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The Sociology of Education: A Durkheimian View

In a series of lectures published under the title ‘L’évolution pédagogique en France’, Durkheim analysed how the ‘history’ of secondary and higher education has been marked by a series of changes resulting from new political and economic trends since the Middle Ages. These were shaped by the development of new attitudes and needs.

Durkheim proposed that educational reforms reflect the general cultural context and illustrate the way in which the school attends to emerging needs that are not yet institutionalized in political society as a whole. This attempts an explanation of how the subjects of study which constitute the ‘content’ of education at any given time give rise to ‘categories of thought’ which thus inform the development of a society’s collective representations.

Emile Durkheim

Modern society has been based increasingly on industrialization of areas of life influenced by the division of labour. The result is an increased differentiation in social roles and the specialization of social functions; part of the concern which comes with this adaptation to narrowing sets of circumstance is the risk that ‘social solidarity’ will disintegrate into the stratification of society through emergent caste systems. Certainly we seem to be witnessing this in terms of widening disparity of wealth and quality of life, and also in terms of agency.

Durkheim suggests that to counterbalance this risk, the development of shared values needs to take place which translate into legitimate rights and responsibilities relating to the roles of social actors. In ‘De la division du travail social’ (The Division of Labour in Society ) published in 1893, Durkheim defines a ‘modern individualism’, in which he places respect for the human person as the ultimate and only value capable of maintaining cohesion in modern industrial societies. In ‘Le suicide’ published in 1897, he wrote that if there were something which people could share in a divided society, it was respect for human beings as existing as human beings. He put forward that respect was the only ‘genuine social bond’.


Durkheim set himself to exploring three major questions:

  • Establishing how the schooing system could fulfil the function of ‘preserving’ the social system whilst at the same time introducing social change
  • Exploring how pedagogical ‘practices’ could connect to both the formal and the informal institutions manifested by global society, and establishing the relationship they have with ‘ideas’ latent in the school system
  • Establishing what pedagogical models could be used to teach pupils a sense of ‘communion with others’ along with a body of scientific and literary ‘knowledge’



Through educational sociology it would be possible to determine the purposes of education. He approached this by relating the functioning of any society in terms of mechanisms of ‘integration’ (the will to ‘live together’) and mechanisms of ‘regulation’ (submission to communal norms).

In modern industrial society the socialization of a child must involve learning both in terms of integration and regulation, with specific regard for her or his own autonomy. The necessary control over selfish and antisocial drives need to be correlated to ‘group teaching’ so as to stimulate in the child a sense of community life, while ensuring that it is possible for the pupil to be a creative person. Refined from this thinking, three ‘elements of morality’ are set out to determine the purposes assigned to education — teaching a ‘sense of discipline’, ‘attachment to groups’ and ‘autonomy of will’.

Thinking about the ‘pedagogical means’ of education, Durkheim emphasised the teacher as an individual, and set this out as a critical point alongside the understanding of teachers as members of a profession and as a group. He sets out that any change in the education system must be fostered primarily by teachers so to respond to emerging social needs as well as to the needs specific to the system.

In ‘Education et Sociologie’, first published in 1922, he wrote ‘An ideal cannot be decreed; it must be understood, appreciated and wanted by all those whose duty it is to realize it’.

The outcome of the process of instruction in formal education depends heavily on the teacher’s attitudes in relation to their pupils. Pedagogical models must take onboard an understanding of psychology which helps us grasp that the child is innately neither selfish nor altruistic but ‘naturally enters into communication with others’. This quality the teacher must know how to use.

Teachers must also have an understanding of how individuals in association with others (a group) spontaneously develop a collective psyche. A knowledge of group psychology is of particular importance. A class is a miniature society and not merely an agglomeration of individuals which are independent of each other.

Children in class think, feel and act differently from when they are on their own. In a class or group situation there will be phenomena of contagion, demoralization, mutual excitement and healthy effervescence. These phenomena must be understood and identified so that they may be prevented, countered or utilised to constructive ends. (‘Nature and method of pedagogy’, in: Education et sociologie, p. 89).

The teacher needs to possess a ‘deep sense of their mission’, so as to conjure a specific form of ‘respect’ from the pupils. It is ‘through words and gestures’ that the ‘great moral ideas of their time and of their country’ – of which they are the exponent – can be transmitted from their own consciousness to that of the child; those words and those gestures must therefore be conceived by the teacher having regard to that very purpose (L’éducation morale, p. 11).


Durkheim relates the teacher/pupil relationship as not dissimilar to the relationship between a hypnotist and the person hypnotized (‘Education, its nature and role’, in: Education et sociologie, p. 64). In this he emphasizes the double edged nature of the relationship and the potential dangers.

Durkheim’s thinking explores the influence of what he calls the ‘school environment’ on the social and civic education of the pupil; and the importance for the teacher to strike a balance between directionless permissiveness and their own abuse of power. He explains the ‘school environment’ as being both the classroom and the establishment in which it is located. He saw it as an ‘association’, one that is more extensive than the family and less abstract than political society. Here is where the pupil develops ‘the habit of life in common in the class, attachment to that class and even to the school of which the class is but a part’ (L’éducation morale, p. 195).

The child’s natural faculty of empathy is to made use of and this stems from their need to link their existence to that of others. It is through this faculty of empathy that it is made easy to teach them to ‘like collective living’ and acquire a sense of place in group. Durkheim expresses this thus:

‘a moment, a unique point in time at which an influence can be exerted over the child which nothing can replace… The whole problem consists in taking advantage of this association in which children in the same class are obliged to be, in order to give them a liking for living in a broader, more impersonal group than the one to which they are accustomed. It so happens that this is by no means an insurmountable difficulty for, in fact, there is nothing so pleasant as collective life. (…) It is a pleasure to say we. What must be done is to teach the child to savour this pleasure and make them feel the need for it’ (Education morale, pp. 20-04).

In order to achieve this, the class must function genuinely as a group. Part of the teacher’s role is to direct the class as a group, taking into account the collective life that is spontaneously formed within it. The teacher should aim to multiply the circumstances in which a free elaboration of common ideas and sentiments can take place, to draw out the ideas and relationships, and to coordinate them. They also have a role in discouraging the expression of ‘bad feelings’ as well as to encourage and reinforce the expressions of each of the individuals. The teacher ‘must be on the look-out for everything that may cause all the children in the same class to sense their unity in a common enterprise’ (L’éducation morale, p. 205).


The ‘sense of discipline’ introduced at school must not be taken to mean submission to despotic authority. The ‘individualist’ ideal on which the principle of ‘autonomy of will’ is based requires that the pupil must not be subjected to violence, or at least that the teacher is in control of a specific type of violence that Durkheim held to be inherent in the teacher/pupil relationship.

Durkheim was opposed to the libertarian educators of his time who, like Tolstoy, describing his experience at Yasnaya Polyana, claimed that ‘the right to educate does not exist’, and that school must leave pupils ‘full freedom to learn and to work things out among themselves as they see fit’. The problem confronting the teacher is not to have to conceal this power relation by means of permissiveness, but to be fully aware of the violence inherent in it and to be able to control it.

Thus Durkheim’s discussion about the danger of an ‘abuse of power’, interwoven with the fact that the pedagogical relationship is a relationship to knowledge. Between teachers and pupils there is the same disparity as between two populations of unequal culture. Yet, by its very nature, school brings them close together and places them in constant contact with each other.

‘…When one is perpetually in contact with individuals to whom one is morally and intellectually superior, how can one fail to have an inflated opinion of oneself, which is reflected in one’s movements, attitudes and language? …In the very circumstances of school life there is, therefore, something that is conducive to violent discipline’ (L’éducation morale, pp. 162-6).

His sweeping historical overview of educational trends in France (L’évolution pédagogique en France) shows how the knowledge transmitted is partly determined by the structure of a given society and also by the philosophical principles (the prevailing epistemology) underlying all branches of learning at a given period.

‘Our aim must be to make each of our pupils not a complete scientist, but a complete reasoning being. (…) Today, we must remain Cartesians in the sense that we must train rationalists, in other words people who are intent on clear thinking, but rationalists of a new kind who know that all things, whether human or physical, are irreducibly complex, and yet who know how to face up to that complexity without flinching (L’évolution pédagogique en France, p. 99).’

The contradictions inherent in Durkheimian views on education is that education is no simple matter and cannot be subjected to reductionist ideologies. Education must not only familiarize pupils with major literary and artistic works of the past, and, ‘convey a sense of the irreducible diversity of humanity’ to reveal the versatility and fruitfulness of human nature. He suggests that we must ‘become imbued with the idea that we do not know ourselves’ and that there are ‘hidden depths within us, in which there are latent, unsuspected potentialities, whose characteristics or nature must be brought to light’.


Interestingly he puts forward that if sociology is ‘still too rudimentary to be taught at school’, history can compensate giving pupils a sense of one generation’s dependence on previous generations, of the continuity of humanity in the process of changing societies, and of the role of the collective conscience or consciousness in a society (L’évolution pédagogique en France p. 78).

Durkheim thus considered education and pedagogy from a sociologist’s point of view. In that view, school is a scale model in which both social relations and the relations of individuals with society are mediated through the teacher/pupil relationship; and, broadly speaking, in the relationship to knowledge.

In Durkheim’s view, the sociologist should be motivated by the desire to contribute to changes leading towards greater social cohesion and the promotion of ‘great moral ideas’ which were synonymous with ‘personalist’ and democratic values. The teacher of the future is thus one who will manage to live out the pedagogical wish of the sociologist.

Durkheim’s work on the ‘sociology of education’, engendered a ‘scientific’ approach to educational facts as social functions. This gave rise to an extensive body of literature in various countries which dealt with the study of the relationships between school and society, unequal opportunities and the functioning of the classroom group.

In France, the views of Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron in their book La reproduction hark back in a sense to Durkheimian concepts when they refer, for example, to the social function of education (a ‘reproduction’ of the social system) or the mechanism of socialization (‘symbolic’ violence). Emile Durkheim impressed upon pedagogy the view that the class, the school environment and the teacher’s attitudes are vital factors to be taken into account in the education process.


This article is a digest of ‘Emile Dirkheim, Prospects: the quarterly review of comparative education (Paris, UNESCO: International Bureau of Education), vol. 23, no.1/2, 1993, p. 303–320. UNESCO: International Bureau of Education, 2001; EMILE DURKHEIM (1858-1917)’

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