Sociology 250

September 25, 2002

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.

While "the essence of religion is to be found in beliefs and practices" (Adams and Sydie, p. 103), it is the manner that 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 then, 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’s analysis of religion is important in the study of the sociology of religion, culture, and contemporary institutions such as media. 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 this and his general approach to gender issues, he was typical of nineteenth century writers who divided the world into society and the natural – men were part of society and women were natural (p. 111). Men were part of the division of labour, society, and social solidarity, while women were often considered outside this.

At the same time, Durkheim did write about this issue. 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, this is apparent. For Durkheim, 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.

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.

In summary, Durkheim appears to have 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. His view of 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. His evaluation of religion and education as a means of achieving social solidarity may be limited, although he appears to have recognized this weakness himself.

iii. Durkheim paid too much attention to the division of labour in the public sphere as the major force in society. While there is no doubt that this has been a major force, whether social solidarity emerges from this is another issue. 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. Durkheim does not have a well developed model of individual and small group social interaction. While he recognizes the individual, 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. But again, this is an issue that other sociologists have had difficulty explaining – the relation of individual action and agency with large scale social structures.

b. Contributions of Durkheim

i. Durkheim’s attention to social order and its roots in social organization is an extremely important issue. 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. The concept of difference and how it can create solidarity is an important idea. Many forms of difference have developed since Durkheim’s era and yet societies appear able to deal with these differences in a relatively smooth fashion. Multicultural approaches to difference might be one way that Durkheim’s difference exists in contemporary North American society. That is, we at least co-exist with those of other cultures, and many people attempt to relate to each other in a positive and respectful manner.

iii. 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.

Last edited on September 29, 2002

Return to Sociology 250