4.2 Emile Durkheim

Sociological Thinkers: Emile Durkheim - Division of labour, social fact, suicide, religion and society.

Table of contents


Durkheim had a socially deterministic perspective. He ascribed the social reality to the group rather than the individual, going decidedly for structure and not agency. He believed that as soon as individuals came together to form a collective, something more than a mere aggregate resulted. This was social reality (principle of emergence). His approach can be broadly divided into two aspects:

  1. Social realism: Reality ascribed to society rather than the individual. Society is Sui generis and exists at multiple levels. (No free will)
  2. Organismic analogy: His approach to functionalism, though more crystallised but in essence same as those of Comte and Spencer. (An alien God)He held the view that society is made up of social facts. These “facts” can be known by external observation and patterns of interconnection can be discovered. Thus, he claimed that a positive science of society is possible.

According to Durkheim, Sociology is the scientific study of social facts.
Durkheim defined a social fact as:

“Those shared ways of acting, thinking and feeling which are capable of exercising external constraint on the individual, are generally diffused in society, and which have a life of their own.”

Thus social facts have three properties:

  1. External.
  2. Compelling in nature.
  3. Generally diffused.

There are two types of social facts:

  • Material
  • Non-material

Material social facts are features of society such as social structures and institutions. These could be the system of law, the economy, church and many aspects of religion, the state, and educational institutions and structures. They could also include features such as channels of communication, urban structures, and population distribution. While these are important for understanding the structures and form of interaction in any society, it is non-material social facts that constitute the main subject of study. Non-material social facts are social facts which do not have a material reality. According to Durkheim they consist of features such as morality, collective conscience, and social currents.

Collective Conscience

Social facts emerge when a collection of people live in a geographical setting and enter into group life. Interactions in group life lead to formation of social currents and when these currents get institutionalised they become social facts. The collective conscience of the people was the ultimate social fact according to Durkheim.
Collective Conscience consists of the set of beliefs and sentiments common to the average member of the society, which forms a determinate system and has a life of its own. Collective Conscience is the totality of social resemblances. Durkheim believed that an average rate of crime was healthy for society as it led to the rejuvenation of Collective Conscience. He even went so far as to say that some crime was an anticipation of the morality of the future.
Collective Conscience was a major theme in his work division of labour in society, but as he developed his ideas further he realised that the scope of Collective Conscience as an all-encompassing social fact hindered academic discourse. So he developed the idea of collective representations. These are nothing but facets of Collective Conscience which allow a nimbler treatment of complex ideas such as religion.

Division of Labour

Durkheim was intrigued by the development of solidarity in society. He saw that in the industrial society an increasing DoL meant that people were becoming increasingly more free from social control. While at the same time he felt that society still had solidarity. Thus, the basic question that drove him to study DoL was this:

"How does an individual while becoming more free is increasingly dependent on society?"

Durkheim identified two types of societies: those with mechanical and those with organic solidarity.

Volume, intensity, determinateness, and content are terms proposed by Anthony Giddens.

What causes change in DoL?

Increasing material volume and material density cause a rise in dynamic density. This throws up new problems which can only be solved by increasing DoL. The individual is more free and at the same time is increasingly dependent on society. Greater DoL leads to universalistic values (generalised values).

  • material volume (population size)
  • material density (population density)
  • dynamic density (frequency and intensity of social interactions)

Why does conflict occur?

In normal cases high DoL would mean high solidarity but pathological cases of high DoL exist as in the case of modern industrial society (At Durkheim's time).

Anomic DoL: Declining role of Collective Conscience causes anomie to develop in transitioning societies. Durkheims solutions:

  • All stakeholders in an industry should come together to form a professional organisation which set the norms of accepted behaviour in the industry. Ex. Indian Medical Association.
  • Industrial policy should be reorganised wherein industrialists and workers should agree on legitimate profits and wages.
  • Organisation of production should take a community form, with industrialists providing the workers with means of social security.
  • Traditional morality has declined, thus each profession should be organised as association with their own moral rules.
  • Members of these associations should also take part in the law making process so that laws are in tune with these associations.

Forced DoL- Society based on DoL must be truly meritocratic, if in such a society inequality develops it is not bad provided everyone has opportunity to nurture their merit. Durkheim's ideas to minimise inequality:

  • Laws of inheritance should be abolished.
  • On death, state should acquire people’s wealth and use it to provide basic needs of all.
  • Inequalities based on merit should be accepted.

Lack of coordination. Organisation should be strengthened to ensure better coordination. Didn’t discuss this much. Only mentioned it as a footnote.


  • This was a landmark study, and it opened new vistas for sociological research. Sociology of professions emerged, where social significance of experience at work became focus of research.
  • Elton Mayo reaffirmed the Nexus between DoL and solidarity in his Hawthorne plant studies especially social significance of solidarity in context of DoL.
  • David Lockwood said that Durkheim confused between social and system integration. Durkheim only provided solutions for social integration. (Social: common values and beliefs; system: interdependence.)
Low DoL
High DoL

  • Marxists claimed that the inherent problems of a high DoL capitalist society were ignored by Durkheim. Ex. false class consciousness, fragmentation of work, loss of meaning in work, systemic alienation etc.
  • Highlights Collective Conscience a lot, but Marxists again claim that it is the dominant class which imposes its values on all others. Durkheim held that state was representative of all but that is not the case. False class consciousness.

Rules of Sociological Method

Durkheim gave detailed guidelines about how to conduct a sociological research.
Rules for Observation

  1. Treat social facts as things, i.e. social facts are observable and measurable.
  2. All preconceived notions about social facts should be abandoned. (OBJECTIVE OBSERVATION)
  3. Social facts must be observed in their collective manifestation instead of focusing on individual instances.
  4. Observations must be restricted to externally observable and verifiable facts only.
  5. Don’t presume voluntaristic aspects of social facts i.e. Durkheim means to say that individual motives cannot account for social facts. (All structure no agency)
  6. Observations should be as definitive as possible.

Rules for Comparison and Classification

  1. Build a classificatory typology. Ex Durkheim gave 4 types of suicide.
  2. Social facts must be classified as either normal or pathological.
  • Normal Social Facts: these are the statistically normal social facts which are also functional in the society in which they are observed.
  • Pathological Social Facts: these may be statistically normal, but are usually detrimental (dys/non-functional) for the society.

Rules for Generalisation

  1. Causal: try to find the cause of a social fact. (He says that the cause of a social fact must be sought in the preceding social fact only. This was also an effort to delineate the subject matter of sociology from that of psychology.)
  2. Functional: try to find what the consequences of a social fact are.

Study of Suicide

This is Durkheim’s most definitive study, where his method can be clearly observed.He began with a definition of suicide: "All cases of death resulting directly or indirectly from a positive or a negative act of the victim which s/he knows will produce this effect."

He then went about testing the notions about suicide prevalent at that time and found them to be false.

NOTE: He later commented that chronic poverty is a safeguard against suicidal tendencies.

From his study of coroner's reports across three decades from various nation-states of Europe, he found that each nation had a more or less constant rate of suicide. Due to the long time period under study he also observed that the rate remained constant so long as there were no drastic changes in the society. For ex. war, natural calamity, economic boom/crisis etc.

He then postulated that if psychological reasons were indeed a causal factor for suicide, the rates of suicide would not be as constant as they were. This led him to the conclusion that suicide is a social fact. Since suicide is a social fact, he went about finding the preceding social fact that led to suicide. Durkheim said that every society has suicidogenic currents and went about unearthing them.

Types of Suicide

Durkheim found several patterns in the data. He found that suicide rates in:

  • Protestants were more than Catholics. (Except for Church of England)
  • Men were more than women. (women more gregarious)
  • Unmarried people were more than married people. (married peeps well integrated)
  • Peacetime were more than wartime. (feelings like patriotism take precedence)

He generalised it by saying that the rate of suicide is inversely proportional to social solidarity (also known as social integration). When social solidarity is low, suicide rates jump in what he called the EGOISTIC SUICIDE. Here the individual conscience is at variance with ©. The individual asserts his/her superiority by committing suicide.Durkheim also noted that when social norms demanded suicide, rates of suicide were high. This he termed as ALTRUISTIC SUICIDE. High levels of integration in society ensured that the social goals were put before even life. Ex. hara-kiri, jauhar/sati, fidayeen bombers, etc.
Another major aspect that affected rates of suicide was social regulation. On both ends of the spectrum, i.e. extreme regulation and lack of regulation, suicide rates were high. In times of sudden change, the normative effects of social life break down. Whenever society loses its ability to regulate the conduct of its members, anomie results. This was thus called ANOMIC SUICIDE. Ex. during times of famine, market crash, market boom, etc. Durkheim also noted that rate of suicide was high among slaves in ancient Greek and Roman times. He termed this as FATALISTIC SUICIDE. Thus when society is over regulating the individual, suicide rates jump.NOTE: the sudden change doesn’t necessarily have to be for the worse.

Thus Durkheim concluded that:

  • There are two suicidogenic currents in society, regulation and integration
  • Resulting in 4 types of suicide: egoistic, altruistic, anomic and fatalistic.(Remember the graph with regulation and integration axes)
  • A study conducted in the 1980s by Halbwacs with much more accurate data affirmed Durkheim’s conclusions. He said that suicide is proportional to social complexity (DoL).
  • Gibbs & Martin said that Durkheim failed to operationalise social integration. He gave no idea as to how it should be measured. They suggested that status integration be used as an indication of social integration.
  • In light of increasingly multi-dimensional nature of studies critics claim that his study was inadequate at best as he only concerned himself with social causes.
  • Maxwell Atkinson also claimed that his data was of poor quality (ex. Prakash Singh Badal and farmers’ “accidents” in Punjab) and there were in-built biases in his data. Atkinson said that suicide is not a social fact but a subjective interpretation of the coroner.
  • Jean Baechler built the individual suicide typology:
    • Escapist suicide. As a solution to problems. Ex. farmers’ suicide.
    • Aggressive suicide. In order to harm others. Ex. suicide bombers.
    • Appeal suicide. In order to draw attention. Ex. Tibetan monks' suicides.
    • Sacrificial suicide. In order to save others. Ex. soldier jumped on grenade to save fellows.
    • Fun/Thrill seeking suicide. To get a kick out of life.

Totemism - The Study of Elementary Religious Life

Durkheim conducted a positivistic study of religion. He chose the simplest religion as he believed this was where the true nature of religion would come to the fore, in keeping with his assumption that the underlying nature of religion doesn’t change. Priests and prophets, according to Durkheim, camouflage the true nature of religion.

(He assumed that the nature of religion didn't change because it was still there to serve the same social needs, which had not really changed but had morphed in character, thereby allowing the priests and prophets some leeway.)

Going by these assumptions he stated that the simplest religions would be found in the societies with the least amount of division of labour. Thus, he chose to study Totemism in Australian aboriginal tribes.

He studied the contemporary views about religion and refuted them:

  • EB Tyler in his Primitive Cultures claimed that ANIMISM was the earliest religion. Durkheim concludes that animism would have logically led to the development of ancestor worship in all societies, as all have religions, but that is not so.  

He also stated that this view renders religion:

  • Imaginary/unreal and hence not subject to empirical study.
  • No religion is purely belief, it’s beliefs and rituals in sync with each other.
  • Max Muller claimed that NATURISM was the earliest form of religion. Durkheim said that this view reduces religion to a collective hallucination. Durkheim claimed that as religion was a social fact, so its source must also be a real, permanent social fact.
  • Herbert Spencer held that religion is the worship of SUPERNATURE. Durkheim said that there is no clear empirical distinction between nature and super-nature. He also said that religion was also involved with everyday issues in our lives, which would be excluded in case of a supernatural origin.
  • He further examined the folk notions about religions. Ex that it was the belief in God. He claimed that not all religions believe in god, so this notion too is false.In the end, he concluded that the existing views on religion were inadequate.

Durkheim said that human thought is shaped by social experience (nurture rather than nature). By this he attacked Kant’s idea of man’s inherent special thought categories. Durkheim rejected the idea of intrinsic values saying it was all based on collective social experiences (tabula rasa bro, fuck your free will). He further talked about the duality of social experience (in terms of good and bad), which led to the development of duality of thought, which finally distilled out in the form of sacred and profane.

  • Sacred is socially determined and not utilitarian.
  • Sacred is treated with awe & reverence, and strictly regulated by society.
  • Profane is seen as defining the sacred.
  • Sacred is not empirical/rational, it is imposed by society on the basis of belief and faith.
  • Ex. pigs considered profane by Islam/Judaisim but sacred by Druids.
  • Sacred objects make moral demands on the people.
  • There is propitiation of sacred for divine reciprocation.Durkheim holds that all religion is about the sacred.

Durkheim felt that it was inadmissible for something so profound and permanent in society should be viewed as a mere collective hallucination. He felt that the importance of religion in recorded history must be because it corresponded to a true reality rather than fictions of spirits or super-nature. This reality, Durkheim claimed was nothing but society. This is his central thesis in this study, that throughout history people have not worshiped anything but the collective social reality configured by faith.

This was derived from his idea that sacred is defined by society and the totem was at once a veneration of god as well as society. He mused if God and society were the same thing.

He finally gave his definition of religion as:Religion is a unified set of beliefs and practices related to sacred things i.e. things which are set apart and forbidden. These beliefs and practices bind those who adhere to them in a moral community called Church.

His Conclusions:

  1. Religion acts as a source of solidarity.
  2. Religion regulates social conduct.
  3. Religion sets and strengthens social norms.
  4. Develops common ideas, goals and aspirations in the followers.
  5. When we worship the sacred, we are indirectly worshiping society.
  6. Society is real, permanent and transcendent (social realism). Thus, a believer isn't suffering from hallucinations but conforming to social norms.
  7. Religion is an indirect way of expressing people's dependence on society.
    Durkheim postulated that as we industrialise, religion would decline (as social needs would change and be better served by development of organic solidarity). He said that this would not necessarily lead to social disintegration as religion is only a way to express dependence on society. He held that other secular ways would come up for maintaining societal integration, ex nationalism, but common ideas would still be necessary for integration.


  • Malinowski said that while religion promotes solidarity in society, it is not an expression of veneration of society itself. He says that religion deals with those events which cause stress and anxiety and threaten social stability such as death and events which must be undertaken but cannot be fully predicted (fishing).
  • Swanson & Douglas reaffirmed his theory of sacred objects. They said that structure of thought and social structure are co-related. (Purity/pollution from duality of thought as seen in Indian sociology inspired by Durkheim in 2nd degree: Durkheim=>Levi-Strauss=>Dumont)
  • Merton said that religion unifies society but this only holds true at an intra-religious level. With today’s multi-religious societies they can act as divisive forces.
  • Marx said that religion was a part of ruling class ideology. False class consciousness.
  • Weber said that apart from increasing social solidarity and control religion could also act as an agent of change. PESC.
  • Durkheim assumed that essential nature of religion remains the same, so his logic was to study it in its pristine form, but this may not always be true. As society changes, nature of religion too changes. Ex. Hinduism the most adaptable religion ever.
  • In simple societies all knowledge is passed down in the form of religious dogma (has a cognitive function). Critics point out that this declines rapidly in modern societies as science takes over the role of cognition.
  • He claimed that religion would decline in modern industrial societies. In reality it hasn’t declined but has experienced a resurgence in a changed form. Growth of religion as a protest ideology was not anticipated by Durkheim. Ex. Khalsa movement.
  • Durkheim’s views attacked as being teleological. Durkheim didn’t explain the cause of religion, he only gave a functional explanation for religion (solidarity increases).

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