David Emile Durkheim was a French sociologist and philosopher concerned with establishing the domain of sociology, that is, how sociology is different from other academic disciplines. He was also committed to establishing sociology as a science that could compare with the standing of the natural sciences. Scholars regard Durkheim as one of the founders of sociology and one of the most important sociologists in the history of the field of sociology.
Durkheim’s central thesis was that sociology’s domain lies with the study of social phenomena, that is, the study of society. Durkheim posited that social phenomena have an existence in and of themselves; they are sui generis. They arise when individuals create a reality that cannot be understood in terms of the properties of the particular individuals; that is, social phenomena are not reducible to psychological or biological explanations. Rather, social phenomena are “social facts” and are caused by other “social facts.” The role of sociology is to discover the laws or “social facts” that maintain societies. Durkheim further developed a functionalist approach to the study of “social facts.” This approach emphasized the roles that institutions and processes play in maintaining social order.
Scholars describe Durkheim’s approach as macro-sociological, because he was concerned with studying the characteristics of groups and structures. Durkheim applied the macrosociological approach in such works as The Division of Labor in Society (1893), The Rules of Sociological Method (1895), Suicide (1897), and The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912). For example, in The Division of Labor in Society, Durkheim examined how social order is maintained in societies by focusing on differences in the division of labor in traditional and modern societies. Durkheim held that traditional societies have a simple division of labor and are held together by common values. There is a correspondence between collective consciousness and individual consciousness. Durkheim referred to this type of social order as “mechanical solidarity.” Modern societies, however, are characterized by a complex division of labor in which specialization of labor and social roles create dependency that ties people to one another. Durkheim referred to this type of social order as “organic solidarity.” Furthermore, in modern societies, the complex division of labor produces an individual consciousness that is distinct from collective consciousness. Modern societies may also experience rapid social change that can produce a breakdown of norms regulating behavior that Durkheim referred to as state of anomie.
In Suicide (1897), Durkheim examined the breakdown of norms regulating behavior by analyzing the suicide rates of different groups, such as Protestants and Catholics. He posited that differences in suicide rates are a function of differences in social cohesion. He demonstrated that suicide varies inversely with the degree of social cohesion. Durkheim explained that when people are well integrated into a group, they participate in activities and hold values that bind them together. Hence, their integration serves as a kind of buffer from the stresses of life, and they are less likely to commit suicide. Using this analysis, Dürkheim explained the higher rates of suicide among Protestants when compared with Catholics by noting that Protestantism had fewer common beliefs and practices.
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