Major Contributions of Emile Durkheim To Sociology

Who is Emile Durkheim?

What are some contributions made to sociology by Emile Durkheim?

Emile Durkheim, one of the founding fathers of sociology, was born in France on April 15, 1858, and died on November 15, 1917. Mostly he was a teacher of sociology at the University of Bordeaux and Paris.

His works focused on what makes society works i.e. how society functions to maintain social order and stability. It is the reason why he is considered the creator of the functionalist perspective within sociology. Like Comte, Durkheim also stressed to scientifically observing and studying society and its social dynamics.

His major contribution was his study about what binds society (us) together i.e. how social solidarity (unity) and order were maintained. As a functionalist, he argued that society is a system made up of different interrelated and interdependent parts, and these parts function to keep the system alive or stable.

He added that it is the collective conscience (shared experiences, values, beliefs, and behaviors) that allow people to feel that they are part of a group (i.e. society) and so they work together to maintain group solidarity. Durkheim argued that for a society to function well, the value consensus (having shared norms and values) among its members is necessary. He also stated that this value consensus or agreement can be achieved through socialization i.e. education.

His Works/Publications

Some of the important works of Emile Durkheim in the development of Sociology are the following:

  • The Suicide-1897
  • The Division of Labour in Society-1893
  • The Elementary Forms of religious life —1912
  • Education and Sociology-1922.

Emile Durkheim’s Contributions to Sociology

Durkheim’s contribution to the field of sociology includes the establishment of the following theories and concepts:

  • Functionalism theory
  • Concept of the division of labor
  • Concept of Social solidarity
  • The term, Social facts
  • Collective conscience and value consensus
  • Concept of Anomie
  • Theory of suicide

Functionalism Theory

Functionalism emphasizes that society is always in an equilibrium state also called ‘societal equilibrium’. If something happens to break down the order and the stability of the social system, society must adjust to achieve a stable state.

According to Emile Durkheim, society should be analyzed and described in terms of functions. Society is a system of interrelated parts where no one part can function without the other. The function of the parts is the function of society as a whole. If anyone part changes i.e. do not function then, it has an impact on society.

E.g. the state provides public education for children. The family of the children pays taxes, which the state uses for public education. The children who learn from public education go on to become law-abiding and working citizens, who pay taxes to support the state. Let’s look at this example again. The education is subpar, and the children drop out and become criminals. Even in such a situation, the social system adjusts to improve the education and attempts to rehabilitate (through jail or other means) the criminals for them to become law-abiding and taxpaying citizens.

He thought that even if social disorders arise then a society finds ways to restore order and equilibrium through social reforms.

Concept of ‘Division of Labor’

In his book, Durkheim’s concept of the division of labor focused on the shift in societies from a simple society to one that is more complex. He argued that traditional societies were made up of homogenous people that were more or less the same in terms of values, religious beliefs, and backgrounds. Modern societies, in contrast, are made up of a complex division of labor, beliefs, and backgrounds.

Concept of Social Solidarity

Emile Durkheim argued that there are two different kinds of solidarity (unity) among people in a society that holds them together. These two types of solidarity are:

i. Mechanical Solidarity: The first type of solidarity was present in more traditional (agricultural) societies. In these societies, all of the people were of the same religion, the same culture, and did the same tasks. They are all similar to one another and that similarity held them together as a society. This solidarity would have led the society to share a collective conscience (everyone having similar values, goals, norms, ideas, and beliefs).

Durkheim called this ‘mechanical solidarity’ because the community functioned together as a simple machine.

ii. Organic Solidarity: This occurs in the modern industrial type of society. In this type of society, there is a division of labor where people are engaged in specialized tasks and so their interests, values are different. One may think that if the collective conscience is no longer holding modern industrial society together as much as it used to, what was it?

Durkheim believed that being different would not mean an end to group solidarity, rather as people became more specialized and different, they became more dependent on each other. E.g. the farmer is dependent on blacksmiths for agricultural tools, a tailor for clothing, cobblers for shoes, etc.

So, we can understand that if people were held together in traditional societies by being similar, it was actually dissimilarity that kept them together in modern societies. Therefore, the solidarity became more fluid and natural (hence the term organic).

The term ‘Social Facts’

Emile Durkheim defined Sociology as ‘the scientific study of social facts or phenomena.’ He was the first to define the term ‘social fact’. Social facts are things such as institutions, norms, and values which exist external to the individual and influence the individual. E.g. social facts such as institutions, status, roles, values, norms, culture, laws, beliefs, population, distribution, urbanization, etc. determine ways of acting, thinking, and feeling of people in a society.

Collective Conscience and Value Consensus

A Collective Conscience is a shared moral code and values that shape individual consciousness. Societies need this collective conscience (i.e. shared values) to function successfully.

Emile Durkheim believed that value consensus (i.e. all members of society have shared goals, norms, values, and roles) forms the basic integrating principle in society. It means that if all members of society have shared values then they have similar identities, cooperation, and avoids conflict and hence society becomes stable.

Concept of ‘Anomie’

The concept of `anomie’ developed by Emile Durkheim refers to the state of normlessness (i.e. loss of value consensus) resulting from the lack of society’s influence or moral guidance on an individual’s passion and emotions.

So, anomie does not refer to a state of mind, but a property of the social structure. When there is a lack of social regulations, the controlling influence of society on individuals becomes no longer effective, and then the individuals do what they want to. E.g. when social regulations are weak, people engage in crime or violence.

Durkheim argued that anomie prevails in modern industrial societies because in modern society there is a complex division of labor, where individuals engage in specialized jobs, people became more different and so did their interests, values, etc. too and this weakens solidarity in society. He also added that anomie occurs when there is drastic social change such as economic crisis, divorce, etc.

Theory of suicide

Suicide is generally considered to be one of the most private and personal acts. But interestingly, the `theory of suicide’ explains that suicide is neither an individual nor a personal act. It is a social fact.

Emile Durkheim stressed on the reason why people commit suicide should be studied by acquiring data from outside of our own minds through observation and experimentation. Unlike psychologists who study why any specific individual committed suicide.

Durkheim as a sociologist explained differences in suicide rates. He found that different types of suicide occurred and there was a social cause (social force) i.e. the individual commits suicide because of their attachment to and detachment from the group (society).

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