Emile Durkheim is considered the founder of sociology, having set up foundational sociological theories, the first European department of sociology and the first academic journal dedicated to sociological thought.
Alongside Max Weber and Karl Marx, Durkheim is one of the most influential sociologists of all time.
As the father of sociology, he was deeply concerned with establishing sociology as a respected social science, dedicating time to explaining the sociological method, which he explicated in his 1895 book The Rules of Sociological Method.
But perhaps his most enduring influence was his Durkheim’s theories themselves, which were foundational in the development of one of sociology’s major paradigms, structural-functionalism, which dedicates itself to exploring how societies achieve structure and order.
Durkheim’s Theories and Contributions to Sociology
I’ve distilled Durkheim’s contributions to sociology down to seven key areas. Note, however, that each area has a great deal of depth that I cannot begin to explain in one article. Follow the hyperlinks to explore each idea in more depth.
1. The Sociological Method
The sociological method, as put forward by Emile Durkheim, is a set of principles and techniques for studying social phenomena. (Gane, 2010)
Durkheim put forth the view that social phenomena cannot simply be reduced to individualistic terms and should be viewed as a distinct reality.
These social phenomena should be studied via a focus on empirical evidence. Durkheim believed in the validity of statistical data and other tangible proofs for understanding society (Durkheim, 1895; Gane, 2010).
He therefore advocated for an unbiased, scientific approach that focused on objective evidence, as influenced by the philosophical pragmatists.
Empirical evidence, according to Durkheim, is what separates sociology from philosophical conjecture.
2. Collective Consciousness
Collective consciousness is Durkheim’s term for a shared set of beliefs, values, and norms among people in a society.
Collective consciousness, or as Durkheim originally termed it, “conscience collective,” lies at the heart of his Durkheim’s theories. This concept refers to shared beliefs and moral attitudes, which operate as a unifying force within society (Misztal, 2003; Ritzer, 2015).
This force forms the backbone of society. It prescribes the rules of conduct and principles of existence for its members. The collective consciousness is reflected in our laws, moral regulations, social norms, and traditional practices.
Durkheim suggested that collective consciousness arises from shared experiences and interactions within a group or society. The more homogeneous a society, the more powerful its collective consciousness (Misztal, 2003; Ritzer, 2015). Essentially, we’re talking about a shared mental state that defines the normal boundaries of behavior within a society.
As part of a society, you unconsciously adhere to the shared beliefs and values as expressed in the collective consciousness. This adherence is not often a product of explicit teaching but more of a collective societal influence on its members’ behavior (Misztal, 2003; Ritzer, 2015).
Therefore, Durkheim’s concept of collective consciousness shows how individual actions and societal norms interrelate, demonstrating that to fully understand an individual’s behavior, you need to comprehend the sociocultural dynamics that shape it.
3. Social Facts
Social facts are the outcomes of collective consciousness. They any phenomena that can exercise control over individuals’ lives due to the fact they are accepted norms within the collective consciousness (Nehring & Plummer, 2014). They are not physical things, but concepts that society generally agrees upon.
Examples of social facts include money, gender norms, family values, religion, the nation-state, and morality.
Durkheim proposed two types of social facts:
- Material Social Facts – These are the institutionalized norms and laws in a society. They can be either written laws and regulations, or directly observable rules.
- Non-material Social Facts – Non-material social facts are the unwritten norms, values, and belief systems a society tends to follow. They are not written down anywhere, but contravening them may be taboo and lead to social shunning (Nehring & Plummer, 2014).
The key point of social facts is that we need to live in reality – there are some things that social groups agree upon that we need to accept, because by not accepting them, we may find ourselves ostracized or worse.
4. Mechanical and Organic Solidarity
Mechanical and organic solidarity are two types of social cohesion identified by Durkheim, each indicative of a certain kind of society (Durkheim, 1924; Sister, 1955).
a) Mechanical Solidarity (Found in Small Homogenous Societies)
Mechanical solidarity, Durkheim’s first type, is prevalent in traditional and small-scale societies. In these societies, people tend to act in collective uniformity due to a similar way of life, shared beliefs, and strong emotional ties. Their roles and responsibilities are interchangeable as their lifestyle is undifferentiated (Schiermer, 2014).
These societies function much like a mechanical device—each constituent part acting in harmony. The uniformity of beliefs, values, and knowledge, part of their collective conscience, forms the basis of their cohesion. Customs, traditions, and shared religious beliefs bind these societies together, leading to a stable social order.
b) Organic Solidarity (Found in Large Heterogenous Societies)
Contrasting mechanical solidarity is Durkheim’s concept of organic solidarity. This form of cohesion is characteristic of modern, developed, and industrial societies where people perform specialized roles. The complexity in these societies is much higher, and individual members are less alike (Thijssen, 2012).
However, organic solidarity doesn’t signify societal disunity; it signifies coexistence fueled by interdependence. If you compare this kind of society with an organism, with different systems performing varied yet crucial functions, you can understand this solidarity better. It’s the interdependence and task differentiation that binds modern societies together.
This differentiation and specialization bring about a complex division of labor (Thijssen, 2012). As members of the society become increasingly reliant on one another’s specialized skills and knowledge, they foster a form of solidarity based on mutual need and interdependence.
These two concepts of mechanical and organic solidarity provide insights into how different types of societies maintain social order and cohesion.
5. Sociology of Religion (The Sacred and Profane)
Emile Durkheim was one of the first scholars to approach religion from a sociological perspective.
Durkheim argued that religion is a social phenomenon, rooted in the collective beliefs and values of a community. Religion, in his view, is not necessarily divine or supernatural, but a human creation reflecting societal norms and values (Stanner, 2017).
Durkheim’s theories on religion revolve around the concept of the “sacred” and the “profane”. Anything that fosters social unity and bolsters collective conscience, he considered sacred. Conversely, things that belong to the individual, everyday realm of life are profane.
Durkheim’s most significant work on religion was his book “The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life”. Here, he examined totemism among Australian Aboriginals. He defined a religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things.”
He proposed that the symbolic system of totemism was representative of what he called the “elementary” form of religion, or the base upon which all other religions were formed (Horii, 2019).
He also touched upon the role of rituals in reinforcing social bonds. Rituals, according to Durkheim, served to bind a community together, reinforcing the collective conscience.
Durkheim’s view of religion also highlighted the social function it serves. He claimed that religion helps maintain social cohesion by providing framework and rituals for people to come together and affirm their social unity.
6. Sociology of Education
Like religion, Durkheim believed that education holds a crucial role in the maintenance and functionality of a society.
Durkheim’s contributions to the sociology of education emerge especially in his delineation of education’s social role (Blackledge & Hunt, 2019; Slonimsky, 2016). He marked education as a means to equip individuals with the requisite knowledge, attitudes, and skills for their social roles.
He viewed education as the tool societies use to instill common values and norms in its members. Durkheim suggests that it is through education that societies manage to maintain social order and cohesion, enhance integration, and promote the longevity of societal norms, values, and customs (Blackledge & Hunt, 2019; Slonimsky, 2016).
Durkheim focused primarily on moral education. He considered it vital for maintaining social solidarity. Given that shared moral values are crucial for social cohesion, he viewed moral education as a critical obligation of societies to foster integration and solidarity.
By proposing these theories, Durkheim essentially laid the foundation for the sociological study of education, directing attention to the intricate link between society, schooling, and individual outcomes (Blackledge & Hunt, 2019; Slonimsky, 2016).
While Durkheim did not invent the term ‘anomie‘ (defined as “a state of normlessness”), he popularized it in sociology (Blanes, 2017).
Anomie refers to a situation in which society’s norms and rules are weak, unclear, or unplanned, causing a state of confusion and uncertainty among individuals. It’s a state where the standard rules of conduct and shared values, which regulate individuals’ actions, are no longer operative.
Durkheim originally introduced the concept of anomie in his work “The Division of Labor in Society” (1893), but it’s in his landmark study “Suicide” (1897) where he extensively explored this concept. Here, he used “anomic suicide” as an indicator of the extent of anomie in a society (Blanes, 2017).
In societies plagued by anomie, individuals lack guidelines to behavior and struggle to find their place. This absence of social norms contributes to feelings of void and meaninglessness (Blanes, 2017).
Durkheim associated anomie with rapid social change. When societies switch abruptly between mechanical to organic solidarity or undergo sudden economic disruptions, established norms and expectations can fail to keep up. This disparity, Durkheim believed, gives birth to anomie.
Durkheim did not coin the term structural-functionalism, but he surely was the founding influence for this theoretical paradigm in sociology (Ritzer, 2015).
Functionalists, following Durkheim, view society as an organism in which all parts—family, religion, education, etc.—work together to maintain social equilibrium.
Durkheim’s vision of society as a complex system, in which each part has a specific purpose, exemplifies structural-functional thought. In his view, each social institution contributes to the overall functioning and stability of society.
Consider his two types of societal cohesion—mechanical and organic solidarity—as examples of this perspective. In mechanical solidarity, cohesion and integration come from the homogeneity of society’s members, who think and act alike.
In contrast, organic solidarity, typical of more complex societies, stems from the interdependence that comes from specialized roles and tasks.
Sociology After Emile Durkheim
Durkheim looms as a towering figure in sociology. Following his influence, many scholars built on and challenged his core ideas.
Building on Durkheim, we see key figures like Robert K Merton, who proposed that social structures may be in place to achieve social order, but also have unexpected (and often negative) externalities, known as latent functions. Merton also built on Durkheim’s idea of anomie by developing Strain Theory, a theory explaining that social exclusion and marginalization leads to deviant behaviors.
But some scholars were more critical of Durkheim and his functionalist followers.
Max Weber, for example, thought Durkheim focused too much on macrosociological factors (the big picture), and that we should also examine the lived experiences of individuals in society.
Similarly, the critical theorists believed that Durkheim too generously focused on how to achieve social order and failed to examine how, through establishing order, societies and social institutions caused marginalization and oppression.
For more on sociology after Durkheim, I recommend the following guides:
- Functionalism vs Conflict Theory
- Functionalism vs Functionalism
- Max Weber’s Sociological Theories
- A List of Sociological Theories
Blackledge, D., & Hunt, B. (2019). Sociological interpretations of education. Routledge.
Blanes, R. L. (2017). The current state of anomie in Angola. Durkheimian Studies, 23(1), 26-39.
Durkheim, É. (1982) The Rules of Sociological Method Free Press. (first published. 1895).
Durkheim, E. (1893). The Division of Labor in Society. New York: The Free Press.
Durkheim, E. (1897). Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Paris: The Free Press.
Durkheim, E. (1924). Sociologie et philosophie. France: F. Alcan.
Gane, M. (2010). On Durkheim’s Rules of Sociological Method (Routledge Revivals). Taylor & Francis.
Horii, M. (2019). Historicizing the category of “religion” in sociological theories: Max Weber and Emile Durkheim. Critical Research on Religion, 7(1), 24-37.
Misztal, B. A. (2003). Durkheim on collective memory. Journal of Classical Sociology, 3(2), 123–143. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468795×030032002
Nehring, D., & Plummer, K. (2014). Sociology: An introductory textbook and reader. London: Routledge.
Ritzer, G. (2015). Essentials of sociology. New York: Sage Publications.
Schiermer, B. (2014). Durkheim’s Concept of Mechanical Solidarity: Where Did It Go?. Durkheimian Studies, 20(1), 64-88.
Sister, M. (1955). Durkheim’s Concept of Solidarity. Philippine Sociological Review, 3(3), 23–27. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41853340
Slonimsky, L. (2016). Teacher change in a changing moral order: Learning from Durkheim. Education as change, 20(2), 27-43.
Stanner, W. E. (2017). Reflections on Durkheim and aboriginal religion. In Social Organization and Peasant Societies (pp. 217-240). Routledge.
Thijssen, P. (2012). From mechanical to organic solidarity, and back: With Honneth beyond Durkheim. European Journal of Social Theory, 15(4), 454-470.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]