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Emile Durkheim [1858-1917]


Emile Durkheim on Social Evolution

By Frank W. Elwell


Durkheim, like the other macro-sociologists of the 19th century, is a materialist whose prime causal factors are population pressures and the division of labor. The fact that Durkheim roots his analysis in material conditions is often overlooked. While his theories are often focused on the influence of social structure on behavior and ideas, he roots changes in that structure on material foundations.

“Civilization is itself the necessary consequence of the changes which are produced in the volume and in the density of societies. If science, art, and economic activity develop, it is in accordance with a necessity which is imposed upon men. It is because there is, for them, no other way ofDivision of Labor Ancient Egypt living in the new conditions in which they have been placed. ..From the time that the number of individuals among whom social relations are established begins to increase, they can maintain themselves only by greater specialization, harder work, and intensification of their faculties. ..From this general stimulation, there inevitably results a much higher degree of culture. From this point of view, civilization appears, not as an end which moves people by its attractions for them, not as a good foreseen and desired in advance, of which they seek to assure themselves the largest possible part, but as the effect of a cause, as the necessary resultant of a given state. It is not the pole towards which historic development is moving and to which men seek to get nearer in order to be happier or better, for neither happiness nor morality necessarily increases with the intensity of life. They move because they must move, and what determines the speed of this march is the more or less strong pressure which they exercise upon one another, according to their number” (Durkheim 1893/1960, 336-7).

Emile Durkheim had a conception of human nature that I believe has much merit. He considered humans to be “homo duplex,” that is, of two minds. The first, which he called “will,” was the id-like nature that each individual is born with. Centered on bodily needs and drives, it pushes the individual to act in ways to satisfy their needs, wants, and desires without consideration of the needs and desires of others. The unchecked will can be seen in the infant, who wants what she wants, centered on her bodily needs and desires. Left unchecked (or weakly checked) through a lifetime, the will leads to individuals using one another in their quest to satisfy the self; their desires are unlimited, and the constant seeking to slake these desires leads to unhappiness and despair. Homo Duplex

The other part of human nature is social in origin which Durkheim calls the “collective conscience.” This collective conscience serves as a check on the will, a moral system made up of ethical codes, values, ideologies, and ideas. The collective conscience is formed through the socialization process by which the individual internalizes the codes, norms, and ethical values of the society. It is the collective conscience that disciplines the individual will, limits the potentially unlimited desires and drives of the individual.

However, according to Durkheim, the collective conscience cannot be instilled in the individual through rational means. True internalization of moral restraint can only be instilled through ties of love and affection to the group, that is, through social bonds. Without these close primary-group bonds the individual fails to fully internalize the moral codes of the society and the will is left unchecked. Lacking full integration into the norms and values of the group, the individual will is left free to engage in exploitive behavior to satisfy its desires at the expense of others. There is always a tension between our human appetites and our socially instilled moral life. In societies in which the collective conscience is weak—that is in which there is a failure to fully integrate many individuals—exploitive behavior becomes more common. In societies where integration is exceedingly strong, our human senses and desires are constantly being denied.

Durkheim posited an evolutionary view of the collective conscience. He believed that simpler societies based on kinship and community ties and a basic division of labor based on age and sex were strongly integrated, thus the collective conscience was an unquestioned and overwhelming part of individual consciousness. You will recall that Mechanical solidarity is “solidarity that comes from likeness,” Durkheim (1893/1997) writes, and “is at its maximum when the collective conscience completely envelops our whole conscience and coincides in all points with it.” Such societies are relatively homogenous, men and women engage in similar tasks, rituals, and daily activities, all have similar experiences and thus attitudes and beliefs. The few distinct institutions in such societies embody the same norms and values and tend to reinforce one another. Rules and norms are universal, beyond the pale of discussion or question, and are followed absolutely. The collective conscience is so overpowering that there is little opportunity or will for individuality or deviance (228-229).Collective Conscience

Durkheim believed that the increasing division of labor served to weaken the collective conscience. Specifically, the division of labor weakens those traditional institutions such as church, family, and community that serve to integrate the individual into the broader values of the group. But the internalized beliefs and values of the society—the collective conscience—restrains the will. 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. “Anomie” is the term coined by Durkheim to characterize a social structure that only weakly binds and individual into the social whole. Highly anomic societies are characterized by weak primary group ties—family, church, community, and other such groups.

An increasing division of labor weakens the social bond of the wider community and thus the integration of the individual into the moral universe of the society needed for truly social behavior. This leads to high rates of deviance, exploitation, and social disintegration. Durkheim is not a straight-line evolutionary theorist, however. He believed that the weakening of primary groups was of such harm to the individual and to the social order that it would necessitate the emergence of new primary groups that would serve to bind the individual to the social whole.

Another possibility, seemingly unconsidered by Durkheim, is that the processes undermining the collective conscience would continue unchecked. Stjepan Mestrovic (1988/1993) who has studied Durkheim extensively believes that the moral system of the West is rapidly eroding due to the growth of governments, corporations, and other bureaucratic organizations along with the weakening of traditional primary groups based on kinship and community. For individuals to internalize the moral code of a groupSocial Bond there must be an emotional bond between them. The creation of rational institutions simply cannot be effective in instilling this needed morality (47). Without a comprehensive system of morality individuals are left without internal restraint on the will, leaving only external constraint to limit egoistic, self-aggrandizing individual behavior.

Because by definition they lack any sense of mutuality or wholeness, our specializations subsist on conflict with one another. “The rule is never to cooperate, but rather to follow one’s own interest as far as possible. Checks and balances are all applied externally, by opposition, never by self-restraint. Labor, management, the military, the government, etc., never forbear until their excesses arouse enough opposition to force them to do so. The good of the whole of Creation, the world and all its creatures together, is never a consideration because it is never thought of; our culture now simply lacks the means for thinking of it” (Berry 1977, 22).

It is probable that this weakening of internal constraint is yet another causal factor in the rise of bureaucracy with its constant rule making and monitoring of performance. Without effective internal controls man must increasingly be limited by external forces, controls which are both expensive in terms of time and money and relatively ineffective. This ineffectiveness has resulted in such phenomena as rising rates of crime and deviance, economic exploitation, and the unfettered use of government to further the interests of the wealthy at the expense of the nation-state as a whole.

Mestrovic (1993) characterizes the western world as living simultaneously at the height of civilization and in the depths of barbarism. Our civilization has accomplished rapid transportation and instant communications to all parts of the earth; an unparalleled ability to produce and distribute goods and services around the world; widespread literacy and access to education; an ongoing program of scientific research that promises ever greater understanding of the natural world. At the same time we have perfected weapons that threaten human life itself; democratic governments that engage in torture; corporations that exploit nature, workers, and consumers; we experience widespread drug use and abuse, as well as widespread corruption and disillusionment in our political systems. Both barbarism and civilization advance by the day, the two are indivisible.

For both Durkheim and Mestrovic the problem is due to the decline in the functions and importance of the traditional primary groups of family, community, and religious organizations and the increasing functional importance of the formal organizations of government and corporations. Many assert that it is the expansion of capital and/or the state that has caused this decline in the functional importance of primary groups. Robert Nisbet (1953/1990), for example, maintains that it is the expansion of the state that has weakened primary groups, although he occasionally admits that the expansion of capital and technology has some role (43-44). Bureaucracy

Others claim that these bureaucratic organizations have only expanded to fill the vacuum left by a decline in primary groups initially caused by the division of labor. As a systems theorist, I believe the evidence is strong that both factors have been at work. As a result, the functional importance of primary groups is weakening in modern life while private and public bureaucracies become ever more pervasive and powerful, and this affects the character of the men and women who inhabit these societies.


For a more extensive discussion of Durkheim’s theories refer to Macro Social Theory by Frank W. Elwell.  Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change to learn how his insights contribute to a more complete understanding of modern societies.

Book Cover


Durkheim, E. (1956). Education and Sociology. (S. Fox, Trans.) New York: The Free Press.

Durkheim, E. (1925/1961). Moral Education: A Study in the Theory and Application of the Sociology of Education. (E. Wilson, & H. Schnurer, Trans.) New York: The Free Press.

Durkheim,  E.  (1953).  Sociology  and  Philosophy.  New  York: The  Free Press.

Durkheim, E. (1897/1951). Suicide: A Study in Sociology. (J. Spaulding, & G. Simpson, Trans.) New York: The Free Press.

Durkheim, E. (1893/1960). The Division of Labor in Society. (G. Simpson, Trans.) New York: The Free Press.

Durkheim, E. (1912/1954). The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. (J. Swain, Trans.) New York: The Free Press.

Elwell, F. (2009), Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Systems. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press.

Elwell, F. (2013), Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change. Alberta: Athabasca University Press.

Mestrovic, S. G. (1988/1993). Emile Durkheim and the Reformation of Sociology. Boston: Rowman & Littlefiedl Publishers.

Mestrovic, S. G. (1997). Postemotional Society. London: Sage Publications.

Mestrovic, S. G. (1994). The Balkanization of the West: The Confluence of Postmodernism and Postcommunism. New York: Routledge.

Mestrovic, S. G. (1993). The Barbarian Temperment: Toward a Postmodern Critical Theory. New York: Routledge.


To reference "Emile Durkheim on Evolution," you should use the following format: 

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