Today is the birthday (1858) of David Émile Durkheim (the David part is usually omitted), a French sociologist who was one of the principal architects of modern social science. Although principally a sociologist, many of his works had a profound influence on the development of anthropology at the beginning of the 20th century. Much of Durkheim’s work was concerned with how societies maintained their integrity and coherence in the modern era when traditional social and religious ties had waned in importance and new social institutions had come into being. What kept societies together?
Durkheim’s first major sociological work was The Division of Labour in Society (1893), which introduced the concept of an “organic” society: a society held together (like the organs of a body) because different parts of the society performed different functions, all of which were necessary for the wellbeing of the whole. Furthermore, an organic society is not simply the sum of its parts; its coherence is an entity in its own right – greater than, and different from, the individuals that make it up. In 1895, he published The Rules of Sociological Method and set up the first European department of sociology, becoming France’s first professor of sociology. In 1898, he established the journal L’Année Sociologique.
He published Suicide in 1897, pioneering modern social research and distinguishing social science from psychology and political philosophy. In Suicide he argues for suicide being a “social fact” as well as an individual event, and that social facts and individual events are completely different entities. For example, if economic conditions worsen in a society the number of suicides per annum will increase (and the amount of the increase can be predicted within a range). However, statistics cannot predict which individuals will commit suicide. The aggregate number of suicides and the cause of the number’s rise and fall are social facts; who actually commits suicide is an individual fact. Sociology deals with social facts, psychology deals with individual facts. They are separable sciences with different methods and purposes.
The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life of 1912 was Durkheim’s foray into anthropology and cross-cultural comparison, and on the whole is not highly thought of these days in anthropological circles in its specifics because it is based on a fallacious 19th century conception of the evolution of culture. The simple equation that Durkheim uses – indigenous Australians have the most primitive technology in the world, therefore their religion must also be the most primitive – is just plain wrong. The broad strokes are still used, though. Durkheim argues that religion is a metaphor for society itself, and that God and society are the same thing (just put in different terms). People realize that there is a collective force binding them together as a society, and call that force “God” – and even worship or revere it because it is unknowable yet enormously powerful. If the God is angered, the society is disrupted, therefore it must always be appeased.
Durkheim was deeply preoccupied with the acceptance of sociology as a legitimate science. He refined the positivism originally set forth by Auguste Comte, promoting what could be considered as a form of epistemological realism, as well as the use of the hypothetico-deductive model in social science. For him, sociology was the science of institutions, if this term is understood in its broader meaning as “beliefs and modes of behavior instituted by the collectivity” and its aim being to discover structural social facts. Durkheim was a major proponent of structural functionalism, a foundational perspective in both sociology and anthropology (now largely superseded in anthropology on a conscious level, but still active deep down). In his view, social science should be purely holistic. That is, sociology should study phenomena attributed to society at large, rather than addressing the specific actions of individuals.
He remained a dominant force in French intellectual life until his death in 1917, presenting numerous lectures and published works on a variety of topics, including the sociology of knowledge, morality, social stratification, religion, law, education, and deviance. Durkheimian terms such as “collective consciousness” have since entered the popular lexicon.
Durkheim was a left-wing patriot, more tied to his country than to international socialism. The outbreak of the Great War caused him considerable anguish because it promoted right-wing nationalist sentiments in France. Furthermore, several of his students and his own son André died in the trenches, and he never recovered from the emotional shock. Durkheim collapsed of a stroke and died in Paris on November 15th, 1917 at the age of 59.
Durkheim was born in Lorraine in the Vosges district, famous for quiche and chocolate. It is also renowned for bouchées à la Reine, a kind of vol-au-vents made with mushrooms. In Lorraine, morels are the preferred mushrooms and they can be found in the abundant old apple orchards. Here is a video for you. It’s in French, but should not be too puzzling for you: