Primitive Classification Essay - Critical Context

Émile Durkheim, Marcel Mauss

Critical Context

Because Primitive Classification was initially published in a French academic journal and was not translated into English until 1963, its impact outside Continental sociology has been relatively mild in comparison to that of Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, of which it is commonly considered a precursor. The latter work, a much longer and more completely thought-out treatment of many of the same topics addressed in Primitive Classification, is easily one of the most important works of all time in the social sciences.

Yet Primitive Classification did have an impact on French sociology. It represented an important step in the development of the Durkheimian school, signifying as it did a shift in emphasis toward the study of both religion and thought in sociology. As such, it inspired writers such as Lucien Levy-Bruhl, author of Les Fonctions mentales dans les societes inferieures (1910; How Natives Think, 1926), to treat such topics in depth. Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, published two years later, was in part a response to and criticism of Levy-Bruhl. A reading of all three works provides an interesting study of the development of (and change in) Durkheim’s thought, for Durkheim and Mauss’s work is much closer to Levy-Bruhl than a reading of only The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life would suggest.

The influence of Durkheim and Mauss’s work has perhaps been greatest on the field of anthropology, especially in France and Great Britain, although once again it is overshadowed by Durkheim’s later work. Much of the work of the great British anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard arose from the dispute between Durkheim and Levy-Bruhl. Other anthropologists such as Mary Douglas and Claude Levi-Strauss can also be said to owe a great intellectual debt to the collective work of both Durkheim and Mauss in general, and their collaboration on Primitive Classification in particular. The book has clearly shaped the work of at least two disciplines and continues to be read for both the light it sheds on the intellectual development of two of history’s greatest sociologists and the insights it offers into the perennial mystery of human thought.