The purpose of this article is to provide a brief overview of some of the major theoretical contributions of French classical sociologist Émile Durkheim. The concepts discussed in the article are: solidarity and its different forms; the importance of sociology; crime in society; religion; and sacred and profane.
Introduction: The famous French sociologist Émile Durkheim was born on April 15, 1858 in Épinal, France, into a Jewish family. He became renowned at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, and, alongside Marx and Weber, is credited with being one of the pioneers of modern sociological thought. Durkheim’s preoccupation with a scientific study of society began as early as during his college years at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris, France. Shifting from what he considered an ostentatious humanities-based study, Durkheim pursued sociology, which he considered a more scientific and pragmatic discipline. According to Carls (n.d.), one of the major claims of Durkheim was that “society is a sui generis reality, or a reality unique to itself and irreducible to its composing parts,” and that sociology, rather than biology or psychology, was the best way to understand such a reality of society. Durkheim is credited with establishing sociology as a formal discipline. In doing so, Durkheim designed a rigorous methodology that combined “empirical research with sociological theory” (Peyre, 2019). Some of Durkheim’s most famous works, such as On the Division of Social Labor, The Rules of Sociological Method, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, and The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, are based on this methodology, and through them, Durkheim attempted to establish the relevance of sociology in analyzing social reality.
Durkheim- Major Contributions in Sociology
The Concept of Solidarity and its Types
Durkheim’s concept of social solidarity and the two types of solidarity—organic and mechanical—was one of his most significant contributions to the discipline of sociology. In one of his most renowned works, The Division of Labor in Society, Durkheim talks about economic specialization from a functionalist perspective. In Durkheim’s terms, rather than being an essentially detrimental aspect for individuals or for society, it is possible for economic specialization or division of labor to prevail without rupturing a society’s moral fabric or ruining the ability of individuals to pursue their own interests. Durkheim believed that this was possible because of the existence of dual forms of solidarity. Solidarity, according to Durkheim’s theory, is the force that binds individuals in a society and holds the society together. In order to define the two different types of solidarity, Durkheim also makes use of different types of society, with different degrees of division of labour. Mechanical solidarity is most common in small-scale societies with little or no division of labor. The similarity of the lives people live—the beliefs, practices, values, morals, and rituals they follow, and the very consciousness they share—creates a sense of belonging among individuals. Each individual works on multiple different tasks, and the degree to which people are excluded or separated from one another due to work specialization is very low because tasks are often shared. Shared work and shared lives lead to a shared conscience, on which social solidarity is based. On the other hand, larger, more complex, so-called ‘modern’ societies have a higher division of labour, thereby reducing the feeling of similarity with one another. However, social order and cohesion is maintained through organic solidarity, which develops due to the interdependence of people in these larger, more specialized societies on one another. Solidarity results from valuing each person’s uniqueness and individual contributions to society as a whole. Examples of both mechanical and organic solidarity can be found everywhere, especially in each of the types of societies that a particular type of solidarity is supposed to cater to. However, since the world is a complex place, both solidarities can exist simultaneously as well. For example, consider a coffee shop. Each individual employee feels a sense of oneness in the shop because they work for the same place, uphold the same work values, and strive towards the same goal—the betterment of the shop and earning a living. However, each employee also has a very specific skillset, which is reflected in their different job titles: coffee maker or barista, server, manager, accountant, and so on. Each of them is reliant on the skills of the other to ensure that the coffee shop runs smoothly and successfully. Therefore, solidarity among the employees in the coffee shop can be both mechanical and organic in nature.
Establishing the Importance of Sociology
Durkheim had a huge role to play in corroborating the importance of sociological analysis and establishing sociology as an academic discipline. In his work, The Rules of Sociological Method, Durkheim maintains the relevance of sociology as a field of study or discipline separate from others, especially drawing a distinction between sociology and psychology. He also argues that, while different from the natural sciences, the methodologies of the natural sciences can be utilized in research within the social sciences. He begins his analysis by understanding what is meant by “social facts.” According to Durkheim (1964), social facts are “every way of acting, fixed or not, capable of exercising on the individual an external constraint; or again, every way of acting which is general throughout a given society, while at the same time existing in its own right independent of its individual manifestations.” In other words, the universal moral principles, societal codes of conduct, and structures of society that have the capacity to have some sort of coercive power over an individual are known as “social facts.” Further, Durkheim talks about crime and how, although its “pathological character appears incontestable” (Durkheim, 1964), crime is, in fact, a normal and inevitable part of society. It is because something called crime exists – something that offends the collective sentiments of the society in a drastic manner and is considered an anomaly – that the acceptable forms of social behaviour are established. Further, crime can also serve the function of instigating social change. Say, for example, that women having the right to vote or even assembling together in a common space to fight for their rights was considered a crime, and women’s subjugation was normalized and even legalized. That has changed with women not only having legal voting rights but actively participating in political affairs. Therefore, what was once criminal has led to a shift in the mindset of people such that it is now legally and socially acceptable – conversely, infringement of women’s rights is considered a crime now.
The concepts of symbols and rituals and theorizing the Sacred and the Profane
Yet another work that Durkheim is famous for is his theories on religion, as detailed in the book The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Durkheim defines religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices that unite into one single moral community called a church, all those who adhere to them” (Durkheim, 2012, p. 47). Durkheim saw religion as a social construct rather than a result of supernatural forces. Such a conception of religion as defined by the author is arrived at by Durkheim after examining the two categories into which religious occurrences may be subdivided—belief, or “states of opinion,” and rituals, or “modes of action,” as well as by distinguishing magic from religion. Through the above-stated definition, Durkheim highlights the two features that he considered essential for understanding religion. These are the differences between the sacred and profane, as well as the presence of a church. According to Durkheim (2012), the Church is a “society whose members are united by the fact that they think in the same way with regard to the sacred world and its relations with the profane world, and by the fact that they translate these common ideas into common practices” (p. 44). In defining the church as such, Durkheim also differentiated religion from magic. However, more important are the concepts of sacred and profane that Durkheim first theorizes in the book. Durkheim believed that regardless of the type or origin of the religious beliefs in any society, the practice of categorizing everything into sacred and profane is a common feature. Sacredness, that can be bestowed upon anything tangible or intangible that the human mind is capable of comprehending, is the defining feature of everything that humans separate from society, including all events that transcend and go beyond what happens in people’s “regular” everyday lives. Rather than being sacred and ‘special’ by nature, all things sacred take on the characteristics of cherished values, attitudes, and traditions and are therefore endowed with sanctity. Once the sacred has been defined, everything else is considered to be in the realm of the profane. Profanity is marked by averageness and the condition of being ordinary. There is no “special” status bestowed upon profane objects or ideas.
Carls, P. (n.d.). Durkheim, Emile. In Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://iep.utm.edu/
Durkheim, E. (1982). The rules of sociologial method (S. Lukes, Ed.; W. D. Halls, Trans.). Free Press. https://monoskop.org/images/1/1e/Durkheim_Emile_The_Rules_of_Sociological_Method_1982.pdf
Durkheim, E. (2012). The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. In J. W. Swain (Trans.), Gutenberg.org. Hollen Street Press Ltd. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/41360/41360-h/41360-h.htm
Durkheim, É. (1964). The rules of sociological method (G. E. G. Catlin, Ed.; S. A. Solovay & J. H. Mueller, Trans.). Free Press.
Peyre, H. M. (2019). Emile Durkheim | biography, theory, & facts. In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Emile-Durkheim