The Social Thought of Émile Durkheim


Alexander Riley

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  • Social Thinkers Series

    Series Editor

    A. Javier Treviño

    Wheaton College, Norton, MA


    The Social Thought of Georg Simmel

    By Horst J. Helle

    The Social Thought of Émile Durkheim

    By Alexander Riley

    The Social Thought of C. Wright Mills By A. Javier Treviño


    The Social Thought of Karl Marx

    By Justin P. Holt

    The Social Thought of Erving Goffman

    By Michael Hviid Jacobsen and Søren Kristiansen

    The Social Thought of Talcott Parsons

    By Helmut Staubmann


    View Copyright Page


    To the memory of Robert Bellah, perhaps the greatest scholar of religion and culture since Durkheim, who died on July 30, 2013, as I was fnishing the final draft of the manuscript

    Series Editor's Foreword

    The SAGE Social Thinkers series is dedicated to making available compact, reader-friendly paperbacks that examine the thought of major figures from within and beyond sociology. The books in this series provide concise introductions to the work, life, and influences of the most prominent social thinkers. Written in an accessible and provocative prose, these books are designed for advanced undergraduate and graduate students of sociology, politics, economics, and social philosophy, as well as for scholars and socially curious general readers.

    The first few volumes in the series are devoted to the “classical” thinkers—Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, Georg Simmel, George Hebert Mead, Talcott Parsons, and C. Wright Mills—who, through their seminal writings, laid the foundation for much of current social thought. Subsequent books will feature more “contemporary” scholars as well as those not yet adequately represented in the canon: Jane Addams, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Harold Garfinkel, Norbert Elias, Jean Baudrillard, and Pierre Bourdieu. Particular attention is paid to those aspects of the social thinker's personal background and intellectual influences that most impacted his or her approach in better understanding individuals and society.

    Consistent with SAGE's distinguished track record of publishing high-quality textbooks in sociology, the carefully assembled volumes in the Social Thinkers series are authored by respected scholars committed to disseminating the discipline's rich heritage of social thought and to helping students comprehend key concepts. The information offered in these books will be invaluable for making sense of the complexities of contemporary social life and various issues that have become central concerns of the human condition: inequality, social order, social control, deviance, the social self, rationality, reflexivity, and so on.

    These books in the series can be used as self-contained volumes or in conjunction with textbooks in sociological theory. Each volume concludes with a Further Readings chapter intended to facilitate additional study and research. As a collection, the Social Thinkers series will stand as a testament to the robustness of contemporary social thought. Our hope is that these books on the great social thinkers will give students a deeper understanding of modern and postmodern Western social thought and encourage them to engage in sociological dialogue.

    Premised on Newton's aphorism, “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” (an aphorism, incidentally, that was introduced into sociology by Robert K. Merton, himself a towering figure in the discipline), the Social Thinkers series aims to place its readers on the shoulders of the giants of 19th- and 20th-century social thought.


    My thanks to A. Javier Treviño for the invitation to write this book, which gave me a wonderful opportunity to summarize and put into order material I have been thinking with and teaching for the past decade and a half. I am profoundly indebted to the many colleagues and friends whose writing on Durkheim has influenced me in one way or another over the years. Far too numerous to attempt to name exhaustively, the most important among these scholars include Jeffrey Alexander, Robert Bellah, Philippe Besnard, Marcel Fournier, Mike Gane, Victor Karady, Steven Lukes, William Watts Miller, W. S. F. Pickering, and Edward Tiryakian. Readers of this book who wish to deepen their knowledge of Durkheim and the contemporary application of Durkheimian thought are strongly encouraged to consult their work.

  • Glossary

    • A priorism Theory of the categories of human knowledge that sees them as given by human nature.
    • Altruistic suicide Type of suicide caused by excessive social integration; it is typical of less advanced forms of society and expected by Durkheim to shrink in modernity.
    • Animism Primitive form of religion based on a belief in spiritual entities, originally the double of dreams, then souls that are freed from the body at death. This form of religion eventually becomes focused on mortuary cults to the spirits of deceased ancestors.
    • Anomic division of labor Abnormal condition in which there is insufficient regulation of the relationships between the various elements of the division of labor.
    • Anomic suicide An act of self-destruction caused by insufficient moral regulation; it is seen by Durkheim as one of the two rising kinds of suicide in modernity.
    • Asceticism The central element of the negative cult, illustrated in the sufferings the religious undergo to attain the purified state necessary for interaction with the sacred.
    • Attachment to groups One of the three central elements of education, intended as a means to curb egoism in the child.
    • Authority An external moral power to which we are obedient and that sets up a system of rules to which we subordinate ourselves.
    • Autonomy One of the three central elements of education, which describes the individual's willing submission to educational authority.
    • Blood covenant A primitive form of contract involving members of two groups not related by kinship bonds and therefore requiring the pledge of blood to solidify the contract.
    • Bureaucratic division of labor The abnormal form wherein individual effort is not given appropriate scope and the various elements of the division of labor are not effectively coordinated.
    • Churinga In central Australian aboriginal totemic groups, a wooden or stone object understood to possess magical powers that are derived from the image of the totem it bears.
    • Civil religion A body of beliefs about national identity and history that draw on nondenominational religious themes and narratives.
    • Classificatory systems Forms of organization of phenomena in the world and related concepts that are collectively produced by human groups as a kind of epistemological parallel to the structure of the group itself.
    • Collective consciousness The set of beliefs that is shared by all or nearly all of the members of any given society.
    • Collective effervescence Ecstatic emotion produced by members of a religious group engaged in intense ritual action focused on some religious symbol.
    • Collective representations Collections of ideas and symbols, often found in myth, legend, and religion, shared by members of a social group and used by the group to express its relationships with the world.
    • Communism Primitive, utopian form of socialism in which all production and consumption are regulated.
    • Concomitant variation According to John Stuart Mill, the study of cause and effect wherein any phenomenon that varies whenever another phenomenon varies is recognized as either a cause or an effect of the other, or it is seen as connected to it through some fact of causation.
    • Conjugal family The typical modern familial form, consisting of the husband, wife, and their unmarried children.
    • Contract theory (or social contract theory) The philosophical view of the origins of human society based solely in the willed agreements of individuals pursuing their own individual self-interest.
    • Corroboree Intense collective religious celebration in Australian aboriginal totemism.
    • Cult of the human person A secular republican quasi-religion that pointed to the human person as an abstract concept and to its uniquely human characteristics (reason, creativity, moral concern for others, ability to transcend merely biological desires and needs) as its sacred object.
    • Cultural relativism The perspective that no one moral system can be posited as optimal for all human societies throughout the history of humankind and thus that no civilization's accomplishments are inherently superior to those of others.
    • Cultural sociology The sociological perspective that sees culture as at least potentially autonomous from social structure.
    • Cultural turn The increased interest in culture as a relatively independently acting aspect of human society in the human sciences over the past several decades.
    • Democracy The form of modern political organization in which the State elites periodically change rather than remain static, as in monarchies.
    • Discipline One of the three elements of education, consisting of the imposition of limits on the will based on adherence to rules and authority.
    • Division of labor The specialization of tasks and functions existing in any society, more complex and differentiated in some than in others.
    • Dreyfus Affair A central point of political and cultural debate in Third Republic France. French Army captain Alfred Dreyfus was prosecuted and found guilty of a treasonous act that there was no real evidence he had committed. France's public figures and intellectuals divided up into opposing sides: conservative supporters of the Army and the Church against republicans who adhered to the abstract principles of the French Republic and reverence for the Republic's sacred entity, the individual.
    • Dynamic or moral density The level of intensity and frequency of interaction among individuals in a population.
    • École Normale Supérieure The prestigious postsecondary institution in Paris that trained all those who would enter the secondary and postsecondary teaching profession in France.
    • Egoistic suicide An act of self-destruction caused by insufficient social integration.
    • Empiricism The philosophical view that human knowledge derives entirely from experience; typified by David Hume.
    • Fatalistic suicide An act of self-destruction caused by excessive moral regulation.
    • Forced division of labor The abnormal form in which there is pronounced inequality of opportunity and some workers feel trapped in positions below what they feel they deserve.
    • Free union The form of sexual relationship that exists outside legal sanction; concubinage.
    • Functions (and functionalism) The relations between activities of an organism (organic or social) and specific needs of that organism. Functionalism is the view of society that concentrates on functions as its central elements.
    • Gemeinschaft According to Ferdinand Tönnies, a form of social relations based on intimacy, tradition, and organicism. Usually translated as “community.”
    • German mentality The aggressive, militant view of the State as an ultimate power and of violent force as the ultimate arbiter of human relations, discernible in the German writer Heinrich von Treitschke and, according to Durkheim, in the entire German people during World War I.
    • Gesellschaft According to Ferdinand Tönnies, a form of social relations based on purely egoistic and economic goals. Usually translated, somewhat inadequately, as “society.”
    • Guilds Trade organizations that came into existence in the time of the Roman Empire, then reemerged in a different form in medieval Europe before being dismantled with the rise of the Industrial and French Revolutions. They united all the members of a particular trade or craft into a single body and pursued numerous goals in their interests.
    • Homo duplex The idea that the human individual is in fact two beings united in one, the one purely individual and ultimately biological, the other having to do with the presence in the individual of the social groups of which she is a member.
    • Imitation In the thought of Gabriel Tarde, the large-scale mimicry of established patterns of behavior that spreads over wide expanses of the human world.
    • Impure sacred The blasphemous; sacred things that inspire horror.
    • Indirect experimentation The comparative method in sociological research.
    • Innovation In the thought of Gabriel Tarde, the explosive and unpredictable spontaneous divergence from the established pattern of doing things.
    • Institutions Well-established and relatively long-lived social facts.
    • Intichiuma Ceremony of Australian aboriginal tribal peoples designed to ensure the reproduction of the totem.
    • “J'accuse” letter of Émile Zola A major element in the intellectual debate over the Dreyfus Affair. In this letter, published on the front page of a prominent Paris newspaper, Zola denounced the French military and the government for their unjust prosecution of Army captain Alfred Dreyfus and accused the establishment of anti-Jewish prejudice that struck at the very heart of republican France.
    • Just contract A contractual form that takes into account the status of knowledge and coercion of the two parties and declares a contract null and void if one or the other party has been misled or forced to act; the future direction of contract law, according to Durkheim.
    • Law of exogamy The prohibition of sexual contact between members of the same totem group in primitive social organizations.
    • Law of Three Stages (in Saint-Simon and Comte) A theory of history that sees human society moving through three progressive stages (feudal/juridical/socialist in Saint-Simon; theological/metaphysical/positivist in Comte).
    • Lumpenproletariat The term used by Marx to describe the reactionary peasantry and the urban underclasses who were frequently mobilized politically in a cynical fashion by reactionary leaders such as the Emperor Louis-Napoléon.
    • Mana The idea of force as expressed in primitive societies as a magical energy inhering in certain parts of the world.
    • Mechanical solidarity Form of solidarity typical of primitive societies, in which individuals are generally much like one another and their moral relations are based fundamentally on religion and deeply held moral beliefs.
    • Methodological individualism The theoretical principle that society is nothing more than the sum of individual dispositions and actions.
    • Mill's Methods The five types of inductive reasoning in scientific research that were presented by John Stuart Mill in A System of Logic.
    • Mimetic rites Aspects of the positive cult that consist of worshippers imitating the totem entity and thereby (in their view) demonstrating their relationship to it.
    • Mimicry (in suicide) The phenomenon of individuals learning of the actions of previous suicides and copying their act.
    • Moieties Subdivision of primitive tribal societies; moieties are further divided into separate clans that often have specific, structured relations to one another.
    • Moral education The training of youth with the goal of their moral integration into society.
    • Moral individualism The variety of individualism championed by Durkheim, which emphasized the cult of the abstract human person.
    • Moral regulation The action by which a social group sets boundaries to the actions of individuals in pursuit of their desires.
    • Morale laïque “Secular morality;” an invention of the Third Republic that was intended specifically to refer to the ethical precepts and system taught in the public school system.
    • Naturism The theory that early religion was based in worship of natural phenomena.
    • Negative cult Aspects of a religious rite that involve ascetic preparation of the worshipper so that he is in a proper state to contact the sacred.
    • Negative solidarity The form of solidarity that consists solely in marking the boundaries between individuals and defining relationships between persons and property.
    • Nominalism (in study of human groups) The view that each society is an incomparable, unique entity.
    • Normal and pathological Respectively, the typical, average type of a given phenomenon and any type of that same phenomenon that is atypical, abnormal, and deviant.
    • Organic solidarity Form of solidarity typical of modern societies, in which individuals are differentiated from one another and the bonds that unite them have to do with contractual relations and mutual interdependence.
    • Paris Commune In the wake of the French defeat at the hands of Prussia in 1871, the revolutionary “state” that existed in Paris for several months early in the year before it was brutally crushed by French troops.
    • Pedagogy The theory of education, as opposed to its practice.
    • Phratries A category of hierarchical organization of primitive societies consisting of numerous groups of related clans taken together.
    • Piacular rites Religious rites oriented to death and the dead, often involving suffering on the part of mourners.
    • Positive cult Aspects of religious ritual that actually bring worshippers into contact with the sacred, including sacrifice, mimetic rites, and commemorative rites.
    • Positive solidarity The form of solidarity that directly contributes to the integration of members of the society. It consists of two types: mechanical and organic.
    • Positivism The view that all knowledge must be demonstrable through empirical evidence available to sensory experience, and that therefore all deductive reasoning is flawed.
    • Pragmatism The American philosophical phenomenon of the early 20th century characterized by John Dewey, William James, and Charles Sanders Peirce, critically addressed by Durkheim in a late lecture course.
    • Profane That which is mundane and not inhabited by sacred energy.
    • Professional ethics Moral rules that apply to individuals based on their particular place in the division of labor.
    • Property right Legal codes delineating relations of individuals to property, which originated in religious beliefs.
    • Pure sacred The holy or the venerated; sacred things that inspire respect and reverence.
    • Race An amorphous category of identity that Durkheim describes as virtually indistinguishable from “ethnicity” or “nationality.”
    • Real contract A form of exchange in which the obligation to complete the agreed-upon exchange is contained in the actual handing over of the first thing in the exchange.
    • Real rights Rights that do not help to form social bonds but rather mark the boundaries between people and, in general, establish the relation between persons and property.
    • Realism (in study of human groups) The view that all distinctions of type in human societies are arbitrary and that humanity as a whole is the only real group.
    • Representative or commemorative rites Religious rites that reenact some supposed act of importance in the mythic past of a group; their effect is to revitalize the group's sense of collective identity.
    • Right of contract Legal mechanism by which relation of exchange is established between two parties, which, like property right, originated in religious beliefs.
    • Sacred A quality adhering to certain things and concepts that requires its separation and protection from the everyday world; sacred things are believed to be receptacles of great power.
    • Sacrifice A religious rite that consists of a communal repast in which the god and the worshipper become one flesh and create a bond of kinship between them. It is at once an act of communion and offering.
    • Social constructionism The view that phenomena in the human world have the meanings they have because of the values and beliefs of given societies, not because of any inherent moral qualities they have. Thus, what is a crime in one society might be perfectly acceptable in another.
    • Social current The powerful forces that move individuals acting collectively in ways that are beyond their individual control—for example, in crowd situations.
    • Social fact A way of acting, thinking, and feeling defined by two characteristics of its action on humans: its externality to the individual consciousness and its coerciveness.
    • Social integration The action by which a social group provides individual members of the group with a sense of well-being and protection against excessive egoism.
    • Social solidarity The moral force that brings individuals together into a collective life, binding them beyond their merely individual interests and desires.
    • Social species Discrete social groups that are united by their immersion in the same social facts and collective representations.
    • Social type A given kind of society at a given stage in its development.
    • Socialism The economic organization of society in which all economic functions are connected to the directing and conscious centers of society.
    • Solidarism The dominant political ideology of the early years of the Third Republic, which advocated a form of social democracy seen as a middle way between extremist collectivism (on both the right and the left) and liberal economic individualism of an asocial variety.
    • State The collection of officials who work out formal representations of the collectivity and act on its behalf.
    • Taboo A Polynesian term indicating the status of a thing as consecrated and therefore to be set apart from other, mundane things.
    • Totem An entity in the animal or plant world, and sometimes an inanimate natural thing or phenomenon (e.g., a stone or a star), that in totemic societies is treated religiously as the progenitor of the social group.
    • Totemism A social and religious system based on divisions of human groups into clans that are conceived as members of a common family.
    • Value judgments Statements that allude to external things in a manner that attributes to them an objective character independent of one's individual feelings—for example, stating that a certain painting has high artistic quality.


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    About the Author

    Alexander Riley has written a good deal on Durkheim and from a fundamentally Durkheimian perspective on various topics over the past 15 years. These writings include his doctoral thesis at the University of California, San Diego (“In Pursuit of the Sacred: The Durkheimian Sociologists of Religion and the Modern Intellectual”) and several of his books (Godless Intellectuals? The Intellectual Pursuit of the Sacred Reinvented; Impure Play: Sacredness, Transgression, and the Tragic in Popular Culture; and the forthcoming Angel Patriots in the Sky: The Crash of United Flight 93 and the Myth of America). He is spending the academic year 2013 through 2014 in Paris on a Fulbright Research Grant, along with his wife, Esmeralda; their daughter, Valeria; and the family cat.

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