Emile Durkheim's Theories: Functionalism, Anomie and Division of Labor

By Charlotte Nickerson, published April 03, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD

Key Points

  • Emile Durkheim, often called the "father of sociology" believed that society is composed of structures that function together, and that society has a structure of its own apart from the individuals within it.


Emile Durkheim adopted an evolutionary approach to sociology. This means that he considered society to have developed from a traditional to modern society through the development and expansion of the division of labor.

Durkheim viewed society as an organism, with different parts functioning to ensure the smooth and orderly operation and evolution of society. Scholars sometimes refer to Durkheim as a structural functionalist because he considered society to be composed of structures that function together — in this approach, he distinguished structure from function.

While Durkheim considered society to be composed of individuals, Durkheim did not see society merely as the sum of individuals and their behaviors, actions, and thoughts. Rather, Durkheim argued that society has a structure of its own, apart from the individuals within it.

Furthermore, Durkheim considered society and its structures to influence, constrain, and even coerce the individuals in it through norms, social facts, common sentiments, and social currents (Lukes, 2015). 

Durkheim was particularly concerned with the issue of social order, and questions such as how modern societies can hold together given that society is composed of many individuals who each act in an individual, autonomous manner with separate, distinct, and different interests.

Durkheim ultimately focused on problems that involved reconciling freedom and morality (Adams & Sydie, 2001). Durkheim's first book, the division of labor in society, explained this issue of the tension between freedom and morality.

His answer to this question is the concept of social solidarity, common consciousness, systems of common morality, and forms of law. However, Durkheim believed that these forces and structures are not always effective in producing and maintaining social order, and that the social changes that result in the division of labor and society develop. can result in disruptions in social solidarity and common consciousnesses.

He connects these disruptions in social solidarity and common consciousness to what he calls the forced division of labor (such as slavery) and periods of confusion within society — what he calls anomie. Durkheim also considered anomie to be a cause of suicide; and, in his book Suicide, he explores the causes of differential suicide rates at different times and places in Europe, and why they differ (Lukes, 2015). 


Functionalism is a structural-consensus theory. This means that functionalists argue both that there is a social structure that shapes individual behavior through the process of socialization and that a successful society is based on value consensus, or people agreeing around a shared set of norms and values that enables people to co-operate and work together to achieve shared goals (Pope, 1975). 

Functionalism is a framework in sociology that sees society as similar to a biological organism, with interrelated parts that have needs and functions, and structures that ensure that these parts work together to create a well-functioning society.

Durkheim is often considered to be a functionalist; however, he still understood that it was necessary to explain the reasons why particular social structures emerged historically. 

There are two key ideas in Durkheim's works that are functionalist.

Firstly, Durkheim argued that society has a reality that is above the individuals who comprise it. Society shapes individuals, who are constrained by social facts, or ways of acting, thinking and feeling which are external to the individual and endowed with the power of coercion, controlling the individual.

Social facts can include beliefs, moral codes, and basic norms and values passed from one generation to the next and shared by individuals making up a society. In this case, it is not the consciousness of an individual that directs human behavior, but common beliefs and sentiments that shape their consciousness (Pope, 1975).

Secondly, Durkheim believed that too much freedom is bad for individuals. Too much freedom — or a lack of clear guidance about what is right or wrong can create a sense of confusion and uncertainty about an individual's place in the world, or what Durkheim calls "anomie."

In response, Durkheim argues that societies have a need to create social solidarity in order to give the people within them a sense of purpose and to teach them how to behave appropriately.

The structures that create social solidarity in society can include family, religion, schools, workplaces, and voluntary organizations (Pope, 1975).

Division of Labor

In his book, The Division of Labor in Society, Durkheim attempted to determine what the basis of social solidarity in society is and how this has changed overtime. This book began Durkheim's study of how society is an entity of its own beyond the mere sum of individuals.

In Durkheim's view, there are two types of social solidarity — how society holds together and what ties an individual to society. These are mechanical and organic solidarity. In typically traditional societies where the division of labor is limited (such as the Amish), there is mechanical solidarity.

Meanwhile, modern societies with a highly developed division of labor have organic solidarity. Durkheim argued that the division of labor itself creates organic solidarity because of the mutual needs of individuals in modern society. In societies bounded by both organic and mechanical solidarity, people act in accordance with their obligations to others and to society as a whole.

As a consequence, each person within the society also received recognition of their rights or contributions within the collective (Grabb, 1980) Nonetheless, Durkheim's book was concerned with an apparent ambiguity concerning the relationship between the individual and society within the contemporary world. This problem has two seemingly contradictory roots.

On one hand, the specialization and highly developed division of labor allows individuals to develop their own consciousness. On the other hand, there are also moral ideas that encourage people to be skilled broadly to benefit society as a whole.

While these two seem contradictory, Durkheim is concerned with finding the historical and sociological roots of each of them, as with how two seemingly small guidelines are reconciled in modern society (Durkheim, 2019). Other scholars have read the division of labor in society as a way of illuminating Durkheim's methods.

He attempts to look at morality through the realm of studying society and its changes. In this form, morality becomes a series of social facts, and data from society must be obtained, this being used to discover causes. These data consist of observable, empirical forms of data in the form of laws, institutions, norms, and behavior (Merton, 1934).

In particular, Durkheim considered the examination of systems of law to be an important way of understanding morality. He considered systems of law to be the externalization of the inner core of social reality (solidarity), and predicts that, as the inner core of this system undergoes qualitative changes from "mechanical" to "organic" solidarity, there would be a shift in the type of legal systems as a proportion of the body of all legal works.

Since social solidarity is neither easily observable or measurable, Durkheim attempted to use systems of law to index forms and changes in social solidarity. By tracing the development of different systems of law, Durkheim felt that he could face the origins and forms of social solidarity (Merton, 1934).


Broadly, anomie is an abnormal form of the division of labor where there is too little regulation to encourage cooperation between people who have different social functions. In this condition, a society's previously common norms and values disappear or disintegrate.

This results in a society in which some groups no longer fit in, despite doing so in the past. This typically causes people to feel a lack of belonging and a sense of disconnection from society (Marks, 1974).

Beyond The Division of Labor, Durkheim elaborated on anomie in his 1897 book, Suicide. Durkheim, studying suicide rates among protestants and Catholics in 19th-century Europe, found that the rate of suicide was higher among protestants.

Durkheim theorized because protestant culture places a higher value on individualism than Catholics, making them less likely to develop close communal ties and in turn increasing their susceptibility to suicide (Marks, 1974).

Applications and Legacy

Durkheim helped to define and establish the field of sociology as an academic discipline. He managed to distinguish sociology from philosophy, psychology, economics, and other social sciences by arguing that society was its own kind of entity.

He argued that the characteristics that make societies unique were the so-called "features of collective experience" — those which cannot be reduced to features of the individuals who make it up (Lukes, 2015). Durkheim believed that the beliefs, practices, and consciousness of the collective in society are coercive on individuals as actors.

That is to say, Durkheim has a structuralist approach that considers social structures to exert a strong influence on social action. Individuals, in the view of Durkheim, do not act on a purely individual basis. Instead, they have obligations and duties, and generally act in ways that are strongly influenced by the structures that they are part of.

This is what distinguishes sociology from psychology — while psychologists study individuals and their mental processes, sociologists are concerned with the structures that influence social action and interaction. Thus, sociologists study individuals in their social relationships with other individuals, and the connections of these social relationships to society (Lukes, 2015).

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, April 03). Emile Durkheim's Theories: Functionalism, Anomie and Division of Labor . Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/emile-durkheims-theories.html


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