Durkheim & the Foundations of Sociology

Durkheim & the Foundations of Sociology

A summary of Durkheim’s theory.

Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) assisted in the founding of sociology through his focus on the theme of society and its unity. Durkheim focused his studies on the manner in which society maintains itself through the lens of modern capitalism and industrialization. Durkheim’s work crossed into other fields such economics but it more importantly laid the foundation for sociology by arguing that labor and forces of production also created social and moral consequences.

Ultimately, the sociological approaches of interactionism, functionalism, and conflict draw on Durkheim’s work. This is done by relating specific concepts such as war or economics to theories of how society functions. For example, Durkheim presented an argument or concept known as anomie. Durkheim believed that the movement from agrarian rural societies was causal to loss of ethics and morality. In order to create industrialized societies, it is necessary for individuals to become part of large workforces and thereby lose family and community guidance. Durkheim believed that this anomie was at the root of criminal behavior (Repko, 2008). This view showed that individual behavior was influenced by social forces. From this concept, later researchers were able to expand on theories which provided more robust views of social interaction.

Even those views which are critical of Durkheim such as social conflict theory still have roots in Durkheim’s work (Macionis, 2011). Within this framework of thought, society does not exist in order to create order and stability but instead exists in terms of conflict between different groups and individuals as they vie for better positions within class, race, ethnicity, gender, etc. While conflict is based on the view that society is constantly struggling for power over resources and class, this concept is still rooted in the Durkheim perspective that social forces are instrumental in affecting individual behavior.

Durkheim’s theories create a paradigm of thought in sociology, in which the current thinking is that social forces dictate how humans socialize and interact. This paradigm shift creates a blueprint for discovery in society as researchers attempt to answer many different questions that are complex and difficult to measure:

  • What is bureaucratic alienation?
  • How is race and class linked with production and social equality?
  • Are humans rational creatures or are they forced to be rational by the mechanisms of society?

Durkheim presents a beneficial method of thinking of individual behavior in terms of sociological forces. What is most intriguing with Durkheim, and perhaps most useful, is the concept that societies mechanisms such as economics and institutions impact behavior in negative ways (Macionis, 2011). In his groundbreaking work, Suicide (1897/1951):

Durkheim argues that one of the main social forces leading to suicide is the sense of normlessness resulting from drastic changes in living conditions or arrangements, which he calls anomie. He also wrote about the methods of social science as well as religion in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1917/1995). Although the concept originated with Comte, Durkheim is often considered the founding practitioner of positivist sociology, a strain within sociology that believes the social world can be described and predicted by certain describable relationships.

Within the scope of research, Durkheim’s linking of social forces with suicide and with religion forms a fundamental approach for research in which social forces can be investigated in terms of issues or problems. For example, institutional racism is directly identifiable because of Durkeim’s approach to sociology. By looking at institutions such as lending or prisons one can find racial disparities which cannot be explained any other way except as a result of racism. For example, when sociologists study arrest rates the statistics show that African Americans and other minorities are routinely arrested more often and sentenced more harshly than Caucasians. The disparity becomes obvious when one compares white, Hispanic, and black arrest statistics:

* White males are 9% less likely to have ever been arrested than black males.
* White males were 13% less likely to have been arrested than Hispanic males.
* A larger proportion of black males were arrested more than once. 7% of black males and 6% of Hispanic males, while white males were only arrested more than once in 4% of cases.
* White youth were least likely to be detained (Bilchik, 1999).

This provides sociology with a tremendous research tool in which problems caused by the mechanisms of society can be studied and rooted out. Without Durkheim’s work laying the foundations for the study of society in this manner has provided a means of viewing social problems in a more practical manner.


Bilchik, S. (1999). Minorities in the Juvenile Justice System. 1999 National Report Series .

Macionis, J. (2011). Society: The Basics, Eleventh Edition. Prentice Hall, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Repko, A. F. (2008). Interdisciplinary research: Process and theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


Triola Vincent. Fri, Jan 15, 2021. Durkheim & the Foundations of Sociology Retrieved from

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