and related fields and published a series of original monographs, allowing Durkheim and his collaborators to exercise considerable influence.

In 1887, Durkheim married Louise Dreyfus, the daughter of a successful businessman, whose family was originally from the Alsace region. According to all accounts, theirs was a happy marriage, and Durkheim's wife made possible his intense work both by removing domestic cares and by taking on administrative and editorial work on his behalf. They had two children, Marie and André.

The Division of Labor

Durkheim, wishing to establish social science on a scientific footing, argued in The Division of Labor that it was time to leave behind philosophical systems such as those of Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer and to engage in specialized studies of particular social phenomena from the point of view of their functions, asking how and to what extent they perform them. When reviewing German works of social science in the 1880s, Durkheim had praised them for their concreteness and contrasted them to the “French” tendency to deal in generalities. Durkheim shared many of the concerns of the Germans he reviewed: He also wanted to establish the reality of society, its complexity, the fact that it was a natural entity, and the possibility of its scientific study. He made free use of the organic analogy in his early works, although he sometimes emphasized that he did not advocate the identity of society and organism but simply found the analogy useful. It was fundamental, in his view, that people realize the impossibility of altering society at will, its power of constraint over the individual, and its existence apart from individuals—in short, what he called its sui generis nature. He also emphasized the determinism of social phenomena, a determinism that he believed was necessary for sociology to be a science. Durkheim believed in the methodological unity of the social and the natural sciences.

The Division of Labor argued that the real social function of the division of labor was not economic but moral. Its true function was to create the feeling of solidarity among individuals. Because the division of labor obviously increased the productive force of the worker and was thus the necessary condition for the material and intellectual development of societies, it had been assumed that this was its function. But, Durkheim argued, there was nothing obligatory in furthering the economic development of society: If that were the only result of the division of labor, it would have no moral character. Social solidarity, however, was the fabric of society itself as it ensured the cohesion of its members.

Mechanical solidarity was characteristic of simpler, “segmental” societies, where all social units operated similarly—that is, individuals held the same beliefs and performed the same actions. The individual conscience was not very differentiated; it contained the same beliefs, mores, and customs as that of other members of the society. Organic solidarity, on the other hand, was developed by the division of labor and left room for individuality—or rather, made individuality possible in society. As the “collective conscience” decreased in breadth and intensity, it was the division of labor that took over its role and kept together the higher forms of social aggregates. It thus had a moral importance that the economists and utilitarian philosophers had never realized.

Durkheim introduced here his conception of the essentially double nature of human beings: Homo duplex. Humans have two consciences, one that they share with their entire group, which, in consequence, is society living and acting within them, and the other, which, on the contrary, represents only that which is personal and distinctive to each, which makes them individuals. For Durkheim, the development of the individual personality and the division of labor are inextricably linked and not in opposition to each other. It was the division of labor, with the new kind of solidarity it created, that allowed for the emergence of individuals.

Although normally the division of labor produced solidarity, there were abnormal cases in which this did not occur. In the third part of The Division of Labor, Durkheim first introduced his influential conception of anomie, a conception he would further develop in Suicide (1897). Anomie was to be found in industrial or commercial crises and in the conflict between labor and capital. It was due to the lack of a body of rules governing the relations between social functions. The lack of rules was, in its turn, due to the absence of sufficiently frequent interactions between the members of society. The sets of rules or laws developed as a “crystallization” of social interaction when these interactions had become solidified by their repetition over time. This process was akin to that of habit formation in the individual. If for some reason, this process of repeated contact did not take place, an anomic form of the division of labor arose.

Durkheim saw social facts as forming a continuum that went from morphological, or structural, social phenomena to “free currents of social life” that were not yet solidified into any particular form. Between one end of the spectrum and the other, there was only a difference in the degree of consolidation of the phenomena, not a difference in nature. In The Division of Labor, Durkheim had given structural phenomena the most significant explanatory role. This was qualified in the Rules (1895), and in later works, structural facts would be given less importance in relation to the more fluid collective representations.

In The Division of Labor, Durkheim had explained that the collective consciousness included the judicial, governmental, scientific, industrial, and other special functions, which consisted of systems of representations. Although the notion of collective representations can be traced to Durkheim's earliest works, it only gained a central role in his sociology after Suicide (1897). Durkheim concurrently scaled down the use of the concept of collective conscience.

Rules of Sociological Method and Suicide

The methodological principles presented in the Rules of Sociological Method were, Durkheim wrote, the practical results of his sociology course at Bordeaux and were implicitly contained in The Division of Labor. The book opened with a definition of “social fact,” possibly its most controversial content. Offering definitions of the subject one wished to treat was standard practice in academic philosophy textbooks, with which it is certain Durkheim was thoroughly familiar. Thus, Durkheim was conforming to standard philosophical practice and could reasonably expect that philosophers would appreciate his logical rigor. Social facts were ways of acting, thinking, and feeling exterior to the individual and imbued with the power to impose themselves on him or her. Durkheim's point was to offer a definition that clearly set social facts apart from both organic and psychological facts, giving sociology a kind of “fact” of its own to work with, thereby guaranteeing its autonomy from other sciences.

The first and most fundamental methodological rule that Durkheim advanced was to consider social facts as things. He criticized various predecessors in sociology (Auguste Comte, John Stuart Mill, and Herbert Spencer) for having dealt with concepts rather than with objective realities. What made social facts “things” was that they were the data of sociology. A thing, he specified, was anything that offers itself to observation. This rule derived directly from one of the characteristics of social facts as defined by Durkheim: their “exteriority” to the individual. These rules were controversial even at the time Durkheim proposed them. They are sometimes seen as establishing Durkheim's social realism. It is certainly true that Durkheim always held that society was a part of nature and that he was critical of views that did not consider society as resistant to change as material conditions are. The notion that individual will or reason could in any direct way alter social institutions seemed clearly untrue to him.

Durkheim's emphasis on “things” was directly connected to a less studied aspect of his work, his concern with the reconstruction of a secular, scientific morality for the French republic and its diffusion through education. As Robert Jones and others have shown, Durkheim's desire to communicate the reality of the social realm was due to his belief that individuals needed to find their place in society and that their self-fulfillment depended on recognizing a force greater than themselves that gave meaning to their actions. One could not expect individuals to sacrifice for a mere idea rather than a concrete reality. In Suicide, Durkheim had shown the nefarious consequences of unlimited desires and of the lack of social rules on individuals. Only society, in his opinion, could offer satisfying goals and limits to an individual's ambition, while making possible individuality itself through the division of labor.

The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life

Durkheim described his intellectual development as marked by the realization, in 1895, of the foundational role played by religion in social life. He attributes this insight to reading the works of British anthropologists and British and American ethnographers, especially those of Robertson Smith and his school. This led to the publication of a number of articles in the Année dealing with various aspects of primitive religion—most notably “Primitive Classification,” with Mauss—and eventually culminated in the publication of The Elementary Forms of Religious Life in 1912. Three propositions are put forth in this work: (1) that religion is society becoming aware of itself, although in a symbolically altered form; (2) that the representations created in religion are thus the initial source out of which all later forms of human thought have become differentiated; and (3) that as creations of that superior being which is society, religious symbols are “sacred”—that is, they are treated with a special respect or veneration denied to the profane world. The definition of religion offered at the beginning of The Elementary Forms presents it as a set of symbolic beliefs relative to sacred things. But religion is not just belief, it is also practice: There is no religion without ritual, without a community.

Individuals derive their religious beliefs from the way in which the sacred force is created in rituals. The sentiment of the divine is produced in collective ceremonies during which, as a result of the intense emotionality and interconnection generated, the individual feels overcome by an entity superior to himself. Durkheim called such moments “collective effervescence.” The force emanates from the collective assembly, and thus, the individual feels it to be both immanent within him and transcendent over him. Rites play a fundamental role in generating and rekindling periodically the feeling of the sacred.

In a manner reminiscent of Kant's distinction between the sensible and intelligible worlds, Durkheim argues that the individual gets from society the best part of himself or herself, all intellectual and moral culture, and all that makes him or her truly human (in contrast to purely animal). On the other hand, society exists and lives only through individuals. If individuals did not hold social beliefs, traditions, and so on, in their individual minds, society would die. As Durkheim puts it, the gods cannot do without their worshippers any more than they can do without their gods. It is in this dynamic sense that the equation between society and god must be understood: The divine power is the symbolic representation of the creative capacity of the collectivity, a capacity rekindled through social rituals and practices.

The Elementary Forms investigates the origins of the categories or fundamental notions that dominate our entire intellectual life. These categories of understanding were like solid frames that confine thought: They were the notions of time, space, number, cause, substance, and personality (not the Kantian categories but those taken from Aristotle). These categories, Durkheim concluded, were embedded in religious thought, which itself was a social phenomenon. Religious representations were collective representations that expressed collective realities, and so already contained the principal categories. The categories were born in and from religion; they were a product of religious thought. But if they were of religious origin, the categories must share what was common to all religion: They must be social things, products of collective thought. In general, concepts were completely social things: One only emerged from the domain of fleeting individual impressions and sensations when human association resulted in the creation of a defined set of categories, which were fixed because they were shared. Even the notion of contradiction emerged from social conditions, since its predominance varied according to the societies and the times. The principle of identity (one of the fundamental laws of logic, which states that for all propositions p, it is impossible for both p and not p to be true) dominates current scientific thought, but there were vast systems of representations, namely mythologies, where it played a minor role. Another indicator that the categories were of social origin was their necessity; that is, the set of elementary categories was invested with an authority that one could not avoid at will.

The Social Life and the Universalization of Concepts

Durkheim believed that science brought our system of representations into a growing harmony with nature through the social process of verification. Collective representations undergo tests that are repeated indefinitely. Logical thought progressively purges itself of the subjective elements that it had from its origin. This was due to the development of a new kind of social life, of the internationalization of social life, which produced the universalization of concepts. As a consequence of this internationalization, Durkheim believed that things can no longer fit within the social frames in which they were originally classified; they must be organized with principles of their own; logical organization thus differentiates itself from social organization and becomes autonomous. Thought that is truly and peculiarly human is not a given, therefore, but a product of history; it is an ideal limit to which we come ever closer but in all probability will never attain. There is a continuous growth of the fit between knowledge and the world. Durkheim considered categories as not arbitrary because the social was part of the natural and the natural yielded to the human mind, over time, a natural classification—that is, one based on reality. Durkheim believed that science was a necessarily collective enterprise, and the Année Sociologique group's work can be fruitfully understood through this lens.

Later Years

In 1902, Durkheim successfully applied for an appointment as chargé de cours (junior lecturer) to the chair in the Science of Education at the Sorbonne, and he was made professor 4 years later. In 1913, the chair was renamed “Science of Education and Sociology.” Durkheim was required to lecture on the theory, history, and practice of education throughout his career. While Mauss has presented this required teaching as a burden, there were significant relations between Durkheim's pedagogical enterprise and his sociological interests, especially regarding the development of moral education.

On August 1914, Germany invaded Belgium and northern France, starting the first Great War. Durkheim became involved in the war effort, writing patriotic pamphlets to counter German propaganda and devoting himself to the cause of national defense. In 1916, Durkheim suffered a great blow: His son, a linguist and a member of the younger Année circle, was killed in the war. Durkheim was devastated by the death of his son and suffered a stroke from overwork and grief. He recovered sufficiently to take up his work on his final book, La Morale (Ethics), but in November 15, 1917, he died at the age of 59.

See also Aristotle; Hertz, Robert; L'Année Sociologique; Mauss, Marcel; Neo-Kantianism; Smith, William Robertson; Spencer, Herbert; Structural Functionalism; Wundt, Wilhelm

Daniela S. Barberis
© 2013 SAGE Publications, Inc

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