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While Durkheim’s writings touch on issues of political organization and morality, the

fundamental concept diffused throughout his writings reflects a desire to provide a theoretical

framework for describing and understanding the social construction of societal life. The overall

agenda for Durkheim is to explain the process by which individuals socially integrate into society,

as well as to provide a model for understanding the relationship between people and their respective

societies. Most basically, Durkheim develops a framework for analyzing the construction and

constitution of social life.

As put by Giddens, Durkheimian scholars “hold that society is a unity which displays

characteristics that cannot be reduced to those of its component individuals.” (Giddens 2)

Durkheim and his successors view society as an entity, which though a consortium of individual

actors, is more than simply the sum of each individual part – the amalgamation of these individuals

creates a social solidarity, which would be impossible for any one individual to achieve by him or


For Durkheim – who held the first true post as a sociologist – the importance of the

discipline as a scientific exploration into the structure, nature, and functions of society was

paramount. He sought to apply the methodologies and techniques of laboratory experimentation to

the level of human social interactions, and in doing so, aimed to “reveal the abstract skeleton

beneath all aspects of society.” (Collins 183-4) His study and subsequent book, Suicide illustrates

his application of the scientific method to social analysis. In the study, he analyzed different factors

of an individual’s life (marriage, children, religiosity, etc.) in hopes of proving his hypothesis that

high-intensity social structures (as manifested by the aforementioned indicators) reduce the

likelihood that an individual will commit suicide. (Collins 184) Durkheim set himself apart from

his contemporaries by his desire to analyze the larger issue of social solidarity, in contrast to simply

empirically describing his findings on suicide as an isolated phenomenon. He sought not simply to

find a correlation between specific lifestyle factors and suicide, but rather probed deeper to

understand the abstract social structure which related both.

Durkheim also stressed the importance of sociologists operating and studying a given

society in its contextual environment. He argues, “the sociologist will therefore consider economic

facts, the state, morality, law and religion as so many functions of the social organism, and will

study them as the phenomena which occur in the context of a definite, bounded society.” (Giddens

57) He further presses the point saying, “one cannot study one social function wholly in isolation

from others.” (Giddens 57) In this way, Durkheim sought to deviate from the philosophical

tradition of examining absolute truths removed from any contextual parameters, and instead aimed

to perform analysis within the contextual environment being studied. He viewed sociologists akin to

physicists, astronomers, and chemists, in that all learned about new phenomena through the analysis

of facts present in individual environments, and not simply by engaging in isolated, individual

mental exercises and theorization. Durkheim hoped that sociologists, through data collection and

analysis would be able to reveal social laws, just as scientists of the hard sciences are able to reveal

natural laws. (Giddens 60) However, Durkheim equally maintained that observers must not be

caught up in the particular mechanisms of any one society, saying that a sociologist, “must endeavor

to consider [social facts] from an aspect that is isolated from their individual manifestations.”

(Giddens 66). More simply, Durkheim insists that while sociology must analyze data and make

observations in order to develop theories, sociologists must focus on generalizing their analyses to

develop universal social laws. This is akin to physicists using observations from any one situation

to theorize and support formulations of universally applicable laws.

The Durkheimian vision of sociology as utilizing similar procedures, methods, and modes of

operation as the natural sciences requires a set of assumptions about the nature of social life and

societal evolution. The most fundamental assumption underlying Durkheim’s work regards the

nature of society itself. He comes from the perspective that every social institution and process has

a purpose and reason for existing – that is to maintain social order and solidarity within a given

society. Durkheim’s functional view of social processes and occuerences is well illustrated by his

view of ritual practice in religion. Durkheim stresses that the goal of ritualistic practice in religion is

to reinforce the social solidarity of a society, as it is necessary “to strengthen sentiments which, if
left to themselves would soon weaken”, and thus “it is sufficient to bring those who hold them

together and to put them into closer and more active relations with one-another.” (Giddens 230)

Throughout his work, Durkheim continually analyzes the role of individual processes in furthering

social order as a whole. Another example illustrating the functionalist view of Durkheim is seen in

The Division on Labor when he rejects the utilitarian view of modernization, which states that as a

result of the division of labor, there will be more individualism which in turn will lead to anomie

and social instability and degradation. (Giddens 177-179) In opposition, Durkheim proposes that

the differentiation of tasks and division of labor will create interdependence which will in fact

increase social solidarity. He states, “the state of anomie is impossible wherever interdependent

organs are sufficiently in contact and sufficiently extensive,” for they have an “active and

permanent feeling of mutual dependence.” (Giddens 184) Again, Durkheim takes a social

phenomenon – the division of labor – and takes the perspective that its main aim is to support social

order. The assumption of universal functionalism is a prerequisite for Durkheimian theory, and thus

a key pillar for understanding the nature of his work and approach.

Durkheim’s theoretical framework is also based on a lesser assumption – that societies

evolve along a linear track from traditional to modern, as a result of a number of factors, including

population growth. In The Division on Labor, Durkheim outlines the differences between traditional

and modern society, as well as outlines the progression from the former to the latter. This linear

progression of societies allows Durkheim to illustrate the manner in which social solidarity is

maintained in modern societies, despite the rise in individualism. (Giddens 144-47)

Through his work, Durkheim champions a positive approach for understanding social

processes and societal mechanisms, as he assumes a functional view of the social universe. He

hopes to understand the social construction of society by applying scientific methods to social

situations, and analyzing the social world much as a physical scientist would analyze the natural

world. Durkheim’s approach and contributions were paramount in sociology’s quest to achieve

legitimacy as a social science.

Works Cited

Collins, Randall. Four Sociological Traditions. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Giddens, Anthony, ed. Emile Durkheim: Selected Writings. Cambridge, England: Cambridge

University Press, 1998.

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