Emile Durkheim – Sociologist and His Theory of Religion

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Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), born in Lorraine, France, was a sociologist and moral theorist. He descended from a long line of rabbis, had a great love for France, and in 1992 became the Professor of the Science of Education at the University of Paris.

It was Durkheim’s goal to establish a scientific sociology capable of helping France overcome its moral crisis and turmoil. The country was home to much conflict. Since the end of the French Revolution, the monarchists and anti-monarchists, capitalists and labourers, and Catholics and their secular opponents were in tension with each other. Some had interests in re-establishing and reliving the authority and hierarchy they enjoyed previously while others favoured individual freedom and rights to attain a secular, democratic republic. Tension further emerged as lower classes of society demanded greater equality to their more privileged peers. France was also defeated by Germany in 1870, which was followed by threats of civil war. Great devastation also occurred as six million French soldiers lost their lives during World War I. In this context French thinkers debated the crisis facing their country and possible solutions for it. Durkheim was one such thinker who pursued the project of developing a sociology that would help the situation. Durkheim was nonetheless influenced by French and German thinkers before him. For instance, some German theorists had emphasized the importance of the collective moral life. These thinkers observed the likes of customs, rules, and morality as constituting the bases of social life. Durkheim drew on such ideas but also wanted to distinguish sociology from other sciences and disciplines. One of the criticisms Durkheim had was of philosophy, which he viewed as often too abstract in its metaphysical speculations. He was far more interested in empirical evidence, which led him to find an appreciation for psychology. However, he also criticized psychology for failing to recognize the importance of explaining phenomena in terms of other social phenomena. Engaging such ideas and issues of his time propelled forth Durkheim’s new science of sociology.

Legitimizing Sociology as a Science

Durkheim wished to demonstrate sociology to be a distinctive and legitimate science. He therefore knew that it required a subject matter, which he attempted to articulate via distinguishing between different levels of reality. He theorized that phenomena and their interconnectedness, structural relations, interactions, and organization at one level of reality gives rise to new and emergent phenomena at the next, higher level. This is known as Durkheim’s doctrine of emergence, which posited five levels of reality: the physical, chemical, biological, psychological, and sociological. Phenomena at one level gives rise to phenomena in the next (i.e. the physical gives rise to the chemical, chemical to the biological, etc.). The phenomena to emerge at the next level can only be explained by causes at their level. In other words, the sociological cannot be explained by the psychological or the biological. Further, because Durkheim viewed social phenomena as natural phenomena or as a part of nature, it opened itself to study through the scientific method, thus rendering sociology akin to the sciences of biology and physics. Just as these latter sciences start with the natural world itself, so does sociology, which too prioritizes observing, defining, gathering, comparing, and classifying facts.

A Moral Theorist

Durkheim was much more than a social theorist for he was also a moralist. He believed that moral facts are conditioned by the “state of society” and that understanding morality required a social science of moral facts. In his own words, sociology required “a science that, after it had classified moral phenomena, would seek to identify the conditions of each type and determine its role — that is, a positive science of morality” (1). These were moral facts or a “moral reality” that had to be determined, hence Durkheim’s goal of dedicating much of his work to accomplishing this. In a sense, Durkheim took the reigns of an important branch of philosophy, namely moral philosophy, to incorporate it into the developing discipline of sociology. As a moralist and sociologist, he believed that one could define what direction society should take. After all, sociology to Durkheim is not solely about producing knowledge but also for providing a guide for producing a better society.

Relationship Between the Individual and Society

Durkheim saw the individual and the social as opposed forces. Individuals within society are eminently social beings who are guided by moral rules. Durkheim also referred to the so-called “unsocialized individual”, namely the individual divorced from society and who is in pursuit of egoistic interests. This person reflects the beast within us and is a poor approximation of socialized humans who constitute societies. Derivative from society, in Durkheim’s view, is language, thought, morality, worldviews, rationality, aspirations, and thus culture itself. Another of Durkheim’s ideas, which borrowed an image from biology, is that society is like the human body. Like the body, society possesses a structural-functional system of many different interacting and mutually supportive parts that together contribute to the survival of the whole. These structures are evident in their functions, which are the services they perform for the larger system. For example, the family gives birth to children, socializes, and legitimates them, religion functions to integrate society, the state enforces the law, judges disputes, and makes decisions that are binding on society, and the economy provides the goods and services needed for society’s survival.

Durkheim on Suicide

Durkheim’s work Suicide (1897) pursued the study of social solidarity with his topic of choice being suicide. Durkheim wanted to challenge the idea that suicide is merely a personal act in that a person has individual reasons for killing himself. Rather, Durkheim intended to demonstrate suicide to be a social phenomenon with its own social causes because doing so would strengthen sociology’s status as a legitimate science. Durkheim argued that suicides are the result of “the supplement and prolongation of a social condition.” He witnessed such a condition in different religious groups. Durkheim found that one is able to correlate suicide rates in these groups, some of whom contributed to it. Catholics and Jews, for example, suffered from much lower rates of suicide than their Protestant peers. Durkheim theorized that Protestants, notably those within the Calvinist sect, experienced strong emotional costs and burdens due to their work, particularly in capitalist Calvinists who were in the process of overturning traditionalism. Several German thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, notably Karl Marx and Max Weber, were also active during a period when capitalism, largely through industrialization and urbanization, was overcoming traditional economic practices and causing numerous social ills such as exploitation and class conflict. According to Durkheim, the Calvinist capitalist was disrupting comfortable social conventions and was thus making enemies and losing friends and support. Durkheim claimed that this made Calvinist capitalists particularly vulnerable to psychological stresses such as depression that can lead to suicide.

The Elementary Forms of Religious Life

The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) was Durkheim’s final major work in which he emphasized how intense forms of interaction, ritualistic or religious, produced an especially powerful form of social integration. He also emphasized the importance of sacred, religious symbols within this process.

Durkheim assumed that religion’s true nature would be most evident in the so-called simpler religions found in the simplest societies. He thus studied the Arunta, a tribe of Australian aborigines. Durkheim further stated that religion could not be defined in terms of the supernatural, which he believed was a product of later human thought. Religion could also not be defined by appeal to conceptions of gods and spirits because such beliefs are absent in religions like Jainism and Buddhism. Rather, Durkheim defined religion on the basis of a distinction known to humans, namely between the sacred and the profane. The sacred, which is distinct from the profane, is a sphere that derives from social life that incorporates all the higher elements of life, such as morality, reason, sociality, science, conceptualizations, and the soul. The profane, on the other hand, is a sphere of life grounded in human beings as organisms and that involves the phenomena of mundane living, such as the everyday, earthly, and material elements separate from the sacred sphere. In summation, to Durkheim religious symbols are perceived by the faithful as sacred objects, religious beliefs are about sacred objects, and religious practices are orientated towards sacred objects.

Religion also involves a cyclical process. For instance, as people in society pursue their secular lives, religious sentiments would weaken and eventually die out in the absence of a periodic renewal. Renewal came in the form of ceremonies when people were reminded by sacred symbols of their beliefs and obligations. During these events, there is interaction, the emphasizing of a common focus, and participation in which members publicly engage in ceremonial behaviour symbolizing their religious beliefs. Such solidified the peoples’ affirmation of their religion as it situated these beliefs at the forefront of their consciousness. Durkheim also noted how rituals produce intense emotion. During these, people cultivate a strong attachment to their beliefs symbolized in the ceremonies which, along with strengthening the mutually bonding of participants, integrated society. As such, the function of religion is to integrate society through mutually reinforcing beliefs, rites, and symbols. In short: rites (ceremonial behaviour) emerge from beliefs that remind the people of their religious obligations. This is followed by physical enactments of beliefs (rites) that reinforce beliefs. These rites strengthen common religious belief that integrates society.

Returning to the Arunta, Durkheim’s views explain the extrinsic sacredness of symbols and the intimate link between groups and symbols. To say that religious symbols have an extrinsic sacredness is to say that its sacred status is not from within the object itself but has been superimposed on it by human beings. The Arunta, for example, were organized into clans or kinship groups that each had its own sacred religious symbol or totem. Participants of rituals feel the power and emotion produced by their ceremonies and, suggested Durkheim, being unable to explain this power and its origin attributed it to some object within their presence that then became sacred. To Durkheim, religion is essentially society worshiping itself. Durkheim further identified the Arunta’s religion to be the source of moral rules and social integration in their society.

References and Recommended Readings

1. Durkheim, Emile. 1975. Textes II. Paris: Editions de Minuit. p. 271.

Pope, Whitney. “Emile Durkheim.” In Key Sociological Thinkers, edited by Rob Stones, 46-58. London: Macmillan

Strenski, Ivan. 2015. Understanding Theories of Religion: An Introduction. New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell. p. 216-238.

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