In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Émile Durkheim

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  • Education and Pedagogy
  • Social Solidarity, Law, and the Division of Labor
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  • Historical and Social Context of the Durkheimian/Annee Sociologique School

Sociology Émile Durkheim
Alexander Riley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 July 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0014


David Émile Durkheim was born on 15 April 1858, in Épinal, France, in the region of Lorraine. His influential, conservative Jewish family had lived in the region for several generations. His father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were rabbis, and there were family expectations that Durkheim, too, would follow that same career path. In 1879, Durkheim entered the École Normale Supérieure, the most prestigious French post-secondary institution and the training ground for most of the country’s intellectual elite. He took the agrégation (French state teaching certificate) in 1882 and assumed his first teaching post at Sens a year later. In 1887, he was taken on as a lecturer at the University of Bordeaux. By the turn of the century, he was widely acclaimed as one of the most important thinkers in France and the leader of the effort to establish sociology as a new scholarly discipline. Before the turn of the century, he had published three of the four major books he wrote during his lifetime and launched the first great journal of sociological research, l’Année Sociologique. In 1902, he was elected as chargé de cours at the Sorbonne, and by 1906 he had been appointed to a chair there. When he died in 1917, during the dark days of the Great War, he had already established a legacy as one of the founding thinkers in sociology.


Somewhat surprisingly, given his status in the discipline, only two major, book-length biographies of Durkheim have been undertaken. The book by Steven Lukes 1985 was for many years the unchallenged “go-to” work; it contains one of the most extensive extant bibliographies and several useful appendices that lay out Durkheim’s lecture courses over his years at both Bordeaux and Paris, as well as the record of his comments on the doctoral theses of students. The recent publication of a massive (nearly one thousand pages) biographical study by Marcel Fournier 2007 displaces Lukes as the most comprehensive work. Fournier consulted a great deal of archival material, including volumes of correspondence, that were unavailable to Lukes, in order to sketch Durkheim’s public and private lives in fascinating detail. The other biographical sources listed here offer direct insights into Durkheim’s private world through correspondences or present information from those in his intimate circle (his nephew Mauss 1925, his Année Sociologique collaborator Davy 1919). The volumes of letters from Durkheim to Mauss and Hubert, found in Durkheim 1998 and Besnard 1987, are particularly fascinating sources. The Sorbonne commemoration of Durkheim’s centennial in 1960 included comments from Davy and André Lalande, a philosopher who was appointed to the Sorbonne shortly after Durkheim (see Lalande 1960). Greenberg 1976 compares Durkheim’s assimilation as a Jew in France with that of Henri Bergson, who was his schoolmate and a rival in the philosophical world of that period. For nonspecialists seeking a brief and accurate source, a very good biographical statement can be found in Marcel Fournier’s chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Durkheim (which is described in the section on Major Book-Length Studies/Collections).

  • Durkheim, Émile. 1998. Lettres à Marcel Mauss. Edited by Philippe Besnard and Marcel Fournier. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

    Dense volume of correspondence (only one way, as Mauss’s letters to Durkheim disappeared with the rest of his papers during the Vichy period) expertly introduced by Besnard and Fournier, two of the most reliable French-speaking interpreters of Durkheim. Often sheds real light on the intellectual work.

  • Besnard, Philippe, ed. 1987. Lettres de Émile Durkheim à Henri Hubert. Revue Française de Sociologie 28.3: 483–534.

    DOI: 10.2307/3321723

    Vivid documentation of organizational work behind the Année, as the contribution of Hubert here was second only to that of Durkheim himself, and certainly equal to that of Mauss during the first series of the journal. Full also of information on Durkheim’s involvement in the Dreyfus Affair.

  • Davy, Georges. 1919. Émile Durkheim: L’homme. Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale 26:181–198.

    Splendid short portrait of Durkheim by one of the junior members of his Année Sociologique team. Emphasizes the moral commitment of Durkheim the man to family, profession, and country. The article continues in the Revue 27 (1920): 71–112.

  • Fournier, Marcel. 2007. Émile Durkheim (1858–1917). Paris: Fayard.

    Deftly uses archival material including correspondences to show the Durkheimian œuvre emerging in both public and private spheres. Surpasses Lukes 1985 in clearly demonstrating how collective Durkheim’s work (and much of the work of the Année) was. It is hoped that an English translation will appear soon.

  • Greenberg, Louis. 1976. Bergson and Durkheim as sons and assimilators: The early years. French Historical Studies 9.4: 619–634.

    DOI: 10.2307/286208

    Fascinating comparison of some early biographical details of the trajectories of Durkheim and his philosophical adversary of the fin de siècle (and, like Durkheim, product of a Jewish family), Henri Bergson.

  • Lalande, André. Commémoration du centenaire de la naissance d’Émile Durkheim. 1960. Annales de l’Université de Paris 30.1 (January–March), 22–25.

    Along with Claude Lévi-Strauss’s “Ce que l’ethnologie doit à Durkheim,” this celebration of the centennial of Durkheim’s birth contains vivid biographical speeches by Georges Davy (one of the members of the original Année sociologique team), André Lalande, and René Lacroze.

  • Lukes, Steven. 1985. Émile Durkheim, his life and work: A historical and critical study. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    For more than three decades, the only and definitive biography. Lukes consulted much archival material and interviewed family members and others to fill out his portrait, and his interpretation of the general direction of Durkheim’s work is astute and quite defensible. Originally published in 1972.

  • Mauss, Marcel. 1925. In memoriam: L’oeuvre inédite de Durkheim et de ses collaborateurs. L’Année Sociologique 1:8–29.

    Account of the state of Durkheim’s unpublished work (and also the work of fellow Année collaborators who, like Durkheim, perished during the Great War) at the time of his death by his nephew (Mauss) and the Année chief in the wake of his uncle’s passing. Reprinted in Marcel Mauss, Oeuvres, vol. 3, edited by Victor Karady (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1969), 473–569.

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