The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life

by Émile Durkheim
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 712

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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 community. In all of his works, moreover, he maintained that explanations based on individual psychology were inadequate as a cause of social life, insisting that social facts must be explained by other social facts.

There were, however, real differences among his earlier and his later writings. In his earlier works Durkheim was more of a positivist who emphasized quantitative data and generally avoided reference to the subjective experiences of other people. He had insisted that social facts were to be treated as “things,” and this appeared to mean that sociologists should deal only with objective data which could be directly observed and measured. In later writings such as The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, in contrast, Durkheim was much less hesitant to make generalizations about subjective experiences—including the motivations for religious practices—which could not be empirically verified. In his later works he appeared to be much less interested in the use of statistical data; in these works Durkheim often practiced a method to which many social scientists refer as verstehende sociology (the attempt to use empathy in understanding the behavior and motives of other people).

Readers should treat many of Durkheim’s generalizations with appropriate skepticism. Anthropological research has cast considerable doubt on the assumption that the Australian aborigines have the most archaic culture in existence, and more important, anthropologists have learned to question whether the simplest technology and social arrangements will always be accompanied by the simplest religion. In most instances it is not that Durkheim was necessarily wrong, but rather the problem is that he was a philosopher trying to investigate ambitious questions which are often not susceptible to the scientific method. In comparing Durkheim’s theories with those of Tylor and Muller, for example, it is not necessary to assume that only one of the theories is correct, but it appears more reasonable to look for the valid insight in each of the theories.

Whatever the weaknesses of Durkheim’s sociology of religion, he did formulate a provocative, coherent theory which deserves to be treated seriously—a theory which has been tremendously influential in the literature of sociology and cultural anthropology. Most social scientists would not completely endorse or reject Durkheim’s theory in its entirety, but it does appear to contain a core which is valid. Religion is a social activity which does promote social cohesion, especially in tribal, homogeneous societies, and there is considerable evidence that religious beliefs and practices have often had an impact on the development of other cultural institutions. Although there are some unsupported exaggerations in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, without these exaggerations it is doubtful that the book would have had its great influence on later social scientists.

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