Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


A fast-paced novel of conjecture and surprises


Durkheim, Emile

core definition

Emile Durkheim is regarded as one of the key founding figures of sociology.

explanatory context


Durkheim’s approach to sociology has been so influential in defining aspects of sociological study. Although Durkheim has been closely associated with positivist approaches, his sociology is varied and complex.


Arguably, Durkheim developed a social realist approach to sociology. He was influenced by Spencer’s evolutionary analogy between biological and social organism (social Darwinism). Durkheim adopted both Spencer’s conception of an analogical relationship between society and organisms and Comte’s conception of a positivist method.


The Durkheimian approach is encapsulated in four major works: Rules of Sociological Method (1895); Division of Labour in Society (1893); Suicide (1897) and Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912). These works include discussions of methodology as well as substantive empirical works.


What Durkheim’s work shows is that he developed two contrasting approaches to sociological analysis, a positivist approach (epitomised his social realist work) and a phenomenological approach in his study of religion.


Durkheim’s social realism

Durkheim’s realist position involved a number of presuppositions about society. First, a view that society existed to control the insatiable desires of individuals (what Durkheim referred to as individualism) both for the good of the collective and for the good of the individual. Thus Durkheim assumed that social control (not social change) was not only desirable but the aim of sociological analysis.


Second, order comes about as a result of stability. Stability depends upon solidarity within society. Individuals acting as atomistic units disrupt this stability.


Third, a healthy society is one that is not only ordered but meritocratic. In such a society everyone would know, and be prepared to accept, their place (on merit).


Durkheim’s social realism position constructed society as autonomous and structured theoretically as a hierarchy: at the pinnacle was the conscious collective, below it were social currents then collective representations and then social facts.




For Durkheim, sociology is the study of social phenomena through the analysis of social behaviour. The approach is to direct attention to the study of social facts. Social facts are independent of the individual consciousness and reflect the real and independent existence of society which lies at the heart of Durkheim’s realism.


Social facts are the representation of social currents (courantes sociologiques) and collective consciousness (conscience collective) that exist independently of the individual.


Methodologically, Durkheim developed a procedure for investigating social phenomena. These comprise a set of rules for:

(i) the observation of social facts;

(ii) distinguishing between normal and pathological;

(iii) classification of social types;

(iv) explaining social facts,

(v) establishing sociological proofs.


Rules of sociological method

The observation of social facts

For Durkheim, the first and most important principle is to consider social facts as thing.


Durkheim argued for the elimination of biases, sense perception, and objectivity. This meant that, first, all preconceptions must be eradicated, and attention must be focused on facts. Second, the subject matter of every sociological study should comprise a group of phenomena defined in advance by certain common external characteristics, and all phenomena so defined should be included within this group. Third, a demand that when sociologists undertake the investigation of some order of social facts, they must endeavour to consider them from an aspect independent of their individual manifestation. These reflect the rules of the scientific method.


The explanation of social facts

Durkheim proposed rules for the explanation of social facts. Essentially this involved seeking out both the cause which produces the fact and the function which it fulfils.


The determining cause of the social fact should be sought among the social facts preceding it. The function should always be sought in its relation to some social ends.


The first origins of all social processes of any importance should be sought in the internal constitution of the social group.


Distinguishing the normal from the pathological

Durkheim, influenced by biology and Spencer’s organic analogy proposed two types of facts: those which conform to given standards (the normal) and those which do not (the pathological). (These rules are largely unintelligble).


First, a social fact is normal, in relation to a given social type, at a given phase of its development, when it is present in the average society of that species at the corresponding phase of its evolution.


Second, the results can be verified by showing that the nature of the phenomenon is bound up with the general conditions of collective life of the social type considered.


Third, verification is necessary when the fact in question occurs in a social species that has not yet reached the full course of its evolution.


The classification of social types

Durkheim argued that one branch of sociology must be devoted to the constitution and classification of social species. The classification principle is based on the degree of organisation evident in a society.


Arguably, this concept of social species invokes a middle ground between nominalism and realism.


The establishment of sociological proof

Essentially the rule of proof is the comparative method. This involves demonstrating that a given phenomena is the cause of another by comparing the cases in which they are simultaneously present or absent, to see if the variations they present in different combinations indicate that one depends on the other.


Durkheim proposes the following basis for such comparison and demonstration.


First, a given effect always has a single corresponding cause.


Second, a social fact of any complexity is explained by following its complete development through all social species.


Third, it will be sufficient to consider societies at the same period of their development.


Durkheim claims that this methodology has three advantages, namely that it is entirely independent of philosophy; it is objective and ‘scientific’; and it is sociological.


Social order

Durkheim’s main concern was with the establishment and maintenance of social order. This idea was first developed in the functional analysis he developed in Division of Labour in Society. Durkheim saw a problem arising out of the relations between the individual personality and the social unit. Durkheim wanted to explain what appeared to him as the contradiction between the autonomy of the individual and the dependence on society. This he argued resided in the division of labour. Durkheim’s solution to this problem is the principle of transformation from mechanical to organic solidarity.


For Durkheim, societies, comprise an evolutionary progression from the simple, mechanistic forms of social solidarity to the complex organic form. Individualism takes on the form necessary to be compatible with the principle of social solidarity. Analytically, the nature of indiviudalism is a social fact; the principle of social solidarity is the collective representation (the social current) and both are expressions of the conscience collective.



Durkheim’s theoretical work is complementary to his methodological principles. It is only in the Elementary Forms of Religious Life that he moves away from the principles of theoretical and methodological practice established in his early work. As this occurred in 1912 and Durkheim died in 1917 the change, arguably, occurred too late to have a decisive impact upon his earlier work. This later approach is often ignored by commentators on Durkheim’s work.



Suicide, provides an example of Durkheim’s methodological approach to the examination of social facts. Suicide is underpinned by an analysis of the problem of the nature of individualism and its relation to the social. Durkheim saw individualism as the new set of values ‘rendering the individual sacred, attaching moral value to individual autonomy, and justifying individual freedom and rights’. Durkheim proposed to examine and explain the problem of suicide.


Suicide, he argued, ‘constitutes a single and determinate rate’. Accordingly one must be able to observe the largest possible number of individual suicides, classify them morphologically into types according to their similarities and differences and then seek to determine their causes.


If this procedure was impossible, Durkheim could ‘reverse the order of investigation’. We could identify the causes of suicide and classify suicides according to the cause. There is an assumption that the ‘causes’ he has identified are true and his theory is then verified by establishing that suicide rates are a function of several concomitants.


Durkheim’s explanation was to specify three, theoretically interrelated, types of ‘social cause’, each type representing what he held to be common to a particular set of social factors associated with relatively high or rising suicide rates. These three types are egoism, altruism and anomie.


Suicide is the antithesis of social solidarity and represents the ways in which the bonds connecting the individual to the social are weakened.


Egoistic suicide is the result of the disengagement of the individual from the solidarity of society. The individual is isolated.


Altruistic suicide, conversely, occurs when the individual is too strongly integrated into society where the self is not autonomous. Altruistic suicide depends on how society regulates the individual.


Anomic suicide occurs because the suicidal person’s activity lacks regulation and they therefore they feel they cannot cope or have no point of reference.


Durkheim, in a manner similar to The Division of Labour in Society, uses these individual social facts, classified in the form of egoistic, anomic and altruistic suicides, to develop the concept of suicidogenic currents, i.e. the collective representation of the conscience collective.


The decisive variable, however, was the degree of integration. Suicide varied inversely with the degree of integration of the social groups of which the individual forms a part.


Durkheim's theoretical assumptions in his study on suicide can be seen to be linked directly to his concern for social cohesion. These concerns were also evident in his work The Division of Labour in Society, in which Durkheim argued that it is possible to make a direct analogy between the way in which our bodies work and the way in which society should function. Each part of body needs to function properly in order for us to be healthy. Similarly, each part of society, according to Durkheim, needs to function in ways that contribute to the greater good of society as a whole. Durkheim's theorizing about the factors leading to suicide, for example, suggest that 'the family' functions integrate people into the values of society.  It can be seen that this is in line with Durkheim's view, at least at this point in his career, that society is external to individuals.

analytical review

The Emile Durkheim website (2002) states:

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917): Emile Durkheim is considered by many to be the father of sociology. He is credited with making sociology a science, and having made it part of the French academic curriculum as "Science Sociale". During his lifetime, Emile Durkheim gave many lectures, and published an impressive number of sociological studies on subjects such as religion, suicide, and all aspects of society.

associated issues


related areas

See also

Researching the Real World Section


Emile Durkheim Website, 2002, Home Page available at, accessed 22 January 2013, page not available 17 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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