Critique of Emile Durkheim (1858-1917)

It is right to see Durkheim's work as a unity of thought, even though it shows development between works and within them. It is possible to see The Division of Labour, The Rules of Sociological Method, Suicide and The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life as phases, but... Durkheim profile
It will not do, in short, to divide Durkheim's thought into mutant and disconnected phases labelled evolutionary, metaphysical, empirical and functional-institutional and to assert that these reflect, in order, his four major published works.

What all four works have in common - and this applies also to the books posthumously published as well as the articles that appear in L'Année and elsewhere - is a social metaphysic and a methodology rooted in the conviction that took shape in Durkheim's mind as he wrote The Division of Labour: that all human behaviour above the strictly physiological must be regarded as emanating from, or else sharply conditioned by, society: that is, by the totality of groups, norms and institutions within which every human being consciously and unconsciously exists from the moment of his birth.
(Nisbet, 1970, 87-88).
For Durkheim any need for reduction did not go beyond the social. The social is the concern of sociology, and if it wasn't then there was no sociology. The collective conscience, or the conscience collective, exists above and beyond individual psychology. This is our understanding of and commitment to society through its many norms. The Rules of Sociological Method (1982), itself an interesting title, argues the case for social facts. We are born into collective institutions and we face them in making ourselves individuals. Suicide (1951) is where he demonstrated the level of the social, that its rate of change is reflected in collective events. There is a more than a hint towards the symbolic (linguistic) too with collective representations, being the communication of general ideas and beliefs.
Social facts rise above individual circumstances and have their own existence. They meet us from the outside, as it were, and seem to strike everyone as being the same. Durkheim categorised them into mechanistic and organic, but did not give much in the way of a causal relationship of development, a legitimate area of sociological enquiry at the social level, but said more about how they functioned.
In The Division of Labour in Society (1982) Durkheim was interested in the moral density of society - how people interact. This "moral" meant the method of interaction.
Mechanistic society was self-same in its parts, well defined as a collective conscience and strongly disciplined.
Increasing specialisation and diversity leads to organic solidarity from mechanistic solidarity and a weakening in the collective conscience.
Nevertheless the collective conscience is important because it underpins the potential anarchy of individualistic economic contracts with shared assumptions and understandings. An example would be, "My word is my bond" in the City of London, which came from the British upper class society of gentlemen. The guiding collective conscience however is more far reaching than this example.
Whilst Durkheim approved of organic society, and was a "moral individualist" (Noble, 170), he was opposed to methodological individualism in favour of collective level analyses (Noble, 149-150). The collective exists as its own entity into which everyone is born. We are born into organic society as an understanding, and it comes first.
Parallels are individualism as an ideology that works at the collective level which we take on, though for Durkheim it is a "conscience" and an understanding born of the diverse structure of specialities.
Durkheim is keen to stress social relationships on their own account that lead to sociological analysis. But there are contradictions in the rejection of historicism and idealism.
Ideal types are in fact being used here (mechanistic, organic) and the Weberian analysis is surely more directly attuned. Weber was prepared to get his hands dirty in historical detail too, to compare and analyse the ideal, which Durkheim did not do as he was only ever interested in generalities. Once again, however (as with Marx), history frustrates the sociology, as when it is discovered, for example, that Anglo-Saxon society was not so mechanistic in outlook (Noble, 148). Our libertarian individualism has deep historical roots from well before modern capitalism (just as it can be argued that Lenin and Stalin were inheritors of an already centralist state).
So there is a weakness at the heart of Durkheim's system, which historians like Arthur Marwick will expose. If the history is not universal, in what sense is the sociology at all general and applicable? It seems we really are dealing with ideal types, and we need to know the relationship between them and actuality here. Actuality seems to stand as a structural opposite to Durkheim's categories, which is disastrous.
Nisbet states:
It is easy enough, no doubt, to demolish Durkheim's metaphysical constructs, and many critics have so engaged themselves. Considered abstractly, how long can such ideas as the collective conscience, collective representations, and the absolute autonomy of society, stand against the onslaughts of critical empiricism, linguistic analysis and other manifestations of contemporary philosophy's remorseless hunting down of all that is not conceptually atomic? Let it be conceded immediately: not very long. (Nisbet, 1970, 88)
So Nisbet goes on to say we cannot be limited to these concepts, and should tackle with Durkheim how he addresses empirical realities. But arguably Durkheim simply plasters his absolute collective-first theory over any empirical area, whether moral education through group commitment (Nisbet, 1970, 89-90), the argument against transcience in the contract (90-91) or the types of suicide (where there is more empiricism). The reason that his constructs last "not very long" is because there are more appropriate theories or collections of theories, or more sophisticated approaches, for more sophisticated societies.
Durkheim is reductionist to the collective level and sociology: for example the psychological and moral will are products of the social whereas they stand for themselves as causal in Tönnies' similar gemeinschaft and gesellschaft. Why cannot sociology examine the variable complexity of existence? It does, of course, but it seems Durkheim was almost desperate to preserve the sanctity of the sociological. He was, after all, justifying a new discipline.
In doing this approach he makes his the historically dynamic and causal static; they only function and relate. The Durkheimian scheme may avoid the contradictions of Marx, but it renders Durkheim's approach a snapshot of generalities. Durkheim's ideal types only hints at causes, unlike Tönnies and Weber.
So what is evidence for Durkheim? The law changes and becomes more impersonal. The problem is that he requires a change in the law to demonstrate the change to organic society and this is a circular argument (Noble, 2000, 149). We need to see a change in organic society that leads to changes in the law. It is the equivalent of the Christian Church saying that its existence is evidence of the resurrection because the resurrection leads on to the Church.
The central functionalist claim of society is its existence of norms. Norms are expressions of the collective conscience. They are the positive attractive side, taboos are the negative side of avoidance with sanctions. This introduces the role of deviance from the norms, the dysfunction of which is itself functional to an extent! This is because the deviant reminds everyone else of the norms we obey.
Therefore all normal societies have some deviance. He associates normality with a state of good health and a pathological condition with bad health. How well worked out is this metaphor? Does society have health? This association with a well functioning capitalist society with good health leads to a conservative reputation. After all degeneration for a Marxist may be evidence of a society in transition towards good health on Durkehiem's terms; capitalism is always in increasingly bad health. And although Durkheim was not an idealist, this is an idealist marker, because it is an ideal by which to measure what is the actuality (thus the understanding of ideal types with Weber).
Durkheim had the view that normal conditions are contrasted with pathological conditions, the one defining the other. This is interesting but now makes his scheme structural and perhaps he might have developed this analysis (before Saussure!). After all he is understanding what is normal by it being not pathological.
Anyway, for Durkheim organic society could become pathological. This is equivalent of dysfunctional - a tendency to disharmony. There are two types:
  • Forced division of labour - social privileges and inequality, instead of equality of opportunity. The state should protect individuality against privilege. Durkheim was thus towards the socialist in sympathy but regarded Marxism as unresearched and unevidenced utopianism and an unscholarly cry of grief (Noble, 154; Durkheim, 1959). He did favour a programme like Sain-Simon's to tackle the forced division of labour.

  • Anomic division of labour - the opposite of Forced, coming from fluidity and openness. Norms and standards weaken, leading to unpredictable behaviour. It expresses itself in a base (what we would call) never ending consumerism. There is little to no collective conscience. In effect this condition was described and analysed by Baudrillard in response to poststructural society.
Education and sociology in particular had a role aiding the collective conscience. In studying society in all its complexity, and through understanding to challenge privilege, and to point up what exists in common, Sociology thus has a purpose to promote harmony through understanding and recommending practical reformist measures (contrast with Marx!). This was one area where sociology should engage with politics.
Durkheim is regarded as conservative. One reason is because through The Division of Labour he writes with more sense of continuity between mechanistic and organic society, one is not a replacement for the other (Nisbet, 1970, 85) but rather a need for the continuation of a unity of collective conscience. It is also simply because of the structural functionalism of his system, and his rejection of socialism. But he did believe in social reform, and this is built into the system to stop dysfunction through inequality.
That he recommends change against the existence of "forced labour", and he sees it as moral and part of the will (Noble, 156), somewhat undermines the consistency of his view. There is again an echo of Weber who points up rather better the fact that individuals are social actors. However, Durkheim attempts consistency by the argument that the ability to be a moral actor comes from the existence of a collective conscience first (see Noble, 156). Unfortunately this raises a question how social actors can restore the collective conscience if it is unavailable. Such a collective system with a dependent conscience from a material existence has no real defence once it becomes normless and dysfunctional.
For Durkheim it was not the purpose of sociology to recommend a political programme because its business was to be a sound scientific academic discipline. Against this we know that Marx fused the idea of the scientific and socialism through a dynamic of history. Durkheim's is more static. But in recommending reform to prevent inequality through inheritance, sociology as a discipline does recommend political intervention, in a limited sense.
Very different from Marx is Durkheim's treatment of religion. For Durkheim it was a key way of explaining the level of the social and the collective conscience, rather than regarding it as an ideological tool of a class. Nevertheless these two views are not necessarily antithetical, it is just that Durkheim saw religion as carrying out an essential role in binding society, which explains its longevity. Religion works, and it works socially.
  • generates awe
  • is followed and demands respect
  • creates a shared mythic system
  • contains morals and taboos for all
  • has a conceptual basis for society to think around
  • is everywhere, if in different forms
(See Noble, 2000, 161)
The point about different forms existing is not some sort of diversity for the sake of it, but to give a kind of religion that functions for the sociological situation in that place. Animism through to monotheism represents different complexities of society. The artefacts that become sacred or symbolise sacredness, the rituals carried out relate to the level or type of society. We see in religions a reflection of the structures of the rest of society. It is then that the awe that religion generates has the binding effect. The morals and the concepts spread out into society, and religion binds society, not just its own schemata.
But really Durkheim turns this relationship on its head. It is the society which causes the religion, the society in effect which is represented and this is why awe is generated. The God, the beliefs and rituals are reflections of, and about, society. This is why he is regarded as an atheist in terms of religion, producing a sociological form of argument not unlike Feuerbach (where God is our projection), and if Durkheim can say all religions are "true" (1956, 14-15) then so could Feuerbach in that they were properly reflective. However, just as pantheism is a form of atheism (that God everywhere means God is nowhere), so to say all religions are true is to say none are true, or at the least it hardly matters whether theologically they are true.
Noble claims that these sociological views are in theological parallel with Christian humanists, either that of Cupitt (1980) or Unitarianism (Socinianism) as expressed by McLachlan (1972) (Noble, 165).
They are not, however, because the Cupitt who took leave of God was an individualist, and Unitarian theism is also individualist, based on individual reason (which has taken it beyond Socinianism). On Being a Unitarian (1968) and, later, The Unitarian Way (1985), both by Phillip Hewett, are perhaps better accounts of the contemporary result of the sheer breadth of possibilities which come from applying individual reason even amongst others. Universalism is different, about salvation for all. Cupitt went on later to inhabit a poststructuralism of the Word (especially by 1992), that religion became part of a plethora of signs and symbols, where language comes - but whereas religion in this case is more collective, certainly, nothing has any binding power at all. This kind of religion and poststructuralism learn to make do with a condition of alienation that Durkheim feared, that is the loss of collective conscience and no longer its representation in religion. The fact that new theological movements subvert theism suggests that monotheism is not the highest form of religion, and why should it be for highly diverse complex society?
The argument of the non-realists and Unitarians is anyway not an argument from society, from without, but an argument from within. It is the collapse of the internal theological consistency within Christianity, if it ever had it. Such religion has no collective power. The sociological issue then is whether religion has left us with a Weberian type rational secularisation where religion has ceased to be important or a Durkheimian one where the generalist elements of religion have fused into secular society, and so continues to inform civil values and general religiosity. But this shift isn't Durkheimian either, because in this case no longer does religion generate awe and carry out (receive) this binding function.
Furthermore, the binding functions of religion only really work when there is one institution, one faith, in any one locality. Many faiths and many denominations may be reflective of and contribute to a complex society but again the collective power of awe is surely dispersed. And then shared civil values, the leftovers, are not so shared in sophisticated societies. Sophisticated societies are about living without these props that Durkheim called the collective conscience.
Durkheim from the nineteenth century outlook regarded religion as essential, but we do not. We do not need these huge unifying forces but rather linkages from one area of complex life to another. We live with the freedom of an alienated life.
Durkheim is another example of a thinker who is outlived by time, whose universally applicable views are found to be as transitory as the societies we live in. He is useful for how he stands ahead of functionalists and structuralists and poststructuralists who take a more contemporary view of society.
Adrian Worsfold


Cupitt, D. (1980), Taking Leave of God, London: SCM Press.
Cupitt, D. (1992), The Time Being, London: SCM Press.
Durkheim, E. (1951, first published 1895), The Rules of Sociological Method
Durkheim, E. (1951, first published 1897), Suicide, Chicago: Free Press.
Durkheim, E. (1956, first published 1912), The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Durkheim, E. (1982, first published 1893), The Division of Labour in Society, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Hewett, P. (1968), On Being a Unitarian, Toronto: Canadian Unitarian Council.
Hewett, P. (1985), The Unitarian Way, Toronto: Canadian Unitarian Council.
McLachlan, J. (1972), The Divine Image, London: Lindsey Press.
Nisbet, R. A. (1970), The Sociological Tradition, London: Heinemann Educational Books.
Noble, T. (2000), Social Theory and Social Change, London: Macmillan.