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The Sociological Theories of Emile Durkheim

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  • 0:01 Society and Sociology
  • 0:39 Creating Sociology
  • 2:33 Researching Society
  • 4:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the theories of Emile Durkheim, a major figure in the creation of sociology as a social science. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Society and Sociology

Societies have existed for a long time. A really long time. Like, hundreds of thousands of years. For as long as people lived in groups, they have had societies. However, the academic study of societies, called sociology, has really only existed since the late nineteenth century. In this time period, several intellectuals began discussing the influence of societies on human lives and set the foundations for the field of sociology. One of the most influential figures in this movement was a French philosopher named Emile Durkheim, whose works tackled issues of social development.

Creating Sociology

Starting a new academic discipline is a major job, and many of Durkheim's theories were targeted at what sociology is and how it should be researched. The first step was to define sociology itself. Durkheim argued that the fundamental goal of sociology was to identify social facts, which are social forces that exist independently of individual people but still greatly influence their lives. In other words, these are parts of society that do not exist because specific people consciously create them; society creates these facts itself.

An example would be manners, or the proper roles of behavior in various social settings. Durkheim called these facts because they have as profound an influence on people's lives as the laws of science, like gravity, and exist beyond the ability of a single person to accept or reject. Even if a person chooses to ignore a social fact, the fact still exists within that society.

Durkheim saw society as a compilation of social facts and was interested in what holds these facts together. Durkheim developed a theory that society is held together by a shared set of beliefs, ideas and values called the collective conscious. These values are so strong that they unify people within a society and form the basis of that society. Durkheim argues that both social facts and the collective conscious become strong enough that they almost adopt a life of their own, existing independently of individual people.

Just think of the United States. Our collective conscious values equality, democracy and freedom. We don't individually think about these values all day, every day, but they've formed the framework of the society that we live in. A single person cannot simply decide that these values no longer exist, not even the president. Our society exists, and it is an influential part of our lives.

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