Émile Durkheim is the most well-known French sociologist. He has been known for a long time as the founder of functionalism, but more recently, he has been praised by top experts in structuralism, sociolinguistics, and postmodernism, who have all found ideas and feelings in Durkheim’s writings that are easy to use.
Durkheim was born to Jewish parents, and he went to the Ecole Normale Superieure to study philosophy. After teaching this subject for five years in provincial lycées, he got a job as a lecturer in social science and education at the University of Bordeaux in 1887. Ten years later, he helped start L’Annee sociologique, which quickly became the most important sociology journal in France and the center of an influential school of thought called Durkheimian. Durkheim wrote often for the journal until he died of a stroke at the age of 59, which was young.
Even though he had a great career as a teacher and researcher and wrote a number of controversial books that expanded the methods and topics of the new science of sociology, it took fifteen years before Durkheim was given a chair in Paris. Some have said that he was a victim of the antisemitism in French intellectual life in this way. But it’s also true that his unwavering belief that sociology was the most important social science made him a lot of enemies in the academic world. His career is full of bitter fights with people who didn’t agree with his view of sociology.
Most of his important monographs were translated into English after he died, and even though they were translated, they are still in print. His controversial doctoral thesis, The Division of Labor in Society (1893), which he defended after teaching at a lycée, had a strong argument. It was quickly followed by The Rules of Sociological Method, which also had a strong argument (1895). Durkheim emphasized here that sociology, as a science, would be based on observation (rather than abstract theory), the study of social (rather than psychological) facts, and explanations of both how things work and why they work that way. His ideas were used in Suicide (1897), a long and complicated argument in which he tried to show that even the most personal acts, like suicide, are ultimately decided by society and that the suicide rate is therefore a “social face.” He uses an aetiological explanation, which says that the effects (suicides) are proof of the social currents that cause them. His lifelong interest in morality and moral authority (which you can see in his doctoral thesis when he talks about mechanical and organic solidarity) led him to write about religion. In The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), he says most strongly that “collective” people worship society. This is a good way to sum up his work. After his death, other important works on socialism, morality, and education were published.
In all of these books, Durkheim’s wide-ranging search for the social and moral foundations of the new industrial society stands out. People on both the left and the right of the political spectrum continue to praise him. His label as a conservative thinker has been thrown out for a long time, and rightly so, given his contributions to the theory of equal opportunity, which can be seen in his writings on education, for example.
Steven Lukes’s definitive biography of Émile Durkheim, Émile Durkheim: His Life and Work (1973), makes it easy to find the key ideas, contrasts, and arguments that make up the Durkheimian tradition. Collective conscience, collective representations, and social facts are all ideas that show how sociology is different from other social sciences (notably psychology). These ideas fit the things that sociology tries to explain, which are group behaviors that can’t be explained by the individual actor or psyche. Also, sociology’s main goal was to explain the relationship between the individual and society, keeping in mind that these two levels of analysis were different. The group that people put together has its own traits, or “facticity,” that can only be explained by social facts at that level. His strong dislike of methodological individualism drove him toward a kind of thinking called “holism,” which sometimes seemed to turn society into a thing (a charge also leveled against subsequent functionalists who looked at society in a similarly holistic way). This important link between the individual and society led to other differences. For example, the difference between the sacred and the profane is that the sacred comes from the group, while the profane comes from the private and individual. The first one was moral, and the second one was sensual.
Durkheim thought that his job was to make sociology a science with its own subject matter, methods, and ways of explaining things. He carried on the work of Comte and Saint-Simon in this way. Also, his concern for what could be called “social engineering” came from his belief that sociology could and should step in when social development didn’t lead to order on its own. He read and thought about the work of people who lived around the same time as him, like Karl Marx. This may explain why his ideas have been described as idealist, realist, positivist, and evolutionary. In reality, his intellectual and personal concerns changed these views into a mix of ideas that were unique to him.
Luke’s biography says nice things about him. In his book Main Currents in Sociological Thought, Raymond Aron systematically criticizes all of Durkheim’s major works in a way that is both careful and pretty harsh (1967).