Sociology 250

January 22, 2003

Concluding Notes on Durkheim


1. Religion.  Durkheim’s last work, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, was an analysis of religion in the most simple form – among the Arunta aborigines of Australia.  By studying religion in that society, he hoped to gain insights into the nature of religion, religious belief, and the manner these operated in other societies.  Durkheim was not interested in religious doctrines or beliefs for their own sake, but for the insights that it provided into social organization.  Just as he studied suicide as an exercise in methodology and the study of social facts, so he studied religion as a key to understanding social solidarity.


Durkheim argued that in traditional or primitive societies, religion emerged from a “need to explain cosmic, often catastrophic, natural events” (Adams and Sydie, p. 102).  Given these arguments, it is no surprise that Durkheim attempts to define religion.  In his early work, The Division of Labour in Society, he provide a preliminary definition as “the set of beliefs and sentiments of every kind concerning men’s links with a being or beings whose nature he regards as superior to his own” (p. 118).  Given his concern with systems of morality, conduct, and laws, he recognizes this definition as inadequate, that is, religious teachings about conduct may have no apparent relationship to a superior being.  In his later writings, Durkheim defines religion as a collective thing:

A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.  (Elementary Forms, p. 62; Adams and Sydie, p. 103).

However, he developed this definition only after many years of further study of the sociology of religious ideas and institutions.  The roots of the definition can be seen in Division, since Durkheim argues there that religion is social, involves rules, and is external to the individual.  Durkheim notes that “all religious ideas and sentiments … are common to a certain number of individuals living together.  Moreover, their average intensity is fairly high” (Division, 119).   Further, when strong sentiments are held by a collectivity, they assume “a religious character” (Division, 119). 


While “the essence of religion is to be found in beliefs and practices” (Adams and Sydie, p. 103), how people relate to these beliefs and practices, and the function they serve in society that interested Durkheim.  He noted that in religion there are sacred objects or things “set apart and dealt with in a ritualized way” (Adams and Sydie, p. 103).  These sacred things could be any object or ritual – a rock, a cross, prayer – it is not the nature of the object that sets it apart as sacred, but the meaning, ritual, and separateness attached to the sacred.  The sacred object may become what Durkheim calls a totem – an object symbolic of the sacred – for believers, it is endowed with meaning, but Durkheim argues that the meaning comes from the believers, the clan, or the group.  Things that are not sacred are profane or secular – the everyday objects and work that are necessary to existence and which are not regarded as separate or sacred.  In order to move from the secular to the sacred, there may be purifying rituals or ceremonies that separate the sacred and profane. 


For Durkheim, the sacred comes from the society, from the members of the society who collectively believe the object or ritual to be sacred and endow it with meaning.  Thus religion becomes “society personified” and the “worship of society” (Adams and Sydie, p. 104) and the source of solidarity in traditional societies having mechanical solidarity.  He regarded all the other institutions, beliefs, and ways of thinking in society as emerging out of religion, since religion is “a manifestation of the total society” (Ashley and Orenstein, p. 127).  Durkheim considered religion to be key in modern societies with organic solidarity, but regarded other ideas and institutions, such as education and the state as also important for socialization and solidarity. 


Durkheim argued that much penal law was religious in origin and, as evidence he cites the examples from India, Judaea, Rome, and Egypt (Division, 49).  One reason for this is that religion is social, something that emerges in a social group or society and is devoted to pursuit of ends that are not entirely individual.  In addition, religious ideals and values tend to constrain the individual, or at least suggest or require actions that guide the individual.  Since religion is social, and the rules that are part of religion are developed by society as a whole, offence against them affects all members of the society.  As a result, religious teachings and sanctions are essentially penal in nature.


Further, even when penal law is no longer strictly religious, its origin and nature is reflective of religious sentiments, that is, the collective origins of this law have a religious overtone.  Such sentiments concern “morality or duty” and violation of these “appear as attacks upon something which is transcendent, whether this is a being or concept” (Division, 56). 


Where there is mechanical solidarity, “religion pervades the whole of social life .. because social life is made up almost entirely of common beliefs and practices that draw from their unanimous acceptance a very special kind of intensity” (Division, 130).  Interestingly, Durkheim associates some of these feelings and actions as communistic, that is collective possession and use of property, sharing and using things in common with other members of the society.  This is a result of “that social cohesion that swallows up the individual within the group, the part into the whole” (Division, 130) where the collective consciousness dominates and there is little or no individual consciousness.


Durkheim’s analysis of religion is important in the study of the sociology of religion, culture, and contemporary institutions.  While believers of particular religion may object to having their views characterized in this way, Durkheim’s analysis of religion is true to his sociological approach – examining the way that society operates through all its social institutions. 


Examples of sacred, profane or secular, rituals, and purification today could include sporting events, national anthems, and national holidays.  Think about how these might be related to social solidarity today.


2. Gender Relations


Adams and Sydie spend some time discussing Durkheim’s view of men and women, and their nature, concluding that “Durkheim’s sociological imagination seems to have deserted him when it came to the question of gender” (p. 114).  They argue that he opposed feminist ideas since they threatened social solidarity.  In his approach to issues of sex, gender, and family, he was typical of nineteenth century writers who divided the world into society and the natural.  For these writers, men were part of society and “ “‘almost entirely a product of society’ whereas  women are ‘to a far greater extent the product of nature’” (p. 111).  Men were part of the division of labour, society, and social solidarity, while women were considered outside this public sphere, primarily involved in a private sphere – household and family – and more natural and less affected by the tensions, individuality, and problems of modern society.  From this perspective, the proper role for women was to ensure that that they carried out the emotional and affective functions required by children and others in society.


Durkheim addressed issues of gender relations by arguing the initial relative equality and similarity of men and women in traditional societies with mechanical solidarity gave way to greater differentiation as societies became more modern.   This was accompanied by the development of stronger families with a patriarchal form of organization – rule by the father or senior male.  Later, conjugal families, based on partners coming together, becomes the modern form.  Durkheim viewed families as an important institution in maintaining and strengthening social solidarity, especially for men.  This may be because he regarded men as more affected by the division of labour, individualism, and different interests – men required and institution such as the family to help integrate them into society.  We will see that Parsons had a similar view. 


With respect to suicide, Durkheim argued that marriage was more favourable to men than to women – it reduced male suicide rates but increased those for females.  Adams and Sydie note that “men require the social regulation and restraint of their desires” (p. 100)  Women, being closer to nature, do not need this, and marriage may actually trap them, leading to fatalistic suicide.  Regardless of this, Durkheim favoured monogamous marriage and opposed divorce, that is, he regarded the positive effects of marriage and the family as an important force in maintaining and promoting social solidarity and a moral society.  Especially important was the importance of monogamous marriage for the benefit of children and their upbringing and socialization.  (see Adams and Sydie, pp. 110-111).


Women were to continue in the marriage relationship and develop aesthetic activity – the arts, crafts, and other matters of “sensation and imagination” that Durkheim regarded as the sphere for women.  Adams and Sydie note that Durkheim fell back on a rationale of  “different but equal” (p. 113) to justify this. 


Durkheim accepted the findings of Dr. Lebon that male and female brains “become more differentiated with the progress of civilization” (Adams and Sydie, p. 111).  At one point he accepts Lebon’s findings that the brain of French females is smaller than that of almost any other group.  Durkheim was always in search of a sociological explanation of phenomena in other parts of the social world, but in his analysis of sex and gender relationships, he seemed to fall back on what he perceived to be biological differences between the sexes.  He appears to have had little ability to escape this common nineteenth century view.


In summary, Durkheim made few contributions to the sociology of family, gender, and gender relations, except perhaps for his analysis of how family as institution is part of a system of social solidarity. 


3. Conclusion


a. Problems with Durkheim


i. Evolutionary approach.  Durkheim’s explanation of the development of societies was oversimplified, with the tendency for societies to evolve from the traditional to the modern as a general form of development.  Within this, at times he seems overly optimistic about the rational, harmonious unfolding of the division of labour.  His basic evaluation is that if the different parts of the division of labour are in contact with each other for a sufficiently long time, there will be cooperation or at least coexistence, and organic solidarity will emerge.  He does not consider inequalities of income, wealth, and power or alienation in jobs to be a serious problem.


ii. Social solidarity in modern society.  Durkheim considers the division of labour to create organic solidarity in modern societies.  But his evaluation that systems of morality, religion, and education would accomplish this may be limited.  At the same time, he recognized this as a problem in that he considered anomie and the forced division of labour to be problems of modern society.  In addition, his view that social order and solidarity was achieved in an orderly and harmonious fashion neglects the power relationships among groups in society.  That is, he downplayed the way that oppression may be used by the powerful as a means of enforcing a social order that is advantageous to the powerful but not so advantageous for most people.  In contrast to the Marxian approach, he minimizes the extent of struggle and conflict in creating social change.


iii. Source of social solidarity.  Durkheim may have paid too much attention to the division of labour in the public sphere as the major force in society.  In this sense he adopts a materialist approach, although in a different way than Marx.  That is, he  considered the social and cultural aspects of society to be rooted in economic and material conditions of the organization of the division of labour.  While there is no doubt that this has been a major force, some sociologists argue that social solidarity has other sources and influences.  Perhaps many of the roots of social solidarity come from other social relationships in institutions such as religion and the family, or from interaction among people outside the public sphere.  In any case, the inadequate attention and approach of Durkheim to family, sex, and gender issues was not uncommon among writers of his time – but as Adams and Sydie note, this is one area where Durkheim’s sociological imagination appear to have failed him.


iv. Social interaction.   Durkheim does not have a well developed model of individual and small group social interaction.  While he recognizes the importance of the individual in modern society, his approach is overly structural, with society creating social facts in the individual.  Exactly how this occurs and what this means for the individual and social interaction is not always clear in his writings.  In addition, he does not very fully explain how social interaction creates social institutions and structures or the social facts that affect individuals.  Further, human social interaction produces changes in these institutions and structures and Durkheim does not pay much attention to how this can occur.  At the same time, these are issues that other sociologists have had difficulty explaining – the relation of individual action and agency with large scale social structures.


b. Contributions of Durkheim


i. Social order.  While we may disagree with Durkheim’s explanation of how social order emerges and develops, his attention to the roots or social order in social organization is important.  For the most part, social order and social solidarity exists in modern societies and studying the roots of this is an important topic for sociology.


ii. Difference and solidarity.  The concept of difference and how it can create solidarity is an important and very contemporary idea.  Many forms of difference have developed since Durkheim’s era, yet some societies have absorbed these differences in a relatively smooth fashion.  Multicultural approaches to difference in contemporary North American society might be one way that a variant of Durkheim’s view of difference can be useful.  That is, we co-exist or cooperate with those of other cultures, and many people attempt to relate to each other in a positive and respectful manner. 


iii. Sociology as a discipline.  Durkheim’s method and approach helped establish sociology as a separate and legitimate academic discipline, and also not one detached from the social world, but concerned with important social issues and social reform.  His “insistence that social phenomena must be understood in terms of their social function, or their contribution to the whole” (Adams and Sydie, p. 116) helped establish sociology as a field of study with a subject matter of its own.  His method of studying these issues, exemplified by the quantitative study of suicide and the qualitative study of religion, was exemplary.




Durkheim, Emile, The Division of Labor in Society, New York, The Free Press, 1984.


Last edited on January 22, 2003


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