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Contribution of Max Weber and Emile Durkheim to Sociology

Sociology Would Be Poorer Without Max Weber, But Without Durkheim It Would Be Unrecognizable

The 19th and 20th centuries are supposed to be the period of the prosperity and development of sociology. This was the time of the sociological world-famous theories, the opening of the brightest sociologists, whose researches people use even nowadays. Emile Durkheim, Max Weber and Karl Marx are the power of sociology. They created a classical sociology and gave the foundation for the modern one.

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Sociology studies society, interaction of people within groups, it is interested in the place of a human being in a small social circle and in the global one. Historical changes, social networks, culture, gender, race, humanism, social justice, factors of the social progress, problems of society are the objects of sociology. Without doubt, one can find the analysis of these social phenomena in the works of sociologists. However, not everybody of them was able to understand the entity of these sociological processes completely.

A French sociologist Emile Durkheim was successful in sociological researches; that is why he remained one of the brightest and most interesting one. He made the contribution in sociology proving that societies were combined with each other; that is the reason why they shared their values and underwent influences of each other (Coser 1977, p. 12).


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A German sociologist Max Weber is on equal terms with Emile Durkheim in terms of his contribution. He supposed that people always struggled for their own interests. According to Durkheim, every individual has forces inside him/her that encourage him/her to follow his/her interests and desires (Elwell 2003, p. 2). Both sociologists were convinced that their interests are determined by shared values and socialization. Max Weber supposed that society is developing, and it gradually becomes bureaucratic and rationalized.

The objectives of the sociology paper are:

  • To explore the contribution of Max Weber and Emile Durkheim to sociology;
  • To identify differences between Max Weber’s and Emile Durkheim’s theories;
  • To reveal the interconnection between Max Weber and Emile Durkheim.

One supposes that without Max Weber sociology would be poor, and without Emile Durkheim it would be unrecognizable. It means that both these representatives of sociology are the basement of sociology; they gave birth to new modern theories and provided the prosperity and future of this discipline.

Without doubt, both Max Weber and Emile Durkheim came from different cultural traditions; that is why there is nothing strange that there are some similarities and differences in their sociological studies. The German intellectual position inspired Weber leading to an individual approach in his studies. The French intellectual position inspired Durkheim in terms of the social collectivity in his studies.

It is worth mentioning that the German philosopher Immanuel Kant and his intellectual orientation influenced the development of Max Weber as a sociologist. The Ecole Normale Sup?rieur and its positivistic and idealistic ideas contributed towards the development of Emile Durkheim as a sociologist.

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In order to understand the attitude of both researchers to sociology, it is necessary to analyse their opinions and theories. Durkheim regarded social facts (a society’s religious system, currency, language) as the main objects of sociology. Durkheim separated the social level from the psychological one and insisted on their independence. However, in his works, he tried to explain a difficult social phenomenon with the help of psychology and the psychological one with the help of sociology (Caltin 1964, p. 10).

Emile Durkheim was convinced that the lack of integration with other people led to committing a suicide. It means that he regarded suicide as a social problem. It was his right to see it from the sociological perspective in spite that others saw suicide from the psychological point of view. Statistics and isolation of an individual from society are the main arguments for referring suicide to the social phenomenon. Durkheim regarded suicide as the problem of collective conscious, rather than individual phenomenon or a criminal act (Spaulding 1997, p. 220).

Ethical norms and principles are also included in sociological studies. Emile Durkheim referred family to the ethical life. At the present time, one continues to think that marriage and family are the matrix for the moral and individual development. Durkheim distinguished such functions of family as serving moral principles and enhancing the moral happiness and health (Emirbayer 1996, p. 109).

As to Max Weber, his attitude to the combination of psychology and sociology was different from the one of Durkheim. He supposed that psychology is the basement for sociology and social phenomena. Subjectivity was the motivation for Max Weber; that is why he supposed that one should take into consideration the subjective meaning when analysing social actions (Albrow 1990, p. 5). Emile Durkheim on the contrary believed that the subjective meaning is not typical of sociology; it is a psychological notion (Elwell 2003, p. 18). As one can see, Weber and Durkheim had different opinions about the interdependence of sociology and psychology.


It is evident that they had different attitudes to the empirical data that are a key aspect in sociology. The observable and measurable data were the object of interest of Durkheim. According to Durkheim: “Social fact is a completely moral phenomenon which, taken by itself, does not lend itself to exact observation nor indeed to measurement” (Durkheim 1983, p. 64). Durkheim studied different kinds of data, especially from people’s daily life (the works of art, market statistics, recording of level of fashion, etc.). Many sociologists agreed with Durkheim and supposed that statistics killed psychology, and it is typical for sociology. Psychology is internal, while sociology is external.

Max Weber did not treat socio-cultural phenomena as things, because during the analysis, he took into consideration the subjective meaning. The meaning of understanding of social phenomenon depends on the circumstances (Graber 1985, p. 25). Weber distinguishes different types of understanding that define how the meaning is grasped. As to the data, Weber regarded them as “manifestations of the understandable subjective meaning of a course of social action” (Weber 1978, p. 5).

As one can see, Durkheim and Weber had different approaches to data in sociology. According to Durkheim, data are statistical series, and according to Weber, data are the reflection of subjective meaning. Durkheim stated that data have an external meaning; according to Weber. data have an internal meaning.

It is not difficult to notice that Emile Durkheim regarded sociology as the subject of teaching, profession and, most important, as a science. He combined natural sciences with sociology and supposed that they are the basement for sociology. The reality that forms social facts is the subject of sociology in Durkheim’s opinion. He insisted on using objectivity in sociology. The sociologist treated social facts as the things. Durkheim referred society to the part of nature; that is why his theories on sociology were connected with nature, natural sciences and objectivity.

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As to Max Weber, he did not regard sociology as a social structure. Max Weber underlined the parallel between social actions and processes that influence them. A social action for Weber is a kind of human behaviour. Weber supposed psychology to be the basement for sociology; that is why his theories on sociology were connected with psychology and subjectivity (Freud 1968, p. 25).

Every society is characterized by the social order or an intention to create it; that is the reason why it is necessary to regard the notion of “social order” in terms of opinions of Weber and Durkheim. As to Weber, he drew the parallel between the chaos of individualistic ambiguity and social order. It means that the social order depends on the individualistic order. Weber supposed that the social order was built at the individualistic level. He stated that one should define individual motives that are the driving forces for the social order.

Weber argued that people can give the meaning to their own behaviour and that of other people. Reciprocal relationships are the leading aspect here. Max Weber supposed that the social regularity was the harmony between the meaning that individuals attribute to their actions and those of other people and individualistic social actions. It proves once more that “methodological individualism” is a characteristic for the Weber’s sociology.

Durkheim referred the social order not as individualistic actions, but as a whole. “Methodological collectivism” is a characteristic feature of the Durkheim’s sociology. If Weber paid attention to individuals as the basement of society, Durkheim paid attention to the behaviour of individuals as the nature of society. The social domination of social regulations as well as psychological and biological desires and needs created a social community.

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Durkheim said: “Man is double. There are two beings in him: an individual being which has its foundation in the organism … and a social being which represents the highest reality in the intellectual and moral order that we can know by observation. I mean society” (Durkheim 1965, p. 16)”. It means that individual needs and desires are infinite, but it is the society that limits them and struggles for the social order and equality.

For Weber, ideas and thoughts were crucial in terms of social changes and the social order. Durkheim was convinced that individualistic thoughts and ideas were not able to influence the existing social order. Durkheim supposed: “Individuals are much more a product of common life than they are determinants of it” (Durkheim 1983, p. 338).

Freedom and human individuality are also ones of the most significant components that influence the development of a social community. Durkheim was more optimistic telling that society can bring human individuality and freedom. However, Weber had an opposite thought that was more rational. Max Weber was convinced that society brought limitations and restrictions on human freedom and individuality. Therefore, his approach was pessimistic. He even named the society “an iron cage for human freedom” (Weber 1958, p. 139). He was also convinced that human freedom had disadvantages that ruined the social order.

Analysing their theories about social order and freedom in society, one can say that the Weber’s theory was more critical but true, especially when it comes about the modern society. However, his theory proves that the social order is possible. The Durkheim’s theory was more idealistic one. Without doubt, the social order cannot be characterized as completely ideal. Durkheim tried to struggle for perfection and would like to inspire people to perfection; that is why his theories were idealistic.

In terms of the social order, Durkheim paid more attention to it than Weber. He thought that the social order depended on every individual, who had to perform his/her function (Durkheim 1964, p. 59). According to Durkheim, morality provided the collective consciousness of people. It means that morality holds people together and gives birth to the social order (Durkheim, 1964, pp. 252-57). Hilbert, who studied Durkheim’s theories, wrote: “Moral constraint is indeed the essence of collective life for Durkheim” (Hilbert 1992, p. 28). Durkheim supposed that morality is the reason of existence of a society. These are people, who should obey these moral principles and laws in order to save their society (Westby 1991, p. 257).

It is necessary to mention that theories of Weber and Durkheim are applied not only to sociology, but to social sciences, historical studies, natural sciences and economics, as well. Not only sociology, but other disciplines would be poor without Max Weber (Lanchmann 2007, p. 2). Furthermore, Emile Durkheim made sociology recognizable in spite that his theories were idealistic ones.


Having analysed the most significant sociological theories of Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, one can come to the conclusion that they are the basis of sociology and stimulation to the creation of new doctrines. Max Weber and Emile Durkheim contributed to sociology by having analysed practically all social phenomena: from sociological notions, facts, data, statistics to suicide, family, religion, etc.

Without doubt, there are differences in their theories and approaches to sociology. Max Weber was more pessimistic and critical, while Emile Durkheim was more optimistic and idealistic. Durkheim separated the social level from the psychological one and insisted on their independence. Weber supposed that psychology is the basement for sociology and social phenomena. In this sense, Weber and Durkheim had different opinion about the interdependence of sociology and psychology.

Not only sociology, but other disciplines would be poor without Max Weber and unrecognizable without Emile Durkheim. Therefore, the theories of both sociologists balance between criticism and idealism, optimism and pessimism; that is why they remain up-to-date at the present time.


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