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Emile Durkheim lived from 1858 – 1917 in France, born to Jewish parents. He died young (54) and some say broken by the experience of living though the First World War.

He was a leading figure in establishing the discipline of sociology and wrote on a broad range of issues: society; law; political institutions and religion. A key issue for him was the loosening of family and other traditional bonds as society became more economically liberal and increasingly differentiated. Of interest here are his ideas concerning the conduct of sociology. On one level it is argued that he was a positivist in that, and often quoted, he argued:

“Our main goal is to extend scientific rationalism to human conduct by showing that.. such conduct can be reduced to relations between cause and effect. ... What has been called our positivism is but a consequence of this rationalism.” (Durkheim 1895)

Two things here. First, he sets out the discipline of sociology as being about the observation of the world as it (not as it ought to be which more falls into the field of philosophy). Second he is interested in cause and effect. However he does not see cause and effect operating at the individual level (or at least is not interested in how it operates at an individual level for that would be psychology) but rather with the broad sweep of generalisations one can make about particular groups and subgroups of people (holism). If we only looked at the individual, we would be able to understand nothing of what takes place in the group.

Durkheim was in one view a ‘positivist’ but he was also a social constructionist in that he saw institutions not only in legal terms but in the ways they been created by groups and sustained by prestige and observance. He was interested in how these institutions operated on us, and this establishes him as both positivistic and social constructivist in outlook. As he put it:

"Society is not a mere sum of individuals. Rather, the system formed by their association represents a specific reality which has its own characteristics... The group thinks, feels, and acts quite differently from the way in which its members would were they isolated."

A second, though underdeveloped theme in Durkheim’s methodology (see Poggi, 2000 for more) was to seek an ecological basis for institutions so, like others in the aftermath of evolutionary biological theory, he wondered at how arrangements in society adapted to the material conditions of their time. His key work, at least in terms of establishing a method, was Suicide. Suicide interested him as it involved deviance from established norms (legal, moral and social). So why is it done? He argued the key to understanding suicide as a social phenomenon was at a group level. He argued that this was a scientific approach as compared to relying on intuition (for example suicide rates are higher in winter when it is cold and dark) or on superstition.

Durkheim amassed a great deal of data on suicide and argued that there were three main different types of suicide:

Egoistic suicide: with fewer bonds in a liberal differentiated society there was greater emphasis on one’s own responsibility for one actions. This leads to an almost utilitarian calculation if life was affording considerably more pain then pleasure then a rational calculation was to end it. This sense of self-responsibility was higher in Protestant than in Catholic groups and hence suicide rates were higher in the former.

Altruistic suicide: This was almost the opposite to the first point that in a society in which contribution to family or community is all that matters then as one’s contribution becomes impaired then suicide may feel an ‘obligatory ’ act.

Anomic suicide: Durkheim noted the importance of norms of behaviour in the maintenance of society but that these norms could be absent or simply out of kilter with society as it evolves. In the latter one’s connection with society becomes loosened with consequent disorientation.

These types established a framework for the analysis of data and provided the explanation for suicide at a theoretical level. Suicide combines an interest in empirical cause and effect and social construction of institutions. It also combines an empirical data driven interest with a more deductive theory driven approach. However Suicide also leave questions. How exactly does Durkheim marry inductive and deductive in his work and to what extent does he recognise agency in the maintenance of social institutions? His acceptance of data can also be questioned too. For example it has been argued that the categorisation of suicide is socially constructed, in some cultures it would not be acceptable to describe a death as suicide and other categories of cause of death would be used when certicating death.


Durkheim (1895 / 2013) The Rules of Sociological Method The Rules of Sociological Method: And Selected Texts on Sociology and Its Method Expanded (Ed S. Lukes), NY USA: Free Press.

Durkheim (1897) Suicide, A Study in Scoiology, (Ed G. Simpson) NY USA: Free Press.

Durkheim's work is freely available online too.

Poggi, G. (2000). Durkheim. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

There are a huge number of You Tube videos about Durkheim, this one is an animated one.