Emile Durkheim (1858–1917)

by Andrea Rota

Emile_DurkheimI am very happy to introduce the first contribution of our special series of “My Take On…” titled “Social Science for Central Eurasia”. In this new format CESMI and the BBC Central Asia Service jointly seek to make the work and lives of important social scientist thinkers more accessible to a broader media audience. We also encourage our authors to reflect upon the explanations that these thinkers might have to offer for a better understanding of the contemporary societies of Central Eurasia. In order to provide accessibility across different linguistic settings the contributions are published in English, Kyrgyz and Uzbek. (Till Mostowlansky, editor “My Take On…”)

Emile Durkheim is widely considered the founder of the French school of sociology. He was born in 1858 in the small French town of Epinal, near the German border. Son of a rabbi and raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, he was meant to follow in his father’s footsteps. Young Emile, however, chose another path and, after a few setbacks, enrolled in the Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris, the most prestigious institution of higher instruction in France. The years at ENS proved crucial. Not only did it inspire Durkheim’s intellectual development, it also shaped his political and religious views, which were increasingly informed by socialist ideas.

After teaching in secondary schools for several years, Durkheim received his first academic appointment in 1885 as a lecturer in social sciences and pedagogy at the University of Bordeaux in southwestern France. These years in Bordeaux proved to be his most productive period. Nonetheless, he could not pass up the opportunity to return to Paris in 1902 as a lecturer, and later professor, at the famous Sorbonne University. Durkheim died in 1917, grief-stricken by the tragedy of the First World War and the death of his son André on the battlefield.

One of Durkheim’s life endeavours was to establish a new “science of society.” His first challenge was to clearly identify the specific object of study for this discipline. Durkheim asserted that sociology should be concerned with the empirical study of what he called “social facts”: manners of reasoning, feeling, and acting that exist in a society independently of what individuals do or think. Rules of commerce, for instance, exist independently of what people buy with their money. As realities external to the individual, social facts have the power to constrain the members of a society. For instance, disregarding the rule of law results in certain sanctions, and violating social conventions of fashion or politeness can bring about a feeling of shame. Durkheim insisted that sociology should treat social facts as “things” that cannot be reduced to other psychic or organic phenomena. For this reason, they could only be explained by social life itself.

Durkheim sought to demonstrate the power of sociological analysis by revealing the social nature of what is typically considered an individual act: suicide. Durkheim noted that although each instance of suicide has its particular story, the suicide rate in a country tends to remain constant; there are also significant differences between countries. Using statistical methods, Durkheim showed that suicide rates depend on the degree of social integration and on the capacity of society to regulate individual life. For instance, he maintained that during periods of social upheaval or, conversely, of sudden prosperity, the moral force of society is weakened; in the absence of social rules channelling individual emotions, the suicide rate increases.

The question of social cohesion constitutes a golden thread throughout Durkheim’s work. Indeed, Durkheim lived in a period of rapid social change and unrest. He witnessed the transition of France from an agricultural to an industrialised society characterised by an increasingly strong division of labour. Durkheim noted that in simpler societies, coexistence is based on the similarity of members, all of whom mechanically conform to a “collective consciousness”. Was increasing specialisation a danger to the social order? Quite the contrary, Durkheim argued that the division of labour supported a new form of solidarity. In modern societies, each individual is like an organ for a living being. Each has a particular function, but depends on the functioning of others for survival. Arguing against the position of conservative intellectuals of the time, Durkheim insisted that modern individualism should not be confused with simple calculating egoism. Rather, it is the expression of a new respect for the dignity of the human person.

For Durkheim, sociology had a diagnostic function that helps to improve social life through a better understanding of its fundamental workings. In his mind, sociology was a collective scientific endeavour. Therefore, in 1898, he founded the renowned journal L’Année Sociologique (The Sociological Year), which remains in publication today. Many of the journal’s early collaborators became influential figures in the social sciences, in France and beyond. For example, Durkheim’s nephew, anthropologist Marcel Mauss, participated in the journal’s formation. Durkheim’s conclusions were not beyond criticism, even among his pupils. For instance, one of them, Maurice Halbwachs, was able to show the limits of Durkheim’s analysis of suicide rates using more sophisticated statistical methods. Nevertheless, Durkheim’s work remains highly relevant for contemporary sociology, not because of the validity of his results, but because of the questions he asked and the strategies he developed to answer them. This is exemplified in a question that Durkheim attempted to answer throughout his life: How can there be solidarity in societies in which the individual is increasingly autonomous?

Click here to access the Kyrgyz version of this article on BBC Kyrgyz and here for the Uzbek version available on BBC Uzbek.

About the author:

Andrea Rota is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bern (Switzerland)