Monday, 19 March 2012 08:23

Emile Durkheim: Men of Ideas

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Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) is generally considered the father of the academic discipline of Sociology. Before him folks, of course, wrote on what might be construed as sociological, folks like Auguste Comte and George Sorel, but those could be subsumed under the rubric of philosophy. It was Emil Durkheim who made the argument that there is a particular way of looking at phenomena that is sociological.

Sociology is that methodological approach to people that says that they are not free agents and that they are determined by their society. Society and its various units, such as family, siblings, peer groups, schools, teachers, religions, ministers, work organizations, bosses etc affect the individual and largely determine how he sees himself and sees other people.

The individual, from a sociological perspective, is born tabula rasa and society, in its many guises, plant ideas in his mind; what he calls his self is a product of his socialization during childhood.

The individual cannot be understood apart from his upbringing and social milieu. There are no such things as individual thinking and behaving outside the parameters of society and all societies.

To understand the individual you have to understand the social forces that shaped him. These were some of the salient points made by Durkheim. Apparently, Durkheim so believed in what he was saying that he struggled to translate sociology into a respectable academic discipline. He established the field as a discipline and also established the first Journal of Sociology. This man single handedly began an academic discipline and wrote the rules of its operation (at the University of Bordeaux in France). 

In Germany, Ferdinand Tonnies and Max Weber joined the race and helped establish sociology as an academic discipline in that country.

Durkheim wrote many books, including on religion, suicide and division of labor. In division of labor, for example, he examined how society divided work, assigning different persons different work roles. This may seem innocuous enough until you consider that it is society that determines what work role each gender does. In the USA, for example, society dictates that nurses and elementary school teachers be women. If a young man wanted to become a nurse and or elementary school teacher folk would look at him as if there is something the matter with him; perhaps, he is queer or something. Or consider dancing. If a man said that he was interested in ballet and gymnastic the chances are that folk would suspect that he is a woman-like man. If a man went into social work (and, increasingly psychology…psychotherapy and counseling is now considered a woman’s work though men began it) people assume that he is not manly enough.

These may seem irrelevant issues until we consider how folks in women’s professions are paid: very little. Men in expected men’s professions, such as engineering and business administration, are paid a lot. It appears that division of labor is a means of social control of people, a means of determining what the genders do.

In his book on Suicide Durkheim made his most seminal contribution to sociology. He talked about the conditions of modern urban societies. Prior to modernity most people lived in rural villages where they knew each other and tended to feel connected to other people. Moreover, the chances were that folk in a village are related hence tend to care for each other.

In modern settings, on the other hand, people from all over the country come together to work in factories and other impersonal work organizations. At the end of the work day, each worker goes home and has little to do with his fellow workers. The chances are that he does not even know his immediate neighbors and does not relate to them. He does not feel part of a normative group and may develop what Durkheim called anomie.

Anomie has a positive side. Since the alienated urban dweller does not know his neighbors and they do not seem to care for him, he feels free to do his own thing without bothering with what other people think of his behavior. He breaks the tendency for rural villagers to conform to what they believe that their group would approve. Thus, in a manner of speaking, urban persons break the chain that holds rural rustics to living unfulfilled lives; the urbanite lives an individuated existence.

Nevertheless, anomie makes the individual to feel alone, and develop problematic behaviors, such as overeating, alcoholism, druggism etc. In anomie folk feel disconnected to others and essentially live alone. When such persons experience crisis in their lives they have few persons to turn to for help.  Feeling all alone and abandoned by society, such persons may commit suicide.

Suicide rate tends to be high in urban areas, and in folk who are rootless and unconnected to anything outside of themselves. (Some seek and obtain secondary connection by joining faith communities and vocational associations). There are low suicide rates among those who feel associated with other human beings.

Durkheim wrote on many subjects, all from a sociological perspective. For example, he showed how criminal behavior is a sociological variable rather than individual matter. Who commits crimes?  Criminals are often those with a history of poor socialization, poor social connectedness, and are the flotsam and jetsam of modern society? Moreover, the concept of crime and criminality is a social construct.

In nature there is no such thing as stealing; stealing is always a social variable; what society defines as stealing, criminal and punishes. What one society defines as criminal and punish   may not be so approached in other societies. For example, in some societies folk are not punished for smoking marijuana whereas the powers that be in the USA define pot as criminal; they often use such criminalization of innocent behaviors as instrument for putting minority youth in long term prison sentences.

Education is a sociological phenomenon and those who tend to do well in it are those from certain social classes.

Religion, of course, is a group activity. Many people join religions not because they believe in the concept of God taught by their religion but because they obtain a feeling of belonging and fellowship. People are willing to do any thing, including minimizing or even denying their individuality to obtain affiliative feeling.

Father abandoned and at risk kids often join street gangs and in them obtain a feeling of family and belonging and are willing to do anything that their fellow gang members tell them to do, including killing other people. This shows you how strong social factors are in peoples lives.

Durkheim wrote on many issues but suffice it to say that he is today known for founding the discipline of sociology, a methodological approach to phenomena that says that society influences people more than they are willing to accept. In the sociological perspective social factors are seen as more potent than biological factors in determining what folks do.


Emile Durkheim, Suicide, (1897)

Emile Durkheim, the Division of Labor in Society, (1893)

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176