Émile Durkheim: A biography Marcel
David Macey, translator
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THIS beautifully translated book provides a rich,
exhaustive, and exhausting account of Émile Durkheim as one of the
central founders of sociology, and of the era of French
intellectual and social history in which he lived.
It was the crucial period for the emergence of social
science, and also of "the intellectual", signalled by Émile Zola
and the Dreyfusards, enthusiastically supported by Durkheim, his
nephew and collaborator Marcel Mauss, and the rest of the circle
associated with theAnnées Sociologiques.
Yet sociology squeezed in by the back door of
pedagogy and issues of religion, morale, and secular morality,
notably in the divisive debates before the separation of Church and
State in 1905. Durkheim worked at the universities of Bordeaux and
Paris, but never held a chair in sociology. In England, Scotland,
and the United States, sociology had significant roots in Christian
social concern, whereas elsewhere it had them in secularised
For Durkheim, sociology was the creation of French
culture from Montesquieu and Condorcet to Saint-Simon and Comte,
although he acknowledged substantial debts to German thinkers. He
engaged with Freud, notablyTotem and Taboo, and Simmel, and, of
course, Marx, all fellow Jews; but it seems that he never read Max
Weber, his immediate contemporary and co- founder of sociology. It
is important to remember that France was at least as infected by
anti-Semitism as Germany, and in the Great War, in which Durkheim
lost a son, he was accused of being a German spy.
The background was the multicultural world of Alsace,
although Durkheim was in fact born in Épinal, in the Vosges, the
son of a rabbi. His interest in the sociology of religion
culminated in 1912 in hisThe Elementary Forms of the Religious
Life, based on his earlier studies of totemism among Australian
aborigines. As with all his great works, in particular hisRules of
Sociological Method,The Division of Labour, andSuicide, he was keen
to establish thesui generisnature of social causation as distinct
from narrative in history, speculation in philosophy, and
individual motivation in psychology.
In opposition to those who located the sources of
religion in delusion and intellectual mistakes, whether through
dreams, spirits, or natural forces, he believed that totems and
rites reflected an underlying reality, "the sacred" as distinct
from "the profane", that was not to be identified with God, but
with Society with a capital "S". Religionfunctionedto express the
collective consciousness, including an idealised vision of Society.
His English follower, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, made this
functionalist approach a significant plank of English
Durkheim was a democratic socialist who rejected
versions of Marxism based on violence and material forces. There
was a time when functionalist social analyses related to the social
whole: for example, in debates over nationalism as a quasi-religion
or religion substitute, they were treated as "conservative"
compared with conflict theories based on class.
Those debates have mostly disappeared, but Durkheim's
concern with "anomie", or normlessness, and with the family, should
divorce become too frequent an option, still feeds into
contemporary arguments. Whether he established sociology over
against understandings based on individual psychology remains a
moot point: we constantly refer to sociological data, but rarely
grasp their inner logic.
The Revd David Martin is Emeritus Professor of
Sociology at the London School of Economics, and Hon. Professor of
Religious Studies at the University of Lancaster.