Emile Durkheim, a famous French theorist of the classical tradition, had significant contributions to the field of social science as a whole. Several scholars, according to Turner (1999), have described this figure as "the founding father of sociology," since he had a clear vision on how to build the field of sociology as a science of social facts. Durkheim established himself as unambiguously a sociologist, unlike other theorists who were somewhat ambiguous about their status (Turner, 1999). To date, this person's sociological school of thought continues to play a significant role in shaping beliefs about the complexity of the modern world. The writing of this French sociologist is concise, direct, and comprehensible, unlike that of dominant figures like Georg Simmel, who often wrote in obscure and dense prose (Turner, 1999). The arguments of Durkheim, Turner (1999), noted are invariably logical and start with challenging analytical problems like the meaning of religion and the structure of society. Since Emile Durkheim's work focused on how society forms and functions, his sociological thinking is essential to the contemporary world because it is the basis of maintaining order and stability.
Durkheim's Life History and Influences on His Thinking
This French sociologist was born in April 1858 to a devoutly Jewish family (Lukes, 2005). His place of birth was Epinal, which is located in today's Lorraine province. Durkheim's father, grandfather, and other people of his lineage were all rabbis. In 1879, however, this sociologist broke with this tradition, where he went and studied philosophy in Paris (Lukes, 2005). He graduated three years later in 1882 and began teaching philosophy. In 1887, at the University of Bordeaux, Durkheim started teaching official sociology courses upon his appointment as a teacher of Pedagogy and Social Sciences (Lukes, 2005). Durkheim's time at Bordeaux University, shaped his sociological school of thought, allowing him to cement sociology's place in the academic world. Some of the thesis statements that this French theorist published while in the Bordeaux University are the Suicide: A Study in Sociology (1897) and On the Division of Social Labor (1893) ((Lukes, 2005). Shortly before joining the French learning institution in 1887, he married Dreyfus Louise and later had two children with her (Lukes, 2005).
Durkheim got a promotion in 1902 at Sorbonne, one of the best European universities of that time, when the institution made him the chair of the Science of Education (Lukes, 2005). In essence, this promotion enabled the French theorist to build his career during the classical period of sociology. Durkheim made significant progress in his career in 1906 upon becoming a full professor (Lukes, 2005). Seven years later, in 1913, the institution changed Durkheim's position to include sociology (Lukes, 2005). As a result of this reorganization, the theorist became the chairperson of the Science of Education and Sociology. This situation enabled Durkheim to lecture in several subjects besides publishing essays that later became essential parts of his educational life. One of them was The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) (Lukes, 2005).
Nonetheless, the outbreak of the First World War had disastrous consequences on the life of the French sociologist since it contributed to the death of his son, Andre. Again, most of his promising students lost their lives during the combat; thus, the event would prove to have detrimental consequences for Durkheim. However, this person died of a stroke in 1917 as he could not recover in the aftermath of the First World War. One of his works, La Morale (Morality), was in the preliminary introduction when Durkheim died (Lukes, 2005).
Besides educational achievements, the theorist engaged in politics, although his involvement was discrete. He was the pioneer member of the Human Rights League and also supported Dreyfus Alfred during the Dreyfus affair. Notably, this theorist was familiar with the ideas of Carl Max, but he saw them as violent, conflictual, and reactionary. Since he was critical of Max's work, Durkheim described them as dogmatic and unscientific. Yet, this person embraced several socialist reforms but did not make political issues a primary concern in his life. While Durkheim had many socialist friends, he rarely committed himself to the party. Of great importance to Durkheim was to use sociology to change French societies, which during his lifetime, were suffering under the strains of modernity. He also applied sociological theories in writing anti-German propaganda a few years to the First World War. Through this work, Durkheim helped bring to light the intense nationalism found in Germany.
Intellectual Contributions to Sociological Theory and Its Value to Sociology Today
The French theorist was among the first thinkers who attempted to transform the field of sociology into a science. The work of Herbert Spencer and Augustine Comte had a formative influence on Durkheim's sociological thinking. As an example, Herbert Spence's idea of evolutionary utilitarian helped Durkheim to study different aspects of social sciences (Thompson, 2003). In studying societies, as well, Durkheim used the ideas of Augustine Comte, particularly on positivism. Spencer's method of functionalist analysis, to some extent, shaped Durkheim's use of the organic analogy and ways in which different units of society work together to form a functioning whole (Thompson, 2003). According to this theorist, religion, and morality, among other elements of society, are products of history. So, it is possible to study them scientifically since they are part of the natural world and do not have a transcendent origin.
Durkheim's study of society and its social facts is one of his most essential intellectual contributions to sociological theory. In essence, the existence of what the theorist called "social facts" is the foundational claim for his sociological thinking. This concept, as the theorist defined, refers to a category of facts that have exceptional characteristics (Thompson, 2003). One of their defining features is that they consist of the manners of thinking. Also, they have an objective reality, meaning social scientists can study them the same way other experts in the discipline of science do. Of great importance in defining social facts, according to Allen et al. 2012), is that they are internal to an individual. Durkheim's perspective of how social facts exist is valuable to sociological theory, and it helps explain human society (Allen et al., 2012).
In explaining social facts, Durkheim said society is an ensemble of sentiments, ideas, and beliefs of all kinds that one can realize through other people. Therefore, society does entail not only a group of individuals living in a specific region or area but also the reality that exists when they interact with one another-this kind of interaction results in the fusion of individual consciousness. The society, according to Durkheim, is irreducible to its composing units (sui generis), and one cannot describe it in other means other than the features proper to it. Once society exists, it ought to follow its laws. Examples of social facts of operative or psychological order of society include its language, legal code, ways of dressing, and religious beliefs.
Durkheim's concept of social realism is also essential in the sociological theory. In this case, social realism is an idea that human society exists autonomously and independently of any particular individual, and it is an objectively real entity (Jones, 1999). From the perspective of social realism, Durkheim made two claims. The first one is a methodological and epistemological claim that states that sociologists ought to treat social facts as real objects. The second one is an ontological argument that says that social facts are sui generis (Jones, 1999).
Durkheim was among the first thinkers of his era to explain how a person's social milieu influences their perceptions of the social world. In his sociology of knowledge, he claimed that social influence, may if not all, shape facets of a person's conception and thoughts of the world. The social milieu determines not only individuals' common ideas, language, and beliefs but also categories and concepts necessary for logical thinking. As an example, elements like number, causality, time, and space have their source in society. This idea is of great importance since its logical structure helps to interpret and order the world. Again, it is a way of ensuring that people have a less or more homogenous understanding of the world. This way, human society would not be possible without the logical structure. Together, these ideas give a perspective of Durkheim's intellectual contributions of ideas that explains human society.
Ideas of Durkheim are of great importance to sociology today, especially in studying human behavior and people's perception of the world. This theorist dedicated himself to studying several aspects of sociology scientifically. As such, his brand of research has enabled sociologists in the contemporary world to generalize trends regarding various dimensions of social life. Through scientific study of various aspects, sociologists today can predict people's life chances, behaviors, and attitudes. More importantly, they can explain social forces that influence behaviors and attitudes, among other social trends. Durkheim also conceived an idea that an individual's social milieu shapes their conduct, which sociologists today use to explain issues like suicide and crimes. Durkheim's thoughts, in short, is the basis of giving a sociological perspective of social problems in the modern world.
Social scientists in the modern world remember Emile Durkheim for his views about the structures of society. The theorist's concept of social facts was the basis of his theories on how society operates and, more importantly, how social milieu determines a person's behaviors. Those who aspire to become social scientists should study Durkheim since his theories and thoughts, unlike that of other sociologists if his time, are based on things external in nature. Also, those who care to understand the social world should study this theorist since his ideas reflect how contemporary societies have been shifting from simple units to more complex institutions.
Allen, N. J., Pickering, W. S. F., & Miller, W. W. (Eds.). (2012). On Durkheim's elementary forms of religious life. Routledge.
Jones, R. A. (1999). The development of Durkheim's social realism. Cambridge University Press.
Lukes, S. (2005). Emile Durkheim: An intellectual biography. University of Oxford.
Thompson, K. (2003). Emile Durkheim. Routledge.
Turner, B. S. (1999). Classical sociology. Sage.
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