The Sociology of Education: A Durkheimian View


Durkheim proposed that educational reforms reflect the general cultural context and illustrate the way in which the school attends to emerging needs that are not yet institutionalized in political society as a whole. This attempts an explanation of how the subjects of study which constitute the ‘content’ of education at any given time give rise to ‘categories of thought’ which thus inform the development of a society’s collective representations.

Emile Durkheim

Modern society has been based increasingly on industrialization of areas of life influenced by the division of labour. The result is an increased differentiation in social roles and the specialization of social functions; part of the concern which comes with this adaptation to narrowing sets of circumstance is the risk that ‘social solidarity’ will disintegrate into the stratification of society through emergent caste systems. Certainly we seem to be witnessing this in terms of widening disparity of wealth and quality of life, and also in terms of agency.

Durkheim suggests that to counterbalance this risk, the development of shared values needs to take place which translate into legitimate rights and responsibilities relating to the roles of social actors. In ‘De la division du travail social’ (The Division of Labour in Society ) published in 1893, Durkheim defines a ‘modern individualism’, in which he places respect for the human person as the ultimate and only value capable of maintaining cohesion in modern industrial societies. In ‘Le suicide’ published in 1897, he wrote that if there were something which people could share in a divided society, it was respect for human beings as existing as human beings. He put forward that respect was the only ‘genuine social bond’.


Durkheim set himself to exploring three major questions:

  • Establishing how the schooing system could fulfil the function of ‘preserving’ the social system whilst at the same time introducing social change
  • Exploring how pedagogical ‘practices’ could connect to both the formal and the informal institutions manifested by global society, and establishing the relationship they have with ‘ideas’ latent in the school system
  • Establishing what pedagogical models could be used to teach pupils a sense of ‘communion with others’ along with a body of scientific and literary ‘knowledge’



Through educational sociology it would be possible to determine the purposes of education. He approached this by relating the functioning of any society in terms of mechanisms of ‘integration’ (the will to ‘live together’) and mechanisms of ‘regulation’ (submission to communal norms).

In modern industrial society the socialization of a child must involve learning both in terms of integration and regulation, with specific regard for her or his own autonomy. The necessary control over selfish and antisocial drives need to be correlated to ‘group teaching’ so as to stimulate in the child a sense of community life, while ensuring that it is possible for the pupil to be a creative person. Refined from this thinking, three ‘elements of morality’ are set out to determine the purposes assigned to education — teaching a ‘sense of discipline’, ‘attachment to groups’ and ‘autonomy of will’.

Thinking about the ‘pedagogical means’ of education, Durkheim emphasised the teacher as an individual, and set this out as a critical point alongside the understanding of teachers as members of a profession and as a group. He sets out that any change in the education system must be fostered primarily by teachers so to respond to emerging social needs as well as to the needs specific to the system.

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