Originally published on Social Science Space May 2015
If anyone can lay claim to be the father of sociology, it’s Émile Durkheim. By the time of the French academic’s death in 1917, he’d produced an extraordinary body of work on an eclectic range of topics, and had become a major contributor to French intellectual life. Above all, his ambition was to establish sociology as a legitimate science.
Steven Lukes, a political and social theorist at New York University, was transfixed by Durkheim from early in his own academic career – Lukes’ first major book was 1972’s Émile Durkheim: His Life and Work. A Historical and Critical Study — and has gone on to become one of the world’s leading Durkheim scholars. Of course, that’s almost a sidelight to Lukes’ own sociological theorizing, in particular his “radical” view of power that examines power in three dimensions – the overt, the covert and the power to shape desires and beliefs.
In the latest Social Science Bites podcast hosted on the Social Science Space website, Lukes tells interviewer Nigel Warburton how Durkheim’s exploration of issues like labor, suicide and religion proved intriguing to a young academic and enduring for an established one.
“He’s dogged me throughout my life, you could say … he’s hard to escape because there are some profound insights which really have entered into the very bloodstream of sociological thinking.”
It was a role that Durkheim, even in his own life, recognized was pioneering. Citing, for example, Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, a 1912 book which Lukes describes as a masterpiece, the NYU professor observes that Durkheim “thought of himself as practicing, inaugurating, and actually in a major way developing, the social science, that was called sociology.”
Acknowledging his subject’s “immense range,” Lukes summarizes, “The common theme across all of the work really is what can we explain, and how can we explain sociologically all of the various things that he wrote about.”
Lukes was formerly a fellow in politics and sociology at Balliol College, Oxford (where he earned his bachelor’s degree and doctorate). He was also a professor at the European University Institute, Florence, the University of Siena and the London School of Economics, and is a fellow of the British Academy.