Every sociology student learns that Emile Durkheim was the first proper sociologist. Durkheim, born in 1858, is credited with having rescued the word ‘sociology’ from the person who coined it, Auguste Comte, an outré ideologue who meant by the term something like ‘scientific socialism’ (though Marx and Engels later criticised Comte as a bourgeois utopian). By contrast, Durkheim engaged in the hard graft of discipline-building, writing carefully reasoned and amply documented works that undermined what economists had to say about the division of labour, psychologists about suicide and theologians about religion. He also built up an enduring school – one that included his cleverer relatives – that extended its influence from the education faculty in Bordeaux to a powerful chair at the Sorbonne.
In the run-up to the First World War, Durkheim’s sociology was widely seen as providing a scientific basis for the social liberalism promoted in France’s Third Republic. Depending on what you made of the Third Republic, this meant that Durkheim was either himself a bourgeois defender of the status quo