Emile Durkheim

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Emile Durkheim was a sociologist born in Epinal, France in 1858, who established a connection between empirical statistics with sociology, and is widely regarded as the founder of French sociology. While he grew up in a Jewish household where his father was a rabbi, he pursued an educational endeavor into the social sciences, denouncing his religious beliefs (but not his heritage). Afterward, he sought to achieve moral reform via his studies.

He had many emphases within his studies, but he always studied them primarily through a Functionalist lens, meaning that he primarily believed that human societies were analogical to an 'organism', where all institutions residing within interlocked and interacted with one another to create a complete mosaic of social life. Thus, his studies were about identifying the characteristics of the types of social cohesion that happened on a large scale, and what happened when this social cohesion was disrupted.[1]

Stance on religion[edit]

Because he was nonreligious, it stands to reason that Durkheim would attempt to explain the different parts of religions and how they operate within society, what their purposes were, and how they contributed to the whole. That being said, he identified three fundamental components to what he believed could classify as a religion, a definition that can be used today in this day and age. These three criteria are:

  • Some form of social cohesion/collective gathering
  • A distinction between sacred, otherworldly and special definitions of certain things associated with that particular religion, and mundane, everyday definitions of everything else.
  • Certain beliefs and practices that are associated with that particular social group.

He makes a distinction between 'magic' and a 'religion', in particular, via point one about social cohesion and collective gatherings in favor of that religion. There cannot be a religion without a group of people that consistently enforce the happenings associated with that religion, and actively attempt to enforce beliefs and rituals within the members of the given church. They would then define certain things as immutable and others as ordinary, not as personal opinions, but presented as objectively defined truths through their religion. Applying that, they would create a form of moral cohesion within their community by applying these labels of sacred and mundane to certain beliefs and practices, encouraging and propping up some and dismissing or outright detesting others. With these three traits, you can have a religion.

Notably, this does not necessarily apply only to monotheistic religions, but also nontheistic religions, polytheistic religions, and cults of personality as well. The important distinction that Durkheim makes in his studies is not so much the content of the religion, but rather the form that it manifests and is presented. This is derived from his mainly-functionalist viewpoint in how each type of institution are interdependent and interlock with each other to create the totality of what people experience in everyday life. Finally, Durkheim looks at religion during his study of Suicide, another major point of study he was interested in. [2]

Study on suicide[edit]

Because his views of social life emphasized the importance of social institutions and how they interlock with each other, Durkheim would go on to study on what happened when rapid social change happens and these institutions and spheres of social life no longer coincide to create cohesion. Here, Durkheim coins the term "Anomy", or "anomie" to English speakers, a term that refers to the isolation happening due to overspecialization, resulting in loosening of social ties. In Layman's terms, it means that, essentially, ones defined place in society is no longer what one expects, causing them to experience a form of 'normlessness', where they have a lack of moral and social enforcement. Durkheim goes on to explain that suicide caused by this concept, anomic suicide, is a further result of any sort of rapid social change, not simply 'bad' ones, but also 'good' ones as well.

In his studies, Durkheim identifies that the number of suicides seem to be moving up between the years 1864 and 1877 coinciding with the increase in industrial power in Rome, and he goes on to point out Prussia and Germany as well in regards to their increase in both industrial capability and number of suicides from their respective societies members. He then goes on to explain that anomie, and in extension anomic suicide, isn't simply something experienced in spikes. After all, even though there are observed increases of suicides in the studies he cites, there still exists a massive amount of suicides overall. Thus, Durkheim concludes from this, we must be in a 'chronic state of anomie', where the "sphere of trade and industry" are in a constant societal shift of progress and change, causing this redefinition of society to constantly happen and cause this anomie, and in extension, suicides.

Of course, it's important to note that Durkheim does not simply address economic reasons for anomie, but also cultural reasons such as marriage, and perhaps even religious autonomy and cohesion. An important takeaway from this particular work is that he believed that ANY type of rapid social change would result in this rise of suicides, no matter what direction that social change was moving in. Finally, it's also important to note that Durkheim himself addresses the limitations of his studies, noting that a natural observation like the suicide rate over time is not something that is easily experimented on. Nonetheless, the conversation generated by this type of work is still an important one to be noted, and is a good representation of what Durkheim's stance of society was.

Notably, his specific references to religions and the hypothetical construct of 'egoism', a concept he envisioned as being linked intrinsically to the tendency towards suicides, prompted further discussion to the other intervening variables that may contribute to the statistic of suicide.[3]

Organic and mechanical solidarity[edit]

Having knowledge of his studies on religion and suicides, it's important to address Durkheim's fundamental views of economic and social life in his own terms. Durkheim writes about two types of 'collective consciousness', where that is a "totality of beliefs and sentiments common to average citizens of the same society", or some widespread common sentiment that overarches amongst all members of a society. It manifests in two different ways, Mechanical and Organic, which can be regarded as a spectrum at which a society places its members into in regards to how they act and operate within a systemic totality.

Mechanical Solidarity[edit]

Here, Mechanical solidarity refers to the idea that all members of a given society commit to the same ideals, expectations, and norms that any member of that society would experience. Everyone has roughly the same skills, believes the same beliefs, and in general acts the same actions. For instance, a heavily Amish community would experience this sort of Mechanical solidarity, committing to the norms and expectations and only being able to act within the confines of what they are restricted to do. "The social molecules which can be coherent in this way can act together only in the measure that they have no actions of their own, as the molecules of inorganic bodies." Each member of the society is totally engulfed in the 'collective consciousness' of that particular society, unable to act on their own accord.

Organic Solidarity[edit]

In contrast, Organic solidarity refers to the idea and assumption that each person is different, and only inhabits a portion of the 'collective consciousness' of that society, thus causing that to be defined by the totality of all differing beliefs in that system. In particular, this type of solidarity is defined by what Mechanical solidarity is not: people are able to have differing fundamental beliefs, have fundamentally different skills, and inhabit fundamentally different cultures and expectations depending on who and where they are. One important example of this happening is reflective of this time and age, where industrialization was happening in Europe: Where factory workers would all go to a factory and work their labor, all enacting different skillsets, all to create one product that can be a metaphor for the 'product' of their organic solidarity.


He remarks that we are moving from a stricter mechanical solidarity to a looser organic one, reflective of the increase of technological development and the division of labor that was happening in that time period. He regarded the division of labor as not as a negative thing that Marx did, remarking that "Our duty is not to spread our activity over a large surface, but to concentrate and specialize it." He does not necessarily want people to commit to whatever labor they work in completely, but simply as much as is necessary to do their job correctly and efficiently. In short, he believed that the ability to commit completely to a specialization, in contrast to committing to the collective consciousness entirely, "contributes to this enfranchisement, for individual natures, while specializing, become more complex, and by that are in part freed from collective action and hereditary influences which can only enforce themselves upon simple, general things."[4]

Sociology and social facts[edit]

In his meta-studies talking about sociology as a study, one must keep in mind that he was developing this thought during a time when sociology was still a relatively new science. As such, sociologists at the time were essentially required to provide more layman explanations for what the study even was and why it was legitimate and not simply psychology 2.0. He cites the existence of something he coins, 'social facts', to assert that sociology is a study distinct from studies like biology or psychology. A 'social fact' is one in which is independent from the individual within a society, a conceptual or tangible limitation or happening that exists before a person enters a society, and imposes on them within the confines of the already existing one. Where a collective consciousness refers to the collective beliefs, sentiments, and expectations of the society at large, a social fact encompasses the things that make those possible: the systemic structure of the government and voting system, the language that you use, even the currency system that was in place long before you were born.

With this term and definition, Durkheim was able to effectively point out certain things that could not possibly be attributed to any sort of biological explanation, showing a sort of non-individualistic approach to understanding social life. In line with his views of society as an organism-like system that encompasses all forms of social life, the 'social fact' would be, in fact, this very system that one would be born into. For instance, the nature of the education system within a society attempts to coincide with the other institutions at play, resulting in a "continuous effort to impose on the child ways of seeing, feeling, and acting which he could not have arrived at spontaneously." In short, he accurately pointed out elements of social life that, while possibly enforced by people, were nonetheless also ways that society acted on the people as well.

Crime and its role in society[edit]

Durkheim consequently makes a key point about crime and deviancy, noting that crime is a consequence of defining an institutional set of rules and regulations for a society, resulting in people violating them and experiencing the consequences appropriate to the crime committed. He makes the point that crime is actually necessary to a society, as it defines, via the negative, the expectations and values of a society at large. Without an institution to define and enforce 'crime', there are no social conditions to begin with, and there is no society in the first place. Not only are certain things going to be enforced in a society, but how strongly a society reacts to said crime can also be an indicator of the strength of the collective consciousness that exists. Consider the difference between committing murder and jaywalking: the society you live in enforces each differently, despite them both being classified as 'crimes'. However, they are both nonetheless defined as crimes in the first place and demonstrate an intangible 'social boundary' that everyone is bound to within a given society, necessarily existing to provide some sort of objective understanding of what one ought to do.

He ends this part of his thought by noting that crime is not just a necessary function of defining society, but also a necessary function of creating social change: people can use the existence of crime to raise awareness of a certain happenstance or event occurring, utilizing collective sentiments about that crime and constantly reevaluating whether that crime should even be classified as one in the first place. For instance, the War on Drugs classified drug use as a crime, but people are also able to utilize this legislative awareness in order to point out injustices in racial and class persecution. Crime can be used as a clear point in establishing a movement or thought.[5]