Durkheim Introduction


The 1860 Generation

Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) was a member of the "circa 1860 generation" of social theorists. This group includes Freud (1856), Weber (1864), Simmel (1858), Veblen (1857), Franz Boas (1858), Karl Pearson (1857), Tönnies (1855), Jane Addams (1860), George Herbert Mead and W. I. Thomas (1863), Charles Horton Cooley and Robert Ezra Park (1864).

Around this time Comte (1857) and Tocqueville (1859), central figures in the social theory of the first part of the century, died.

Karl Marx was publishing the Grundrisse (1857-8), Darwin The Origin of the Species (1859). The U.S. was heading into the civil war and the end of slavery.

These thinkers came of age in a world at the end of the Victorian era. Darwinism was in the air as the dominant rationalist view of the world. Industrialism was clearly the trend of the future. The age of exploration had given way to the age of empire. Wars were still fought on horseback, but the age of mechanized warfare would mark their older years and take their sons' lives.


Durkheim was born in the Alsace region of France — on the mid south east border with Germany — a region which had been traded back and forth between Germany and France a number of times. His forebears bequeathed him the legacy of being rabbis and he was headed this way for a time but gave up the idea once he started university. He was a star student, winner of competitive exams, and started off as a high school philosophy teacher in Bordeaux in 1882 at age 24. Like Marx, then, his intellectual origins are in the humanistic disciplines. After a few years he is appointed head of the social sciences and he studied and taught on topics such as kinship, crime, law, religion, education, incest and socialism.

The Work

Durkheim's social theory output was extensive, but four works are central. Three of these were produced in just four years. His doctoral dissertation, The Division of Labour in Society appeared in 1893. In this book Durkheim takes up a topic that had been studied extensively by Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and Herbert Spencer. A question all had asked was "how does it come about?" Their view of "recent" history convinced them that it was a relatively modern phenomenon. Smith and Spencer basically said that it was a system developed by shrewd people so as to maximize their welfare. Marx saw it as a negative consequence of private property and wage labor. Why is division of labor still a problem for Durkheim? Durkheim's contemporaries saw people in society spreading out more and more all the time. They spread out in terms of labor specialization, in terms of temperament, in terms of lifestyle, worldview, and aspirations. While many people lamented this apparent "breakdown," Smith suggested that it so increased the size of the pie that it was worthwhile and the differences between people encouraged them to trade and further specialize. Spencer, on the other hand focussed on the "natural" tendency of systems to move in the direction of specialization and differentiation, the system needs specialization.

Durkheim's main observation was that the interesting thing was that society worked so well. Like all 19th century social theorists, Durkheim too had a story of how society evolved. His had the "original state" being one of interchangeable hords who were linked together in a solidarity based on similarity. Durkheim, in a "classic" theoretical move, says we can understand how this type of society differs from contemporary society by looking at particular social institutions — here LAW.

In traditional society RETRIBUTIVE LAW dominates. Transgressions offend the shared worldview of the group. The moral culture of the community is wounded and the result is a lashing out on behalf of the community. By comparison, in contemporary society, RESTITUTIVE LAW dominates. Transgressions are now seen as something that can be rebalanced. It is not about group outrage but about wronged individuals. The two "systems" have analogies in our two systems of criminal law (where no plaintiff is necessary — the prosecutor is the plaintiff on behalf of society — and the emphasis is on punishment) and civil law (where the disputes are between two parties and the focus is on a particular harm done to one by the other and the emphasis is on compensation).

A main takeaway of The Division of Labor in Society is that Smith's "natural tendency to truck and barter" and Rousseau's "social contract" are not satisfactory explanations of where society comes from. Both assume people's ability to make deals and this depends on there already being a social bond. There is a "pre-contractual" basis for contract. Before we can make a deal we must speak the same language, know what a deal is, have a sense of trusting one another. There needs to be a foundation of social solidarity and this is what Durkheim sought to explain: how can solidarity exist in both the traditional and the modern society? Answer: different forms — mechanical and organic.

Two years later Suicide appears. In a sentence, this book claims to show that "the social" is real and is distinct from the indivdual level. We can think of this book as the first example of modern social analysis. Durkheim looks at a profoundly individual act — suicide — and focuses our attention not on the act per se, but on rates of suicide. All societies have suicide and so it doesn't really make sense to ask "why does one person commit suicide?" Sociology has nothing to offer on that count. What we need to pay attention to are suicide rates. Why is it that we can look at different regions and find different suicide rates? We look at aggregate patterns for causes and effects. It is not a single suicide that is socially caused, but rather, social conditions "cause" changes in aggregate suicide rates. And these social conditions are to be found in patterns of social connection and cohesion. Suicide rates go up when individuals are insufficiently connected to society and when they are too tightly connected to society (anomie).

If Suicide showed that society has impacts on individual lives, The Rules of the Sociological Method, which appeared two years later, told us how to go about studying this "society thing." Here we learn what may be the most famous dictum in sociology : treat social facts as things. Durkheim exhorts the sociologist to recognize that there is a category of phenomena — social facts — that is the proper object of sociological inquiry, and that the explanations for social facts are to be found in other social facts. Also in Rules we get a succinct elaboration of a central sociological idea as an example of thinking sociologically when Durkheim demonstrates that "crime is normal" (see Collins on "The Normalcy of Crime").

Finally, Durkheim's magnum opus, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life is published in 1912. Ostensibly an attempt to define religion sociologically, this book ranks as Durkheim's "Ninth Symphony" or "The Magic Flute." It is a stunning achievement, one of those books you can read over and over again without ever coming close to exhausting its insights (for a version of it, read Collins' "The Sociology of God" in Sociological Insight.). At the end of a century that saw the flowering of rationalism but not the demise of religion, the question arose as to why the latter persisted. Could it really be error on a massive scale? Even in our own day — how could so many people still be religious in an age as dominated by science as our is? Durkheim's basic answer is that religion is, at its most basic, a worshiping of the social order itself. God is society.

Durkheim and Marx

As we move on now to Durkheim, we might be feeling the need to compare them or to square what one said with what the other said. It's been said that a way to make progress on this is to recognize that each suffered from being indifferent to that which the other knew so well. Marx had an angry eye that could see conflict even where it is yet invisible, to see the faults in society even as it held together. Durkheim, by contrast, had a cool eye for the foundations of harmony and that which holds things together, even as some might see it falling apart. Just as Marx said that the political economists assumed what needed to explain, Durkheim might be said to hold a similar view toward the conflict seen by Marx.


  1. Durkheim Introduction (this page)
  2. Durkheim - The Division of Labor in Society
  3. Durkheim - Suicide
  4. Durkheim - Rules of the Sociological Method
  5. Durkheim - Elementary Forms of the Religious Life

Supplementary Readings

Elliott, Joel "Emile Durkheim and Religion: An Annotaed Bibliography" http://www.unc.edu/~elliott/durkheim.html

n.a. Durkheim Notes from UChicago Prelims Library http://www.spc.uchicago.edu/ssr1/PRELIMS/Theory/durkheim.html

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