What are the major contributions of Emile Durkheim to sociology?

The writings of another French Writer, Emile Durkheim have had a more lasting impact on modern sociology than those of Comte. Indeed, he became the pioneer in giving sociology the status of a science and it’s our method of study. Durkheim was born in Lorraine of France in 1858. He was the only founding father who could occupy the part of Professor of Sociology. Although he drew an aspect of Comte's work, Durkheim thought that many of his predecessor's ideas were too speculative and vague. To become scientific, according to Durkheim, sociology must study social facts, i.e. aspects of social life that shape our actions as individuals.

Like the other major founders of sociology, Durkheim was preoccupied with the changes transforming society in his own lifetime. His major writings are 'The Division of Labour', 'the rules of sociological method', 'Suicide' and 'The Elementary forms of religious life'.


One of Durkheim's most famous studies was concerned with the analysis of suicide (Durkheim 1952, originally published in 1897). In his book, he has given a fine sociological analysis of suicide which is based as the theory of sociology or collective mind. The book is praised as a research classic.

Suicide seems to be a purely personal act, the outcome of extreme person unhappiness. But Durkheim showed that social factors exert a fundamental influence on suicidal behavior. Durkheim defined suicide as "every case of death resulting directly or indirectly from a positive or negative act performed by the victim himself, which he knows will produce this result". A positive act would be to shoot one or to hang one. In this case, death comes as a direct result of the action. A negative act would be to remain in a burning house or to refuse to take food to the point of starvation. Death in this case comes to an individual indirectly.

In his classic study of suicide, he demonstrated that neither psychopathic factors, nor hereditary, nor climate, nor imitation, nor poverty, nor unhappy love and other personal factors are responsible for suicide. Suicide is a social fact and is due to social forces. Individuals are compelled to commit suicide whenever the condition of society departs from a state of balance. Society maintains balance by "integration” and "regulation". Integration refers to the extent to which individuals experience a sense of belonging to the group or collective and "regulation" refers to the extent to which the actions and desires of individuals are restrained by moral values. A society, which passes too much integration and regulation, will create four types of suicide such as egoistic, altruistic, anomic and fatalistic. Egoistic Suicide:

Egoistic suicide occurs when an individual feels him too much isolated from the social group. It results from the lack of integration of the individual into his study of social group. It is very much seen in modern society. Our modern society which is characterised by impersonal self centered and secondary associations leaves the individual socially isolated and extremely cut off from the normal contacts. Therefore, a good number of individuals commit suicide. This led Durkheim to say that egoistic suicide is the index of social disorganisation in modern society. By analysing suicide statistics, Durkheim found that the suicide rate was more in case of the unmarried, widowed, divorced those without children, and those with no strong attachments to religious, social or community groups.

Altruistic suicide:

Altruistic suicide occurs when the integration of the individual and the group is too close and intimate so much so that he is completely controlled by the group without any regard for his personality. Psychologically, it is based on the individual sense of duty to sacrifice himself for the sake of larger social unity. Briefly speaking, self-destruction is caused under pressure of the social need. This type of suicide mostly occurs is traditional and primitive societies. According to Durham altruistic suicide is of three types.

(I) Obligatory altruistic suicidal refers to a type of suicidal in which honour is involved For example, the Hindu practice of sati that kills her by placing on the funeral pyre of her dead husband.

(II) Optional altruistic suicide is praise worthy act. For example, in the case of hara-kiri, the individual is so strongly attached to the demands of his society, that he is willing to take his life when the norms so demand. Self-killing by army suicide squads and self destruction by human bombs of militant groups are some of the examples of optional suicide.

(III) Acute altruistic suicide occurs when the individual kills himself for the purpose of joy of sacrifice and self renunciation. Self killing of Buddhist monk can be cited as an example in this connection

Men and women who are old and invalid, women whose husbands are deed, men and women who disgrace the group through the utter violation of sudden group morals are socially designated for altruistic type of suicide.

Anomic Suicide

Anome is a French word which means normlessness or a state without rules or regulations. The society fixes up norms, which prescribe the attainable goal. Anomie describes the situation when this is framework breaks down and there is chaos and confusion in the society.

Anomic suicide occurs when there is lack of regulation in the society. This type of suicide is dell to a sudden breakdown of the social equilibrium such as sudden business depression, inflation etc. Suicides occur after bankruptcies-insolvency or even after winning a lottery are many commit suicide. It follows, therefore, that such suicides are not only conditioned by some sudden disastrous change in the life of an individual, but it can also be governed by some sudden change for the better in an individual's life. The increasing poverty is not an adequate explanation of such suicides because the suicide rate increases not only in case of poverty, but also due to prosperity. The important fact to be noted in this connection is that many persons are unable to adjust themselves to such sudden violent changes in their life's organisation, whether the change is towards a happy or unhappy direction. Under such circumstances anomic suicide moreover solves their personal dilemma.

In analysing the consequences of anomie, Durkheim showed that there was a high rate of anomic suicide among those who are wealthy as well as divorced persons. Sudden changes in the standard of living or the breakdown of a marriage throws life out of gear and puts norms in a flux. Like economic anomie, domestic anomie resulting from the death of husband or wife is also the result of a destruction that upsets the scale of life.

Fatalistic Suicide:

This occurs due to excess of social regulation. The opposite of altruistic suicide is fatalist which arises as a result of increased control over the individual by the group. When there was an excess or strict regulation, which become un-tolerable then the individual commits this type of suicide. It was committed by subjects whose futures were doomed and whose passions were choked by an oppressive discipline.

Durkheim's theory of suicide has been subjected to searching criticisms. Durkheim has given importance to the social factors in suicide and has reduced the importance of other factors. Durkheim's theory of suicide is said to be more supported by argument than by fact.

This theory is based upon incomplete statistics dealing with only small numbers many objections are raised to Durkheim's study of Suicide, but still it remains a classics work whose relevance to sociology is by no means exhausted today.