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Emile Durkheim

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David Emile Durkheim

Sociological Theory

Rosanna Ashley

May 1, 2008

I. Biography

David Emile Durkheim was one of the founders of sociology. He was born April 15, 1858 at Epinal in the Eastern French province of Lorraine. He was the fourth child and second son of Moise and Melanie Durkheim. His family was Ashkenazic Jewish, and his father was a rabbi. It was said that young Emile would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a rabbi as well. (Ashley, 2005)

However at the young age of thirteen, he took up with a Catholic woman teacher, who influenced him. He decided to move to Paris and study Catholicism. This was a short-lived experience for young Emile, as he realized that he preferred to study religion from an agnostic standpoint, as opposed to being indoctrinated. Emile still remained close to his family and the Jewish family. (Coser, 1971)

Durkheim was a bright student. He attended College d’ Epinal and was awarded several honors and recognitions. Afterwards he transferred to a French high school, The Lycee Louis-le-Grand in Paris. While attending he prepared himself for exams that later would open doors to the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure, a traditional training ground for the Elite persons of France. It took Durkheim three times to pass the entrance exam (his third attempt was his successful one in 1879). He was a wonderful, hardworking student and he met and made friends with many people who later became political figures of the Third Republic. His friends gave him a nickname while attending Ecole Normale. The called him “the metaphysician”. (coser, 1971)

Emile was a very dissatisfied with the school. He felt that the school made far too many concessions to the spirit of dilehanism and tended to reward elegant dabbling and the quest for novelty and originality of expression rather than solid and systematic learning. Although he maintained many close friends, his professors repaid him for his apparent dissatisfaction and graduated him at the bottom of his class in 1882. (coser, 1971)

Shortly after graduation, he wanted to devote himself to a guidance of the affairs of contemporary society. More so, he wished to make a contribution to the political consolidation of the Third Republic, which in those days was still a fragile and embattled structure. This is when he decided to dedicate himself to the scientific study of society. He decided to construct a scientific sociological system. (coser, 1971)

At this time sociology was not a subject taught at the colleges or universities. From 1882 to 1887 he taught philosophy at numerous colleges and universities. While teaching he took a leave of absence to study in Germany. He spent most of his time in Berlin and Leipzig studying moral philosophy and social sciences. He greatly approved of the efforts of various German social scientists and philosophers. They stressed the notion of moral duty and sought to make ethics an independent and positive discipline. (coser, 1971)

Durkheim was recognized at age twenty вЂ" nine as a promising figure in social sciences and in social philosophy. In 1887 he was appointed to the staff at the University of Bordeaux. A social science course was created for Durkheim at this university. He was attached to the department of philosophy where he was charged with courses in both sociology and pedagogy. Education was a privileged, applied field where sociology could make its most important contribution to the regeneration of society for which he aimed so passionately. (coser, 1971)

Just as Durkheim began a career at Bordeaux, he married the former Louise Dreyfus. They had two children, Andre and Marie. Louise was a devoted and loving wife. She followed the traditional Jewish family lifestyles. She took care of her family as well as helping her husband with secretarial duties and proofreading his work. (coser, 1971)

Durkheim had produced many articles and reviews, as well as books before his death in 1915. Teonnies’ Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft and the openings of some of his lectures were published as articles. In 1893 he defended his French doctoral thesis, The Division of Labor and his Latin thesis on Montesquieu. Two years later he produced The Rules of Sociological Method and two more years later he wrote Le Suicide. These became Durkheim’s three major works, and moved him into the forefront of the academic world. (coser, 1971)

In 1898 he founded a scholarly journal called L’Anne Sociologique. He also published a famous paper on Individual and Collective Representations and a series of seminal papers. These include: “The Determination of Moral Facts”, “Value Judgments and Judgments of Reality”, “Primitive Classification”, and “The Definition of Religious Phenomena”. (coser, 1971)

Nine years after joining the faculty at the University of Bordeaux, he was promoted to a full time professor in social science, the first position in France; he became the chairman of the department for six years. In 1902 he was called to the Sorbonne, First as a charge de cours, then in 1906 as a professor of education. (coser, 1971)

The last few years at Bordeaux, he had become interested in the study of religious phenomena; he turned to the study of primitive religion. This point in his life led to the publication in 1912 of his last major work, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Shortly after his fourth and final work him felt obliged when the war came. He became the secretary of the committee for the Publication of Studies and Documents on the war. (coser, 1971)

Just before Christmas in 1915, Durkheim was notified that his son Andre died in a Bulgarian Hospital from war wounds. Durkheim never recovered from the death of his son, and two years later in November he died of pneumonia at age fifty-nine, but not before he began working on another project, a treatise on ethics. (coser, 1971)

II. Influences

Durkheim was influenced by many people along his journey in life. One of those people was Herbert Spencer. He was one of the first men to explain the existence and quality of different parts of a society by reference to what function they served in keeping the society healthy and balanced a position that would later become known as functionalism. (

Another influence of Durkheim’s was Max Weber. He focused not on what motivates the actions of individual people, but on the


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