French sociologist Émile Durkheim is widely regarded as one of the pioneering figures of modern sociology. Living from the mid 19th century through to the early 20th, Durkheim worked tirelessly to make sociology its own field of independent study. Crucial to Durkheim’s theory was his notion that societies cannot be reduced to component parts and must be studied as phenomena in themselves. This revolutionary idea allowed Durkheim and his intellectual descendants to study societies on their own terms, rather than beneath the umbrella of biology, philosophy, or some other field of knowledge.
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THE DIVISION OF LABOR IN SOCIETY
Durkheim made a splash early in his career: 1893’s The Division of Labor in Society was his doctoral dissertation. Durkheim explores the transition from primitive societies to industrial ones. Primitive societies, Durkheim claims, exhibit mechanical solidarity--a cohesion between individuals based on their similarities, whether that be through kinship, familial ties, or religion. Mechanical solidarity can only exist on a small scale. Modern industrial societies demonstrate organic solidarity. Organic solidarity ties individuals together due to the interdependence caused by the division of labor.
RULES OF THE SOCIOLOGICAL METHOD
Durkheim’s 1895 Rules of the Sociological Method is his intellectual manifesto. In Rules Durkheim maintains that the object of study for sociology is social facts. Durkheim classifies these social facts as either normal, those observed in the majority of individuals, or pathological, those observed in the minority of individuals. Social facts are understood as manners of acting and thinking that are imposed on an individual from an outside source rather than the individual’s own conscience. Durkheim, writing in a positivist tradition, maintains that this study must be objective and as close to the scientific method as possible.
Durkheim famously studied suicide as a social fact. In this landmark study Durkheim identifies four different rationales for suicide. Egoistic suicide occurs when an individual does not feel fully integrated into society. Altruistic suicide refers to the opposite situation, in which an individual’s needs are subordinated to the needs of society. Anomic suicide stems from anomie (which we will discuss in greater detail below), but essentially is caused by a lack of certainty and a sense of moral confusion about one’s place in society. Finally, fatalistic suicides are the hypothetical opposite of anomic suicides (Durkheim believed that they probably didn’t exist in actuality), but theoretically suicide could be caused by a society so excessively regulated that an individual would rather die than live in them.
THE ELEMENTARY FORMS OF RELIGIOUS LIFE
In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life Durkheim explores religion as a social phenomenon. Studying first the rituals of the Aborigine people of Australia, Durkheim posits that religion first emerged in the concept of totemism. Individuals found potent symbols for their clan or kinship group in the natural world. These symbols eventually became sacred, separate from the everyday. This trajectory eventually leads to the abstract conception of God seen in large-scale industrial societies.
Anomie may be Durkheim’s most enduring sociological conceit. For Durkheim, anomie was a condition of social disintegration. Anomie occurs when a society is in a state of drastic change. As older societal norms fade and are not immediately replaced by new ones a sense of normlessness can emerge. This can leave members of society confused and/or feeling outcast.
Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:
Durkheim’s theories were the basis for many future discussions of social deviance. If you’re interested, here's an interesting discussion of some examples of deviant behavior.
Durkheim’s work has had a large impact on sociology as a whole. Read this article for an overview of Durkheim’s enduring influence.
Durkheim’s theories were not without their critics. You can read more about those who disagreed here.
Confused about fatalism or anomie? Watch this video to learn more about Durkheim’s theories:
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