Emile Durkheim

The Work

General Approach

The main thrust of Durkheim's overall doctrine is hisinsistence that the study of society must eschew reductionism andconsider social phenomena sui generis. Rejectingbiologistic or psychologistic interpretations, Durkheim focusedattention on the social-structural determinants of mankind'ssocial problems.

Durkheim presented a definitive critique of reductionistexplanations of social behavior. Social phenomena are"social facts" and these are the subject matter ofsociology. They have, according to Durkheim, distinctive socialcharacteristics and determinants, which are not amenable toexplanations on the biological or psychological level. They areexternal to any particular individual considered as a biologicalentity. They endure over time while particular individuals dieand are replaced by others. Moreover, they are not only externalto the individual, but they are "endowed with coercivepower, by . . . which they impose themselves upon him,independent of his individual will."1Constraints, whether in the form of laws or customs, come intoplay whenever social demands are being violated. These sanctionsare imposed on individuals and channel and direct their desiresand propensities. A social fact can hence be defined as"every way of acting, fixed or not, capable of exercising onthe individual an external constraint."2

Although in his early work Durkheim defined social facts bytheir exteriority and constraint, focusing his main concern onthe operation of the legal system, he was later moved to changehis views significantly. The mature Durkheim stressed that socialfacts, and more particularly moral rules, become effective guidesand controls of conduct only to the extent that they becomeinternalized in the consciousness of individuals, whilecontinuing to exist independently of individuals. According tothis formulation, constraint is no longer a simple imposition ofoutside controls on individual will, but rather a moralobligation to obey a rule. In this sense society is"something beyond us and something in ourselves."3Durkheim now endeavored to study social facts not only asphenomena "out there" in the world of objects, but asfacts that the actor and the social scientist come to know.4

Social phenomena arise, Durkheim argued, when interactingindividuals constitute a reality that can no longer be accountedfor in terms of the properties of individual actors. "Thedetermining cause of a social fact should be sought among thesocial facts preceding it and not among the states of theindividual consciousness."5 A political party,for example, though composed of individual members, cannot beexplained in terms of its constitutive elements; rather, a partyis a structural whole that must be accounted for by the socialand historical forces that bring it into being and allow it tooperate. Any social formation, though not necessarily superior toits individual parts, is different from them and demands anexplanation on the level peculiar to it.

Durkheim was concerned with the characteristics of groups andstructures rather than with individual attributes. He focused onsuch problems as the cohesion or lack of cohesion of specificreligious groups, not on the individual traits of religiousbelievers. He showed that such group properties are independentof individual traits and must therefore be studied in their ownright. He examined different rates of behavior in specifiedpopulations and characteristics of particular groups or changesof such characteristics. For example, a significant increase ofsuicide rates in a particular group indicates that the socialcohesion in that group has been weakened and its members are nolonger sufficiently protected against existential crises.

In order to explain regular differential rates of suicide invarious religious or occupational groupings, Durkheim studied thecharacter of these groups, their characteristic ways of bringingabout cohesion and solidarity among their members. He did notconcern himself with the psychological traits or motives of thecomponent individuals, for these vary. In contrast, thestructures that have high suicide rates all have in common arelative lack of cohesion, or a condition of relativenormlessness.

Concern with the rates of occurrence of specific phenomenarather than with incidence had an additional advantage in that itallowed Durkheim to engage in comparative analysis of variousstructures. By comparing the rates of suicides in various groups,he was able to avoid ad hoc explanations in the context of aparticular group and instead arrive at an overall generalization.By this procedure he came to the conclusion that the generalnotion of cohesion or integration could account for a number ofdiffering specific rates of suicide in a variety of groupcontexts. Groups differ in the degree of their integration. Thatis, certain groups may have a firm hold on their individualmembers and integrate them fully within their boundaries; othersmay leave component individuals a great deal of leeway of action.Durkheim demonstrated that suicide varies inversely with thedegree of integration. "When society is strongly integrated,it holds individuals under its control."6 Peoplewho are well integrated into a group are cushioned to asignificant extent from the impact of frustrations and tragediesthat afflict the human lot; hence, they are less likely to resortto extreme behavior such as suicide.

For Durkheim, one of the major elements of integration is theextent to which various members interact with one another.Participation in rituals, for example, is likely to draw membersof religious groups into common activities that bind themtogether. Or, on another level, work activities that depend ondifferentiated yet complementary tasks bind workers to the workgroup. Related to the frequency of patterned interaction is ameasure of value integration, that is the sharing by the membersof values and beliefs. In collectivities where a high degree ofconsensus exists, there is less behavioral deviance than ingroups in which consensus is attenuated. The stronger the credoof a religious group, the more unified it is likely to be, andtherefore better able to provide an environment that willeffectively insulate its members from perturbing and frustratingexperiences. Yet Durkheim was also careful to point out thatthere are special cases, of which Protestantism is the mostsalient, in which the credo of the group stresses a shared beliefin individualism and free inquiry. Protestantism "concedes agreater freedom to individual thought than Catholicism . . . ithas fewer common beliefs and practices."7 In thiscase, higher rates of such deviant behavior as suicide cannot beexplained as a lack of consensus, but as a response to thegroup-enjoined autonomy of its members.

The difference between value consensus and structuralintegration can now be more formally approximated in terms ofDurkheim's own terminology. He distinguished between mechanicaland organic solidarity. The first prevails to the extentthat "ideas and tendencies common to all members of thesociety are greater in number and intensity than those whichpertain personally to each member. This solidarity can grow onlyin inverse ration to personality."8 In otherwords, mechanical solidarity prevails where individualdifferences are minimized and the members of society are muchalike in their devotion to the common weal. "Solidaritywhich comes from likeness is at its maximum when the collectiveconscience completely envelops our whole conscience and coincidesin all points with it."9 Organic solidarity,in contrast, develops out of differences, rather than likenesses,between individuals. It is a product of the division of labor.With increasing differentiation of functions in a society comeincreasing differences between its members.

Each element in a differentiated society is less strongly tiedto common collective routines, even though it may be bound withequal rigor to the differentiated and specialized tasks and rolesthat characterize systems of organic solidarity. While theindividual elements of such a system have less in common, theyare nevertheless much more interdependent than under mechanicalsolidarity. Precisely because they now engage in differentiatedways of life and in specialized activities, the members arelargely dependent upon one another and networks of solidarity candevelop between them. In such systems, there can be some releasefrom external controls, but such release is in tune with, not inconflict with, the high degree of dependence of individuals ontheir fellows.

In his earlier work, Durkheim stated that strong systems ofcommon belief characterize mechanical solidarity in primitivetypes of society, and that organic solidarity, resulting from theprogressive increase in the division of labor and hence increasedmutual dependence, needed fewer common beliefs to tie members tothis society. He later revised this view and stressed that eventhose systems with a highly developed organic solidarity stillneeded a common faith, a common conscience collective, if theywere not to disintegrate into a heap of mutually antagonistic andself-seeking individuals.

The mature Durkheim realized that only if all members of asociety were anchored to common sets of symbolic representations,to common assumptions about the world around them, could moralunity be assured. Without them, Durkheim argued, any society,whether primitive or modern, was bound to degenerate and decay.

From Lewis A. Coser, Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideasin Historical and Social Context, 2nd Ed., Fort Worth:Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1977: 129-132.



  1. Emile Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method (New York, The Free Press, 1950), p. 2.
  2. Ibid., p. 13.
  3. Emile Durkheim, Sociology and Philosophy (New York, The Free Press, 1953), p. 55.
  4. Cf. Talcott Parsons, "Emile Durkheim," International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (New York, Macmillan, 1968). Cf. also Georges Sorel's acute observations on this point in his "Les Theories de M. Durkheim," Le Devenir Social, I (1895), esp. p. 17.
  5. Rules, p. 110.
  6. Emile Durkheim, Suicide (New York, The Free Press, 1951), p. 209.
  7. Ibid., 159.
  8. Emile Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society (New York, The Free Press, 1956), p. 129.
  9. Ibid., p. 130.

Forward to"Individual and Society"
Back to"Public Involvement"
Back to the Index