Émile Durkheim and the Birth of Sociology

From the Lecture Series Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science

By Steven Gimbel, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

Sociology is a new science. Its name was coined many years before it eventually came into being. Émile Durkheim became the first professor of sociology and made the birth of sociology possible. And, he had a good reason to understand human behavior after all the discrimination he went through.

Illustration shown modern communication concept. It shows humans brains connected in circles with dots.
The birth of sociology in recent decades added a new discipline to science that could now help answer some questions about humans. (Image:GrAl/Shutterstock)

When Auguste Comte coined the term “sociology” in 1838, he did not coin sociology. In fact, he pioneered studying the emergent whole of a society independent of its individuals. He studied culture and believed that the society progressed through three phases: religious, metaphysical, and scientific; and that no society is an exception.

This is a transcript from the video series Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Phases of Culture

Comte was right. The theory could be applied to any society, even the society of physicists that believes it has the one and only science required to understand the world. First, they religiously believed gods move the objects. Next, they metaphysically believed that immaterial forces act over distances. Finally, they scientifically discovered equations of motion, which replaced all the why’s with how’s.

That was when an actual science emerged that studied entities, not individuals. That was the beginning of the birth of sociology.

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Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer, an early social Darwinist who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” in the 1860s, also had the same approach of looking at things. The society itself was an organism to him.

A society also survives if it is fit enough for the environment. Also, the policies may not be what every individual approves of, but the whole entity decides on them. It does not matter if he was right or not; what matters is how he sees sociological concepts on an organizational level above the individual people in the society.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx Monument in Chemitz, Saxony, Germany
Karl Marx was one of the first scientists to look at societies at a level higher than the individual. He took sociology into its metaphysical phase. (Image: e2dan/Shutterstock)

Marx also had a theory on society as an entity. He explained cultural development with a focus on class as an operative factor that created large-scale social change. He founded his work upon Friedrich Hegel’s work, seeing history as developing along a necessary path.

He removed the Divine notions from Hegelian reality and replaced them with material metaphysical things. He, too, talked about the society as an entity on the level of society, not individuals. Everything looked ready for the birth of society as a discipline of science.

Learn more about race and reality.

Émile Durkheim

Émile Durkheim was the person who brought the study of societies to the scientific level that Comte had as his theory. Durkheim was a French Jew whose father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were rabbis in France.

Instead of becoming the next rabbi, he was amazed by questions about the nature of communities, not just his particular community alone. Jews were outsiders to the French society, and he had personally felt it.

He wanted to know how communities differ, how they perpetuate themselves, and how they adapt themselves. No longer the “why” was a topic, but “how”.

Birth of Sociology

Durkheim began studying what barely existed and became the first professor of sociology and launched the first department of sociology ever. His masterpiece, Suicide, recognized sociology as a science.

The book focused on the the increase of suicide all over Europe. It is a personal decision to end one’s own life, and every victim might has a different reason. Yet, at the community level, there must be idiosyncratic aspects of the individual’s life.

Durkheim wondered why more people were making the same decision for perhaps different reasons. Suicide was not fashionable, but there had to be something at the society level involved.

Rate of Suicide

An illustration of French social scientist Emile Durkheim.
Durkheim found out that the reason for suicide was not a religious thing, but a social feeling of alienation in Protestant societies. (Image: dayat banggai/Shutterstock)

The first thing that Durkheim saw in data collection was the suicide rate’s correlation with religion. The higher the proportion of Protestants to Catholics in a country, the higher the suicide rate in the country would be.

Protestant countries and communities held the highest rate and the Catholic the lowest. Both groups had the same religious book, but maybe different theological details? It was not the foundational differences between interpretations of the New Testament, as Durkheim studied.

At that time, Protestants had higher social positions than the Catholics and were wealthier. Durkheim eventually concluded the existence of social facts that he introduced in his second book, The Rules of Sociological Method.

Social Facts

A social fact includes a way of acting, thinking, and feeling external to the individual but eventually internalized. They are not biological facts and differ from society to society; they are not even psychological facts.

Durkheim realized that the reason for Protestants’ suicide was not religious. It was the familial and institutional structures that Catholics had, and Protestants lacked. The higher rate of alienation led to a higher rate of suicide to get rid of the feeling of abandonment.

Common Questions about Birth of Sociology

Q: Who coined the term “sociology”?

Auguste Comte coined the term “sociology” in 1838 and discussed a general science of culture. In a sense, that was the birth of sociology.

Q: Who is Émile Durkheim?

Émile Durkheim is credited for the birth of sociology. He became the first professor of sociology and went on to launch the first-ever department of sociology.

Q: Who is Herbert Spencer?

Herbert Spencer was one of the early social Darwinists who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” in the 1860s.

Q: Did Karl Marx pioneer sociology?

Karl Marx had a theory of cultural development that focused on class as an operative factor that drove large-scale social change. He did not pioneer the discipline, but he had a share in paving the way for the birth of sociology.

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