David Émile Durkheim (April 15, 1858 - November 15, 1917) is known as one of the founders of modern sociology. He was also in 1895 the founder of first European university department of sociology and in 1896 the founder of one of the first journals devoted to social science, L'Année Sociologique.
Durkheim was born in Épinal, France, which is in 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 phenomena 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 to 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 Bordeaux 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 were 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, and founded the first European Department of Sociology at the University of Bordeaux . In 1896 he founded the journal L'Année Sociologique in order to publish and publicize the work of what was by then a growing number of students and collaborators (this is also the name used to refer to the group of students who developed his sociological program). 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. 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 propaganda 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 how societies could maintain their integrity and coherence in the modern era, when things such as shared religious and ethnic background could no longer be assumed. In order to study social life in modern societies, Durkheim sought to create one of the first scientific approaches to social phenomena. Along with Herbert Spencer, was one of the first people to explain the existence and quality of different parts of a society by reference to what function they served in keeping the society healthy and balanced -- a position that would come to be known as functionalism.
Durkheim also insisted that society was more than the sum of its parts. Thus unlike his contemporary Max Weber, he focused not on what motivates the actions of individual people (methodological individualism), but rather on the study of social facts, a term which he coined to describe phenomena which have an existence in and of themselves and are not bound to the actions of individuals. He argued that social facts had an independent existence greater and more objective than the actions of the individuals that composed society and could only be explained by other social facts rather than, say, by society's adaptation to a particular climate or ecological niche.
In his 1893 work The Division of Labor in Society, Durkheim examined how social order was maintained in different types of societies. He focused on the division of labor, and examined how it differed in traditional societies and modern societies. Authors before him such as Herbert Spencer and Ferdinand Toennies had argued that societies evolved much like organisms, moving from a simple state to a more complex one resembling the workings of complex machines. Durkheim reversed this formula. He argued that traditional societies were 'mechanical' and were held together by the fact that everyone was more or less the same, and hence had things in common. In traditional societies, argues Durkheim, the collective consciousness entirely subsumes individual consciousness--norms are strong and behavior is well-regulated.
In modern societies, he argued, the highly complex division of labor resulted in 'organic' solidarity. Different specializations in employment and social roles created dependencies that tied people to one another, since people no longer could count on filling all of their needs by themselves. In 'mechanical' societies, for example, subsistence farmers live in communities which are self-sufficient and knit together by a common heritage and common job. In modern 'organic' societies, workers earn money, and must rely on other people who specialize in certain products (groceries, clothing, etc.) to meet their needs. The result of increasing division of labor, according to Durkheim, is that individual consciousness emerges distinct from collective consciousness--often finding itself in conflict with collective consciousness. The rapid change in society due to increasing division of labor thus produces a state of confusion with regard to norms and increasing impersonality in social life, leading eventually to the breakdown of social norms regulating behavior; Durkheim labels this state anomie. From a state of anomie come all forms of deviant behavior, most notably suicide.
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 was also very interested in education. Partially this was because he was professionally employed to train teachers, and he used his ability to shape curriculum to further his own goals of having sociology taught as widely possible. More broadly, though, Durkheim was interested in the way that education could be used to provide French citizens the sort of shared, secular background that would be necessary to prevent anomie in modern societies. It was to this end that he also proposed the formation of professional groups to serve as a source of solidarity for adults.
Finally, Durkheim is remembered for his work on 'primitive' (i.e. non-Western) people in books such as his 1912 volume Elementary Forms of the Religious Life and the essay Primitive Classification that he wrote with Marcel Mauss. These works examine the role that religion and mythology have in shaping the worldview and personality of people in extremely (to use Durkheim's phrase) 'mechanical' societies.
- Steven Lukes: Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work, a Historical and Critical Study. Stanford University Press, 1985.
Durkeim argued that education has many functions:
1) To reinforce social solidarity
- History: Learning about individuals who have done good things for the many makes an individual feel insignificant.
- Pledging Allegiance: Makes individuals feel part of a group and therefore less likely to break rules.
2) To maintain social roles
- School is a society in miniature. It has a similar hierarchy, rules, expectations to the "outside world". It trains young people to fulfill roles.
3) To maintain division of labour.
- Sorts students out into skill groups. Teaches students to go into work depending on what they're good at.
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Last updated: 10-29-2005 02:13:46