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Emile Durkheim
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Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim (April 15, 1858 - November 15, 1917) was the founder of modern sociology, and stands with Max Weber, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud as one of the seminal figures in the creation of the social sciences. He was also the founder of the first journal devoted to social science, the Année Sociologique, which is also the named used to refer to the group of students who developed his sociological program.


Durkheim was born in Epinal, France, which is in Alsace-Lorraine. He came from a long line of devout French Jews -- both his father and grandfather had been Rabbis. Durkheim himself lived a completely secular life. Much of his work, in fact, was dedicated to demonstrating that religious phenomenon stemmed from social rather than divine factors. His Jewish background did, however, shape his sociology - many of his students and collaborators were fellow Jews, and often blood relatives.

A precocious student, Durkheim entered the École Normale Supérieure; in 1879. His entering class was one of the most brilliant of the nineteenth century and many of his classmates, such as Jean Jaurès; and Henri Bergson would go on to become major figures in France's intellectual life. At the ENS Durkheim studied with Fustel de Coulanges, a classicist with a social scientific outlook. At the same time, he read Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer. Thus Durkheim became interested in a scientific approach to society very early on in his career. This meant the first of many conflicts with the French academic system, which had no social science curriculum at the time. Durkheim found humanistic studies uninteresting, and he finished second to last in his graduating class when he agregated; in philosophy in 1882.

Durkheim's interest in social phenomena was also spurred on by politics. France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War had created a backlash against secular, republican rule and many considered a Catholic, vigorously nationalistic France the only way rejuvenate France's fading power on the continent. Durkheim, a Jew and socialist, was thus in the political minority, a situation which galvanized him politically. The Dreyfus affair of 1894 only strengthened his activist stance.

There was no way that a man of Durkheim's views could receive a major academic appointment in Paris, and so after spending a year studying sociology in Germany he traveled to Bourdeaux in 1887, which had just started France's first teacher's training center. There he taught both pedagogy and social science (a novel position in France). From this position Durkheim reformed the French school system and introduced the study of social science in its curriculum. Again, his tendency to reduce morality and religion to mere social facts earned him his fair share of critics.

The 1890s where a period of remarkable creative output for Durkheim. In 1893 he published The Division of Labor in Society, his fundamental statement of the nature of human society and its development. In 1895 he published Rules of the Sociological Method, a manifesto stating what sociology was and how it ought to be done. In 1896 he founded the journal Année Sociologique; in order to publish and publicize the work his what was by then a growing number of students and collaborators. And finally, in 1897, he published Suicide, a case study which provided an example of what the sociological monograph might look like.

In 1902 Durkheim finally achieved his goal of attaining a prominent position in Paris when he became the chair of education at the Sorbonne. Because French universities are technically institutions for training secondary school teachers, this position gave Durkheim considerable influence - his lectures were the only ones that were mandatory for the entire student body. Despite what some considered, in the aftermath of the Dreyfus affair, to be a political appointment, Durkheim consolidated his institutional power by 1912 when he was permanently assigned the chair and renamed it the chair of education and sociology. It was also in this year that he published his last major work, Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.

WWI was to have a tragic effect on Durkheim's life, unfortunately. Durkheim's leftism was always patriotic rather than internationalist - he sought a secular, rational form of French life. But the coming of the war and the inevitable nationalist propoganda that followed made it difficult to sustain this already nuanced position. While Durkheim actively worked to support his country in the war, his reluctance to give in to simplistic nationalist fervor (combined with his Jewish background) made him a natural target of the now-ascendant French right. Even more seriously, the generation of students that Durkheim had trained were now being drafted to serve in the army, and many of them perished as France was bled white in the trenches. Finally, Durkheim's own son died in the war - a mental blow from which Durkheim never recovered. Emotionally devastated and overworked, Durkheim collapsed of a stroke in 1917.

Theories and Ideas

Durkheim was concerned primarily with what he perceived to be the breakdown of social norms and the increasing impersonality of social life. Incidentally, in developing explanations of these phenomena, Durkheim is credited with attempting the first scientific approach to social phenomena, coining the sociological term social fact to describe distinct units of social information.

In his 1893 work The Division of Labor in Society, he states that the primary element defining social organization is the division of labor, wherein traditional societies (termed "mechanical") are characterized by very general division of labor and modern societies (termed "organic") are characterized by highly specific division of labor. In traditional societies, argues Durkheim, the collective consciousness entirely subsumes individual consciousness--norms are strong and behavior is well-regulated. The result of increasing division of labor, according to Durkheim, is that individual consciousness emerges distinct from collective consciousness--often finding itself in conflict to collective consciousness. The rapid change in society due to increasing division of labor thus produces a state of confusion with regard to norms, leading eventually to the breakdown of norms regulating social behavior; Durkheim labels this state anomie. From a state of anomie come all forms of deviant behavior, most notably suicide.

Durkheim also held that, because people are not dependent on each other in traditional societies, people are closer together in these societies since they do not have to form relationships based on who they need. In a modern society, people need others and must form need-based, and therefore less close, relationships.

Durkheim, along with Herbert Spencer, was a founding functionalist. He was the first person, or one of the first, to describe the social parts that are of interest to functionalists as "functions".

Durkheim developed the concept of anomie later in Suicide, published in 1897. In it, he explores the differing suicide rates among Protestants and Catholics, explaining that stronger social control among Catholics results in lower suicide rates. According to Durkheim, people have a certain level of attachment to their groups, which he calls social integration. Abnormally high or low levels of social integration may result in increased suicide rates; low levels have this effect because low social integration results in disorganized society, causing people to turn to suicide as a last resort, while high levels cause people to kill themselves to avoid becoming burdens on society. According to Durkheim, Catholic society has normal levels of integration while Protestant society has low levels. This work has influenced proponents of control theory, and is often mentioned as a classic sociological study.

Durkheim, born a Jew, but an agnostic throughout his adult life, considered religion an essential part of society, itself essential for life because it motivates humans. He explores religion further in his 1912 book, Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.

Durkheim, unlike his contemporary Max Weber, did not believe that sociologists need to study what goes on in the heads of individual people.

See also: anomie, suicide, sociology, social fact, Max Weber, Karl Marx, Gabriel Tarde.

External links

This text is part of the Liberalism series (IV): Liberal thinkers
Liberalism I - Liberalism in countries II - Liberal parties III - Liberal thinkers IV Introduction article

These thinkers had an important influence on the development of liberal thinking:
Baruch Spinoza | John Locke | Voltaire | Benjamin Franklin | David Hume | Jean-Jacques Rousseau | Denis Diderot | Adam Smith | Charles de Montesquieu | Immanuel Kant | Thomas Paine | Thomas Jefferson | Marquis de Condorcet | Jeremy Bentham | Benjamin Constant | Wilhelm von Humboldt | James Mill | Johan Rudolf Thorbecke | Frédéric Bastiat | Alexis de Tocqueville | John Stuart Mill | Herbert Spencer | Thomas Hill Green | Ludwig Joseph Brentano | Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk; | Émile Durkheim | Friedrich Naumann | Max Weber | Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse | Benedetto Croce | Walther Rathenau | William Beveridge | Ludwig von Mises | John Maynard Keynes | José Ortega y Gasset | Salvador de Madariaga | Wilhelm Röpke | Bertil Ohlin | Friedrich August von Hayek | Karl Raimund Popper | John Hicks | Raymond Aron | John Kenneth Galbraith | Isaiah Berlin | James M. Buchanan | John Rawls | Ralf Dahrendorf | Karl-Hermann Flach | Ronald Dworkin | Richard Rorty | Amartya Sen | Hernando de Soto | William Kymlicka | Dirk Verhofstadt

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