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Emile Durkheim, his Principles of Sociology,

 and their Effects on Society Today.


Liz Gamble



      The idea of the ‘whole’ being greater and different than of the sum of its parts, anomie or normlessness, the concept that religion is equal to society and the sacred and the profane, are all contributions of Emile Durkheim who is known as a founder of Modern Sociology (Collins, 1994).  These concepts built a foundation for the field of Sociology, and are still being used today by Robert Merton and others.  Durkheimian traditions are primarily established as Sociological, sometimes Criminological because his principles apply over the whole of society, including its deviant aspects. Durkheim drew in theory from the Conflict ideologies of Karl Marx (1818 – 1883), and of Auguste Compte (1798 – 1857) who is considered the Father of Sociology.  The Durkheim Era contributed in a major way to expand the perspective of the Social discipline by taking it to a new level when he applied scientific and empirical research. (


      Until Durkheim’s work, social science was not studied empirically.   Durkheim transferred his academic success from the university into his Sociological research.  This approach alone gained him a respected position in the field.  Durkheim introduced the theory of Structural/Functionalism early in his career, and this theory would prove as a foundation for other principles as well.  Anomie, which was developed a few years later opened the doors for other principles and objectives of Sociology, branching into the recent field of Criminology.  Durkheim subscribed to the Macro-Sociological ideology, rather than the Micro, which was made popular with Weber in symbolic interaction.  Durkheim declared that he would leave the individual perspective up to the psychologists because his interests lay in the total picture, not the individual parts. He did not combine  the disciplines of Anthropology and Sociology either, but kept them separated in his research, and he used the scientific method of analysis with both.  It was these principles and concepts concerning his study and research of society that earned him the title of “Founder,” as this empirical view was a new perspective for the social sciences.


      Durkheim wrote four major works, the Division of Labor (1893), Suicide (1897), The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), and The Rules of Sociological Method (1895), and it is from these that we draw his essential principles and building blocks that Durkheim had to offer the social sciences.


       This paper will examine the foundations of Durkheim’s theories and traditions, and also discuss their relative importance to the field, and in our modern day society.   The dichotomy that is found between his personal life and some of his ideologies, is very interesting, and is worth noting, one example being his Jewish upbringing and then compared to his later theory on religion, where he states that ‘god is equal to society.’  This paper will also examine the person of Emile Durkheim, as the founder of significant traditions that are even 100 years later being used to define society.



      In order to understand the theory with more clarity, let’s first look at the founding theorist of Structural/Functionalism, Anomie and the other ideologies mentioned.

 David Emile Durkheim was born on April 15, 1858 in Epinal, Lorraine, France into a Jewish family.  His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all rabbis, and in his childhood it was assumed that Emile would follow in their footsteps, and would go into the rabbinical line.  He spent his early years in a Orthodox School, and raised in a Jewish neighborhood, but Durkheim would break from his family tradition, and continue his education outside of the Jewish rabbinical lineage.  Coming from a wealthy, influential Jewish family, he was afforded a certain status in the community and among the neighborhood, coming from the prestige of the rabbi’s family.  This is significant because it establishes him in a certain position early his life, one in which he would continue. When he grew up and moved to Paris, Durkheim would break from his Judaism altogether as he moved into academia.  He was provided with the best of everything from his family and had acquired a confident attitude, which later was seen in his work and his research abilities. 


      By the time Durkheim arrived in Paris, his reputation as a powerful intellect had proceeded him.  He was an extremely intelligent man and offered a new and aggressive scientific approach to the problems and beliefs of his era, which in the 1800’s included mysticism, dilettantism, and irrationalism to name a few (Collins, 1994).  Durkheim was ambitious, well educated and cultured, innovative and somewhat radical, and these characteristics allowed him upward mobility in the academic community.   Durkheim spent a few years in the University in Paris, and was then appointed into the Sorbonne University which was certainly the most important promotion of his life. It was here where he began to research and develop his theories, to put them into practice, and to share them with the public.  Durkheims’ lecture courses were the only required courses for any student pursuing a degree in philosophy, history, literature, and the languages. 


 This gave Durkheim honor and prestige, and also a platform from which he was able to launch his theories.  He now had the liberty to express his concepts to virtually every student that went through hic classes and the university.  This position also gave him enormous power in the field of Sociology while continuing to make him a substantial figure in the academic field. 


      Durkheim’s viewpoints were anything but conservative and stable.   His "science of morality" offended philosophers, his “science of religion" offended Catholics, and his appointment to the Sorbonne offended those on the political Right (Collins, 1994).  Durkheim was an educated radical, and was afforded an influential academic outlet in order to demonstrate his viewpoints to extremely large audiences.  The difference in his approach towards research was that he treated Sociology as he did any other science, such as biology, astronomy, economics, etc. and it was this approach that originally gained him notoriety in the field, and then kept him there.  Evaluating empirical data was a novel approach for the social sciences, but was greatly needed in order for the discipline to be considered professional and equal to the other disciplines.  This perspective was probably the greatest contribution of Durkheim’s.  


      Durkheim wrote his four major works relatively soon after graduating from college, and this was good because his death came early, at the relatively young age of 57, due to natural causes (  His principles have survived and even thrived since his death, as today we continue to draw upon his structures and principles.  Robert Merton is an excellent example of how Durkheim’s theories have passed through the age because Merton’s theory of Anomie was taken directly from Durkheim’s perspective, yet is still a major theory in the structure of our society, both in the fields of Criminal Justice and Sociology.  Durkheim’s function of symbolism in society, similar to the sacred and profane theory, still remains prevalent in the 21st century, and his concept of “the sum of the parts being larger than the whole” that was defined in the 19th century as the Structural/Functionalist theory, is continually demonstrated today.  These demonstrate the significance of Durkheim’s philosophies and how they are continuing to play a significant part in our society’s growth and research almost a hundred years after his death.


Durkheim’s Basic Theories: 

       Durkheim has made such monumental and foundational contributions through study and research that would take volumes to thoroughly discuss his Traditions.  Durkheim is best known for his development of an holistic and functionalist approach in sociology.  Holism is an approach which stresses that sociology should focus on and study large social processes and institutions. Functionalism is an approach which aims to discover the roles these institutions and processes play in maintaining a social order.       Durkheim's central objective was to give Sociology a professional and scientific standing comparable with other traditional ‘natural’ sciences such as Biology, Anthropology, and Astronomy, it wass this perspective which deservedly attributed him the title “Founder of Sociology”.  Having been educated in the best schools, and having an extremely high standing in the academic world, though, he used the manner of research that he was accustomed to and had been taught.  He applied this professionalism to the discipline,  accelerated its acceptance into the academics.


       As a by-product of conducting research scientifically, Durkheim also introduced the idea of “irrefutable facts” to the social sciences.  Those being the facts and concepts  in the social arena that were reduced to their lowest, most basic form, such as “prime numbers” are in mathematics. The three types of irreputable facts as he saw it were:

1) the facts relevant to the “social organism”- or the environment. 2) the social facts underlying the institutions – such as the family, education and state. 3) the facts relating to the collective representations, or the moralities and values of the society.  These are the most basic categories as Durkheim viewed them (


       The next innovative principle of Durkheim, following the irrefutable facts was the Macro-Sociological perspective in which he viewed society as “the whole being greater than the sum of all its parts.”    He looked at society as being a “whole living organism” where social phonomena maintained an ongoing social system; it was not stationary or stagnant (  By observing the whole, and the functions of the ‘parts’ or groups sepaprately, Durkheim could show how they natuarally worked towards the better good of the entire organism, and he this was the Structural/Functionist Theory.  This principle is in direct opposition to the preceding Marxist era which stated that society consisted of specific, organized segments which remained in competition with each other and they would always be in that state. . 

Durkheim’s theories actually did utilize Marxist and Weber concepts, though, building on their basic theory that there are different segments of society.  The difference was that Durkheim suggested that these parts are constantly changing and in perpetual motion within the totality of the structure.  One of the reasons that Durkheim has remained  so inflential through the years, is because this original Macro-ideology defines our culture so extremely well.  Our entire population comprises the whole, the living organism, and the parts, groups, and cultures are the subsets, and are a continually changing and changing position.  As Sociologists observe how they are working together within our society.  Amazingly enough, Durkheim used tribes in Africa, at the turn of the 19th century, for his social studies and research to illustrate this and it seems incredible that the basic principles apply today in the 21st century America.


      The question Durkheim is concerned with in Macro-Sociology is, “How do these forces, groups and structures impact behavior?” whereas Weber and other Micro-Sociologists theorized, “How is human behavior impacting society?” (Collins, 1994)  The principle that Society is an organic entity, and is slowly evolving in a natural and gradual process, definitely still is applicable today in the United States and other cultures around the world.  This theory also gives us a Global perspective applicable to today.


        Another significant contribution to the way  society is viewed, is Durkheim’s theory of Anomie.  Durkheim first expresses this concept in his work, the Division of Labor written in 1893. “Anomie” means disorder due to the absence of rules; alienation and purposelessness, emphasizing that this state is a social disorder because it results in confused and unclear expectations of the behaviors of others. (      In the DOL, he originates the concept of normlesseness, as it created anomie among the members, by observing that the father away from the center structure they moved, the greater the  anomie, and Durkheim theorized that this was because those involved became unsure who to trust or what was happening.  This indicated that the “rules” on how people ought to behave with each other were breaking down, and thus people did not know what to expect from one another.  This theory is not to be confused with anarchy which is chaos and rebellion without authority.


       One reason why this theory of anomie was accepted into the field of Criminology, was by research accomplished from the perspective of anomie.  This is a foundational theory in explanation of deviance, especially with juveniles, in our inner cities today. The principles of solidarity are also accepted and widely used in research in Criminal Justice. (


      In his second, but possibly more popular work, Suicide(1897), Durkheim uses the definition of Anomie to describe moral deterioration.  It appears  that he uses the socially unacceptable topic of Suicide and its extreme reactions, to bring more definition to the theory of anomie by comparing the methodology involved to this immoral subject. (

 He had already established and formulated the general theory of Anomie in DOL, and now he was taking his study to a new level, or improving upon himself!  This ideology could be part of the dichotomy of his thinking that was referrred to earlier. It is possible, but not proven, that anomie finds its roots in his religious up-bringing because this state would be the exact opposite of a strict, religious childhood; hence, strict structure > total rebellion (or radical behavior).  Durkheim’s actions of rebellion from his childhood upbringing would fall in line with his other radical attitudes in his adulthood. But we will never know for sure.


       Ironically, from this theory of Anomie and Structural/Functionalism came another favorite concept of the Durkheim perspective, and that is - “solidarity”.  Solidarity is the unity of concepts and principles, or a common fellowship, which displays itself as the opposite ideology to Anomie.  Durkheim is successful at bringing the two concepts together in useful harmony, and the truth in both of these concepts is definitely used in categorizing segments of our American society today.  For example, look at the solidarity of certain political, environmental and social groups, and then compare their characteristics and goals with those juvenile groups involved in delinquent lifestyle where anomie triumphs and manifests as gang wars, violence, drug trafficking, crime, etc. in the “low-rent districts”, less united communites.

     There are two types of solidarity defined by Durkheim, and they are  mechanical solidarity and the organic solidarity.  Mechanical solidarity is the type derived from the early societies where all people would strive to be alike, in dress, speech, etc. The Organic solidarity is the ideology that compared a more advanced society structure to a living organism made up of different functioning groups. Durkheim originally developed this ideology because at the same time in history, in Biology,  the single cell organism was being researched, and Durkheim compared that to this structure of society.


      This “bi-polar” type relationship in the solidarity/anomie concepts seem to be the basics of the deviance in our societies today.  If  Sociologists could study these situations and compare them more completely, answers might be found to some of the major sociological problems which we have in modern day society, and as yet, have found no structure or pattern to.


        The concepts of religion, the sacred and the profane, and sacred rituals and magic provide the foundational concepts of Durkheim, the Sociologist.  He found Religion to hold a most prominent place in society.  The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) was written relatively later in his life and it is here where Durkheim revealed his principles and beliefs in this area.  He stated that it was Religion which provided a sense of order and meaningfulness, and therefore brought about a sense of collective consciousness in the society (  In other words, he meant that the function of Religion was to bring solidarity to a society, by common beliefs, rituals, and symbols.  Keep in mind that Durkheim was doing his research with African Tribes in 1900 (Collins,1994) and the concept of magic was also included in this ideology, because Durkheim considered the two so similar in their function within their community, and The primary function both was to provide a solidarity to the Group. This same theory and purpose holds true today as Religion provides this function.


      This is where Durkheim took the concept one step farther.  He believed that the function of Religion was the worship not of 'god', but of “society” itself!  Individuals were said to be using rituals and religion in their own unique collective experiences and activities, whereas for Durkheim, `god' was simply a metaphor/emblem/symbol for society.  (  This entire concept appears to be in direct opposition to the way he was raised.  Nonetheless, these basic principles form the foundation and the function of collective consciousness and group solidarity.


        In order to bring cohesion to the ideology of Religion, Durkheim proposed the idea of the sacred and the profane. The sacred was defined as that area or region of society in which those things, symbols, activities or beliefs are `set apart' as special or holy.  Any 'thing' or activity within the category of the sacred was to be valued.  He didn't limit or restrict the definition of the sacred to the supernatural, because according to him, any idea, activity or human being could be considered sacred so long as the members of the society agreed. This is how he came to justify ‘religion as society.’ Any social phenomenon or idea could be sacred so long as there was a 'moral consensus' to that effect.  Then, as the ying to the yang, the profane referred to everything else - the 'ordinary', the 'everyday' or mundane – that not sacred. The individuals chose their affiliations in each “society” and it was the total group action which Durkheim referred to as a “moral consciousness”.  These are the most basic of elements in his theory, but even though his research was conducted in small, tribal communities, the basic truth remains in our societal values today.  Our churches, communities, and schools, demonstrate how the sacred and profane are valued; the conversation they have, their dress, maybe their cars, certainly their morals and values that they have or don’t have.    Durkheim must have taken it down to an ‘irrefutable fact’ when he made the statement that “god equaled society.”  For the 21st century, a similar comparison with Durkheim’s would be that many use the symbol and rituals of money, fame or notoriety, and what it will do for someone, and this becomes sacred and then their god.    In any case, (in the tribal or the democratic), society decides what is sacred and all the rest is the profane. (

Assessments of Durkheim’s Theories:

       This brief overview of Durkheim’s major principles does not even touch the surface of the genius of this Sociologist and the basics he established in the field of Sociology.  Even though he never really even separated the two fields of Anthropology and Sociology, he applied the same fundamental and professional techniques in the study of  both.  Durkheim systematically observed subjects in a Macro-Sociological perspective and he never wavered to the Psychological perspective. He said that he would leave that up to the Psychologist.  Durkheim believed in researching social science as a social science, and treated those problems that way.  By remaining in one specific discipline and not wavering, I believe he remained focused and was able to develop his theory of Structural/ Functionalism, the irrefutable facts and concentrate on empirical and scientific research. Looking at his theory of Religion, in The Religious Life, that ideology goes back basically to the Structural/ Functionalism.  Durkheim’s theory of Religion and solidarity is a common denominator in our American democratic society and any other on the planet, and if solidarity is perceived as the desired goal, the state of Anomie must be acknowledged also.

       In Suicide (1897) the outcome of his research and studies, besides defining Anomie more explicitly, also provided a theory of deviance, and deteriorating values and morals which serves as the foundation of deviance and delinquency studies in many arenas.  Durkheim states in Suicide that the cohesion of the population tends to give people the feeling of being “a part of” and because of this feeling, less suicides are committed.  If the society or the individual is straying from the center structure though, it will fall into the state of Anomie and moral deterioration. (

      In these societies, if the conscious consensus is not moving positively (for the good of the whole) then it has failed, or is in the process of failing.  Structural/ Functionalism is a concept that unites nations, states, communities, school, work places, sports, churches, and organizations, to keep moving and progressing towards the ultimate good of the organism, and the idea of Religion provides solidarity for that environment.


       These principles have transcended from the 1850’s as substantial foundational blocks on which to study society.  When Durkheim voiced his statement that “crime was a natural occurrence” (Collins, 1994) he demonstrated that he was unique-thinker, apart from the typical Sociologists of that time period.  The others held more conservative judgments on the current problems, such as considering the concept of crime and continuing to research the social sciences in the same qualitative way that had been used.  This demonstrates Durkheim’s ability to look at the extreme of perspectives, instead of merely focusing on the single issue presented; as he did again with anomie and solidarity.  Another example of extreme thought was equating the concept of Religion to Society.  For most people, this concept is too difficult to get a hold of, and I personally don’t think it is possible to accept the concept in its entirety because if we did, then his ideologies of the sacred and the profane would become null and void  because all would be sacred if religion was equal or a symbol for society.


      But these unique and unanswered questions will remain unanswered because  Durkheim needed to have lived a few more years to answer them.  Now we’ll only have to surmise at the continued truths or the possibilities that could have emerged through the creative genius of Emile Durkheim if he were permitted to have gone forth researching 20 more years or so.  We are still able to continue to research his theories and concepts though, to build onto them, and to use them in structuring our culture. The fact that his principles have out-lived him, this alone is a certain indication of a Great Theorist.


Thank you for considering expanded dimensions in your thinking

and for taking time to examine the way our universe works;

The possibilities are endless.









A special thanks to

 Dr. B. for teaching Graduate Theory in Fall, 2003

And using the books of Randall Collins, 1994,

The Four Sociological Traditions, and the Selected Readings.

Oxford Press. New York, New York.

Which prompted our thinkings.