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Great Educator: Emile Durkheim 1858 to 1917

Emile Durkheim founded the subject of Sociology on a lifetime of study and review of sociological phenomena. He published his “The Division of Labour in Society” in 1893, and his last, “The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life “ in 1912.

Emile Durkheim

Between these he lectured on suicide, the family, crime and punishment, legal and political sociology, the history of socialism, the history of education in France since earliest times, the sociology of morality, primitive classification and the sociology of religion, as well as establishing the remarkable journal, the Annee sociologique.

It is obvious that his interdisciplinary interests played some part in an attempt to systematise an understanding across such diverse areas of life and living. Today Sociology refers broadly to the scientific study of human social behaviour and its origins, development, organizations, and institutions.

Emile Durkheim’s pioneering work gathered together the ideas which created the scaffolding for thinkers around the world to build upon. London School of Economics played a key role in establishing and developing the discipline since 1904 [Taken From Internet 16/07/2014:].

In his ‘The Rules of Sociological Method’ he lays out his intentions for the subject, delineates the limits of his view of sociology and it can be viewed as an exploration of the sociology of his theorising. It is a key text and sets out to establish the subject in objective, specific and methodical ways expressing an intellectual perspective about the validity of the knowledge as a type and study.

Durkheim famously said that the objectivity of Sociology was a matter of treating ‘social facts as things’. In this he meant that ‘social facts’ should be regarded by the sociologist as realities; as things having characteristics independent of their conceptual apparatus, which can only be ascertained through empirical investigation (as opposed to a priori reasoning or intuition). He gave particular weight to study through ‘external’ observation by’ means of indicators such as legal codes, statistics, etc., and positioned social facts as existing independently of individuals’ wills.

These social realities he expressed as being manifest ‘in definite forms such as legal or moral rules, popular sayings, in facts of social structure’, in forms which ‘exist permanently and constitute a fixed object, a constant standard which is always at hand for the observer, and which leaves no room for subjective impressions or personal observations’ . [Page 82, Emile Durkheim , ‘The Rules of Sociological Method’ Edited with an Introduction by Steven Lukes Translated by W. D. Halls]

Durkheim placed education within the framework of what he wished to be a genuine ‘social science’. His feeling about teaching was that the primary focus should be to transcend individual conflicts and to foster positive changes which would lead to better community cohesion and enabled his fellow citizens to appreciate and be in communion with others – what he called ‘the ultimate good’.

This ambition is lofty in the view of the post modern view of relative perspectives, and at the time attracted some dispute. Establishing the discipline involved bringing definition to many fuzzy concepts such as what a group is and what a good society can be. Nevertheless, it was with perseverance and applied methodologies which Durkheim diligently established the worth of sociology as a study.

He felt that there was an urgent need to go beyond the political and social ideologies which shaped so much. Engaging with problems such as the interrelationships which exist between the individual and the group and attempting to pin down some objective criteria of how we understand the things which form the basis of societies, he moved thinking from emotive spaces to one in which ideas of the neutrality of reason took precedence.

Sociology as he framed it introduced the idea of society’s awareness of its own representation of itself. Can we understand this as the development as a collective theory of mind which then enables more intelligent accumulated action ? We certainly know that he felt strongly about marking out clear understandings of the conditions which afforded respect to the individual and that the study of sociology was aimed at creating models of thinking which would help fulfil these humanitarian concerns.

Durkheim knew that with the rise of capitalism in industrial modern society, new definitions of the individual and what it meant to be social would have to be forged with new techniques which emerge from social science. The formulation of sociology was an intellectual territory designed in which these techniques and definitions could be created, scrutinised and discovered.

After teaching philosophy in secondary schools, in 1887 Durkheim took on a lectureship in ‘social science and pedagogy’ at the Faculty of Arts in Bordeaux. Durkheim acknowledged the sociological contributions prior to his work and used this work to develop his extended system. In 1902 he took on a chair in the ‘science of education’ at the Sorbonne in Paris; later this was renamed ‘science of education and sociology’. He held this post until his death in 1917.

The formalization of a science of education was inseparable from Durkheim’s formal definition of sociology. Durkheim’s conception of education is connected with his model for the analysis of social facts and was situated as playing a primary role in the evolution of societies. His study perceived education both from the perspective of understanding its nature and its development.


To understand a social its causes and purposes must be explained. The group (or society), made up of its parts, is identified with a systemic entity; hence we can speak of a social system and sub systems which respond to social needs. The social system can be analysed in terms of layered stages in which relationships and interactions can be identified and described. The material existence of the social system can be understood by its institutions and collective representations.

Durkheim wrote an article in 1911 entitled ‘Education, its Nature and Role’ which was published in ‘Education et Sociologie’. In it he puts forward that ‘on the basis of historical observation every society, considered at a given moment in its development, has a system of education which is imposed on individuals’.

Thus, every society displays a certain ideal of what a person should be from the intellectual, physical and moral points of view; this ideal – he suggests – is the crux of education. Society can maintain itself ‘only if there is sufficient homogeneity among its members’. Education perpetuates and reinforces this homogeneity by persistently instructing the child’s mind with the fundamental relationships required by life in the given community.

Through education, the ‘individual being’ is turned into a ‘social being’. This homogeneity is relative. He suggests that in societies characterized by a division of labour, the greater the differentiation and solidarity between various types of profession and vocation, the greater the degree of heterogeneity is necessary.

“Education is the action exercised by the adult generations over those that are not yet ready for social life. Its purpose is to arouse and develop in the child a certain number of physical, intellectual and moral states which are demanded of them both by the political society as a whole and by the specific environment for which they are particularly destined. It emerges from the foregoing definition that education consists of a methodical socialization of the young generation”

(Education et sociologie, p. 51).

This view of education as ‘methodical socialization’ corresponds to the need for any society to secure the bases of its ‘conditions of existence’ and of its durability. Education is something which begins from birth, happens within the family and general community, and becomes systematic at school. The result is that school, in this ideal, becomes the focus of social continuity when it comes to the transmission of values, standards and knowledge.

Societies ‘change’, evolve and live through their own history, and within societies the institutionalized education systems that are posited to be consistent with their needs also evolve and, in turn generate their own needs. The idea of the ‘science of education’ as the objective study of the social fact of ‘education’ must place these systems in the context of a general dynamic which can be described by analysis in terms of stages in a changing social reality.

It was this analytical model that enabled Durkheim to address the problem of change: emerging new collective representations tend to be translated into new institutions, provided that these representations correspond to new social needs.

human rights

The increasing division of labour in modern societies demands that more attention should be paid to the individual. This gives rise to ‘individualist’ ideologies which, in turn, result in the emergence of institutions to protect ‘human rights’.

Any system is made up of two kinds of components. There are a whole series of fixed stable arrangements and established methods which we call institutions; and, at the same time, within the society as a system, there are underlying ideas at work, urging it to change.

Seen from the outside, secondary education can appear to us as a series of establishments whose physical and moral organization is fixed; however, seen from another perspective, that same organization harbours aspirations seeking fulfilment. Underlying a fixed, consolidated existence there is a life on the move which is not less significant (‘L’évolution et le rôle de l’enseignement secondaire en France’, in: Education et sociologie, 1905, p. 122).

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