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Intro to Sociology. Emile Durkheim. Emile Durkheim. Born 1858; Died 1917 Born in Epinal , France Works: The Rules of Sociological Method The Division of Labor Suicide The Elementary Forms of Religious Life

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Intro to sociology

Intro to Sociology

Emile Durkheim

Emile durkheim
Emile Durkheim

  • Born 1858; Died 1917

  • Born in Epinal, France

  • Works:

    • The Rules of Sociological Method

    • The Division of Labor

    • Suicide

    • The Elementary Forms of Religious Life

  • Contributed to the formation of sociology as an independent, scientific discipline

Sociology definitions
Sociology (Definitions)

  • Social Facts – A category of facts with characteristics “external to an individual” that exert power over a person.

  • “external to a person” means that these characteristics are transpersonal experiences—things with an basis in internal experience that are not unique in essence to an individual’s internal experience.

    • Operative Facts: legal codes, aesthetics, language

      How society uses tools in order to thrive.

    • Structural Facts: demographics, geographical distribution, Urban architecture

      How society organizes itself in order to thrive.

  • Society – The “collective consciousness” of a group of people

  • Sui Generis– Irreducible to component parts, “of its own kind.”

Sociology method
Sociology (Method)

  • Domain: “social facts” – All research and reflection must be relative to the social causes and implications of (human) life. Everything is (must be) social.

  • Reasoning: relating social causes to social effects. (causal mechanism)

    • E.g., social estrangement is a factor in suicide.

    • Functional – relating the social fact to the social organism (as opposed to the interior psychology).


  • The most primitive forms of religion exhibit the essential features of religion that have been obscured by the “luxuries” and advancements of mature religions.

  • Since the facts are simpler, the relations between them are more apparent.

  • What happens in primitive religion is an analogy for what happens in mature religions.

Epistemology knowledge
Epistemology (Knowledge)

  • Two forms of knowledge: empirical and categorical

  • Empirical – knowledge gained by observation

  • Categorical (Traditional) – Preconceived concepts by which we organize our observations

  • Categorical (Durkheim) – The representation of society within each individual’s consciousness – “collective representation” (E.g., Genetic Heritage)

  • Functionalism – the content of the categories change over time and culture, it is this same basic pattern that reveals an increasing uniformity that will eventually result in the ultimate uniformity.


  • “A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things—things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite in one single more community…all those who adhere to them.”

  • Three Essential Elements

    • Sacred object (e.g., God, America, etc.)

    • Set of beliefs and practices

    • Moral community

  • Religion is established in moments of “collective effervescence”—points at which people are united in behavior and purpose.

    • Ecstatic psychic feelings implies a “higher” ideality

  • Ideality is projected onto an external symbol.

  • This symbol is actually a representation of society’s ideals—it is a way of society understanding itself.

  • “Religion is a society worshipping itself—it is society’s ideals and forces hypostatized.”


  • Because (a) categorical knowledge is social knowledge and (b) religion is a representation of social ideals, (1) religion is a social phenomenon; (2) all societies are intrinsically religious; and (3) religions are an important and healthy part of society.

  • Religious experiences are “real” in the sense that they do embody societal ideals. They are unreal in the sense that their content is symbolic and not descriptive or explanatory.

  • Durkheim expresses a functionalist theory of religion: religion is defined in terms of a set of processes as opposed to a set of content.


  • The increasing diversity or plurality of modern societies make it difficult or even impossible to apply Durkheim’s theory of religion outside of small, isolated groups.

  • The functionalist account defines religion too broadly in the sense that everything on this account is religious, or that there is nothing that is not potentially a religious/religion.

    • It rejects alternative or peripheral explanations of transcendence:

      • The philosophical question of the objective value of any given thing

      • The psychological question of individuality and idiosyncrasy in belief