Durkheim's Academic Career


At about the time of his graduation, Durkheim had settled upon his life's course. His was not to be the traditional philosopher's calling. Philosophy, at least as it was then taught, seemed to him too far removed from the issues of the day, too much devoted to arcane and frivolous hairsplitting. He wanted to devote himself to a discipline that would contribute to the clarification of the great moral questions that agitated the age, as well as to practical guidance of the affairs of contemporary society. More concretely, Durkheim wished to make a contribution to the moral and political consolidation of the Third Republic which, in those days, was still a fragile and embattled political structure. But such moral guidance, Durkheim was convinced, could be provided only my men with a solid scientific training. Hence he decided that he would dedicate himself to the scientific study of society. What he considered imperative was to construct a scientific sociological system, not as an end in itself, but as a means for the moral direction of society. From this purpose Durkheim never parted.

However, since sociology was not a subject of instruction either at the secondary schools or at the university, Durkheim embarked upon a career as a teacher in philosophy. From 1882 to 1887 he taught in a number of provincial Lycees in the neighborhood of Paris--except for one year when he received a leave of absence for further study at Paris and in Germany. Durkheim's stay in Germany was mainly devoted to the study of methods of instruction and research in moral philosophy and the social sciences. He spent most of his time in Berlin and Leipzig. In the latter city the famous Psychological Laboratory of Wilhelm Wundt impressed him deeply. In his subsequent reports on his German experiences, Durkheim was enthusiastic about the precision and scientific objectivity in research that he had witnessed in Wundt's laboratory and elsewhere. At the same time he stressed that France should emulate Germany in making philosophical instruction serve social as well as national goals. He heartily approved of the efforts of various German social scientists and philosophers who stressed the social roots of the notion of moral duty and sought to make ethics an independent and positive discipline.

With the publication of his reports on German academic life, Durkheim became recognized at the age of twenty-nine as a promising figure in the social sciences and in social philosophy. In addition to his German studies, he had already published a number of critical articles, including reviews of the work of the German-language sociologists Gumplowicz and Schaeffle, and the French social philosopher Fouille. It was not surprising, therefore, that he was appointed to the staff of the University of Bordeaux in 1887. What was surprising, however, was that at the instigation of Louis Liard, the Director of Higher Education at the Ministry of Public Education, a social science course was created for him at the Faculty of Letters at that university. This was the first time a French university opened its doors to this previously tabooed subject. Only a decade earlier, the furious examiners at the Faculty of Letters of Paris had forced the sociologist Alfred Espinas, a future colleague of Durkheim at Bordeaux, to suppress the introduction to his thesis because he refused to delete the name of Auguste Comte from its pages!

At Bordeaux, Durkheim was attached to the department of philosophy where he was charged with courses in both sociology and pedagogy. Some commentators seem to feel that the teaching of pedagogy was a kind of academic drudgery that Durkheim was forced to accept. This was not the case. He continued to teach in the field of education throughout his career, even when he was clearly free to determine for himself the courses he would offer. Education, as will be seen later in more detail, remained for Durkheim a privileged applied field where sociology could make its most important contribution to that regeneration of society for which he aimed so passionately.

At about the time of his academic appointment to Bordeaux, Durkheim married the former Louise Dreyfus. They had two children, Marie and Andre, but very little is known of his family life. His wife seems to have devoted herself fully to his work. She followed the traditional Jewish family pattern of taking care of family affairs as well as assisting him in proofreading, secretarial duties, and the like. Thus, the scholar-husband could devote all his energies to his scholarly pursuits.

The Bordeaux years were a period of intense productive activity for Durkheim. He continued to publish a number of major critical reviews, among others of Toennies' Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, and the opening lectures of some of his courses were published in the form of articles. In 1893, he defended his French doctoral thesis, The Division of Labor, and his Latin thesis on Montesquieu. Only two years later The Rules of Sociological Method appeared, and within another two years Le Suicide was published. With these three major works, Durkheim moved into the forefront of the academic world. He noted in the preface of Suicide that sociology was now "in fashion." Not that his work was universally praised; on the contrary, it created a number of famous controversies and polemical exchanges. But the fact that so many theorists were moved to regard Durkheim as their privileged adversary testifies to his impact on the intellectual world. Then, as later, Durkheim was the center of continued controversy and disputation.

Once having established sociology as a field of interest to a wider public, Durkheim soon felt the need to consolidate these gains by setting up a scholarly journal entirely devoted to the new discipline. L'Annee Sociologique, which he founded in 1898, soon became the center for an extraordinarily gifted group of young scholars, all united, despite a variety of specific disciplinary interests, in a common devotion to the Durkheimian approach to sociology. Each year the Annee analyzed the current literature of sociology in France and elsewhere. These critical accounts allowed the French public for the first time to gain an overall view of the depth and breadth of the sociological enterprise. The Annee also contained independent major contributions from the pen of Durkheim and from his close collaborators. The reviews and papers were all meant to emphasize the need for building conceptual bridges between the specialized fields of the social sciences and the correlative need for factual, specific, and methodical research. The Annee was successful from the beginning, and the continued collaboration of its key contributors helped to weld them together into a cohesive "school," aggressively eager to defend the Durkheimian approach to sociology against all who opposed it.

In the same year the Annee was born, Durkheim published his famous paper on Individual and Collective Representations, which served as a kind of manifesto of sociological independence for the Durkheimian school. A series of other seminal papers, some published in the Annee and some elsewhere, followed in the next decade and a half. These included "The Determination of Moral Facts," "Value Judgments and Judgments of Reality," "Primitive Classification" (with Marcel Mauss), and "The Definition of Religious Phenomena."30

Nine years after having joined the faculty of the University of Bordeaux, Durkheim was promoted to a full professorship in social science, the first such position in France. He occupied this chair for six years. In 1902, now a man fully recognized stature, he was called to the Sorbonne, first as a charge de cours and then, in 1906, as a Professor of the Science of Education. In 1913, the name of Durkheim's chair was changed by a special ministerial decree to "Science of Education and Sociology." After more than three quarters of a century, Comte's brainchild had finally gained entry at the University of Paris.

During his Paris years, Durkheim continued to edit the Annee and offered a wide range of courses in ethics, education, religion, the philosophy of pragmatism, and the teachings of Saint-Simon and Comte. He appears to have been a masterful lecturer who held his audience so much in thrall that one of his students could write, "Those who wished to escape his influence had to flee from his courses; on those who attended he imposed, willy-nilly, his mastery."31

During the last few years of his stay in Bordeaux, Durkheim had already become interested in the study of religious phenomena. At least in part under the influence of Robertson Smith and the British school of anthropology, he now turned to the detailed study of primitive religion. He had published a number of preliminary papers in the area, and this course of studies finally led to the publication in 1912 of Durkheim's last major work, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life.

From Lewis A. Coser, Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideas in Historical and Social Context, 2nd Ed., Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1977: 145-148.



30.  The first two papers, as well as the essay on "Individual and Collective Representations" are available in English translations in Sociology and Philosophy. Primitive Classification has recently been translated by Rodney Needham (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1963). The last essay appeared in L'Annee Sociologique, II (1897-98).

31.  Quoted in Harry Alpert, Emile Durkheim and His Sociology (New York, Columbia University Press, 1939), p. 62. This section is mainly based on his fine work which, though published thirty years ago, is still the best general account of Durkheim's life. I have also consulted George Davy's "Emile Durkheim," Revue de metaphysique et de morale, XXVI (1919), pp. 181-98. His Emile Durkheim (Paris, Louis-Michaud, 19911) contains some fine photographs of Durkheim, his co-students at the Ecole Normale, and his lecture audience at the Sorbonne. Various contributions to Kurt H. Wolff, ed., Emile Durkheim 1859-1917 (Columbus, The Ohio State University Press, 1960) were also helpful.

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