Durkheim is credited with establishing the functionalist school of sociology. Through his work on ‘suicide’’ social facts,’ ‘division of labour’ and ‘religion’ he sought to refute any psychological, biological, or metaphysical explanations for social phenomena.
Thus, he sought to establish sociology as a positive science. However, he was not the first to make this endeavour. Saint Simon coined the phrase ‘social physics’ pointing to the scientific basis of the emergence of the discipline of sociology.
August Comte also focused on macro units and worked on social statics, social dynamics, positivism and empiricism. According to Comte, sociology is at the top of a hierarchy of sciences as it has the most complex subject matter progressively.
Increasing time and efforts will achieve empiricism, value neutrality, testability, and universal theories, thus becoming a positive science.
His law of three stages shows the evolution of sociology as a science.
Theological – metaphysical – positivism
Karl Popper sees science as a method of approaching and studying a phenomenon and hence claims that sociology is a science in itself.
Herbert Spencer gave ‘social Darwinism’ – an organismic analogy and thus saw the evolution of society as similar to biological evolution.
Durkheim used both positivism and organic analogy to arrive at his functional understanding. However, he rejected:
a) Metaphysical positivism
b) Unilinear models of social change
c) Grand theories
d) Only positive methods.
For ‘suicide,’ he used qualitative data, which positivists reject. He rejected the metaphysical causes of primitive religion.
Durkheim was influenced by Wilhelm Wundt and stated that society was sui generis and all social phenomena could be reduced to ‘social facts’- he did not give importance to the direction of social evolution.
Thus, Durkheim developed his theories based on the works of previous sociologists. However, this does not undermine his contribution to establishing socio as a science.