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Emile Durkheim's Views and Ideas

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Introduction…Emile Durkheim, born in the mid-1800s, was a sociologist and philosopher whose ideas are still relevant today. Durkheim combined theories of past sociologists and philosophers, such as Marx and Comte, to develop his own theories. Many of these theories are still relevant today and can be used to analyze and explain factors in modern societies.

Theory…Similarly to Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim believed in functional developmental essentialism. Moreover, he believed that “In the social productions of their existence, men inevitably enter into indefinite relations…” (Marx [1859]1992:425). Thus, humans use their extrinsic relationships to work together in society and turn their relationships and resources into materialistic ideas and objects. However, even though Durkheim and Marx had similar theories of essentialism, their theories of human nature greatly differed. While Marx believed that “human nature is not a static thing, but varies historically and socially” (Ritzer, 2011:158), Durkheim believed that humans are greatly influenced and moved by their self-interests, insatiable passions and need for gratification (Ritzer 2011). Durkheim claims that there is a constant tension between the egoistic human nature and the altruistic social consciousness of morality that helps control the selfish human nature (Ritzer 2011). Thus, Marx’s theory of human nature states that human nature is not static, while Durkheim’s theory of egoistic, passionate, human nature is natural and static.

Combining his theories of essentialism and human nature, Durkheim created many of his own theories of society including social facts and the division of labor. Durkheim greatly believed that aspects of society are cannot be reduced to just individual people; he thought that society needed to be seen as a whole (Ritzer 2011). Thus, he created his idea of social facts. He states, “A social face is every way of acting, fixed or not, capable of exercising on the individual an external constraint; or again, every way of acting which is general throughout a given society, while at the same time existing in its own right independent of its individual manifestations” (Ritzer 2011:184). Thus, social facts are seen on a societal level and can be studied and explained by other social facts. Although Durkheim created the idea of both material and nonmaterial social facts, he greatly focused on the nonmaterial.

Two of Durkheim’s of nonmaterial social facts that relate back to his ideas of human nature include morality and the collective conscience (Ritzer 2011). Because Durkheim believed that human nature is driven by self-interests and uncontrollable passions, he believed that “society needs a strong common morality” (Ritzer 2011:189) in order to control those passions. Although he claimed that society as a whole could not become immoral, he believed that it was in danger of losing its moral force “if the collective interest of society became nothing but the sum of its self-interests” (Ritzer 2011:189). Thus, it is imperative that society values morality so that human nature does not over power the greater good. Furthermore, Durkheim believed that society needs a collective conscience is important in societies in order for societies to have morals, values, and ideas. Collective conscience is defined by Durkheim as, “the totality of beliefs and sentiments common to average citizens of the same society forms a determinate system which has its own life” (Durkheim 1893/2011:190). Durkheim believes that this conscience is important in determining other social facts and creates a structure of common beliefs and values in a society (Ritzer 2011).

Along with Durkheim’s idea of social factors and human nature, he developed a theory of the division of labor. Durkheim’s idea of the division of labor can be expanded into dynamic density, mechanical solidarity, organic solidarity, and how these theories are viewed in modern society. In Durkheim’s view, as the world evolves, the population grows, thus dynamic density grows. He defines dynamic density as “the number of people in a society and the amount of interaction that occurs between them” (Ritzer 195). Furthermore, as the world has progressed from primitive to modern societies, people have transitioned from mechanical solidarity to organic solidarity (Calhoun 2012). In the past, primitive societies were made up of a high collective conscience and mechanical solidarity due the societies having similar jobs and similar interests. As time went on and population and dynamic density increased, societies developed organic solidarity, a lower collective conscience, and a higher division of labor due to the fact that with more people come more ideas and skills (Calhoun 2012) Thus, in modern society with a lower collective conscience, division of labor is important as it creates interdependencies between different people and holds society together. However, as division of labor is a frame-invariant theory, it must follow an exact path to be successful. If societies transition too quickly, or if outside factors interrupt, anomie occurs and does not allow the society to function correctly (Calhoun 2012).

Analysis…Durkheim’s theories and ideas, or lack of these theories, can be related to modern day issues of education, race, and class. In an article called “Decline in Black Community,” Elijah Anderson states that in the past, black communities were segregated and had their own doctors, lawyers, schools, barber shops, and all other aspects of society. He claims that many of these factors do not exist in today’s society, as we have become less segregated. However, segregation between races is still very prevalent in today’s society. For example, schools in urban areas are completely unequal from schools in suburban areas. In “The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America,” Jonathon Kozol writes about the inequalities that are seen in schools in the New York City area. Kozul spent a plethora of time visiting and researching New York City schools and schools in the surrounding suburbs to demonstrate the amount of inequality seen between these schools (Kozol 2005).

One of the biggest inequities between the City schools and the suburban schools is finances. First, New York City schools do not have enough money to improve their buildings or grounds. It was observed in many schools that the buildings were falling apart (Kozol 2005). For example, in one school, “a stream of water flowed down one of the main stairwells on a rainy afternoon where green fungus molds were growing” (Kozul 2005:40-41) and an elementary school “was forced to order that the building’s windows not be cleaned because the frames were rotted and the panes were falling into the street (Kozol 2005:43). Among these issues were other problems such as leaking ceilings, airless, windowless rooms, and other unhealthy conditions. Furthermore, even with a growing population of schoolchildren, the schools were forced to remain the same size, as they do not have the money to expand the buildings. This caused for students to be packed into rooms, some without seats, some without windows or air, and some in buildings that were not originally designed to be schools, such as a remodeled ice skating rink, and did not allow for students to have recess, as there were no playgrounds or outdoor areas (Kozol 2005). Second, due to unsubstantial finances, the New York City schools were forced to cut programs such as music and art, and decrease the number of nurses available for students (Kozol 2005). Thirdly related to financial burdens is the salary of the teachers. In the 2002-2003, the average salary for New York City school teachers was $53,000 while in surrounding suburbs it was as high as $95,000. Thus, finances play a large role in the inequality of schools.

Race and class also play a major role in the inequality of these schools, as the New York City schools are predominately black and Hispanic and the suburban schools are primarily white. Children of nonwhite races and lower classes are seen as less valuable than richer white children of the suburban areas. Kozol states, “She [a student] and her classmates were $8,000 babies. If she wanted to see and $18,000 baby, she would have to drive into the suburbs” (2005:39). Children in the city are given these lesser values due to their class and racial statuses. As young children, they are not given the opportunities to go to preschools, they cannot access the same materials and resources that richer children can access, many of their parents are uneducated and unable to help them through school, and altogether, are not given equal opportunities to succeed as richer children (Kozol 2005).

The finances, race, and class issues brought about in the New York City schools can be analyzed and explained by Durkheim’s theories. Although these issues did not come about through rapid change or crises, like Durkheim would easily explain, the racial, class, and economic issues hindered these areas from reaching mutual dependencies and the successful division of labor. Therefore, since this area of society did not reach organic solidarity, it reached anomie. This anomie in the schools can be explained by Durkheim’s idea of the forced division of labor where “outdated norms and expectations can force individuals, groups, and classes into positions for which they are ill suited. Traditions, economic power, or status can determine who performs what jobs regardless of talent and qualification” (Ritzer 2011:197). Due to the fact that American society still values rich white people over lower class non-whites, the forced division of labor between these two groups separates the rich whites from the poor non-whites.

Furthermore, the social facts of morality and class conscience are weaker in these areas which leads to an inequality. These disconnects due to a low class conscience in this society as a whole and a low amount of interdependencies of the classes greatly impact the non-white communities. It is extremely anomic to live in a society where the children of one race are given a completely lesser education experience than those of another. Due to this, there is a great divide between the city schools and the suburban schools, as described in Kozol’s article.

According to Durkheim, if the transition in this society from mechanical solidarity to organic solidarity had occurred without the external forces of racism and classism, then there would be a higher amount of mutual dependencies between the races and classes. These dependencies would allow children of different races to attend the same schools, allow all children to have equal opportunities to attend school, gain knowledge, play on playgrounds, and learn in healthy, safe environments.

Therefore, as demonstrated by New York City schools and the surrounding suburban schools, Durkheim’s theories are still relevant in today’s society and can explain why inequality in many aspects of society still occurs.

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Emile Durkheim’s Views and Ideas. (2019, April 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 3, 2021, from
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