Emile Durkheim

On this date in 1858, one of the most significant founders of sociology, David Emile Durkheim, was born in Epinal in Lorraine, France. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were prominent rabbis. Durkheim spent time in rabbinical school but broke with Judaism early in life (Emile Durkheim: An Introduction to Four Major Works by Robert Alun Jones, 1986). Durkheim excelled in school, earning his bachelor in letters and sciences in 1875, two years earlier than normal, from College d’Epinal. He was admitted to the prestigious École normale supérieure in 1879 and passed examinations to become a philosophy lecturer in 1882. He was appointed to the Faculty of Letters at Bordeaux to lecture on the “Science Sociale,” marking the first time sociology officially entered the French university system. Durkheim founded the Année Sociologique in 1898, the first French social science journal, still in existence. In 1902, Durkheim was appointed chair of education at the Sorbonne in Paris. For a time, his courses were the only lectures required at the Sorbonne. Durkheim believed religion served a unique role in human life, and indeed shaped many social structures, but that its origins were in human society, not from a divine source (“Reasons people choose atheism,” BBC, Oct. 22, 2009). “Frequently described as a ‘secular pope,’ Durkheim was viewed by critics as an agent of government anti-clericalism” (Jones, 1986). Some of his greatest contributions to sociology include: The Division of Labour in Society (1893), Rules of the Sociological Method (1895), On the Normality of Crime (1895), Suicide (1897), Sociology and Its Scientific Domain (1900) and The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912). Published posthumously were other important works including Education and Sociology (1922), Sociology and Philosophy (1924) and Pragmatism and Sociology (1955). Overwork and the death of a beloved son in war (in 1916) had severe repercussions on Durkheim’s health. He suffered a stroke and died at the age of 59. He is buried in Paris. D. 1917.

“Religious force is nothing other than the collective and anonymous force of the clan.”

—Emile Durkheim in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, 1912.

Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch

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