Durkheim: Introduction and Overview

Plan of Attack

We have three classes on Durkheim. First one is about solidarity, the second social facts, and the third will appear to be about god and religion but will turn out to be about the sociology of knowledge and social interaction.

A few words of biographical background.
A little bit of intellectual biography — the major works.

Durkheim could be said to first "do" sociology in his doctoral dissertation which became The Division of Labor in Society. The topic itself hearkens back to Adam Smith's 1776 book, The Wealth of Nations. Smith and the economists who followed took the division of labor as a given. Like Marx, Durkheim saw assumptions of economics such as the division of labor as something that needed to be investigated and explained. His "problem" in this book had three parts:

  1. what is the function of the division of labor?
  2. what are the causes on which it depended? and
  3. what sorts of pathologies can emerge and what should be done about them?


  1. Durkheim Émile. "Anomie and the Modern Division of Labor" (77-78)
  2. Durkheim Émile. 1912. "The Cultural Logic of Collective Representations" (94-103)
  3. Durkheim Émile. "Mechanical and Organic Solidarity" (73-77)
  4. Durkheim Émile and Marcel Mauss. "Primitive Classifications and Social Knowledge" (89-94)
  5. Durkheim Émile. "Sociology and Social Facts" (78-81)
  6. Durkheim Émile. "Suicide and Modernity" (81-89)

Know OF the main works

  1. Division of Labor in Society (1893): mechanical and organic solidarity, pre-contractual nature of contract
  2. Suicide (1897): suicide as social not personal, types of suicide, anomie
  3. Rules of the Sociological Method (1895): (treat) social facts (as things), crime is normal
  4. Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912): ritual, society is god, sacred/profane
  5. Primitive Classification (with Mauss) (1903): collective representations

Take-away Concepts

  1. sociological wholism (vs. methodological reductionism)
  2. sociological realism (vs. nominalism)
  3. social fact
  4. mechanical & organic solidarity
  5. "crime is normal"
  6. anomie
  7. suicide as social
  8. sacred/profane
  9. ritual
  10. society is god
  11. collective consciousness/conscience
  12. collective representation

Sources and Resources

The Durkheim Pages at the University of Chicago.
Dodd, Nigel. 2003 "Durkheim II:Core Sociological Concepts" Lecture 3 in Principles of Sociology (SO100) Department of Sociology London School of Economics.
Durkheim, Suicide (digital text at archive.org)
Durkheim, The elementary forms of the religious life, a study in religious sociology (digital text at archive.org)
Durkheim, De la division du travail social: étude sur l'organisation des sociétés (digital text at archive.org)

Key Ideas in Durkheim’s Sociology1

"Society" is a sui generis reality : that which is outside us that is inside us…

Durkheim is a "realist" rather than a "nominalist." Society actually exists. But it is not a mere aggregation. It is "more than the sum of its parts":

Society is not the mere sum of individuals, but the system formed by their association represents a specific reality which has its own characteristics. Undoubtedly no collective entity can be produced if there are no individual consciousnesses: this is a necessary but not sufficient condition. In addition, these consciousnesses must be associated and combined in a certain way. It is from this combination that the social arises and consequently it is this combination that explains it’ (The Rules of Sociological Method, p. 129)

The reality of the "social" is a moral force

[Society] is not a mere juxtaposition of individuals who, upon entering into it, bring with them an intrinsic morality. Man is only a moral being because he lives in society, since morality consists in solidarity with the group, and varies according to that solidarity. Cause all social life to vanish, and moral life would vanish at the same time. (The Division of Labour in Society, p. 331)

Society for Durkheim is almost the source of normativity ("ought-ness") in human life. It "resides," if you will in the collective consciousness. In Rules Durkheim makes his famous claim that "crime is normal" — that is, you cannot have a society without it — and then he goes on to explain that the reason for this is that it is a category that describes how certain actions are evaluated by the collective consciousness:

Punishment "constitutes essentially a reaction of passionate feeling, graduated in intensity, which society exerts through the mediation of an organised body over those of its members who have violated certain rules of conduct."(22) The same passion is the source of both the rules of conduct and the reaction to their breach: "In other words, we should not say that an act offends the common consciousness because it is criminal, but that it is criminal because it offends that consciousness. We do not condemn it because it is a crime, but it is a crime because we condemn it."(23)

The "WHAT" of society is the collective consciousness (conscience collective)

If there is one rule of conduct which is incontestable, it is that which orders us to realize in ourselves the essential traits of the collective type (DoLiS, Lemert 73.9). [In pre-industrial society] … duty is resemble everybody else, not to have anything personal about one's beliefs or actions… (73.9-74.1) …the human conscience that we must integrally realize is nothing else than the collective conscience of the group of which we are a part (74.3).

Societies vary in complexity. We can classify societies by analyzing this complexity:

Durkheim is certainly not the first, but he stands out for us as a "founder" of contemporary sociology's approach to systematically treating "societies" as units of analysis.

We know that societies are made up of a number of parts added on to each other. Since the nature of any composite necessarily depends upon the nature ad number of the elements that go to make it up and the way in which these are combined, these characteristics are plainly those which we must take as our basis … Moreover, as they are of a morphological order, one might term that part of sociology whose task is to constitute and classify social types as social morphology. (The Rules of Sociological Method, p. 111)

Sociology is not only a ‘science of observation’ but also an explanatory science:

Social morphology does not consist of a mere science of observation, which would describe forms without accounting for them. It can and must be explanatory. It must investigate under what conditions the political territory of peoples varies, the nature and configuration of their boundaries, and the differing population densities. It must enquire how urban communities have arisen, what their laws of evolution are, how they grow, and what role they play, etc. Thus social morphology does not merely study the social substratum as it has already been formed, in order to analyse it by description. It observes it as evolving, in order to show how it is being formed. It is not a purely static science, but quite naturally includes the movements from which result the states it studies. Thus, like all branches of sociology, history and comparative ethnography provide indispensable adjuncts. (‘Social Morphology’ [1899], contained in The Rules of Sociological Method, p. 242)

Religion as Real

Durkheim poses a fundamental question: why does religion persist in an age of science? Is it "error" on the part of an irrational majority?

Sociology as the Science of "Social facts"

[Social Facts] consist of manners of acting, thinking and feeling external to the individual, which are invested with a coercive power by virtue of which they exercise control over him. Consequently, since they consist of representations and actions, they cannot be confused with organic phenomena, nor with psychical phenomena, which have no existence save in and through the individual consciousness. (The Rules of Sociological Method p. 52)

Durkheim’s definition:

  • A social fact is any way of acting, whether fixed or not, capable of exerting over the individual an external constraint; OR
  • which is general over the whole of a given society whilst having an existence of its own, independent of its individual manifestations. (The Rules of Sociological Method, p. 59)

"Treat social facts as things"

We do not say that social facts are material things, but that they are things by the same right as material things, although they differ from them in type … A thing is any object of knowledge which is not naturally controlled by the intellect, which cannot be adequately grasped by a simple process of mental activity … To treat the facts of a certain order as things thus is not to place them in a particular category of reality, but to assume a certain mental attitude towards them; it is to approach the study of them on the principle that we are absolutely ignorant of their nature, and that their characteristic properties, like the unknown causes on which they depend, cannot be discovered by even the most careful introspection. (The Rules of Sociological Method, preface)


The paradox of modern society: solidarity in an age of individualism

Question: how come, with the rise of individualism, society does not fall apart? Put another way, what is the glue that holds society together?

We call the "togetherness" of a society "solidarity."

How does it come about that the individual, whilst becoming more autonomous, depends ever more closely upon society? How can he become at the same time more of an individual and yet more closely linked to society? For it is indisputable that these two movements, however contradictory they appear to be, are carried on in tandem. Such is the nature of the problem that we have set ourselves. (The Division of Labour in Society, p. xxx)

The division of labour consists of moral as well as economic ties – and therefore derives from society rather than being outside or opposed to society:

Work is not shared out between independent individuals who are already differentiated from one another, who meet and associate together in order to pool their different abilities. It would be a miracle if these differences, arising from chance circumstances, could be so accurately harmonised as to form a coherent whole. Far from their preceding collective life, they derive from it. They can only occur within a society, under the pressure of social sentiments and needs. This is what makes them essentially capable of being harmonised. Thus there is social life outside of any division of labour, but one that the latter assumes. (The Division of Labour in Society, pp. 218-9)


The word does not mean that the solidarity is produced by mechanical and artificial means. We only use this term for it by analogy with the cohesion that links together the elements of raw materials, in contrast to that which encompasses the unity of living organisms. What finally justifies the use of this term is the fact that the bond that thus unites the individual with society is completely analogous to that which links the thing to the person. The individual consciousness, considered from this viewpoint, is simply a dependency of the collective type, and follows all its motions, just as the object possessed follows those which its owner imposes upon it. In the societies where this solidarity is highly developed the individual … does not belong to himself; he is literally a thing at the disposal of society. (The Division of Labour in Society, pp. 84-5)

"Organic" solidarity:

Whereas [mechanical] solidarity implies that individuals resemble one another, [organic solidarity] assumes that they are different from one another … Here, then, the individuality of the whole grows at the same time as that of the parts. Society becomes more effective in moving in concert, at the same time as each of its elements has more movements that are peculiarly its own. This solidarity resembles that observed in the higher animals. In fact each organ has its own special characteristics and autonomy, yet the greater unity of the organism, the more marked the individualisation of the parts. Using this analogy, we propose to call ‘organic’ the solidarity that is due to the division of labour. (The Division of Labour in Society, p 85)

"Abstraction’ and the ‘conscience collective":

In a small society, since everybody is roughly placed in the same conditions of existence, the collective environment is essentially concrete … The states of consciousness that represent it are therefore of the same character … Consequently the common consciousness has a definite character. But this consciousness alters in nature as societies grow more immense, Because they are spread over a much vaster area, the common consciousness is itself forced to rise above all local diversities, to dominate more the space available, and consequently to become more abstract. For few save general things can be common to all these various environments. There is no longer a question of such and such an animal, but of such and such a species; not this spring, but these springs; not this forest, but forest in abstracto. (The Division of Labour in Society, pp 229-30)

If there is one rule of conduct whose moral character is undisputed, it is that which decrees that we should realise in ourselves the essential features of the collective type. It is among the lower peoples that it attains the greatest inflexibility. There the first duty is to resemble everyone else. In the more advanced societies, the similarities that are required are fewer in number … [I]n reality the human consciousness that we must realise within ourselves in its entirety is nothing other than the collective consciousness of the group of which we form part. For of what can it be made up, if not of the ideas and sentiments to which we are most attached? Where should we turn to look for the characteristics of our model if not within ourselves and around us? If we believe that this collective ideal is that of the whole of humanity, it is because it has become sufficiently abstract and general to appear to suit all men without distinction … Now the opposite rule, which decrees that we should specialise, has exactly the same function. It is also necessary for the cohesion of societies, at least from a certain time onwards in their evolution. Doubtless, the solidarity that it ensures is different from the former one. But if it is different, it is no less indispensable. Higher societies cannot maintain their equilibrium unless work is divided up. The attraction of like for like suffices less and less to produce this effect. If therefore the moral character of the first of these rules is necessary for it to be able to perform its role, this necessity is no less for the second rule. They both correspond to the same social need and satisfy it only in different ways because the conditions of existence within societies themselves differ. (The Division of Labour in Society, pp. 329-30)

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