Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) was an innovative French sociologist who taught at the university of Bordeaux and the Sorbonne. He’s usually upheld in introductory Humanities courses as as one of great three “classical” sociologists, and one of the founders of sociology as a discipline in its own right. This academic honor also includes Karl Marx and Max Weber.
Among his many achievements and insights, Durkheim is seen as a pioneer in the use of scientific method. Durkheim focused on society instead of the individual. He believed that “collective representations” emerged from many minds that interact in a social environment. Depending on their character, these collective representations had variable but statistically demonstrable effects on society.
In addition, he tended to view society as a doctor would look at a patient. This is often called Durkheim’s “organic metaphor.” His outlook predates what would come to be called structural functionalism. As such, he believed that some social forms were healthier than others.
Durkheim sought to create one of the first rigorous scientific approaches to social phenomena. Along with Herbert Spencer, he 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 maintaining the quotidian (i.e. by how they make society “work”). He also agreed with his organic analogy, comparing society to a living organism. Thus his work is sometimes seen as a precursor to functionalism. Durkheim also insisted that society was more than the sum of its parts.†
Unlike his contemporaries Ferdinand Tönnies and Max Weber, he focused not on what motivates the actions of individuals (an approach associated with methodological individualism), but rather on the study of social facts. As a result, Durkheim contrasted mechanistic social types (where individuals cooperate less, relying on tradition and punitive authority) to organic solidarity (where individuals cooperate more, working together to satisfy mutual needs). And for Durkheim, the former is inferior to that latter.
Durkheim also wrote on alleged “elementary” forms of religion, building his theories on the anthropological studies available at the time. And he did (secondary) statistical analyses of the sociological facts of crime and suicide, trying to link their frequency to particular social conditions and beliefs.
What makes Durkheim unique to most sociologists is his blending of theory, method and observation. In most cases Durkheim provides a detailed outline and defense of his scientific approach before engaging in a particular study. After completing his research, a theoretical analysis of his data follows. However, most of Durkheim’s observations are secondhand. He used the statistics and case studies available to him at the time, and rarely – if ever – went out in the field to do his own primary research.
While this kind of approach wouldn’t wash today in social psychology, many academic sociologists can still get away with armchair philosophy, making pretty obvious statements and distinctions that hard core philosophers have already covered in far greater detail. The only difference is that the sociologist applies conceptual distinctions to everyday life in ways that are more easily understandable and up-to date.‡
‡ Forwarding simplified versions of existing philosophical distinctions is evident in the works of Peter Berger and Erving Goffman. However, Berger talked about the importance of data collection while Goffman usually went a step further, actually going out into the field and getting his own data.
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