The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life Essay - Critical Context

Émile Durkheim

Critical Context

The ethnographic information about the Australian aborigines is the weakest aspect of The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Certainly this was not entirely Durkheim’s fault, because at the time of writing the firsthand examination of the aborigines was somewhat limited. In spite of his views on science, however, Durkheim did not hesitate to make speculative generalizations that went considerably beyond his evidence, and some of his theories can neither be confirmed nor falsified. Many of his major conclusions are based on the logical deductions of his premises rather than empirically based observations. For this reason social anthropologists such as Edward Evans-Pritchard tend to be more critical of Durkheim’s book than are sociologists who tend to be primarily interested in abstract theories. Among anthropologists, in fact, it is common to describe the book as an exercise in armchair speculation, especially when Durkheim is compared with his anthropological contemporaries such as Franz Boaz. Yet, many anthropologists have found that Durkheim did formulate provocative hypotheses which are helpful in field research.

Durkheim’s other writings definitely add much perspective to any evaluation of The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. In all of his works, Durkheim tended to express a view of social determinism, with a relatively limited place for individual freedom. In his earlier Le Suicide (1897; Suicide, 1951), for example, he argued that hyperindividualism tended to lead to a condition of anomie and result in self-destructive behavior. Durkheim was a critic of modern industrial society, especially the tendency for people to lose the sense of belonging to an integrated...

(The entire section is 712 words.)