No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Discussing Durkheim


Emile Durkheim's "Rules of Sociological Method" is an important creation for sociology, similar to René Descartes' "Discourse on Method" in philosophy. Durkheim's principle that social facts can only be explained by social facts is the beginning of all sociology as an independent discipline. Durkheim’s work is also bound to his historical context. To truly understand and develop the theory of sociology, it is necessary to move beyond Durkheim's own biases and prejudices.

Durkheim's ideas about the nature of law and its relationship to social facts

Durkheim writes that laws are not fundamentally different from social facts, but rather are derived from them. In his view, laws are simply better defined customs, which themselves are not arbitrary, but are the result of causes that make people conscious of them. Durkheim introduces his structural-functional perspective, in which he rejects the understanding of institutions as mere utilities and instead emphasizes their function and continuity in society. He suggests that the next step would be to move beyond this historical-developmental understanding and adopt a more structural-functional analysis, as seen in the study of social types. Observation of social phenomena is only part of the method. Experimentation cannot be used in sociology, but instead, the comparative method is used: comparing various social phenomena across different societies and analyzing the correlations that arise. Montesquieu followed this method unconsciously. The key principle of this early stage of his methodological reflection is that social phenomena should be treated as things, which must be analyzed objectively.


Moral reality

Theodor Litt has pointed out that Durkheim's concept of the “thing” being discussed in his work is not a material thing, but rather refers to a moral reality that is made up of norms and beliefs that are shared by a specific society or group. Durkheim himself addresses this potential misunderstanding in the second edition of "The Rules of Sociological Method". Durkheim's work on the "thing" leads to certain theoretical problems, but understanding these issues is important for understanding his work and the difficulties he faced as a sociologist.

A specific problem in Durkheim's "Rules of Sociological Method" is related to the way certain methodological questions are approached, specifically in regards to the concept of "realité morale" which is a more specific term for the social phenomena that are being studied. Durkheim also addresses another problem in the work of Montesquieu, which is the theory of social division of labor and the differentiation of societies into different types. Durkheim's concept of "cohésion des éléments" is particularly important, as it refers to the idea of solidarity which will be developed later in Durkheim's work. Durkheim references Montesquieu's distinction between cohesion through juxtaposition of elements and cohesion through division of labor, without using the terms mechanical and organic solidarity as he will later do.

Critique of Tarde

Durkheim was critical of Gabriel Tarde's psychological interaction theory. He attempted to overcome psychological atomism by arguing for the existence of collective consciousness as opposed to individual actions being based on the behavior of others. Similar critiques of Tarde’s approach were made by other sociologists such as Theodor Litt. Litt critiqued the theory that the social whole is made up of individual parts that are related to one another. Litt argued that this theory does not overcome the idea of social atomism, which sees society as a collection of individual parts, but rather reinforces it. He argues that the basic concepts of this theory, such as relationship and interaction, do not truly capture the nature of society as a whole. The theory is based on the idea of a permanent separation of the elements of society, which does not accurately reflect the reality of social interactions. Litt's critique is that this theory fails to understand the true nature of social interactions and is therefore not adequate for understanding social reality.


Collective consciousness

Understanding Durkheim's collective consciousness and his critique of social atomism is difficult. Even the first German translator of the book misunderstood this concept, and that later critics such as George M. Marica also misinterpreted it. Durkheim's argument that there are more or less fixed forms of behavior that are commonly found in a given society is important in understanding his critique of atomism. This concept is linked with his idea of collective consciousness being externally imposed on the individual. The term "generality” used by Durkheim does not mean the average of ideas and behavior, nor does it mean statistical generalities, but rather it is a specific social fact that exists independently of individual consciousness. Durkheim's use of the term penetration and fusion of individual consciousnesses to create the collective consciousness is similar to the ideas of other sociologists of his time, such as Gurvitch. Durkheim's ideas about the process of socialization and enculturation are prescient and align with modern concepts of internalization of societal norms and values. Durkheim's work focuses on the role of education in shaping the social and cultural person and highlights the importance of the learning process in the development of the individual's social and cultural identity.

Durkheim and Dilthey

There are similarities between Durkheim and Dilthey's ideas on the subjectivity of the individual and the objective reality. Both thinkers view the individual's subjective experience of the world as a product of social and cultural norms and expectations; these norms and expectations shape the individual's perception of reality. Dilthey's concept of the impulse and resistance of the individual's self is similar to Durkheim's idea of the individual's subjective experience being shaped by social and cultural factors. Moral reality in Durkheim's work can be compared to Dilthey's ideas about the subjective perspective of the actor and the objective perspective of the observer. Durkheim's moral reality is not a physical thing, but rather a set of shared norms and expectations within a given society or group that are expressed in concrete actions and behavior. Dilthey's “sentence of phenomenality” opened the door for critical theory and showcased the subjectivity of human experience. Durkheim's concept of moral reality should not be understood as a form of coercion or compulsion, but rather as internalized norms and motivations in the conscience of the individual. Durkheim's ideas should not be understood as a theoretical hypostasization of collective consciousness, but rather as the individuals being the only real and immediate substratum of society.

Durkheim’s method

Durkheim's method involves analyzing society as if it were an unknown object, rather than taking for granted what is already known about it. Durkheim's method is different from other approaches in that it is not based on a simple repetition of commonly held beliefs. This approach is important for understanding the social phenomena that Durkheim studied. Durkheim's approach can be divided into four levels, where the first three levels are more or less familiar to the individual and the fourth level is the level of scientific analysis, which starts from the unknown and uses methodical doubt to understand the social phenomena.


What behavior is normal?

Durkheim wrote that there is no universal definition of normal and abnormal behavior, as they only make sense in relation to a specific society and its accepted norms. Even within a society, individuals will have differing levels of conformity to these norms. This variation is influenced by both personal and societal factors. In order to fully understand the function of normal behavior, one must analyze the relationship of individual norms to the larger social system. Durkheim's work on this topic has been expanded upon by later sociological research, specifically in the field of psychoanalysis and the study of the social-cultural person.


Durkheim's method of using concurrent variations, also known as correlation method, establishes causal relationships in social phenomena. Durkheim believed that this method had great value but also warned of the limitations of using it for certain types of social phenomena. Durkheim's method has been criticized for its focus on objective, codified systems, which can lead to problematic correlations. Durkheim's method has been expanded upon by other sociologists, including François Simiand, who also emphasized the importance of combining methodological discussion with research. Durkheim's method could be improved by incorporating historical contingencies and other forms of empirical verification, and that it is necessary for sociologists to have the courage to question and critique commonly-accepted ideas in order to achieve a more accurate understanding of social phenomena. Sociology should strive for a higher level of expertise and authority, rather than popularity.

The division of labor

Durkheim had a positive view of the division of labor, but also acknowledged the potential negative consequences. Durkheim's understanding of the division of labor is limited though, and fails to fully consider the effects of industrialization and the emergence of new forms of work organization. Durkheim's views on the division of labor are becoming increasingly questionable as the functional interdependence he described is not the same as integration. Durkheim's work on the social division of labor relates to his political beliefs and intentions to contribute to the reorganization of French society in the Third Republic. His methodologic principle was meant to vindicate the reality of France after 1871.


Theodor W. Adorno viewed Durkheim’s work as vindicating the socially existing as meaningful. Adorno shows a lack of historical understanding. In “Suicide”, Durkheim writes about the relationship between sociology and psychology. Adorno did not understand the context and motivations behind Durkheim's use of statistics in the book. Durkheim's focus on the idea of social integration and disintegration is the main theoretical idea of the book. Durkheim's work was motivated by the political and social changes in France after the Franco-Prussian war. His ideas were in contrast to other philosophers of the time who were more supportive of the status quo. Durkheim's use of the concept of collective consciousness changes over time.

Durkheim believed that social conditions can influence individuals' decisions, particularly in terms of depression, melancholy, and mourning. These social conditions can manifest in different ways, such as economic and climate changes, and certain events such as epidemics can also have a significant impact. Durkheim's approach (social malaise) is psychological in nature and has parallels with Sigmund Freud's theory of "Unbehagen in der Kultur" (Discomfort in Culture).


König, R. (1978), Emile Durkheim zur Diskussion - Jenseits von Dogmatismus und Skepsis, München: Hanser.