Émile Durkheim Sociology

You may have heard of functionalism, one of the major sociological perspectives and theories. 

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Table of contents

    Émile Durkheim was a key functionalist sociologist who was incredibly important to functionalism and sociological theory in general.

    • We will explore some of Émile Durkheim's major contributions to sociology.

    • We will cover Durkheim's influence on the theory of functionalism

    • We'll then examine definitions and key concepts introduced by Durkheim, including social solidarity and the role of the education system.

    • Finally, we will look at some criticisms of Durkheim's work.

    Émile Durkheim and his contributions to sociology

    David Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) was a key classical French sociologist and philosopher. He is considered one of the founding fathers of sociology and the father of French sociology.

    Durkheim was born to a Rabbi father, and it was presumed he would follow in his father's footsteps by pursuing a religious career, but his interests developed down the philosophical route. Following his time at university, he would teach philosophy.

    Perspective-wise, much of Durkheim's theories align with functionalism. Functionalists view society in a positive light, believing that its various social institutions, e.g., education, the media, and religion, are beneficial.

    During his lifetime, Durkheim gained a certain level of fame in France. This not only made it easier to spread his ideas, but also allowed him to establish sociology as a discipline. So, then, what was sociology to Durkheim?

    Émile Durkheim’s sociological theory

    Durkheim perceived sociology as a science that examines institutions, exploring how they establish stability and order in society.

    In the following sections, we will delve into Functionalism before continuing on to explore some key concepts Durkheim contributed to sociological theory, beginning with social solidarity.

    What is Functionalism?

    Functionalists have a positive view of society. They view social situations as inherently beneficial for society. Consider the family as an initial example. When a child is born into a family, they are ideally provided with a safe environment in which they are socialised, fed, and provided with ample opportunity to engage with wider society. The family will enrol the child in school and bring them to the doctor if there are signs of illness.

    Two functionalist terms you will come across frequently in the study of sociology are:

    • Secondary Socialisation: refers to socialisation that occurs in wider society, e.g., within the education system.

    The following section will explore one of the ideas Emile Durkheim is most widely known for contributing – social solidarity.

    Social Solidarity

    Social solidarity is when people feel integrated into wider society, rather than alienated from fellow members of society. If an individual is not integrated properly, they are more likely to pursue and only be motivated by their own selfish needs/desires.

    In pre-industrial societies, people would feel connected to each other through religion, culture, and lifestyle. However, in larger, modern, industrial societies, it is difficult for individuals to bond on such a basis due to increasing diversity.

    Therefore, in contemporary times, the education system begins the process of social solidarity through the teachings of the formal and hidden curricula.

    The formal curriculum is the formal devised framework for teaching, with specified objectives for recognised groups of learners.

    The hidden curriculum refers to unwritten rules and lessons which a pupil learns while in the education system.

    The formal and hidden curricula work together to create common understandings and make pupils feel included within society.

    The need for social solidarity shouldn’t be underestimated. If people in society do not follow the same norms and values, then social solidarity can never be achieved. Social institutions, therefore, have a duty to establish social solidarity in order to reduce the likelihood of anomie.

    Citizenship is taught to all students once they reach secondary school in the UK. As a subject, it has been linked to the idea of social cohesion and can be considered as “developing Britishness”.

    Teaching the idea of citizenship prepares students for wider participation in society. During citizenship lessons, students gain the opportunity to learn about voting, human rights, the history of civil rights movements, and the law.

    Society in Miniature

    Another key role the education system plays, according to Durkheim, is acting as a “miniature society”.

    Within schools, students learn how to navigate society in real life by learning cooperation and communication skills, and particularly, how to interact with those who are not friends or family members.

    Emile Durkheim's Sociology, a group of girls working together at a table, StudySmarterAccording to Emile Durkheim, children learn how to cooperate together in the education system. Unsplash.com.

    Skills for Work

    Durkheim also argued that students learn skills for future employment through the education system.

    Consider for example a doctor. In the UK's education system, GCSE Biology and Chemistry provide the foundational education for medical school.

    For complex industrial systems to be able to function well, there has to be a level of cooperation between numerous industries. The education system actively prepares students to enter industries. National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) are a great example of this. Each NVQ teaches the minimum requirements for entering the respective industry, and students can choose from a wide range of qualifications, such as:

    • Beauty therapy

    • Electrical Installation

    • Early Years Workforce

    • Construction

    • Hairdressing

    • Warehousing

    • Media and communications

    All such qualifications prepare students for a specific career or industry. As students work their way through the education system, the diversity of subject choices becomes more and more specialised.

    Let's bring Durkheim's theory to reality! Can you think of any subjects which develop skills for a particular career?

    Criticisms of Durkheim

    Not all sociologists agree with the theories put forth by Durkheim. Let's look at functionalist, Marxist and feminist criticisms of Durkheim's theories and concepts.


    Although Durkheim is a functionalist, there are functionalists who have criticised his theory. Modern functionalists do not agree with Durkheim that there is only one culture that is transmitted through society.

    Functionalists note Durkheim's absence of an explanation on divorce. If everything in society fits a purpose, then what could the purpose of divorce be? Robert K. Merton attempted to theorise that divorce highlights that choice remains within marriage, that at any point, an individual can leave a marriage.


    Marxists believe the education system benefits the ruling class. It should be noted that Marxist view society through the lens of an ongoing class struggle, in which the ruling class is constantly exploiting the working class for profit and power.

    So how does the education system benefit the ruling class? :

    • It socialises children into accepting the norms and values of the ruling class. Marxists assert that children in public education are taught and prepared to be workers when they grow up. One example would be obeying a teacher and being prepared for obeying a manager once the student enters employment.
    • Notable Marxists Bowles & Gintis argue that the education system reproduces the capitalist workforce through drilling the following values into students:
      • Discipline

      • Obedience to authority

      • Submission

    • Bowles and Gintis also disagree with the idea of meritocracy, which refers to a system in which everyone can succeed regardless of factors such as background and education. Functionalists typically argue that education is meritocratic. Marxists such as Bowles and Gintis, however, believe that this is a myth.

    Different families have different economic capabilities. For instance, middle-class parents can pay for the best private schools and tutors, ensuring their children have the best chance at academic success. This puts their children at an advantage compared to working-class children.

    • What Durkheim sees as skills for work, Marxists interpret as social control. They suggest that the educational system regulates behaviour by forcing children to conform to rules, e.g., punctuality. This is a form of social control, as children are often punished if they do not conform, such as by being forced to attend detention.

    Can you think of any other ways in which the education system exerts social control?

    Emile Durkheim's Sociology, Marxist argue a child being punished for not doing their homework is a form of social control, StudySmarterA child can be punished for not completing their homework with detention. For Marxists, this is a form of social control. Pixabay.com


    Feminist sociologists argue that the education system is male-dominated and patriarchal. They assert that the hidden curriculum enforces gender stereotypes and prepares girls to become mothers and homemakers in the future.

    Feminists also point to gender biases against girls and women in the formal curriculum of the education system. For instance, girls may be encouraged to pursue “feminine” subjects such as arts and humanities and discouraged from specialising in maths and sciences. They may also be pushed to develop interests in beauty, cooking, etc.

    Émile Durkheim Sociology - Key takeaways

    • David Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) was a key classical French sociologist who is considered one of the founding fathers of sociology and the father of French sociology.
    • Durkheim perceived sociology as a science that examines institutions, exploring how they ensured stability and order in society.
    • One of the most important concepts Durkheim popularised is social solidarity. This is where people feel integrated into wider society, rather than alienated from fellow members of society.
    • Durkheim also argued that the education system performs a vital function because it acts as a “society in miniature” and teaches students skills for employment.
    • Not all sociologists agree with the theories put forth by Durkheim.
    Émile Durkheim Sociology Émile Durkheim Sociology
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Émile Durkheim Sociology

    What is Emile Durkheim contribution to sociology?

    Emile Durkheim contributed many functionalist ideas to sociology such as; socialisation, social solidarity, and society in miniature.

    What is sociology of education according to Emile Durkheim?

    The sociology of education for Durkheim was an area to be studied and explored. He believed the educational system aided with the development of social solidarity and skills for the workplace.

    Who is Emile Durkheim in sociology?

    Emile Durkheim is a French sociologist who is seen as the father of Functionalist sociology.

     Why is Emile Durkheim the father of sociology?

    Emile Durkheim was the first theorist to call himself a sociologist. 

    What is the main goal of sociology by Emile Durkheim?

    Emile Durkheim sought to use Sociology to understand the social world around us. How was social order maintained, and what patterns could be established.

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