David Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) laid the foundation for modern academic sociology with his scientific study of society, using statistics, surveys, and historical observation. Durkheim was a major proponent of structural functionalism and believed that sociology should study phenomena attributed to society at large.
Durkheim’s first major sociological works were "De la division du travail social" (1893) and "Les Règles de la méthode sociologique" (1895), in which he established the first European department of sociology and became France's first professor of sociology. He was deeply preoccupied with the acceptance of sociology as a legitimate science and remained a dominant force in French intellectual life until his death in 1917. Durkheim's ideas have had an important impact on the development of anthropology, sociology, and philosophy, and his work is still widely studied today.
The Rules of Sociological Method (1895)
In this book, Durkheim expressed his will to establish a method that would guarantee sociology's truly scientific character. His methodology was influenced by Auguste Comte, who sought to extend and apply the scientific method found in the natural sciences to the social sciences. Durkheim's theory revolved around the concept of social facts, which he defined as ways of acting that have an independent existence and exercise external constraint on individuals. He believed that social facts are not bound to the actions of individuals, but have a coercive influence on them. Durkheim also argued that social facts cannot be reduced to biological or psychological grounds and they can be material or immaterial. Durkheim was thus a proponent of structural functionalism and believed that sociology should be purely holistic, studying society as a whole rather than specific actions of individuals.
This study of suicide rates in Catholic and Protestant populations pioneered modern social research. Durkheim's theory of suicide is based on the idea that it is a social fact that can be explained by macro-level phenomena such as lack of connections between people and lack of regulations of behavior, rather than individual feelings and motivations. He created a normative theory of suicide focusing on the conditions of group life, and proposed four types of suicide:
- Egoistic suicide corresponds to a low level of social integration;
- altruistic suicide corresponds to too much social integration;
- anomic suicide occurs when there is an insufficient amount of social regulation;
- fatalistic suicide results from too much social regulation.
Durkheim's work on suicide has been criticized for being an example of the ecological fallacy (making inferences about the nature of individuals, deduced from inferences about the group to which those individuals belong), but other scholars argue that Durkheim's only intent was to explain suicide sociologically within a holistic perspective.
The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912)
This book is about the social origin and function of religion. Durkheim believed that religion was a source of camaraderie and solidarity. Durkheim wrote that religion provides a sense of unity and common purpose, and that the beliefs and practices of religion are shaped by the society in which they occur. In his view, religion is based on collective representations, which are symbols (words, slogans, ideas, material items) and images that represent the ideas, beliefs, and values of a society and which cannot be reduced to individual constituents. Durkheim believed that language, as a social product, literally structures and shapes our experience of reality.
Durkheim wrote that morality is a system of rules for conduct, characterized by an element of obligation. Morality originates in society and is not to be found in some universal moral concept, according to Durkheim. He argued that morality is desired by the individual, as they believe that by adhering to morality, they are serving the common Good. Morality must be legitimate in the eyes of those to whom it speaks. Its authority is primarily located in religion.