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Durkheim, Émile (1858-1917)

Coming from a family of rabbis, Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) was one of the greatest sociologists at the turn of the 20th century and a key figure in the history of anthropology. His holistic and organicist thinking had influence in France and abroad but also the dialogues and confrontations he maintained with British and German anthropologists in particular. He is the founder of a scientific method for sociology, of a school – known as the French Sociological School – and of a journal, L’Année sociologique (1896), around which a host of brilliant disciples gravitated, including his nephew Marcel Mauss and Henri Hubert. His first teaching post was at the University of Bordeaux (1887) and he was appointed to the Sorbonne in 1902. Explaining the social by the social, considering social facts as things, highlighting the coercive power of social facts imposed on the individual, insisting on the importance of collective consciousness and collective representations and showing the collective part of individual psychology are some of the methodological principles defended by Durkheim. The author of a body of work including several classics of sociology – including De la division du travail social (1893), Les règles de la méthode sociologique (1895) and Le Suicide (1897) – Durkheim was particularly attentive to the ethnological and ethnographic literature of his time. He took part in the totemic debate, was interested in primitive classifications and in the origins of the prohibition of incest. His religious sociology drew on recent ethnographic material, especially from Central Australia, as in his last major work, Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse. Le système totémique en Australie (1912), whose apparently evolutionary tonality in no way detracts from its iconoclastic dimension: while Durkheim attacks the psychologizing approaches that reduce religion to an illusion, he himself is among the iconic figures who killed God, undermining the transcendental dimension of religion by establishing exclusively social foundations for the religious. This last work had a cool reception from many contemporary anthropologists, who disapproved of his use of ethnographic facts in the service of his theory. Émile Durkheim died in 1917. His work and thought still have a lasting influence on the social sciences, with Durkheimian studies having a certain international influence, particularly in Great Britain.

Keywords: Sociology | Philosophy | Linguistics | Psychology | Religious Sociology | French Ethnology | Totemism | Second half of the 19th century | First quarter of the 20th century | France | Durkheimian School | Marcel Mauss | Henri Hubert | Lucien Lévy-Bruhl