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Sociological Theory, 6/e
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Emile Durkheim
Sociological Theory

Chapter 3 Chapter Summary

Sociology as a Discipline and Social Facts

Emile Durkheim(1858-1917) is considered one of the "fathers" of sociology because of his effort to establish sociology as a discipline distinct from philosophy and psychology. This effort is evident in the two main themes that permeate Durkheim's work: the priority of the social over the individual and the idea that society can be studied scientifically. Durkheim's concept of social facts, in particular, differentiates sociology from philosophy and psychology. Social facts are the social structures and cultural norms and values that are external to, and coercive over, individuals. Social facts are not attached to any particular individual; nor are they reducible to individual consciousness. Thus, social facts can be studied empirically. According to Durkheim, two different types of social facts exist: material and immaterial. Durkheim was most interested in studying the latter, particularly morality, collective conscience, collective representation, and social currents.

The Division of Labor

In this work Durkheim discusses how modern society is held together by a division of labor that makes individuals dependent upon one another because they specialize in different types of work. Durkheim is particularly concerned about how the division of labor changes the way that individuals feel they are part of society as a whole. Societies with little division of labor (i.e., where people are self-sufficient) are unified by mechanical solidarity; all people engage in similar tasks and thus have similar responsibilities, which builds a strong collective conscience. Modern society, however, is held together by organic solidarity (the differences between people), which weakens collective conscience. Durkheim studied these different types of solidarity through laws. A society with mechanical solidarity is characterized by repressive law, while a society with organic solidarity is characterized by restitutive law.


Durkheim's goal to differentiate sociology from psychology is perhaps best seen in this work on how social facts can be used to explain suicide rates. This work is also important because of the historical comparative method that Durkheim uses to show that that suicide rates vary across societies and over time. According to Durkheim, suicide cannot simply be explained by individual psychological problems-otherwise suicide rates would be static. Durkheim argues that two social facts, in particular, influence suicide rates: integration, or the strength of attachment people feel to society, and regulation, or the degree of external constraint on people. Durkheim distinguishes between four types of suicide that correlate to these two social facts. Egoistic suicide is a result of a lack of integration; altruistic suicide is a result of too much integration; anomic suicide is a result of too little regulation; and fatalistic suicide is a result of too much regulation.

Elementary Forms of Religious Life

This is perhaps Durkheim's most complex work, as he attempts to provide both a sociology of religion and a theory of knowledge. In this work, Durkheim studies primitive society to demonstrate that an enduring quality of all religions, even the most modern, is the differentiation between the sacred and the profane. The sacred is created through rituals, and what is deemed sacred is what morally binds individuals to society. This moral bond then becomes, according to Durkheim, a cognitive bond that shapes the categories we use to understand the social world.

The development of religion is not simply based on the differentiation between the sacred and the profane, but also on religious beliefs, rituals, and the church. The latter two conditions are particularly important to Durkheim because they connect the individual to the social; individuals learn about the sacred and religious beliefs through participating in rituals and the church. The most primitive form of religion is totemism, which is connected to the least complex form of social organization, the clan. The totem is the actual representation of the clan-it is the material representation of the nonmaterial, collective morality of the clan.

Totemism is important to Durkheim's theory of knowledge in that it is one of his categories of understanding: classification. Other categories of understanding include time, space, force, causality, and totality. These six categories may be abstract concepts, but they are all derived from social experiences, particularly rituals. Durkheim acknowledges that it is possible for moral and cognitive categories to change or be created anew through what he calls collective effervescence, or periods of great collective exaltation.

Cult of the Individual

Although Durkheim focused much of his attention on the social, he did not dismiss the idea of individualism. Indeed, he believed that in modern society the individual has become sacred, and he called the modern form of collective conscience the cult of the individual. According to Durkheim, humans are constituted by two beings or selves: one is based on the isolated individuality of the body, and the other is based on the social. These two beings may be in a continual state of tension, and they are connected in that individuality develops as society develops. For example, it is only in modern society, characterized by the division of labor, that people even come to understand themselves as distinct individuals. Durkheim argued that individuality has both positive and negative consequences. Egoism, or the selfish pursuit of individual interests, is at odds with moral individualism, the ability to sacrifice self-interest for the rights of all other individual human beings.

Moral Education and Social Reform

Durkheim believed that society is the source of morality; therefore, he also believed that society could be reformed, especially through moral education. According to Durkheim, morality is composed of three elements: discipline, attachment, and autonomy. Discipline constrains egoistic impulses; attachment is the voluntary willingness to be committed to groups; and autonomy is individual responsibility. Education provides children with these three moral tools needed to function in society. Adults can also acquire these moral tools by joining occupational associations. According to Durkheim, these associations would include members of a particular occupation regardless of class position and could provide a level of integration and regulation, both of which tend to be weakened by the division of labor.


Durkheim is often criticized for being a functionalist and a positivist. However, his historical comparative methodology puts him at odds with functionalists and positivists who believe that invariant social laws exist that can explain social phenomenon across all societies. Durkheim does tend to emphasize the objective nature of social facts; thus, he neglects the subjective interpretations that social actors may have of a particular social phenomenon and the agency of individuals in general to control social forces. Furthermore, Durkheim's basic assumption about human nature-that people are driven by their passion for gratification that can never be satisfied-is not empirically substantiated in any of his work. Finally, Durkheim's understanding of the relationship between morality and sociology has been critiqued as being conservative.