Connoisseur of the collective life
Founding father: Émile Durkheim, by Boris Mestchersky. photograph: bridgemanart.com
BIOGRAPHY:A remarkable study of Émile Durkheim is a fitting tribute to the influential thinker who dedicated himself to sociology
Émile Durkheim: A Biography, By Marcel Fournier, translated by David Macey, Polity Press, 838pp, £45
A sociological lens can be trained on just about any social process, action, event or institution. Such versatility, though, can lead to disciplinary fragmentation. One way to provide narrative unity is to locate sociology in terms of its historical antecedents and, in particular, the founding fathers, widely recognised as a triumvirate of dead white European males.
The “fathers” include Karl Marx, the revolutionary theorist and critic of capitalism, who provided a searing analysis of social inequality; Max Weber, the bourgeois liberal who chronicled the rationalisation and bureaucratisation of modern life; and Émile Durkheim, an early proponent of “third way” politics who eschewed both revolutionary socialism and laissez-faire liberalism.
Durkheim was at heart a moderate and a reformist. He believed that the state should play a central role in the protection of citizens and the moral regulation of society. A lifelong proponent of education as the means towards social emancipation, Durkheim passionately believed in sociology as a powerful instrument of moral education, a necessary counterweight to a world beset by “moral mediocrity, uncertainty and confused anxiety”. The extraordinarily rich seam of social analysis mined by Durkheim was crucial to the discipline’s institutionalisation within the university system in the US and in Europe in the 20th century.
Marcel Fournier’s exegesis of Durkheim’s life and work is much more than a biography of a French academic in fin-de-siecle Europe. It offers the reader an intellectual history of ideas, alongside an insight into the process of knowledge production and the craft and method of empirical analysis. The logic of Durkheim’s argumentation is meticulously (and exhaustively) dissected. Fournier’s forensic examination goes further, though, drawing on a wealth of archival documentation, including correspondence, manuscripts and reports, to re-create the energy, excitement and politically charged atmosphere in which academic sociology in France began to take shape.
Born in 1858, in Épinal, close to Alsace, Durkheim was the fifth child of a pious Jewish rabbi and his wife, the daughter of a well-off horse trader. Durkheim had a strict Jewish education, as it was his father’s intention that he too should become a rabbi. His early experience of Judaism prompted him to view religion not simply as a set of ideas but also as a cult or set of ritual acts. Religion, Durkheim believed, helped to inculcate a strong feeling of coherence, self-consciousness and unity. Religion, and its collective expression in everyday life, occupied a central place in Durkheim’s work, culminating in the classic study The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912).
As a student, Durkheim excelled in the elite French school system and went on to take a doctorate at the University of Bordeaux, where he spent the early years of his career. He later moved to Paris to take up a professorship at the Sorbonne. Coming of age in the shadow of France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), he was one of a generation of intellectuals who were obsessed with three problems: national recovery, secular emancipation and social and economic organisation. In his doctoral dissertation Durkheim began to address himself to “the social question”. He sought to apply the scientific method to the problems of a weakened and conflict-ridden society, and he saw the merit of promoting political moderation and social integration. Intrigued by the question of how individuals manage their social relations in a society characterised by differentiation and specialisation, Durkheim developed a theory of social solidarity and moral regulation that was published as The Division of Labour in Society (1893).