Émile Durkheim and functionalist pedagogy: a modus operandi for teaching and learning

In my book, Teaching Sociology Successfully, I suggested that Émile Durkheim’s ideas on education could be appropriated as a modus operandi for teaching sociology; and I go further here to say teaching per se. This is because his work on education clearly categorises the purposes of education: to teach specialist skills, embed social solidarity and prepare pupils for life in society through their participation in school life, which is a microcosm of the wider society.

Durkheim is seen as the ‘founding father’ of functionalism, which is a sociological perspective that argues all aspects of a society – from individuals to institutions – serve a function and are necessary for the survival of society. Functionalists contend that most of these functions arise from a consensus within society on their nature and purpose; this would include education.

Social solidarity and anomie

However, according to Halasz and Kaufman (2008), the pedagogical possibilities of Durkheim’s writing are mainly to be found in his concepts of solidarity and anomie. Here, Durkheim’s conception of solidarity centres on looking at how we as well as other people live, behave and are affected by political decisions – this can create a sense of common purpose or shared values. In an educational setting, pupils may be compelled to participate in public life through a realisation of social solidarity with others.

In some ways this is comparable with C. Wright Mills’ (1959) ‘sociological imagination‘ as we have to conceptualise the self as part of the wider whole, but in essence Durkheim is arguing that education – and, by extension, pedagogy – should seek to enhance and maintain social cohesion amongst the citizenry. Otherwise society would experience instability due to heightened anomie, which is often referred to as normlessness as there is a breakdown of social norms and shared values between individuals.

Therefore, social solidarity is an important aspect of education as, for Durkheim, modernity has increased society’s tendency towards individualism, which could lead to isolation, normlessness and a lack of social cohesion as individuals become less socially integrated because the old bonds found in familial networks of kinship, small local communities and religion are eroded or at least seem less important.

Subsequently, in his 1893 work The Division of Labour in Society, Durkheim charted the growth of an organic society in which interdependence between individuals arises from the specialisation of work and the consensual relationships between people (see Durkheim, 2014). This avoids the potential pitfalls of anomic individualisation as, although the individual is rational and aware of the self and the opportunities open to them, they are still dependent on others and understand, perhaps subconsciously, the importance of society’s norms and values in maintaining order, stability and harmony; this then develops into a conscience collective as society is ‘increasingly to be made up of generalised modes of thought and sentiment, which leave room for an increasing multitude of individual differences’ (ibid, p. 172).

It is here, then, that Halasz and Kaufman argue that a pedagogy aiming to create a miniature organic society in the classroom has real benefits to education as ‘interdependence would be strong, cooperation would be expected, and positive individualism in the form of inventiveness, innovation, and imagination would be welcome. A classroom modelled on Durkheim’s organic solidarity would demonstrate cohesiveness, reciprocity, and respect amongst teachers and learners’ (2008, p. 305). Moreover, if we take functionalism at face value, this would also fulfil a school’s purpose of establishing a microcosm of society.

What does this look like in the classroom?

A teacher applying these pedagogical ideas in the classroom may emphasise the importance of subject knowledge and the pedagogical skills needed to succeed in their subject areas. For instance, in geography, key skills would include applying 6 figure grid references in order to ascertain locations on maps and navigation systems at key stage 2 or key stage 3. Similarly, in maths, these skills could include the application of multiplication to everyday problems where mathematics could provide answers (at all key stages). In turn, pupils gain specialist skills that could be applied to jobs as wide-ranging as land surveying (geography) and accounting (mathematics).

Of course, as pupils progress through the education system these skills will become more specific to the needs of the economy or the cultivation of specific knowledge. In turn, this leads to what later functionalists, such as Davis and Moore (1970), call ‘role allocation’. Here, as the general consensus is that we live in a meritocratic society, the education system becomes the best mechanism for selecting the right people for the right jobs as pupils narrow their academic focus by embarking on GCSE, BTEC, NVQ, and A Level courses. This allows for the individualism required for Durkheim’s ‘division of labour’ and the emphasis on specialist skills and subject knowledge becomes more apparent.  

Moreover, embedding social solidarity – despite its value laden terminology – could involve developing key routines and cohesion amongst the pupils; where the values of mutual respect and following of school rules (social norms) recognise the importance of others in the community as well as self-worth. This could cover everything from incorporating British Values and Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Education across the curriculum to the more basic enforcement of high expectations and encouragement to succeed that are explicitly emphasised in the DfE teachers’ standards. Furthermore, challenging prejudice, such as racism and homophobia, as well as promoting the benefits and life chances that education brings, exemplify our shared goals in building a community that is both cohesive and informed.

Lastly, enabling children to mix with others, understand that they need to get along with their peers and getting them to experience the diversity of character and individual temperaments that school communities include, is clearly a microcosm of the wider society we are preparing pupils for. When we teach pupils, we need to bear this fact in mind, act positively towards the role school plays in this aspect of socialisation and encourage conformity to the shared values and ethos of the school community, which overlaps with the above point.  

Last points

If the above seems like common sense, then it simply is. Essentially, we need to not only focus on subject pedagogy and skills in lessons, which are vital, but also build social solidarity based on social norms and value consensus. Here, a less generic functionalist approach to pedagogy would be needed to bridge and balance the importance of social solidarity and specialist skills within specific subject areas.

Of course, there weaknesses to this approach. Firstly, many sociologists would question whether schools are effective meritocracies. There are obvious inequalities both within school and outside that hinder the idea that intelligence plus effort equate to academic success. Secondly, this approach is somewhat generic and does not address teaching methods per se as opposed to being an overall template for the purpose and nature of teaching and learning. Nonetheless, there is a lot to build on and perhaps Durkheim’s ideas deserve to be part of wider debates on pedagogy, curriculum design and education policy.


Davis, K. and Moore, W.E. (1970). “Some principles of stratification” in American Sociological Review, 10 (2), 242-9.

Durkheim, E. in Lukes, S. and Halls, W. (eds.) (2014). The division of labor in society. New York: Free Press.

Halasz, J. & Kaufman, P. (2008). ‘Sociology as Pedagogy: How Ideas from the Discipline Can Inform Teaching and Learning’ in Teaching Sociology. 36 (4). 301-17.

Mills, C. W, (1959). The sociological imagination. Oxford University Press.

See also: Durkheim – Education – Its Nature and Its Role

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