Emile Durkheim

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Durkheim, Émile

Durkheim, Émile (dûrkˈhīm, Fr. āmēlˈ dürkĕmˈ), 1858–1917, French sociologist. Along with Max Weber he is considered one of the chief founders of modern sociology. Educated in France and Germany, Durkheim taught social science at the Univ. of Bordeaux and the Sorbonne. His view that the methods of natural science can be applied to the study of society was influenced by the positivist philosophy of Auguste Comte. Durkheim held that the collective mind of society was the source of religion and morality and that the common values developed in society, particularly in primitive societies, are the cohesive bonds of social order. In more complex societies, he suggests, the division of labor makes for cohesiveness, but the loss of commonly held values leads to social instability and disorientation of the individual. Durkheim studied suicide to show the importance of anomie, the loss of morale that accompanies decline in social identity. To support his theories he drew extensively on anthropological and statistical materials. His important works include The Division of Labor in Society (1893, tr. 1933), The Rules of Sociological Method (1895, tr. 1938), Le Suicide (1897), and The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912, tr. 1915).


See biographies by S. Lukes (1985) and M. Fournier (2012); studies by S. Lukes (1972), R. A. Nisbet (1965 and 1974), N. Smelser (1963), and D. La Capra (1985).

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Durkheim, Emile (

1858-1917) Along with MARX and WEBER, one of the triumvirate of major sociologists who did most to establish the shape of the modern subject. Of these three figures, Durkheim above all was quintessentially the sociologist, with his assertions that ‘society sui generis ’ is the subject matter of sociology, and that ‘social facts must always be explained by other social facts’. In a series of seminal works, Durkheim established many themes and contributed many concepts which continue to be important in modern sociology. Working within the tradition of POSITIVISM established by SAINT-SIMON and COMTE, but not wishing to refer to his own work as positivism, Durkheim's best-known dictum is to ‘treat social facts as things’. By this he meant that social phenomena exist as an objective realm, are external to individuals, operate by their constraining or ‘coercive’ influence on individuals, and are general and collective. See also SOCIAL FACTS AS THINGS.

His first major work, The Division of Labour in Society (1893), rests on the important distinction he drew between MECHANICAL AND ORGANIC SOLIDARITY. His argument was that while in small-scale societies, with only a limited DIVISION OF LABOUR, people were bound together by similarity and a common COLLECTIVE CONSCIENCE, in more complex societies with an advanced division of labour, this division of labour itself acted as the basis of social integration. Two further vital concepts in Durkheim's sociology, which also make their first appearance in The Division of Labour, are his suggestion that in modern societies the division of labour is often marred by ANOMIE (i.e. is unregulated by society or social values), and that the division of labour is also often ‘forced’, which is to say that, as the result of unfairness and inefficiency in the operation of the educational system and in the processes of occupational selection, many people are made to occupy roles for which they are unsuited (see FORCED DIVISION OF LABOUR). Durkheim's objective in The Division of Labour, and subsequently, was to establish, both theoretically and practically, the conditions for social solidarity in modern societies which would combine individualism and collectivism. He rejected any suggestion (such as SPENCER's) that society could operate effectively on principles of self-interest, without collective norms. On the other hand, he was equally opposed to a strongly centralized state. He suggested, instead, that the organization of society into occupationally-based, intermediate groupings, standing between the state and the individual, might prove the best way to organize a modern society based on the division of labour. A network of such groups would perhaps be well placed to place moral restraints on egoism and to regulate the group conflicts which modern societies inevitably generate.

In The Rules of Sociological Method (1895), Durkheim laid out his overall approach to sociological explanation, including his doctrine of ‘social facts as things’. But this work is perhaps equally important for its contribution to the formulation of modern FUNCTIONALISM. Central to Durkheim's functionalism was a distinction between healthy and ‘pathological’ forms of social organization. As Durkheim puts it, ‘it is the function of the average organism that the physiologist studies; and the sociologist does the same’. ‘It would be incomprehensible’, Durkheim suggests, ‘if the most widespread forms of organization were not the most advantageous’. Thus, the ‘healthy’, or the ‘functional’, social form is usually that which is present in the average at a given level of social development. For modern industrial societies, where the evolution of this type has not yet run its full course, Durkheim recognized that assessment of functionality was more difficult. Here, therefore, one must also seek to establish with some care that the generality of a phenomenon is actually bound up with the ‘general conditions of collective life’ for this social type. As well as establishing the function of a phenomenon, one must also always independently establish its cause.

In Suicide (1897), a work seen as a ‘methodological classic’ by some and as greatly flawed by others, Durkheim employed what would now be called the SECONDARY ANALYSIS of existing OFFICIAL STATISTICS, seeking to demonstrate how SUICIDE is a social, and thus a sociological, phenomenon rather than a purely individual one. After first ‘eliminating’ existing non-sociological explanations – including climatic factors and ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ psychological factors, such as ‘racial’ characteristics or insanity – three main types of suicide were identified by Durkheim as corresponding in each case to distinct types of social situation. Thus, altruistic suicide, he suggested, was caused by strong mechanical solidarity (e.g. the suicide of the old and infirm in simple societies, or suicides of onour in the army); egoistic suicide, he suggested, was caused by excessive individuation in modern societies (e.g. the higher incidence of suicide among Protestants compared with Jews or Catholics, and among the divorced compared with the married); and anomic suicide was said to result when disruptions of normal social expectations occurred (e.g. a sudden change in economic circumstances, and as a general tendency in modern societies in their unregulated forms). A fourth type of suicide – fatalistic suicide - also occurs where social regulation leaves no scope for autonomous action apart from death (e.g. the suicide of the slave). For those who admire it, Suicide is both a sophisticated work and a precursor of later forms of MULTIVARIATE ANALYSIS (see also CROSS-TABULATION). To its critics, however, it is a work in which Durkheim uses statistics in a manner that imposes MEASUREMENT BY FIAT, with little guarantee that actors’ beliefs and values are as he assumed them to be.

In Elementary Forms ofReligious Life (1912), Durkheim returned to an examination of the nature of the ‘collective conscience’ within simpler societies. This study of religious beliefs and practices in what he took to be their most elementary form (especially Australian aboriginal society) became the basis of much of the modern sociological study of religion (see RELIGION, FUNCTIONALIST THEORY OF RELIGION, SACRED AND PROFANE). The decisive idea in Durkheim's account of religion is that religion functions as a symbolic representation of society, in which the beliefs and practices relative to the 'S acred’ continually reaffirm communal values. In view of this, one of the tasks of Durkheim's sociology was to discover what have since been called FUNCTIONAL ALTERNATIVES OR FUNCTIONAL EQUIVALENTS to religion in increasingly secular modern societies (see also CIVIL RELIGION; compare SECULARIZATION).

In addition to these four main works, Durkheim published much else, including numerous essays. Among the most important of these (written with Marcel Mauss) is Primitive Classification (1903), in which the basic categories of human thought, including time and space, and number, are seen as reflecting patterns of social organization. For example, classification is seen as reflecting the division of human societies into clans (see also SOCIOLOGY OF KNOWLEDGE). Also of importance are Durkheim's essays on TOTEMISM and on KINSHIP. Along with the ideas contained in Elementary Forms, these essays exerted a strong influence on the formation of modern STRUCTURALISM (see also MYTHOLOGIES).

As well as the works published in Durkheim's lifetime, many of his lectures, together with fragments of books left unfinished, were published after his death, including Moral Education (1925), Socialism and Saint-Simon (1928), and Professional Ethic and Civic Morals (1950). As one of the founding fathers of modern sociology, Durkheim was also associated with the journal which attracted around it many celebrated sociologists, anthropologists and historians, amongst them, Marcel Mauss, Maurice Halbwachs and Levy-Bruhl.

On socialism, Durkheim's position was sympathetic but non-Marxist. As pointed out by Gouldner (in the introduction to the English version of Socialism and Saint-Simon, 1959), contrary to suggestions that Durkheim was, above all, a conservative, an emphasis on social conflict and social change is an enduring element in his sociology, deriving from Saint-Simon. The possible role Durkheim saw for occupational intermediate groupings in modern societies places him closest to guild socialism. A ‘moral conservative’ Durkheim may sometimes have been, but he was not a political conservative. Nor was normative integration Durkheim's exclusive focus; relationships of reciprocal interdependence as well as normative integration are recognized as the basis of social order.

Debate surrounds Durkheim's work in general, as to how far it does, or does not, succeed in satisfactorily combining an emphasis on social structure with individual agency in sociological explanation (see also STRUCTURE AND AGENCY). For the most part, Durkheim's sociology has been seen as overstating general normative and social structural influences at the expense of individual agency, although it was always Durkheim's intention to leave scope for the latter within his sociology. Durkheim's two main goals were to establish sociology as an autonomous 'S cientific’ discipline, and to establish the practical requirements for social order in modern societies. In neither of these can Durkheim be regarded as having the last word. What is undeniable is that his influence on modern sociology has been immense, with many modern statements about the subject still being presented as positions either for or against Durkheim.

Two important biographical and critical studies on Durkheim's life and work are by Lukes (1973) and PARSONS (1937).

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Durkheim, Émile


Born Apr. 15, 1858, in Épinal; died Nov. 15, 1917, in Paris. French positivist sociologist and founder of the French school of sociology. Professor of sociology and pedagogy at Bordeaux (from 1896) and at the Sorbonne (from 1902). Founded the journal L’Année sociologique in 1896.

Durkheim’s sociological ideas were formed under the influence primarily of Montesquieu and, particularly, Comte, as well as through his polemics against individualistic psychological and biological theories. According to Durkheim, the object of sociology must be social facts, which have two distinguishing characteristics: objectiveness (exteriority) and a constraining effect in relation to individuals (Metod sotsiologii, Kiev-Kharkov, 1899, pp. 8-9). In contrast to “atomistic” concepts (society is the sum of the individuals composing it), Durkheim interpreted society as a reality of a special kind, which could not be reduced to an aggregate of individuals.

Durkheim insisted on the need for using objective methods in sociology, methods analogous to those of the natural sciences, and he put forth the principle that “social facts must be viewed as things.” He was one of the first in sociology to try to combine theoretical and empirical analyses of social phenomena.

Durkheim was one of the founders of the structural-functional school of sociology. He considered the fundamental postulate of sociology to be the following proposition: “Human institutions cannot be based on delusion or falsity: otherwise they could not continue to exist. If they were not based on the nature of things, they would encounter opposition from them that they could not overcome” (Les Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse, Paris, 1912, p. 3). Thus, Durkheim asserted that every social phenomenon corresponds to a particular need of society. He interpreted social conflicts primarily as pathological manifestations. This view was reflected in his work The Division of Labor in Society (1893; Russian translation, 1900), in which solidarity is regarded in essence as a synonym for the social condition. Durkheim distinguished two types of social solidarity: mechanical and organic. Mechanical solidarity prevails in archaic, primitive societies; organic in modern societies. The former type is based on the homogeneity of individual consciousnesses, which are entirely subordinated to the collective consciousness. As the division of social labor develops, mechanical solidarity gives way to organic, which is based on separation of functions and individual differences.

In the work Suicide (1897; Russian translation, 1912), Durkheim showed convincingly, on the basis of an analysis of statistical evidence, that the number of suicides depended on the nature and intensity of social bonds. Of the greatest importance is Durkheim’s analysis of anomic suicide, which is the result of social disorganization. Anomie, in Durkheim’s view, is expressed in the breakdown of the system of social norms. The concept of anomie has acquired great importance in modern sociology.

In his last major work, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life: The Totem System in Australia (1912), Durkheim showed, using the beliefs held by the Australian aborigines as an example, that religion and knowledge are socially determined and their role is to maintain social unity.

Durkheim’s attitude toward Marxism was contradictory. Certain ideas from historical materialism influenced his views. At the same time, he oversimplified and distorted the materialist conception of history, treating it as “econoinic determinism,” and had a negative attitude toward the idea of the revolutionary transformation of society by the working class, preferring a bourgeois-reformist path of social reorganization.

His collaborators on the journal L’Année sociologique, including M. Mauss, M. Halbwachs, G. Davy, and C. Bougié, belonged to the French school of sociology, which played a leading role in French sociology right up to World War II (1939-45).


Education et sociologie. Paris, 1922.
Sociologie et philosophie. Paris, 1924.
L’éducation morale. Paris, 1925.
Le Socialisme. Paris, 1928.
Leçons de sociologie: Physique des moeurs et du droit. Paris, 1950.
Pragmatisme et sociologie. Paris, 1955.
In Russian translation:
“Sotsiologiia i teoriia poznaniia.” In the collection Novye idei v sotsiologii, collection 2. St. Petersburg, 1914.


Kovalevskii, M. Sovremennye sotsiologi. St. Petersburg, 1905.
Kon, I. S. Pozitivizm v sotsiologii. Leningrad, 1964.
Alpert, H. Emile Durkheim and His Sociology. New York, 1961.
Duvignaud, J. Durkheim. Paris, 1965.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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Emile Durkheim on Institutional Analysis, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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In "The Elementary Forms as a Collective Work: Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss' contributions to Emile Durkheim's Later Sociology of Religion," Marcel Fournier performs what could be called a religious excavation of The Forms.
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An Anglican priest, sociologist, and Durkheim scholar, Pickering presents 12 essays, papers, and book chapters by pioneer French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) concerning religion that have not been translated onto English before, or were translated in some deficient manner.
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