I have often thought
of Durkheim's reputation as being somewhat over inflated in sociology.
I have had many arguments with colleagues on this score. They point
out several contributions he has made to the field:
Distinguishing and elaborating
the field of sociology from the other social sciences.
His emphasis on empirical
data to lend support to his theoretical speculations.
His focus on the division
of labor and its consequences for social life.
The collective conscience
or the need for a common core of values and beliefs.
His sociology of religion
is still considered seminal.
Some of these accomplishments
I find in earlier theorists. August Comte, for example, writes of
the division of labor and how its development leads to a shift in social
bonds from similarity to interdependence. Karl Marx, it seems to
me, has a far better grip on how destructive of social solidarity the detailed
division of labor can be. T. Robert Malthus writes of the effect
of population (and other components of the social system) on various
parts of the social system and on the whole in a distinctly functionalist
manner. Malthus also uses available government data on birth and
death rates almost 100 years before Durkheim. While Durkheim
is the first to be accorded academic status as a sociologist, I just don't
believe his contributions and insights rank him in the same league as such
titans as Marx and Weber.
Still, the influence
of Durkheim on sociology is formidable. For this reason alone he
must be included in any work on classical sociology. A basic understanding
of Durkheim is essential for understanding sociology today.
According to Durkheim,
social facts (or social phenomena or forces) are the subject matter of
sociology. Social facts are sui generis,
and must be studied distinct from biological and psychological phenomenon.
They can be defined as patterns of behavior that are capable of exercising
some coercive power upon individuals. They are guides and controls
of conduct that are external to the individual in the form of group norms,
mores and folkways. Through socialization and education these rules
become internalized in the consciousness of the individual. These
social constraints and guides become moral obligations to obey social rules.
The central issue in
Durkheim's work concerns the source of social order and disorder.
According to Durkheim, the desires and self-interests of human beings can
only be held in check by forces that originate outside of the individual.
"The more one has, the more one wants, since satisfactions received only
stimulate instead of filling needs." Durkheim characterizes this
external force as a collective conscience, a common social bond that is
expressed by the ideas, values, norms, beliefs and ideologies of the culture,
institutionalized in the social structure, and internalized by individual
members of the culture. He elaborated the cause and effects of weakening
group ties on the individual in his two works, The Division of Labor
in Society (1893) and Suicide (1897).
In The Division
of Labor, Durkheim identifies two forms or types of solidarity which
are based on different sources. Mechanical solidarity is "solidarity
which comes from likeness," Durkheim writes, and "is at its maximum when
the collective conscience completely envelops our whole conscience and
coincides in all points with it." This occurs, Durkheim claims, in
early societies in which there is not much division of labor. Such
societies are relatively homogenous, men and women engage in similar tasks
and daily activities, people have similar experiences. In such societies
the few distinct institutions express similar values and norms that tend
to reinforce one another.
Durkheim adds, means that "ideas and tendencies common to all members of
the society are greater in number and intensity than those which pertain
personally to each member." The norms, values and beliefs of the
society (or the collective conscience) are so homogenous and confront the
individual with such overwhelming and consistent force, that there is little
opportunity in such societies for individuality or deviance from this collective
conscience. The collective conscience and individual consciences
are virtually identical.
According to Durkheim,
traditional cultures experienced a high level of social and moral integration,
there was little individuation, and most behaviors were governed by social
norms, which were usually embodied in religion. By engaging in the
same activities and rituals, people in traditional societies shared common
moral values, which Durkheim called a collective conscience (modern sociologists
would refer to them as the norms and values of society, which are internalized
by individuals). In traditional societies, people tend to regard
themselves as members of a group; the collective conscience embraces individual
awareness, and there is little sense of personal options.
The second form of
solidarity Durkheim terms "organic." Organic solidarity develops
as a by-product of the division of labor. As a society becomes more
complex, individuals play more specialized roles and become ever more dissimilar
in their social experiences, material interests, values, and beliefs.
Individuals within such a sociocultural system have less in common; however,
they must become more dependent upon each other for their very survival.
The growth of individualism is an inevitable result of the increasing division
of labor, and this individualism can develop only at the expense of the
common values, beliefs and normative rules of society--the sentiments and
beliefs that are held by all. With the loosening of these common rules
and values we also lose our sense of community, or identity with the group.
The social bond is thereby weakened and social values and beliefs no longer
provide us with coherent, consistent, or insistent moral guidance.
Although the diversity
of norms and values has the potential to liberate the individual from tradition
and the hierarchies of family, church, and community, the diversity also
creates problems. According to Durkheim, if an individual lacks any
source of social restraint she will tend to satisfy her own appetites with
little thought of the possible effect her actions will have on others.
Instead of asking "is this moral?" or "does my family approve?" the individual
is more likely to ask "does this action meet my needs?" The individual
is left to find her own way in the world--a world in which personal options
for behavior have multiplied as strong and insistent norms have weakened.
Durkheim insisted that
the study of society must not rely on psychological factors alone
(reductionism). Rather, social phenomenon must be considered
as a different class or level of fact. To demonstrate the power of
these social facts in determining human behavior, Durkheim studied suicide.
Suicide was an action that was widely perceived as one of the most intensely
individual acts, one that is purely determined by psychological and biographical
For example, we believe
we can understand why Bryan Cadwallader committed suicide by examining
the poor fellow's biography and psychology. After all, Bryan was
the youngest of eight and the baby of his family. He was improperly
toilet trained. His father and he never properly bonded. He
was prone to athletes foot and bad breath. His children hated him.
His wife ran off with a traveling balloonist. And his dog had bitten
him the day he killed himself.
But facts like these
cannot explain variations in suicide rates among different racial, ethnic,
religious, and occupational groups. Durkheim reasoned that while
suicide occurs in all societies, the suicide rate for various groups are
often both different than other groups within the same society and stable
over time. These differences and stability in group rates indicated
that there was something other than psychology involved in the decision
to commit suicide. Why is it that Protestants are more prone to suicide
than Catholics? Why are there stable rates of suicide, year after
year, within the same groups and societies? Why do rates differ between
age groups within the same society? It is simply impossible, Durkheim
insisted, to explain or interpret the characteristics and behaviors of
human groups on a psychological or biological basis. Much of who
and what we are, of how we behave and what we believe, is due to
In order to explain
differential rates of suicide in various religious and occupational groups,
Durkheim studied the ways these groups brought about social cohesion and
solidarity among their members. He hypothesized that a significantly
higher rate of suicide in a particular group was an indication that the
social cohesion of that group was weak, and that its members were no longer
protected during personal crises. Through an examination of government
data, Durkheim demonstrated that suicide varies with the degree of social
two types of suicide based on the source of this perceived lack of cohesion.
suicide occurs among some men and women who are not sufficiently integrated
into social groups. Because they do not belong, or belonging, they
do not interact and participate, when they are confronted with personal
crisis they must face it alone. They have not internalized the regulation
and guidance, nor do they have the social support needed to handle the
The second type of
suicide based on the lack of group cohesion Durkheim labels anomic suicide.
Anomic suicide is likely to occur when the group fails to give the individual
enough regulation and guidance. Protestantism, for example, "concedes
a greater freedom of individual thought than Catholicism...it has fewer
common beliefs and practices." Because of this, Durkheim reasoned, we should
see higher rates of suicide among Protestants as a response to these weaker
rules of conduct and emphasis upon autonomy and individualism. Because
of the increasing division of labor, as well as social trends that weaken
the traditional ties of community and family, this type of suicide is associated
A third major type
Durkheim labeled altruistic suicide. This type of suicide
occurs when the individual is tightly integrated into a group, and the
group requires that individual to give up her life. It occurs among
soldiers for their friends, nationalists for their countries, true believers
for their cause. While he was aware of the dangers of the breakdown
of social order, he also realized that too much social control of individual
behavior could be dangerous as well (Coser, 1977).
the modern individual as suffering from social norms that are weak or often
contradictory. Durkheim defines anomie as a condition of relative
normlessness in a whole society or in one of its component groups.
When these social regulations break down the controlling influence on individual
desires and interests is ineffective; individuals are left to their own
devices. Without normative regulation and moral guidance, deviance
and stress are the result.
two major causes of anomie: the division of labor, and rapid social change.
Both of these are, of course, associated with modernity. In the literature
the focus tends to be on rapid change experienced by individuals either
up or down the social structure. Here let us focus again on the division
of labor. The individual in modern society is confronted with a variety
of groups that have different values and goals, each of which competes
for the individual's allegiance.
Compare the norms on
premarital sexuality for females in more traditional societies (say America
in 1900) with those of contemporary American society. (The double-standard
on sexual behavior for males and females is part of our traditional morality;
that is, boys have always been given mixed messages.) In a traditional
setting, the strength of the bond is more intense between a young woman
and the relatively few groups she belongs to. The message from all
groups, family, church, school, and peers is virtually the same: "Don't
do it." Compare this uniformity of message with the conflicting messages
received by girls in modern American society. In most families, the
message from the parent(s) is: "Don't do it"; although the message may
be mixed if a teenager has older siblings. If she belongs to a traditional
church, the message is the same. Movies, television, and music video
messages, however, amount to "Everybody's doing it" (and are more beautiful
and happier as a result). Media ads are encouraging: "Just do it!", connecting
the product they are trying to sell with promises of sexual fulfillment.
The school she attends as well as "Dear Abby" are telling her: "Don't do
it; but if you do, use a condom." And finally, her peer group, particularly
if she has a boyfriend, is encouraging her to: "Do it." Consequently,
the young woman is left to her own devices; her personal desires and natural
curiosity are not disciplined by consistent or strong group norms.
Durkheim refers to this social condition as anomie--a condition in which
individuals are given weak, inconsistent, or incoherent normative rules
A key point of Durkheim's
concept of anomie is this: An increasing division of labor weakens the
sense of identification within the wider community and weakens social constraints
on human behavior. These conditions lead to social "dis-integration"
--high rates of egocentric behavior, norm violation, and consequent delegitimation
and distrust of authority. In the final analysis Durkheim's whole
sociology revolves around this issue.
His is not a straight-line
evolutionary theory, however. In his conception, anomie and unrestrained
egoism are as harmful to the individual as they are to the sociocultural
system, and institutions (and individuals) react to the social disorder
that result. Durkheim believed that the functional needs of society
necessitate the emergence of new forms of social integration. Even
modern sociocultural systems with a high degree of a division of labor
still need a common faith, a common collective conscience to integrate
people into the society.
There are two legitimate
aims of social investigation, to identify the historical causes or origins
of a social phenomenon, and to identify its functions for the social system
as a whole. "The determination of function is . . . necessary for
the complete explanation of the phenomena. . . .To explain a social fact
it is not enough to show the cause on which it depends; we must also, at
least in most cases, show its function in the establishment of social order"
Determining the functions
of social institutions and patterns of social facts played a key role in
all of Durkheim's sociology. For example, Durkheim saw crime as a
normal occurrence in any social system and as serving some positive functions
for the society as a whole. First, crime and the reaction to crime,
he asserts, provides society with a point of normative consensus.
By condemning the crime we are reaffirming bonds among the non criminal
population, asserting that the group condemns and punishes the criminal
action. A second function of crime is the drawing of boundaries for
human behavior. By defining such boundaries, and punishing those
who cross them, we are strengthening the collective conscience. A
third function of crime is to provide a certain amount of flexibility within
the society. "Where crime exists, collective sentiments are sufficiently
flexible to take on a new form, and crime sometimes helps to determine
the form they will take. How many times, indeed, it is only an anticipation
of future morality--a step toward what will be" (1950, p. 71).
To discover the essence
of religion and the functions it served, Durkheim studied animism, totemism
(religious beliefs based on the worship of sacred objects which are often
thought to possess supernatural powers) and other "primitive" beliefs.
"Now when primitive religious beliefs are systematically analyzed, the
principal categories are naturally found. They are born in religion and
of religion; they are a product of religious thought" (1954, p. 9).
All religions divide social life into two spheres, he concluded, the sacred
and the profane.
There is nothing intrinsic
about a particular object which makes it sacred, he says. An object
becomes sacred only when the community invests it with that meaning.
Religion is "an eminently collective thing" (1954, p.47). Religion
is not only a social creation; it is the power of the community that is
being worshiped. The power of the community or society over the individual
so transcends individual existence that people collectively give it sacred
significance. By worshiping God people are worshiping the power of
the collective over all, they are worshiping society.
It was religion, according
to Durkheim, which is one of the main forces that make up the collective
conscience, religion which allows the individual to transcend self and
act for the social good. But traditional religion was weakening under
the onslaught of the division of labor; what could replace religion as
the common bond?
things of the past which filled our fathers with enthusiasm do not excite
the same ardor in us...In a word, the old gods are growing old or already
dead, and others are not yet born...But this state of incertitude and confused
agitation cannot last for ever. A day will come when our societies
will know again those hours of creative effervescence, in the course of
which new formulae are found which serve for a while as a guide to humanity;
and when these hours shall have been passed through once, men will spontaneously
feel the need of reliving them from time to time in thought, that is to
say, of keeping alive their memory by means of celebrations which regularly
reproduce their fruits. We have already seen how the French Revolution
established a whole cycle of holidays to keep the principles with which
it was inspired in a state of perpetual youth....There are no gospels which
are immortal, but neither is there any reason for believing that humanity
is incapable of inventing new ones. As to the question of what symbols
this new faith will express itself with, whether they will resemble the
past or not, and whether or not they will be more adequate for the reality
which they seek to translate, that is something which surpasses the human
faculty of foresight and which does not appertain to the principal question"
(1954, pp. 475-476).
While men are losing faith
in the old religions, new religions will be born. For all societies
feel the need to express their collective sentiments, ideas and ideologies
in regular ceremony. While the forms and particular symbols may change,
religion is eternal.
"The determining cause
of a social fact should be sought among the social facts preceding it and
not among the states of individual consciousness" (1950, p. 110).
[My] "principal objective
[is] . . .to extend scientific rationalism to human behavior" (1951, p.
"The more one has,
the more one wants, since satisfactions received only stimulate instead
of filling needs" (1951, p. 248).
A religion is a unified
system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say,
things set apart and forbidden--beliefs and practices which unite in one
single community called a Church, all those who adhere to them" (1954,
"The believer who has
communicated with his god is not merely a man who sees new truths of which
the unbeliever is ignorant; he is a man who is stronger. He feels within
him more force, wither to endure the trials of existence, or to conquer
them" (1954, p. 416).
"At the roots of all
our judgments there are a certain number of essential ideas which dominate
all our intellectual life; they are what the philosophers since Aristotle
have called the categories of the understanding: ideas of time, space,
class, numbers, cause, substance, personality, etc. They correspond to
the most universal properties of things. They are like the solid frame
which encloses all thought; . . .They are like the framework of intelligence.
Now when primitive religious beliefs are systematically analyzed, the principal
categories are naturally found. They are born in religion and of religion;
they are a product of religious thought" (1954, p. 9).
"Thus there is something
eternal in religion which is destined to survive all the particular symbols
in which religious thought has successively enveloped itself. There can
be no society which does not feel the need of upholding and reaffirming
at regular intervals the collective sentiments and the collective ideas
which make its unity and its personality. Now this moral remaking cannot
be achieved except by the means of reunions, assemblies, and meetings where
the individuals, being closely united to one another, reaffirm in common
their common sentiments; hence come ceremonies which do not differ from
regular religious ceremonies, either in their object, the results which
they produce, or the processes employed to attain these results. What essential
difference is there between an assembly of Christians celebrating the principal
dates in the life of Christ, or of Jews remembering the exodus from Egypt
or the promulgation of the Decalogue, and a reunion of citizens commemorating
the promulgation of a new moral or legal system or some great event in
the national life?" (1954, p. 427).
"We must discover the
rational substitutes for these religious notions that for a long time have
served as the vehicle for the most essential moral ideas" (1961, p. 9).
"Society is not at
all the illogical or a-logical, inherent and fantastic being which has
too often been considered. Quite on the contrary, the collective
consciousness is the highest form of psychic life, since it is the consciousness
of consciousness. Being placed outside of and above individual and
local contingencies, it sees things only in their permanent and essential
aspects, which it crystallizes into communicable ideas. At the same
time that it sees from above, it sees farther; at every moment of time
it embraces all known reality; that is why it alone can furnish the minds
with the moulds which are applicable to the totality of things and which
make it possible to think of them" (1954, p.444).
On Social Structure:
"But if there is one
fact that history has irrefutably demonstrated it is that the morality
of each people is directly related to the social structure of the people
practicing it. The connection is so intimate that, given the general
character of the morality observed in a given society and barring abnormal
and pathological cases, one can infer the nature of that society, the elements
of its structure and the way it is organized. Tell me the marriage
patterns, the morals dominating family life, and I will tell you the principal
characteristics of its organization" (1961, p. 87).
"Where crime exists,
collective sentiments are sufficiently flexible to take on a new form,
and crime sometimes helps to determine the form they will take. How
many times, indeed, it is only an anticipation of future morality--a step
toward what will be" (1950, p. 71).
"Crime brings together
upright consciences and concentrates them" (1960, 103).
On Mechanical and
"Social life comes
from a double source, the likeness of consciences and the division of labor.
The individual is socialized in the first case, because, not having any
real individuality, he becomes, with those whom he resembles, part of the
same collective type; in the second case, because, while having a physiognomy
and a personal activity which distinguishes him from others, he depends
upon them in the same measure that he is distinguished from them, and consequently
upon the society which results from their union" (1960, p. 226).
"The other (mechanical
solidarity) is strong only if the individual is not. Made up of rules which
are practiced by all indistinctly, it receives fromthis universal, uniform
practice an authority which bestows something superhuman upon it, and which
puts it beyond the pale of discussion. The co-operative society, on the
contrary, develops in the measure that individual personality becomes stronger.
As regulated as a function may be, there is a large place always left for
personal initiative" (1960, pp. 228-229).
On the Division
"Even where society
relies most completely upon the division of labor, it does not become a
jumble of juxtaposed atoms, between which it can establish only external,
transient contacts. Rather the members are united by ties which
extend deeper and far beyond the short moments during which the exchange
in made. Each of the functions they exercise is, in a fixed way,
dependent upon others, and with them forms a solitary system. Accordingly,
from the nature of chosen task permanent duties arise. Because we
fill some certain domestic or social function, we are involved in a complex
of obligations from which we have no right to free ourselves. There
is, above all, an organ upon which we are tending to depend more and more;
this is the State. The points at which we are in contact with it
multiply as do the occasions when it is entrusted with the duty of reminding
us of the sentiment of common solidarity" (1960, p. 227).
"Because the individual
is not sufficient unto himself, it is for society that he works. Thus is
formed a very strong sentiment of the state of dependence in which he finds
himself. He becomes accustomed to estimating it at its just value, that
is to say, in regarding himself as part of a whole, the organ of an organism.
Such sentiments naturally inspire not only mundane sacrifices which assure
the regular development of daily social life, but even, on occasion, acts
of complete self-renunciation and wholesale abnegation" (1960, p. 228).
"When . . . the explanation
of a social phenomenon is undertaken, we must seek separately the efficient
cause which produces it and the function it fulfills. We use the
word "function," in preference to "end" or "purpose," precisely because
social phenomena do not generally exist for the useful results they produce.
We must determine whether there is a correspondence between the fact under
consideration and the general needs of the social organism, and in what
this correspondence consists, without occupying ourselves with whether
it has been intentional or not" (1950, 95).
of function is . . . necessary for the complete explanation of the phenomena.
. . .To explain a social fact it is not enough to show the cause on which
it depends; we must also, at least in most cases, show its function in
the establishment of social order" (1950, 97).
Durkheim, Emile. 1960
 The Division of Labor in Society. Translated by George
Simpson. New York: The Free Press.
Durkheim, Emile. 1950
 The Rules of Sociological Method. Translated by S.
A. Solovay and J. H. Mueller. New York: The Free Press.
1951  Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Translated
by J. A. Spaulding and G. Simpson. New York: The Free Press.
1954  The Elementary forms of the Religious Life. Translated
by J. W. Swain. New York: The Free Press.
1953 Sociology and Philosophy. New York: The Free Press.
1956 Education and Sociology. Translated by S.D. Fox.
New York: The Free Press.
1961 Moral Education: A Study in the Theory and Application of
the Sociology of Education. Translated by E. K. Wilson and H.
Schnurer. New York: The Free Press.