Should you read Durkheim? Lessons from Sociology Textbooks

Issued: Tue, 01 Jan 2019 11:25:07 GMT

I still remember the first sociology textbook I read, it was an early edition of Anthony Giddens’ Sociology which, now co-authored with Philip Sutton, is currently in its eighth edition. Looking at the sheer size of the book, I remember thinking that this must be some kind of definitive statement about sociology, something upon which all those people called ‘sociologists’ could agree. Of course, as I moved into my University days I learnt that, on the contrary, there is little about which sociologists agree and the consensus presented in the textbook was its own selective take, albeit most likely one representative of broader views of the discipline. But, of course, I sometimes learnt that lesson partly through reading more advanced textbooks. These included the subject-specific texts covering things like social theory, crime, the media and subculture, aimed at UG students on the courses I took. I suspect I am not alone in this story; as I came more to grips with the discipline, it was often textbooks that were by my side.


Maybe it was this experience which made me so interested to read Peter Mallory and Patricia McCormack’s (2018) article on ‘The Two Durkheims’ presented in Canadian sociology textbooks. Their argument, in short, is that textbooks presented Durkheim in two ways: as the pioneering scholar who showed that everything, even suicide, can be explained socially and, as the conservative functionalist invested in the status quo who was proved wrong almost immediately. These conflicting  positions reflect a key role of textbooks as welcoming students into a discipline seen to be based around competing perspectives with their own ‘fathers’.


Mallory and McCormack’s argument chimed with my experience, if there was one place where I felt the textbooks had read led me astray, it was Durkheim. When I came to read him more completely during my PhD I couldn’t help but realise that this writer – vital, radical, insightful – was very different from the occasionally interesting but mostly staid writer I had been told about. So, inspired by Mallory and McCormack’s example, I decided to repeat their exercise for British sociology textbooks. The one adjustment I made to their approach is that, in addition to introductory textbooks on sociology, I included social theory textbooks aimed at UG students. This created a sample of 19 books published since 2010, either in their first or later editions. The full results and discussion will be outlined in a book chapter I am currently writing, but, for now, I wanted to share some findings.


The representation of the Two Durkheims found by Mallory and McCormack in their Canadian sample continued in the British sample. The twin representation of Durkheim as trail blazing original sociologist and naïve conservative functionalist was especially strong in introductory textbooks, where it was even suggested that Durkheim only had value purely as an example of how sociology could be done, rather than for his claims about the social world. Textbooks aimed at a social theory audience, while sometimes agreeing with this claim, tended to introduce Durkheim slightly differently. He was presented as the theorist seeking a scientific grounding for his structuralist claims, and therefore as the key inspiration for structuralist and/or functionalist theory. This Durkheim is then used throughout the texts as a shorthand. It was notable how often the word ‘Durkheimian’ was used not to as shorthand for particular theoretical claims (for example, the division of labour producing solidarity) but as indicating a somewhat simplistic structuralist approach where individuals are accorded no agency. In this sense, both introductory and social theory textbooks were united in seeing Durkheim as an example of a way to do sociology which we would now wish to reject.


When the discussion turned to Durkheim’s claims about the social world, three factors were notable. Firstly, despite the many writers who have spoken of Durkheim’s radical, even socialist, work, he was never presented as such. Instead there was roughly a 50/50 split between those representing Durkheim as a conservative writer, linked to his functionalism, and others representing him as a liberal, but a particular type of one, seeking to defend the legacy of the French Revolution against the emerging ‘social liberalism’. This is, I would suggest, following Mallory and McCormack indicative of a general trend whereby Durkheim is partly defined by not being like Marx or Weber, neither socialist nor liberal in a classical sense. Therefore, he has to be a conservative, or a liberal with caveats. Linked to this, none of the books discussed any part of Durkheim’s political sociology.


Secondly, despite claims that a ‘new Durkheim’ based upon a project of culture sociology inspired by The Elementary Forms of Religious Life is increasingly dominant in sociology (Alexander and Smith 2005) this text was the least discussed of Durkheim’s four major books. Furthermore, when it was discussed, it was not presented as a fundamental break in Durkheim’s approach, as suggested by the ‘new Durkheim’ thesis but as a continuation of his project.


Thirdly, and reflecting my point about ‘Durkheimian’ being used to suggest a simplistic structuralism, there were few attempts, bar some notable exceptions I don’t have the space to discuss here, to actually demonstrate any value in what Durkheim said. Of course, I don’t wish to suggest that every book should sing Durkheim’s praises, there are worthwhile criticisms of his work and one role of textbooks is to bring these to a reader’s attention. However, as someone who believes Durkheim has much of value to say about the world we are in – a world of economic anomie with the unleashing of the neoliberal market, a world of pseudo-democracy as states move increasingly towards treating some citizens as not citizen enough and a world of extreme economic inequality which goes against the values of individualism it proclaims to hold – it was somewhat depressing to leave these textbooks with the realisation that, as a reader of them, I would have little interest in reading Durkheim. Whether it was because his style of theorising was seen as a simplistic approach sociology had overcome, or because his claims about the world were outdated, few of these texts encouraged their reader to think of Durkheim as a living source of insight for our world.

Reflecting on this, I was reminded of a quote from Durkheim about education, namely that a teacher:

‘must be on his guard against transmitting the moral gospel of our elders as a sort of closed book. On the contrary, he must excite in them a desire to add a few lines of their own, and give them the tools to satisfy this legitimate ambition’ (Durkheim 1961 13-14)


When I think back to reading that Giddens textbook as an A-Level student, I was excited to think sociologically about the world, to add a few lines of my own. Many of the texts I read for this exercise, which were impressively done, also encourage the same response among their readers. But, for better or worse (the latter in my view) they are unlikely to be Durkheimian lines.




Durkheim, E. (1961) Moral Education: A Study in the Theory & Application of the
Sociology of Education. New York: Free Press

Mallory, P. and Cormack, P. (2018) ‘The Two Durkheims: Founders and Classics in Canadian Introductory Sociology Textbooks’, Canadian Journal of Sociology, 43:1, 1-24

Smith, P. and Alexander, J.C. (2005) ‘Introduction: the new Durkheim’, in J.C. Alexander and P. Smith (eds) Cambridge Companion to Durkheim. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-37.


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Matt Dawson is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Glasgow with research interests in social theory and the history of sociology. He is the author of 'Social Theory for Alternative Societies' (2016, Palgrave Macmillan) and 'Late Modernity, Individualization and Socialism: An Associational Critique of Neoliberalism' (2013, Palgrave Macmillan). The chapter this blogpost is based upon will appear as part of a collected volume of his essays on Durkheim, which is currently in preparation.