On This Day … 15 November

People (Deaths)

  • 1917 – Émile Durkheim, French sociologist, psychologist, and philosopher (b. 1858).

Emile Durkheim

David Émile Durkheim (15 April 1858 to 15 November 1917) was a French sociologist. He formally established the academic discipline of sociology and, with Max Weber, and Karl Marx, is commonly cited as the principal architect of modern social science.

From his lifetime, much of Durkheim’s work was concerned with how societies could maintain their integrity and coherence in modernity, an era in which traditional social and religious ties are no longer assumed, and in which new social institutions have come into being. Durkheim asserted that sociology is unique from other disciplines, such as psychology, because of its larger scale. Some tools that could be used in sociology are polls, surveys, statistics, and observing historical patients. Durkheim used these scientific tools in his analysis of suicides in Catholic and Protestant groups. His work was the concept of modern sociology. His first major sociological work was De la division du travail social (1893; The Division of Labour in Society), followed in 1895 by Les Règles de la Méthode Sociologique (The Rules of Sociological Method), the same year in which Durkheim set up the first European department of sociology and become France’s first professor of sociology. Durkheim’s seminal monograph, Le Suicide (1897), a study of suicide rates in Catholic and Protestant populations, especially pioneered modern social research, serving to distinguish social science from psychology and political philosophy. The following year, in 1898, he established the journal L’Année Sociologique. Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse (1912; The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life) presented a theory of religion, comparing the social and cultural lives of aboriginal and modern societies.

Durkheim was also deeply preoccupied with the acceptance of sociology as a legitimate science. He refined the positivism originally set forth by Auguste Comte, promoting what could be considered as a form of epistemological realism, as well as the use of the hypothetico-deductive model in social science. For Durkheim, sociology was the science of institutions, understanding the term in its broader meaning as the “beliefs and modes of behaviour instituted by the collectivity,” with its aim being to discover structural social facts. As such, Durkheim was a major proponent of structural functionalism, a foundational perspective in both sociology and anthropology. In his view, social science should be purely holistic, in that sociology should study phenomena attributed to society at large, rather than being limited to the specific actions of individuals.

He remained a dominant force in French intellectual life until his death in 1917, presenting numerous lectures and published works on a variety of topics, including the sociology of knowledge, morality, social stratification, religion, law, education, and deviance. Durkheimian terms such as “collective consciousness” have since entered the popular lexicon.

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