School of
Social Sciences
___Introduction to Sociology
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Emile Durkheim -
Introduction

 


The Person The Work
Introduction General Approach
Durkheim's Academic Career Individual and Society
Public Involvement The Sociology of Religion
  The Sociology of Knowledge
  Functional Explanation
 

The Person

Emile Durkheim was the first French academic sociologist. His life was dominated throughout by his academic career, even though he was intensely and passionately involved in the affairs of French society at large. In his well-established status he differed from the men dealt with so far, and his life may seem uneventful when compared with theirs. Undoubtedly their personal idiosyncrasies had a share in determining their erratic course. But in addition, they were all devoted to a calling that had not yet found recognition in the university. In their attempts to defend the claim to legitimacy of the new science of sociology, they faced enormous obstacles, which contributed in large measure to their personal difficulties.

Emile Durkheim, as well as the theorists who will be dealt with in subsequent chapters, faced a different set of circumstances. They were all academic men but were still considered by their colleagues as intruders representing a discipline that had little claim to legitimate status. As a result, theirs was by no means an easy course. Nevertheless, they fought from within the halls of academe rather than from outside, and so their lives tended to be less embattled than those of their predecessors.

Emile Durkheim was born at Epinal in the eastern French province of Lorraine on April 15, 1858. Son of a rabbi and descending from a long line of rabbis, he decided quite early that he would follow the family tradition and become a rabbi himself. He studied Hebrew, the Old Testament, and the Talmud, while at the same time following the regular course of instruction in secular schools.

Shortly after his traditional Jewish confirmation at the age of thirteen, Durkheim, under the influence of a Catholic woman teacher, had a shortlived mystical experience that led to an interest in Catholicism. But soon afterwards he turned away from all religious involvement, though emphatically not from interest in religious phenomena, and became an agnostic.

Durkheim was a brilliant student at the College d'Epinal and was awarded a variety of honors and prizes. His ambitions thus aroused, he transferred to one of the great French high schools, the Lycee Louis-le-Grand in Paris. Here he prepared himself for the arduous admission examinations that would open the doors to the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure, the traditional training ground for the intellectual elite of France.

After two unsuccessful attempts to pass the rigorous entrance examinations, Durkheim was finally admitted in 1879. At the Ecole Normale he met with a number of young men who would soon make a major mark on the intellectual life of France. Henri Bergson, who was to become the philosopher of vitalism, and Jean Jaures, the future socialist leader, had entered the year before. The philosophers Rauh and Blondel were admitted two years after Durkheim. Pierre Janet, the psychologist, and Goblot, the philosopher, were in the same class as Durkheim. The Ecole Normale, which had been created by the First Republic, was now having a renaissance and was training some of the leading intellectual and political figures of the Third Republic.

Although admission to the Ecole Normale was an achievement in a young man's life, Durkheim, once admitted, seems not to have been happy at the Ecole. He was an intensely earnest, studious, and dedicated young man, soon nicknamed "the metaphysician" by his peers. Athirst for guiding moral doctrines and earnest scientific instruction, Durkheim was dissatisfied with the literary and esthetic emphasis that still predominated at the school. He rebelled against a course of studies in which the reading of Greek verse and Latin prose seemed more important than acquaintance with the newer philosophical doctrines or the recent findings of the sciences. He felt that the school made far too many concessions to the spirit of dilettantism and tended to reward elegant dabbling and the quest for "novelty" and "originality" of expression rather than solid and systematic learning.

Although he acquired some close friends at the school, among whom Jean Jaures was the most outstanding, his earnestness and dedication make him in the eyes of the other students an aloof and remote figure, perhaps even somewhat of a prig. His professors, in their turn, repaid him for his apparent dissatisfaction with much of their teaching by placing him almost at the bottom of the list of successful agregation candidates when he graduated in 1882.

All this does not mean that Durkheim was uninfluenced by his three years at the Ecole Normale. Later on, he spoke almost sentimentally about these years and, if many of his professors irked and annoyed him, there were a few others to whom he was deeply in debt. Among these were the great historian Fustel de Coulanges, author of the Ancient City who became director of the school while Durkheim attended it, and the philosopher Emile Boutroux. He later dedicated his Latin thesis to the memory of Fustel de Coulanges, and his French thesis, The Division of Labor, to Boutroux. What he admired in Fustel de Coulanges and learned from him was the use of critical and rigorous method in historical research. To Boutroux he owed an approach to the philosophy of science that stressed the basic discontinuities between different levels of phenomena and emphasized the novel aspects that emerged as one moved from one level of analysis to another. This approach was later to become a major mark of Durkheim's sociology.

From Coser, 1977:143-144.

Websites On Durkheim Work By Durkheim
The Division of Labour and the Elementary forms of Religious Life (External Link) Division of Labour
  What is a Social Fact?
   
   



These pages were originally written by: Angus Bancroft and Sioned Rogers
Redesigned and updated by: Pierre Stapley - 2010