Emile Durkheim is a French sociologist, widely considered one of the founders of the field of sociology. He was born
in the Lorraine region of France into a family of devout Jews (his father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all rabbis). Although expected to follow the family tradition and go to rabbinical school, Durkheim instead studied at the prestigious college, the Ecole Normale Supérieure. He determined to take a scientific approach to the study of society, which put him at odds with the humanist establishment and made his career progression difficult as a consequence.
He obtained a post at the University of Bordeaux in 1887 and for the next 15 years, this was his base from which to launch his assault on the French academic system and begin the work of establishing sociology as a discipline. His PhD dissertation, The Division of Labour in Society was published in 1893 and was shortly followed by Rules of Sociological Method (1895), which became a manifesto for the fledgeling field. In 1898 he founded the journal, L’Année Sociologique, which, with interruptions for war, continues to be published today.
Works of Emile Durkheim:
The first of the two books for which Durkheim is best known, Suicide, was published in 1897. Comparing the suicide rates of Protestants and Catholics, he tried to explain why it was lower for Catholics than for Protestants in terms of social control mechanisms. His data-gathering methods have since been challenged, but the work remains an important early example of a sociological case analysis because of the way it classifies suicide types into categories. Having served his time in the provinces, as virtually all French academics are expected to do, in 1902 he was offered a position as chair of education at the Sorbonne.
The second of his two famous books, which also happened to be his last, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life was published in 1912, the same year in which he finally obtained a tenured chair at the Sorbonne. In contrast to his contemporaries, Max Weber and Ferdinand Tonnies, Durkheim’s focus was not the individual, but rather the large scale institutions whose existence cannot be thought of in terms of the actions of individuals such as government, religion, and education. He was concerned to explain how society holds together in the face of modernity, which for him meant a social situation not defined by the assumption of a common background.