Course:SOCI1110/Emile Durkheim

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Emile Durkheim


David Emile Durkheim is considered to be one of the founding fathers of sociology and functionalism. He was born in Epinal, France, on April 15th, 1858. He was born into Jewish heritage; his father, Moise, was a rabbi, as was his grandfather and great-grandfather. His mother, Melanie, was the daughter of a merchant. Durkheim spent several years in a rabbinical school, as he was expected to follow in the footsteps of the men in his family before him. However, he was uninterested in becoming a rabbi, and was more inclined to look at the scientific side of things than religious. He moved to Paris, and severed his ties with Judaism completely. He was accepted into the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris in 1879 after his third attempt at passing the entrance examination. In 1882, and until 1887, he taught philosophy at several different schools before finally securing a position teaching sociology at the University of Bordeaux. He married Louise Dreyfus that same year, and they would go on to have two children together, son Andre and daughter Marie. Unfortunately, Andre met his end during World War I, in April of 1916, which tore Durkheim apart. Durkheim died a year and a half later following a stroke he had had several months prior to his passing, on November 15, 1917.[1][2]


While not considered an activist, Durkheim was extremely passionate about his work. His four major publications are as follows:

  • The Division of Labour in Society (1893)

Durkheim coins the term anomie, which refers to social instability leading to unrest in individuals. It is his first attempt to explain and define social solidarity as a practice, which is when a group frequently interacts with one another based on their shared values and beliefs, and therefore have created a strong bond and sense of belonging. He focuses primarily on anomie, social solidarity, and law in his first published work.

  • The Rules of the Sociological Method (1895)

Durkheim's second book consists of what he viewed sociology to be, and how it should be practiced. He lays the groundwork for sociologists for many years to come with this text, and it is considered to be his biggest contribution to the study and practice of sociology as a whole.

  • Suicide (1897)

Arguably Durkheim's most universally-known study, Suicide takes a look at the factors of a social structure and applies them to the personal act of committing suicide. At that time, it was widely believed that suicide was an individual act, however Durkheim's research suggests that it is largely in part to social circumstance. He concluded that the relationship between psychological disorders and suicide are not prevalent, and that suicide is in fact part of a bigger social picture. He found that men that committed suicide had a 4-to-1 ratio compared to women, and suggests that this may be because women are more likely to develop closer bonds to people, thus forming the idea that social solidarity actually acted as a protectant; the more connections, and the more intimate these connections are, the lower the risk of suicide. He also studied a large part of the Jewish population, and found that although Jewish people had the highest rate for psychological disorders, they had the lowest rate of suicide of all religions. Durkheim attests this to be the result of social solidarity as well, as the Jewish people, after all the centuries of persecution, have come together into a more tightly-knit group. It is a well-researched case study regarding the correlation between suicide rates and social solidarity, and was probably quite ground-breaking and shocking during his time.[3]

  • The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912)

Durkheim's last publication, he sought to understand and explain mankind's emotional connection with religion, and viewed it to be a social phenomenon.[4]

Relevant world events

  • 1858- Second opium war ends (china is forced to pay France and Britain)
  • 1859- France takes control of Vietnam
  • 1859- Darwin's book of Origin of Species is published
  • 1859- First oil well drilled in the USA
  • 1860- Britain allows Jewish population to vote
  • 1861- Abraham Lincoln becomes new president of USA
  • 1861- Britain regulates child-labour in non-textile industry
  • 1862- Otto von Bismark becomes minister-president
  • .1862- First paper money introduced in USA economy
  • 1863- Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation Becomes US law
  • 1863- Slavery ends in Dutch-ruled Indonesia
  • 1863- Cambodia becomes French controlled
  • 1865- American Civil War ends

Major Contrbutions to Sociology

Theory of Suicide

(Suicide has a social background) Durkheim's theory of suicide approaches suicide from a sociological perspective. It is based around the idea that suicide is a result of social factors, rather than an individual act of desperation or the crippling effects of mental illness. Durkheim supported his claims with statistical data of the time that, noting different rates of suicide on different social groups, and a weak correlation between rates of suicide and psychological disorder. Durkheim found that rates of suicide in mental-health hospitals were much higher in men than in women by 4:1. Also, among the major religious groups of France, Jews had the lowest rates of suicide but the highest prevalence of diagnosed mental illness. Durkheim justified the varying rates of suicide as difference in the degree of social solidarity present in the population.

Social solidarity is a non-numerical form of measurement for how homogeneous the population is, regarding beliefs, values and customs; and how frequently and intensely the individuals of the group interact. High degrees of social solidarity lead to high rates of altruistic suicide, where individuals give up their lives for the good of those surrounding him/her. Low degrees of social solidarity lead to high rates of egoistic suicide, where individuals commit suicide due to poor integration and weak ties to others. The medium degree of social solidarity would present the lowest rates of suicide.[5]

The Theoretical Purpose of Religion

According to Durkheim, religion is the ultimate bond for the upbringing of a society, due to its strong effects of solidarity on the people following it. Religion forms communities and groups by providing individuals with a collective set of values and beliefs that will govern how individuals interact between each other, and subsequently how the group of individuals as a whole interacts with the rest of the world. Religion was seen as a crucial factor to the foundation of early societies as it laid basic fundamental principles, and even though religion slowly lost power, its foundation is still being developed and preserves a relevance in modern societies.[6]

Durkheim proposed four major functions for religion:

  • Discipline

Forces individuals to self-control with the practice religious principles.

  • Solidarity

Allows the development of religious communities and the sense of not-being-alone by having individuals come together to perform rituals, ceremonies and participate in other significant events.

  • Renewal

Allows the development of communal beliefs, with the renewal and modification of individual beliefs.

  • Euphoria

Defends individuals from life difficulties by counteracting these with an euphoric experience that may only be explained with religious principles and foundations.

Rules of the Sociological Method

Durkheim conceptualized sociology as a humanitarian science, independent from philosophy and psychology, capable of empirically explaining social phenomena using the scientific method.[7][8]

Possible Influences Behind Durkheim's Studies

Several key events during Durkheim's time could be possible indications as to why he researched the theories that he did. Anti-Semitism could have played a role in why he denounced his Jewish faith, as well as sparked his interest in studying the Jewish community as a whole. His findings, combined with the end of slavery in 1863, could have confirmed his belief in social solidarity. When laws regulating population and industry arose (also in 1863), this may have fueled his desire to understand and document what would go on to be his first major publication, The Division of Labour in Society. Also, the takeover and deployment of missionaries to several countries may have been a causal factor in Durkheim's interest in studying suicide, particularly altruistic suicide.


  5. Durkheim, E.(2016). The sociological explanation of suicide. In Bryms, Roberts, Strohschein, Lie (Ed), Sociology my compass for a new world (pp.5-7).Toronto,ON: Nelson Education