Emile Durkheim (sociology)

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Emile Durkheim
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Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) was a French sociologist. He formally established the academic discipline of sociology and—with Karl Marx and Max Weber — is commonly cited as the principal architect of modern social science.

Durkheim was born in France in 1858, in a Jewish rabbi (priest) family. He studied Philosophy in college and later taught Philosophy at University of Bordeaux. He wanted to contribute to the moral guidance of society. His goal was to communicate a moral system to young people in an effort to help reverse the moral degeneration he saw around him in French society (aftermath of French Revolution). With ‘Division of Labour (1893)’ he entered the field of Sociology which was at its nascent stage then. He was an admirer of scientific methods therefore wanted to establish Sociology as a science.His is most often considered as a political conservative. He had a different meaning of socialism. To him, socialism represented a system in which the moral principles discovered by scientific sociology were to be applied. He was greatly opposed to agitation and violence, and did not see the proletariat as the salvation of society.

Social facts

Durkheim defines social facts as “ways of acting, thinking and feeling, external to the individual, and endowed with a power of coercion by reason of which they control him”. Durkheim in The Rules of Sociological Method argued that the distinctive subject matter of sociology should be the study of social facts. The concept of social facts has several components but crucial in separating sociology from philosophy is the idea that “social facts are to be treated as things”. In that they are to be treated as things, social facts are to be studied empirically and not philosophically. Durkheim believed that ideas can be known introspectively (philosophically) but things cannot be conceived by purely mental activity. They require for their conception “data from outside the mind”. (This is why Durkheim is a positivist) Further by making social fact as external and coercive, Durkheim has separated sociology from psychology.

For Durkheim, Society is “sui generis” with its own special nature, distinct from that of its members. Social facts are those aspects of social life which have a distinct level of existence and which are not reducible to individual characteristic. Durkheim argued that that the ultimate objective of Sociology is to discover social facts which could form the basis of social reform, so that a cohesive and stable society could be restored.

Characteristics of social facts

  1. Externality: Social facts, according to Durkheim, exist outside individual consciences. Their existence is external and independent to the individuals. For example, religious beliefs and practices exist outside and prior to the individual.
  2. Constraint: Social facts exercise a coercive power over the individual members of the collectivity (society) by which they shape and regulate their behaviour. For example, crying on the death of a family member is obligatory.
  3. Generality: Social facts are diffused throughout the collectivity (society) and are commonly shared bymostof the members. That is, they have general occurrence in a society.

Types of social facts

  1. Material: These are real, material entities. They have materialized so far as to become an element of the external world.
  2. Non-material: These are facts have not attained materialization. Example – norms, values, religious beliefs etc.

Another classification associated with social facts is as follows:

  • Morphological social facts: These are material facts which make the structure of a society. In other words, they are the elementary parts of which society is composed. Example – distribution of population, forms of dwellings, communication technology.
  • Institutional social facts: These are social facts which represent the collective nature of the society as a whole. Example – Legal rules, religion, moral rules etc.
  • Non-institutional social facts (social currents): These are social facts which have not yet acquired crystallized forms. They have not attained a total objective and independent existence comparable to the institutionalized ones. Example – mob behaviour (everyone claps after a performance whether they liked it or not)

Based on the above two classifications, social facts can be understood to form a continuum on the scale of materialization. This is depicted in the following figure.

Types of social facts (figure)
Types of social facts

The rules of sociological method

The rules of observation of social facts:

  • First and foremost rule – “Consider social facts as things”. While studying social facts as ‘things’ the following three rules have to be followed in order to be objective.
  • All preconceptions must be eradicated.
  • Sociologists have to formulate the concepts precisely. They must proceed by conceptualising their subject matter in terms of those properties which are external enough to be observed.
  • Sociologists must consider social facts from an aspect that is independent of their individual manifestations.

Rules for distinguishing between the normal and the pathological:

A social fact is considered to be normal when it is understood in the context of the society in which it exists. A social fact, which is ‘general’ to a given type of society, is ‘normal’ when it has utility for that societal type. For example, crime is normal because, firstly it exists in societies of all types. Secondly, it provides opportunities through which a society can either reaffirm the existing norms, or else reassess such behaviour, and modify the norm itself. Therefore Durkheim considered crime and punishment both as normal. However when the rate of crime exceeds what is more or less constant for a given social type, then it becomes an abnormal or pathological fact.

Rules for the classification of social types:

Durkheim uses the term ‘social morphology’ for the classification of social types. The word “type” means the common characteristics of several units in a group e.g. “bachelors” and “married persons” belong to two types. Durkheim wants societies to be classified according to their degree of organisation, taking as a basis the ‘perfectly simple society’ or the ‘society of one segment’ like the ‘horde’. Hordes combine to form aggregates which one could call ‘simple polysegmental’. These combine to form polysegmental societies simply compounded’. A union of such societies would result in still more complex societies called ‘polysegmental societies doubly compounded’ and so on.

Rules for explanation of social facts:

There are two approaches, which may be used in the explanation of social facts - the causal and the functional. The former is concerned with explaining ‘why’ the social phenomenon in question exists. The latter involves establishing the “correspondence between the fact under consideration and the general needs of the social organism, and in what this correspondence consists”.

  1. In the case of causal explanation “the determining cause of a social fact should be sought among the social facts preceding it and not among the states of the individual consciousness”.
  2. In the case of functional explanation “the function of a social fact ought always to be sought in its relation to some social end”

Comparative method

According to Durkheim, experimentation is a crucial method for testing theories. However, experimentation, is not possible in sociology. Therefore, the comparative method is the closest alternative to experimentation, for testing sociological explanations. The comparative method must be based upon the principle of concomitant variations. To show that a given fact is the cause of another “we have to compare cases in which they are simultaneously present or absent, to see if the variations they present in these different combinations of circumstances indicate that one depends on the other”. Its validity is due to the fact that the concomitant variations display the causal relationship not by coincidence but intrinsically. When two phenomena vary directly with each other, this relationship must be accepted even when in, certain cases, one of these phenomena should be present without the other. For it may be either that the cause has been prevented from producing its effect by the action of some contrary cause or that it is present but in a form different from the one previously observed. Concomitant variation can be done at different levels - single society, several societies of the same species of social type, or several distinct social species. The comparative method is the very framework of the science of society for Durkheim. According to Durkheim, “comparative sociology is not a particular branch of sociology; it is sociology itself, in-so-far as it ceases to be purely descriptive and aspires to account for fact”.

Collective conscience and collective representations

Durkheim describes collective consciousness as ‘the body of beliefs and sentiments common to the average of the members of a society’. It has a life of its own and it is distributed throughout the whole of the society. Although collective conscience can only be realized through individuals, it has a form beyond a particular person, and operates at a level higher than the individual. It varies in extent and force from one society to another. It is the collective conscience, which governs the existence of individuals. It acts as an agency to regulate behaviour as well as means of knowing the world. Any action which offends the collective conscience is termed as crime. The stronger the collective conscience of a society, the greater the punishment against crime. Collective conscience is also reflective of the degree of cohesion, integration or solidarity of a society. In primitive society, conscience collective was strongest whereas in modern society the influence of conscience collective has reduced.

Collective representations

Collective representations are states of the collective conscience, which are different in nature from the states of the individual conscience. They express the way in which a particular group of individuals conceives itself in relation to the objects, which affect the social group. Durkheim stressed the independent reality of collective representations. For example, the substrata of individual representations are the brain cells of the body. But they cannot be wholly reduced to or explained in terms of the constituent parts of their substratum. The individual representations have their own characteristics and have relative autonomy independent of substratum. In the same way, collective representations have their own characteristics and have relative autonomy independent of substratum. Durkheim states that collective representations result from the substratum of associated individuals. But they cannot be reduced to and wholly explained by features of constituent individuals. They are ‘sui generis’ that is, they generate themselves. Original and fundamental forms of collective representations bear the marks of their origin (substratum). The substratum is constituted by the number and nature of social elements, the way in which they are grouped and distributed over a geographical area etc. However once the collective representations have thus been formed, they become partially autonomous realities. Then they live their own life with the power to attract and repel one another. Further, they form synthesis of all kinds and engender new collective representations. Collective representation is either a concept or a category of thought held in a sufficiently similar form by many persons to allow effective communication. A concept has a particular stable existence, and it does not move by itself and resists change. It changes only when we discover some imperfection in a concept and rectify it. Further a concept is universal. Individuals can communicate through a concept. Concepts are collective representations and belong to the whole society. They bear the mark of no particular mind. Concepts as collective representations are more or less general ideas prevalent in a society. For example in the context of modern nation states, the national flag and the national anthem are collective representations.

Analogy with individual representation
Brain cell Individuals
Mind Collective Conscience
Individual representation (thought)(state of mind) Collective representations(state of collective conscience)

Division of labour

Division of labour means the splitting up of an activity into a number of parts or smaller processes. These smaller processes are undertaken by different persons or groups of persons, thereby speeding up the performance of the activity. To Durkheim division of labour is a material social fact that involves the degree to which tasks or responsibilities are specialized. He rejects a narrow and purely economic interpretation of division of labour. For him division of labour is a more fundamental phenomena having ramifications for the whole society. In fact, increasing specialization in the economic sphere itself is a consequence of a general social differentiation. He explores the consequences of division of labour for the society as a whole. He probes the relationship between the division of labour and the manner in which solidarity comes about.

Mechanical solidarity Dynamic density ↑ Division of labour ↑ Organic solidarity

His analysis is based on the conception of two ideal types of society. The more primitive type, characterized bymechanical solidarity, has a relatively undifferentiated social structure, with little or no division of labour. The more modern type, characterized byorganic solidarity, has a much greater and more refined division of labour. The major factor in transition from mechanical to organic solidarity is increase in‘dynamic density’. Dynamic density refers to number of people (material density)andthe amount of interaction that occurs among them (moral density) (both taken together). Division of labour develops as a result of increase in dynamic density and it gives rise to organic solidarity.

Mechanical solidarity Organic solidarity
Collective conscience is very extensive and strong and almost fully engulfs individual conscience. Weak collective conscience.
Collective conscience attaches supreme values to the society. Collective conscience attaches supreme values to the society to individual.
It is based on likeness (all are generalists). It is based on differences and division of labour.
The content of collective conscience is pre-eminently religious. The content of collective conscience is secular.
Laws are repressive and penal in character. Laws are restitutive and co-operative (as collective morality is not so powerful and coercive).
Social cohesion (solidarity) is lesser as all compete against each other. Social cohesion (solidarity) is greater as labour of one fits into the labour of the other and there is less competition.

The division of labour in organic solidarity as described above refers to what it ought to be (and not really what it is). Therefore Durkheim called the above description as normal division of labour. There also exists abnormal division of labour – anomic division of labour, forced division of labour, and inadequate organisation.


Literally translated, anomie means “normlessness”. Individuals are said to be confronted with anomie when they are not faced with sufficient moral constraint, that is, when they don’t have a clear concept of what is and what is not proper and acceptable behaviour. Durkheim developed the concept of anomie to explain the chaos in 18th and 19th century laissez faire society. Durkheim considered anomie as a pathology (disease) which can be cured. Anomie occurs because of decline in collective morality and lack of sufficient external regulation. Durkheim believed that the structural division of labour is a source of cohesion (organic solidarity) that will compensate for the declining strength of collective morality. Thus for Durkheim, anomie is temporary. He explained the anomie during 18th and 19th century as the transition phase, from mechanical solidarity to organic solidarity. He gave a solution to curb this anomie – develop professional ethics which would govern the work of individuals.

Why anomie occurs during transition from mechanical solidarity to organic solidarity?

The specialized division of labour itself tends to produce anomie. It encourages individualism and self-interest since it is based on individual differences rather than similarities.

Forced division of labour

Forced division of labour occurs due to socially structured inequalities which undermine solidarity. Individual specialization and occupation is not freely chosen but forced upon each person by custom, law and even sheer chance. For example, caste system in India – a potter’s son would become a potter and a priest’s son would become a priest. The problem here is not a lack of rules but rather the excess of them. The rules (norms, customs etc.) enforces division of labour of coercively. From a Marxist perspective, this is an essential characteristic of inherently oppressive capitalist system. For example, a poor labourer (proletariat) cannot choose a bourgeoisie occupation. Durkheim’s solution – equality of opportunity and meritocracy. For this to be possible all forms of hereditary privilege should be abolished.“There cannot be rich and poor at birth without there being unjust contracts”.

Inadequate organisation

In this abnormal form the very purpose of division of labour is destroyed. Work is not well organised and coordinated. Workers are often engaged in doing meaningless tasks. There is no unity of action. Thus solidarity breaks down and disorder results.


Durkheim in his work of suicide showed that differences or changes in the collective conscience lead to differences in or changes in suicide rates. By this Durkheim refuted the theories purely on psychology, and biology. Durkheim argued that suicidal currents (collective tendencies) dominate some very susceptible individuals and catch them in their sweep. He believes that the act of suicide is a product of these currents. Therefore suicide rates are social facts. Although he does not rules out the role of psychic factors but distinguishes between psychic pre-disposition and social determinism(society determines the suicide rate and psychology determines who will commit suicide).

The conclusion of Durkheim is based on the following observations:

  1. Protestants have higher rate of suicide than Catholics
  2. Unmarried people have higher rate than married people.
  3. Peaceful times have higher rate than war times.

Durkheim argued that in each instance the former have a lower level of integration than the latter. Therefore, the more ties binding the individual to the domestic group, the greater is his social integration and the less likely he is to commit suicide. Durkheim claimed that the study of suicide showed that the behaviour was a product of social facts rather than individual motives.

Why higher integration leads to less suicide and vice-versa?

  1. Suicide is morally condemned in all societies. In a highly integrated social group, control over the behaviour if individual is strong. Thus there is considerable pressure against suicide.
  2. Individual’s goals and values are given to him by the society. An isolated individual’s life lacks purpose and meaning. Thus he is more vulnerable to suicide.

Types of suicide

Types of suicides by Durkheim (figure)
Types of suicides by Durkheim

Durkheim identified four basic types of suicide:

  1. Egoistic suicide: It results from lack of integration of individual into his social group. Lack of integration leads to meaninglessness. For example – suicide of hostel students due to depression.
  2. Altruistic suicide: It results from over integration of the individual into his social group. When social integration is too strong, the individual is literally forced into committing suicide. Those who commit altruistic suicide do so because they feel that it is their moral duty to do so. For example – suicide bombers.
  3. Anomic suicide: This results from the normlessness or deregulation in society. When regulative powers of society are disrupted, individuals have little control of their passion. They feel dissatisfied as they have unlimited aspirations and not all of their desires are fulfilled. In Durkheim’s words, “people thus freed (of society’s regulation) will become slave to their passions”. For example – the person who suddenly becomes rich, the person who suddenly loses his/her spouse (in both the examples, anomie is introduced in the person’s life).
  4. Fatalistic suicide: This results from over regulation. Oppressive regulation chokes the passions of individual and causes the feeling of hopelessness. The individual see no future and commits suicide. For example – the suicide of a slave.


  1. Durkheim seemed to deny altogether the social significance of individual decision.
  2. It suggests that individual have no control over his actions.
  3. Douglas: Official statistics are highly inaccurate and systematically biased. Highly integrated groups are more likely to conceal suicides. This may in part account for differences in suicide rates.
  4. Atkinson: A death is recorded as suicide based on the common-sense theories of the Coroner. Thus social scientists who look for causes of suicide in social situation may simply be revealing the common sense theories of the coroner. (Phenomenological perspective)


Durkheim in his book, The Elementary Forms of Religion, dealt with religion directly as a non-material social fact. The book contains a description of the clan system and of Totemism in the Arunta tribe of Australian aborigines. In Durkheim’s view if the simplest form of religion is understood, it will be of immense use in understanding the complexities of ‘organised’ religions.

Sacred and profane

According to Durkheim, the essence of religion is the division of the world into two kinds of phenomena – the sacred and the profane. The sacred refers to things which are set apart and deemed forbidden, and thus requires special treatment. The profane refers to the everyday, the commonplace, the utilitarian, and the mundane aspects of life. However the differentiation between sacred and profane are necessary but not sufficient conditions for the development of religion. Three other conditions needed – beliefs, rites and church. Beliefs are the collective representations which express the nature of sacred things and the relations which they sustain, either with each other or with profane things. Rites are the rules of conduct which prescribe how a man should behave in the presence of the sacred objects. Church is an overarching moral community (an organised group of followers). Thus Durkheim defines religion as, “a unified system of beliefs and practices related to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden. These beliefs and practices unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.”

What is the source of religion?

Society is the sources of all religion. Society (through individuals) creates religion by defining the sacred and the profane. Society designates certain objects as sacred and expects its members to show an attitude of awe and reverence towards these objects. For example, the water of Ganga is regarded as sacred by the Hindu community (society) despite of the fact that Ganga is highly polluted today. Thus sacredness is imposed by society only.


Durkheim maintains that totemism is the most simple form of religion. Totemism is a religious system in which certain things, particularly animals and plants, come to be regarded as sacred and as emblems of the clans. The members of the clan believe themselves to have descended from some common ancestor. The “common ancestor” is the “totemic object”. It is the totemic object that gives the clan its name and identity. It is endowed with sacredness. Many taboos or ‘don’ts’ are attached to the totemic object. Durkheim maintains that it is not actually the animal or plant itself that is worshipped or held sacred, but a nameless and impersonal force which exists throughout the world and is diffused amongst all the material objects of the world. This immaterial force is the collective conscience (of the clan) or more simply the clan itself. In Durkheim’s view, ‘God’ is nothing but society apotheosised or glorified and given a different shape and form. Religion is nothing but giving society itself a divine form because it stands outside of individuals, exerting physical and moral constraints on them. Its power is feared, its authority is respected (this is why it is worshipped). Society is worshipped in the form of an object (totem or God) because it is easier for men to visualize and direct his feelings of awe toward a symbol than towards so complex thing as a clan.

Functions of religion

To Durkheim, the function of religion is creation, reinforcement and maintenance of social solidarity. Worship of society strengthens the values and moral beliefs which form the basis of social life. Rituals such as festivals help to produce “collective effervescence” or a feeling of collective enthusiasm and involvement which strengthens social bonds and promotes social solidarity.

What to do when religion is losing its coercive power in modern time?

Durkheim’s solution – discover a rational substitute or the religious notions. He advocated a new humanistic religion for the modern society.


  • The religions which do not have the concept of God (for example Buddhism), cannot be satisfactorily explained by Durkheim’s theory.
  • Durkheim has not explained why certain objects are considered sacred and others profane. He suggests that choice of objects is arbitrary and unimportant. This is not true as certain sacred objects do have material basis.
  • It is not clear why there has to be only two classes of objects – sacred and profane. There can be three classes – sacred, mundane and taboo.
  • Religion doesn’t always promote solidarity and social order. In complex and plural societies inter and intra religious conflicts threatens social order rather than enhancing it.
  • Durkheim predicted that religion will disappear in modern society as it is based on organic solidarity. This does not seem to be happening.

Other thoughts of Durkheim


Durkheim assumed that people are endowed with a variety of egoistic drives (passions) that, if unbridled, constitute a threat to themselves as well as society. To Durkheim, people are free when their passions are constrained by external forces, and the most general and most important of these forces is the common morality. Thus freedom is a characteristic of society, and not of individuals.

Social reformism

Durkheim was a social reformer who saw problems of society in modern society as temporary aberrations and not as inherent difficulties. He argued that the problems of the day were “pathologies” that could be cured by the “social physician” who recognised the moral nature of the world’s problems and undertook structural reforms to alleviate them. The pathology described are anomie, inequality and inadequate organisation in the work world.