Anthropology Durkheim and the Anthropology of Religion
Paul-Francois Tremlett
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0177


Émile Durkheim (b. 1858–d. 1917) is regarded, alongside Max Weber, as a founder of the discipline of sociology. Durkheim wrote groundbreaking texts about modernity, sociological method, and suicide (among others); in 1896 he founded the journal L’Année sociologique and trained or influenced a generation of French scholars including Marcel Granet, Maurice Halbwachs, Robert Hertz, Henri Hubert, and Marcel Mauss, among others. His work on classification and on religion today remains of such import that he may equally be considered, alongside E. B. Tylor, as a founder of the anthropology of religion, and his influence on anthropology can be traced in the works of Mary Douglas, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Bronislaw Malinowski, Talcott Parsons, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown, but also Max Gluckman, Victor Turner, Jeffrey Alexander and even David Graeber among many others. The interpretation of his later works—notably Durkheim and Mauss 1963 (cited under On Classification) and Durkheim 1915 (cited under On Classification and On Religion)—has been particularly important to the reception of his wider oeuvre and significance. Some have argued for an intellectual consistency across Durkheim’s writing while others have suggested that where his early works were deterministic and positivistic, the later works advance a quite different theoretical agenda in which emotional and irrational forces lie at the center of social life. This “other” Durkheim found its way into the work of the Collège de Sociologie and the writings of Georges Bataille, Roger Caillois, and Michel Leiris among others. If some British anthropologists such as Radcliffe-Brown saw in Durkheim’s interest in ritual (for example) the possibility for an objective science of institutions, others discovered a radical Durkheim for whom the spontaneous affectivity of ritual is constitutive of society as much as the constraining forces of the social fact.

Durkheim’s Life and Work

The literature on Durkheim’s life and work is extensive and it is impossible to do justice to all of it here. The purpose of this section is to provide some indication of the breadth of that literature, from the magisterial volumes of Fournier 2013 and Lukes 1973 to much shorter, but valuable, introductions such as Parkin 1992.

  • Alexander, Jeffrey C., and Philip Smith, eds. 2005. The Cambridge companion to Durkheim. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This is an outstanding collection of essays covering all aspects of Durkheim’s life and work and includes contributions from some of the foremost scholars in the field—notably Jeffrey Alexander, Philippe Bresnard, Marcel Fournier, and Edward Tiryakian—as well as key interlocutors including Zygmunt Bauman, Robert N. Bellah, Robert Alun Jones, and Chris Shilling.

  • Bellah, Robert N., ed. 1973. Émile Durkheim: On morality and society. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    A very useful introduction to a selection of Durkheim’s writings from The division of labour in society (Durkheim 2014), The elementary forms of the religious life (Durkheim 1915, cited under On Classification and On Religion), and five essays specially translated by Mark Traugott. Bellah emphasizes Durkheim’s constructivism and his conception of society as a moral phenomenon and, more controversially, claims Durkheim to be a kind of theologian of civil religion.

  • Fournier, Marcel. 2013. Émile Durkheim: A biography. Translated by David Macey. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    Definitive account of Durkheim’s life and work, drawing on unpublished documents, letters, and manuscripts from the Hubert-Mauss archives at the Collège de France, with considerable focus on the team of scholars Durkheim assembled around him, in particular Marcel Mauss. Fournier details the intellectual milieu of the time and the struggles Durkheim faced as he sought to institutionalize the new discipline.

  • Jones, Susan Stedman. 2001. Durkheim reconsidered. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    Critical introduction to Durkheim that argues for the centrality of Durkheim’s intellectual debt to Charles Renouvier. Includes a glossary of key terms and short biographical sketches of some key individuals who either influenced Durkheim or have been important to the reception of his work.

  • Lukes, Steven. 1973. Émile Durkheim, his life and work: A historical and critical study. London: Penguin.

    A brilliant intellectual biography based in interviews with surviving members of Durkheim’s circle and archives at the University of Bordeaux. Includes detailed, critical discussion of Durkheim’s work. Lukes stresses the complexity of Durkheim’s oeuvre and his passion for social order but also for individual freedom.

  • Parkin, Frank. 1992. Durkheim. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A short but accessible and critical introduction to Durkheim’s work.

  • Parsons, Talcott. 1949. The structure of social action. 2d ed. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

    Parsons interprets Durkheim’s work—alongside that of Vilfredo Pareto, Alfred Marshall, and Max Weber—as consonant with his own interest in social action and the subjective basis of social solidarity.

  • Pickering, W. S. F., and H. Martins, eds. 1994. Debating Durkheim. London: Routledge.

    An accessible volume of essays that engage with different aspects of Durkheim’s life and work including his Jewishness, his work On Classification, and his concept of the social fact and sociological method. Published in conjunction with the British Centre for Durkheimian Studies.

  • Strenski, Ivan. 2006. The New Durkheim. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press.

    In this collection of essays, Strenski explores the continuing theoretical vitality of Durkheim’s ideas and their application to contemporary issues.

  • Tiryakian, Edward A. 2009. For Durkheim: Essays in historical and cultural sociology. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

    Collection of essays on Durkheim contextualizing his work, and particularly exploring Durkheim’s interrogations of social change and the relationship of Durkheim’s work to that of Max Weber.

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