Durkheim, Émile (1858–1917)

The most famous French sociologist, long acknowledged as the founding figure of functionalism, but more recently hailed by leading authorities on structuralism, sociolinguistics, and post-modernism, all of whom have found in Durkheim’s writings ideas and sentiments which are easy to incorporate.

Born of Jewish parents (his father was a rabbi), Durkheim was educated at the École Normale Supérieure, where he studied philosophy. After teaching this subject in provincial lycées for five years he obtained a post as a lecturer in social science and education at the University of Bordeaux in 1887. Ten years later he helped found L’Année sociologique, soon to become the most prestigious sociological journal in France, and a focus for an influential Durkheimian school of thought. Durkheim published regularly in the journal until his relatively early death at the age of 59 from a stroke.

Despite a brilliant career as a teacher and researcher, and the publication of a series of controversial monographs which sketched out the methods and subject-matter of the new science of sociology, it was a full fifteen years before Durkheim was eventually called to a Chair in Paris. Some have suggested that, in this, he was a victim of the anti-semitism of French intellectual life. However, it is also true that his single-minded championing of sociology as the most important social science gained him many enemies in the educational establishment, and his career is littered with bitter controversies involving those who rejected his vision of sociology.

Most of his major monographs were translated into English after his death and are, remarkably, still in print even in translation. The impelling logic of The Division of Labour in Society (1893), his controversial doctoral thesis defended after his stint in lycée teaching, was swiftly followed by The Rules of Sociological Method (1895). Durkheim here stressed that sociology as a science would be characterized by observation (rather than abstract theory), the study of social (rather than psychological) facts, and provide both functional and causal explanations. His principles were applied in the complex and multi-dimensional argument of Suicide (1897), in which he seeks to demonstrate that this apparently most personal of acts is ultimately determined by society, and that the suicide-rate is therefore a ‘social fact’. He deploys an aetiological explanation in which the effects (suicides) are evidence of the underlying social currents. His lifelong interest in morality and moral authority (evident, for example, in the depiction of mechanical and organic solidarity in his doctoral thesis) culminated almost inevitably in writings on religion. The conclusion that ‘collective’ individuals worship society, stated most forcefully in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), is an apt epitaph for his work. Other major texts on socialism, morality, and education were published posthumously.

Read more @ GORDON MARSHALL. “Durkheim, Émile.” A Dictionary of Sociology. 1998. Retrieved March 18, 2010 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O88-Durkheimmile.html

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