Emile Durkheim's Sociology
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Rogers State University

The Sociology of Emile Durkheim

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The Sociology of Emile Durkheim

by Frank W. Elwell
Rogers State University

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.
  • Functionalism
  • 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. 

Mechanical solidarity, 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 factors.

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 social forces.

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 integration. 

Durkheim described two types of suicide based on the source of this perceived lack of cohesion. Egoistic 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 stress. 

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 with modernity.

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).


Durkheim characterized 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.

Durkheim identifies 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 to follow.

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"  (1950, 97).

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? 

The great 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.

© 2003 Frank Elwell


In His Own Words:

On Social Facts:

"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. xxxix).

On Anomie:

"The more one has, the more one wants, since satisfactions received only stimulate instead of filling needs"  (1951, p. 248).

On Religion:

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, p. 47).

"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).

[Religion is] "an eminently collective thing" (1954, p.47).

"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).

On Crime:

"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 Organic Solidarity:

"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 of Labor:

"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).

On Functionalism:

"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).

"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"  (1950, 97).


Durkheim, Emile. 1960 [1893] The Division of Labor in Society.  Translated by George Simpson. New York:  The Free Press.

Durkheim, Emile. 1950 [1895] The Rules of Sociological Method.  Translated by S. A. Solovay and J. H. Mueller.  New York:  The Free Press.

Durkheim, Emile.  1951 [1897] Suicide:  A Study in Sociology.  Translated by J. A. Spaulding and G. Simpson.  New York:  The Free Press.

Durkheim, Emile.  1954 [1912] The Elementary forms of the Religious Life. Translated by J. W. Swain.  New York:  The Free Press.

Durkheim, Emile.  1953 Sociology and Philosophy.  New York: The Free Press.

Durkheim, Emile.  1956 Education and Sociology.  Translated by S.D. Fox.  New York:  The Free Press.

Durkheim, Emile.  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.

Links to other Durkheim Material:

The Coser Essay

The Durkheim Pages

The Emile Durkheim Archive

Emile Durkheim Web Pages

Durkheim Biography

The Durkheim Page

Sociology Online: Durkheim Essay

Referencing this Site

To reference the paper, The Sociology of Emile Durkheim, you should use the following format: 

Elwell, Frank W., 2003, The Sociology of Emile Durkheim, Retrieved August 31, 2003, [use actual date] http://www.faculty.rsu.edu/~felwell/Theorists/Durkheim/index.htm 

You may also want to visit my sites on T. Robert Malthus, Karl Marx, Max Weber, C. Wright Mills, Robert K. Merton, Harry Braverman, Marvin Harris, Gerhard Lenski, and Immanuel Wallerstein.




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