Émile Durkheim Criticism - Essay

A. A. Goldenweiser (essay date 1915)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[In the following review of Les formes elementaires de la vie religieuse, originally published in American Anthropologist in 1915, Goldenweiser refutes all of Durkheim's "cardinal doctrines" discussed in the work.]

A contribution by Émile Durkheim always commands attention. His Les règes de la méthode sociologique, De Is division du travail social, and Le Suicide have exercised an appreciable influence on sociological theory and are still remembered and read. As editor of L'Année sociologique, Durkheim deserves credit for a methodical and extensive survey of anthropological and sociological literature. In this task he was ably assisted by his disciples and sympathizers, Hubert, Mauss and others. It is to be regretted that this excellent annual has now gone out of existence, its place having been taken by a triennial publication supplemented by occasional monographs constituting a series of Travaux de L'Année sociologique, of which La vie religieuse is the fourth volume.

As the title indicates, the work deals with Australian totemism, but is also meant as a general theoretical inquiry into the principles of religious experience. Durkheim is a veteran in Australian ethnology. It will be remembered that the first volume of L'Année sociologique (1896-1897) contained a study from his pen devoted to "La prohibition de l'inceste et ses origines." Volume V (1900-1901) of the Annual contains another study, "Sur le totémisme"; and volume VIII (1903-1904) one on "L'organisation matrimoniale australienne." One need not therefore be surprised to find Durkheim's latest work replete with abundant and carefully analyzed data. In this respect the volume compares most favorably with much of the hazy theorizing called forth in such profusion by [Herbert] Spencer and [Francis James] Gillen's descriptive monographs. But Durkheim's work contains, of course, much more than a merely descriptive study. He had a vision and he brings a message. To these we must now turn.

While a comprehensive analysis of all of Durkheim's propositions is entirely beyond the scope of a review, his cardinal doctrines may be discussed under the headings of five theories: a theory of religion, a theory of totemism, a theory of social control, a theory of ritual, and a theory of thought.

Theory of Religion.—Durkheim vigorously objects to the theories of religion which identify it with belief in God or in the supernatural. A belief in the supernatural presupposes the conception of a natural order. The savage has no such conception nor does he know of the supernatural. He does not wonder nor inquire, but accepts the events of life as a matter of course. The attempts to derive religion from dreams, reflections, echoes, shadows, etc., find as little favor with Durkheim. Is it conceivable, he exclaims, that religion, so powerful in its appeal, so weighty in its social consequences, should in the last analysis prove to be nothing but an illusion, a naive aberration of the primitive mind? Surely, that cannot be. At the root of religion there must lie some fact of nature or of experience, as powerful in its human appeal and as universal as religion itself. Durkheim sets out in search of that fact. Presently, the field of inquiry is limited by the reflection that the beings, objects, and events in nature cannot, by virtue of their intrinsic qualities, give rise to religion, for there is nothing in their make-up which could, in itself, explain the religious thrill. This, indeed, is quite obvious, for do not the least significant beings and things in nature often become the objects of profound religious regard? Thus the source of religion may not be sought in natural experience but must in some significant way be interwoven with the conditions of human existence. Now the most fundamental and patent fact in all religion is the classification of all things, beings, events in experience into sacred and profane. This dichotomy of the universe is coextensive with religion; what will explain the one will explain the other. The next important fact to be noted is that the content of religion is not exhausted by its emotional side. Emotional experience is but one aspect of religion, the other aspects being constituted by a system of concepts and a set of activities. There is no religion without a church.

The fundamental propositions thus advanced by Durkheim do not impress one as convincing. In claiming that primitive man knows no supernatural, the author fundamentally misunderstands savage mentality. Without in the least suspecting the savage of harboring the conception of a natural order, we nevertheless find him discriminating between that which falls within the circle of everyday occurrence and that which is strange, extraordinary, requiring explanation, full of power, mystery. To be sure, the line of demarcation between the two sets of phenomena is not drawn by the savage where we should draw it, but surely we should not thereby be prevented from becoming aware of the existence of the line and of the conceptual differentiation of phenomena which it denotes. If that is so, Durkheim commits his initial error, fatal in its consequences, in refusing to grant the savage the discriminating attitude towards nature and his own experience which he actually possesses. The error is fatal indeed, for the realm of the supernatural, of which Durkheim would deprive the savage, is precisely that domain of his experience which harbors infinite potentialities of emotional thrill and religious ecstasy.

Durkheim's objection to the derivation of the first religious impulses from what he calls illusions, strikes one as peculiar. For what, after all, is truth and what is illusion? Are not the highest religions, of undisputed significance and worldwide appeal, also based on illusions? Are not ideals, in more than one sense, illusions? Should one therefore be shocked if religion were shown to have its primal roots in an illusion? Thus Durkheim's search for a reality underlying religion does not seem to rest on a firm logical basis. The author's definition of religion, finally, represents a conceptual hybrid, the application of which could not but have the gravest consequences for his study. A religion, says Durkheim, is an integral system of beliefs and practices referring to sacred things, things that are separated, prohibited; of beliefs and practices which unite into a moral community called the church all those who participate in them. This apparently innocent definition involves a series of hypotheses. While all will concede that religion has a subjective as well as an objective side, that belief is wedded to ritual, the equating of the two factors in one definition arouses the suspicion of an attempt to derive one from the other, a suspicion justified by a further perusal of the work. Closely related, moreover, as are belief and ritual, they belong to different domains of culture, their relations to tradition, for instance, and to individual experience, are quite different, and the methodology of research in the two domains must be radically different. Unless this standpoint is taken at the outset, inextricable situations are bound to arise. That the body of believers constitutes a moral community is another proposition which one may set out to prove but which should not be taken for granted in an initial definition. The proposition further prejudices the investigator in favor of the social elements in religion and at the expense of the individual elements. The introduction of the term "church," finally, as well as the designation of the religious complex as an "integral system," brings in an element of standardization and of unification, which should be a matter to be proved not assumed.

Theory of Totemism.—Durkheim takes pains to set forth his reasons for discarding the comparative method of inquiry. The pitfalls of this mode of approaching cultural problems being familiar to ethnologists, we may pass over the author's careful argumentation. As a substitute for the antiquated method Durkheim proposes the intensive study of a single area; for, he urges, the superficial comparison of half-authenticated facts separated from their cultural setting is pregnant with potentialities of error, while the thoroughgoing analysis of one instance may reveal a law. Australia is the author's choice; for from that continent come detailed and comprehensive descriptive monographs; moreover, there, if anywhere, are we likely to discover the prime sources of religion: the social organization of the Australians being based on the clan, the most primitive form of social grouping, their religions must needs be of the lowest type. The author thus takes as his starting-point the Australian clan, which he conceives as an undifferentiated primitive horde. Each horde takes its name from the animal or plant most common in the locality where the group habitually congregates. The assumption of the name is a natural process, a spontaneous expression of group solidarity which craves for an objective symbol. To the totemic design or carving must be ascribed an analogous origin. Of this type of symbolism tattooing is the earliest form; not finding much evidence on that point in Australia, the author borrows some American examples. The paintings and carvings of the Australian being very crude and almost entirely unrealistic, the author is again tempted to refer to the American Indian, while ascribing the character of Australian totemic art to the low degree of their technical advancement. The theory of social control will show us how the concept of power, mana, the totemic principle, originates in the clan. Here we take it for granted. Thus, on ceremonial occasions the individual is aware of the presence of a mysterious power; through the vertigo of his emotional ecstasy he sees himself surrounded by totemic symbols, churingas, nurtunjas, and to them he transfers his intuition of power; henceforth, they become for him the source from which that power flows.

Thus it comes that the totemic representations stand in the very center of the sacred totemic cycle of participation; the totemic animal or plant, and the human members of the totemic clan become sacred by reflection. When so much is granted, the other peculiarities of totemism follow as a matter of course. Totemism is not restricted to the clans, their members, animals, carvings, but spreads over the entire mental universe of the Australian. The whole of nature is divided and apportioned between the clans, and all the beings, objects, phenomena of nature partake, to a greater or less degree, of the sacredness of the totemic animal or plant or thing with which they are classified. This is the cosmogony of the totemic religion. Individual totemism, the worship of the guardian spirit, is a later derivative of clan totemism, for whereas clan totemism often appears alone, individual totemism occurs only in conjunction with clan totemism. Every religion has its individual as well as its social aspect. The guardian-spirit cult is the individual aspect of totemism. The subjective embodiment, finally, of the totemic principle is the individual soul. But whence the totemic principle? Before passing to the theory of social control which brings an answer to the query, we must pause to examine the theory of totemism as here outlined.

While the author's rejection of the comparative method deserves hearty endorsement, the motivation of his resolve to present an intensive study of one culture arouses misgivings. For thus, he says, he might discover a law. Applicable as this concept may be in the physical sciences, the hope itself of discovering a law in the study no matter how intensive of one historical complex, must be regarded as hazardous. And presently one finds that there is more to the story, for Australia is selected for the primitiveness of its social organization (it is based on the clan!) with which a primitive form of religion may be expected to occur. That at this stage of ethnological knowledge one as competent as Emile Durkheim should regard the mere presence of a clan organization as a sign of primitiveness is strange indeed. For, quite apart from the fact that no form of clan system may be regarded as primitive, in the true sense of the word, clan systems may represent relatively high and low stages of social development. Moreover, even were the social organization of the Australian to be regarded as primitive, that would not guarantee the primitiveness of his religion; just as his in reality complex and highly developed form of social organization appears side by side with a markedly low type of industrial achievement. Also from the point of view of the available data must the selection of Australia be regarded as unfortunate, for, in point of ethnography, Australia shares with South America the distinction of being our dark continent. A most instructive study in ethnographic method could be written based on the errors committed by Howitt, and Spencer and Gillen, as well as Strehlow, our only modern authorities on the tribes from which Durkheim derives all his data. The fact itself that the author felt justified in selecting the Australian area for his intensive analysis, shows plainly enough how far from realization still is the goal which his own life-work has at least made feasible, the rapprochement of ethnology and of sociology.

But let us pass to the concrete points. The conception of a clan name being assumed as an expression of clan solidarity is suggestive enough. On the other hand, one must not be forgetful of the fact that a name serves to differentiate group from group, and that at all times names must have been given by group to group rather than assumed by each group for itself. Not that names were never assumed by groups—such names as, "we, the people" or "men," etc., bespeak the contrary—but this process must be regarded as the exception rather than the rule. Moreover, groups of distinct solidarity such as phratries or the Iroquois maternal families, often appear without names (in the instance of the maternal family this is indeed always the case), so that the consciousness of solidarity in a group may not be regarded as inevitably leading to expression in the form of a name. As to the objective totemic symbol, the totemic carvings or drawings, it is discussed most loosely by our author. Not finding the totemic tattoo in Australia, he appeals to American examples, but this device, of course, does not strengthen his case except by showing that totemic tattoo occurs in America. Also, he completely neglects the cardinal differences between the totemic art of the Northwest Coast and that of the Aranda—to both of which he refers—in failing to note that whereas among the Tlingit or Haida the carved crests are positively associated with the totemic ideas, among the Aranda the churinga or ground and rock designs are at best but passive carriers of momentary (although recurrent) totemic associations. It is, in fact, quite obvious that the geometrical art of the area has neither originated in nor been differentiated through totemic ideas, but being of an extra-totemic origin, has been subsequently drawn into the totemic cycle of associations without, however, ever becoming actively representative of them. Similarly, with the so-called totemic cosmogony, the fact that social organization tends to be reflected in mythology cannot indeed be disputed; this fact, however, altogether transcends, in its bearing, the problem of totemism. Hence, when we find a sociological classification of the universe coexisting with a totemic complex, we are fully justified in regarding the two phenomena as genetically distinct and secondarily associated. The burden of proof, at any rate, falls upon those who would assert the contrary. Durkheim's treatment of these as of other aspects of the Australian totemic complex reflects his failure to consider that view of totemism which was designed to show, at the hand of relevant data, that totemic complexes must be regarded as aggregates of various cultural features of heterogeneous psychological and historical derivation. Needless to add, the adoption of that view would strike at the very core of Durkheim's argument necessitating a complete recasting of the fundamental principles of La vie religieuse. Nor does Durkheim's discussion of the relative priority of clan totemism carry conviction. Here his facts are strangely inaccurate, for far from it being the case that "individual totemism" never occurs unaccompanied by clan totemism, the facts in North America, the happy hunting-ground of the guardian spirit, bespeak the contrary. Whereas that belief must be regarded as an all but universal aspect of the religion of the American Indian, it has nowhere developed more prolifically than among the tribes of the Plateau area who worship not at the totemic shrine. To regard the belief in guardian spirits, "individual totemism," as an outgrowth of clan totemism is, therefore, an altogether gratuitous hypothesis! Having satisfied himself that all the elements which, according to his conception of religion, constitute a true religion, are present in totemism, Durkheim declares totemism to represent the earliest form of a religion which, while primitive, lacks none of those aspects which a true religion must have. Thus is reached the culminating point of a series of misconceptions of which the first is Durkheim's initial view and definition of religion. For had he given proper weight to the emotional and individual aspects in religion, the aspect which unites religious experiences of all times and places into one psychological continuum, he could never have committed the patent blunder of "discovering" the root of religion in an institution which is relatively limited in its distribution and is moreover, distinguished by the relatively slight intensity of the religious values comprised in it. In this latter respect totemism cannot compare with either animal worship, or ancestor worship, or idolatry, or fetichism, or any of the multifarious forms of worship of nature, spirit, ghost and god. Several of these forms of religious belief are also more widely diffused than totemism and must be regarded as more primitive, differing from totemism in their independence from any definite form of social...

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The Nation, New York (essay date 1916)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[In the following mixed review of The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, the critic, while praising Durkheim's methods for their brilliance and originality, questions the validity of his conclusion that all forms of religion have the same totemistic, rather than naturalistic or animistic, origins.]

It was in 1912 that Les Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse [The Elementary Forms of the Religous Life] appeared; and English readers are fortunate that not more than four years were allowed to elapse before the publication of an English edition. Mr. Swain's translation is hardly brilliant, and in a very few cases his understanding of the French and his choice of English...

(The entire section is 1331 words.)

George Simpson (essay date 1933)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[Simpson is an American professor, translator, and author who specializes infield work on religious cults in the Caribbean and religious sects in South America, the United States, Canada, and England. In the following essay, he analyzes Durkheim's social realism and the validity of his positivistic methodology in the study of society.]

(The entire section is 3088 words.)

Julius Stone (essay date 1934)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[An English-born educator and author, Stone was a leading scholar of international jurisprudence and wrote many works concerning the sociological aspects of law. Below, he assesses the development of Durkheim's theories on the role of law in society in his On the Division of Labor in Society.]

For those who cannot read Durkheim in the French, Mr. Simpson has done a very real service. Emile Durkheim has long been recognized as the successor in France of Auguste Comte, and his later and perhaps most important work—Les Regles de la Mihthode Sociologique (1895)—marks what Dean Pound calls the stage of unification of sociological thinking. For the student of jurisprudence the present...

(The entire section is 1453 words.)

Robert K. Merton (essay date 1934)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[Merton is a leading American social theorist, educator, and author of the popular Social Theory and Social Structure (1949). In the following review of De la division du travail social, he identifies some flaws in Durkheim's methods.]

In a pedestrian, and somewhat infelicitous, fashion, Durkheim's De la division du travail social has been accorded a belated English translation, forty years after its initial [1893] publication. This testimony to the continued esteem with which Durkheim's work is regarded provides the impetus for a reconsideration of the first magnum opus of this hegemonic protagonist of the sociologistic school. The value of such an...

(The entire section is 2748 words.)

Talcott Parsons (essay date 1937)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[Parsons was a prominent American figure in the social sciences whose theories on social systems were considered highly controversial In the following excerpt from The Structure of Social Action, Parsons examines Durkheim's theory of suicide and compares it with the conceptual framework employed in On the Division of Labor in Society.]

(The entire section is 4884 words.)

Harry Alpert (essay date 1938)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[In the following essay, originally published in 1938 in the journal Sociology and Social Research, Alpert explains Durkheim's theory of the function of ritual in Book III of his Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse.]

Functionalism in sociology is seen at its best, perhaps, in Durkheim's analysis of ceremony and ritual. The French sociologist inquired into the nature and functions of ceremonial and ritualistic institutions in Book III of Les Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse. His mode of analysis here follows his general theory of religion which he perceives as an expression, in symbolic form, of social realities. He first determines the religious...

(The entire section is 1491 words.)

Emile Benoit-Smullyan (essay date 1948)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[Benoit-Smullyan was an American economist who specialized in the economics of disarmament and who served as a consultant to the United States Department of Defense in the 1960s. In the following essay, he discusses the origins and development of Durkheim's sociologism.]

Sociologism, as we use the term here, is a synthesis of a positivistic methodology with a particular set of substantive theories, for which we have invented the name "agelecism" (from αγελη, meaning "group"). By "agelecism" we mean the general sociological doctrine which maintains the reality sui generis or the causal priority of the social group qua group. Agelecism in its modern form was introduced...

(The entire section is 8809 words.)

P. M. Worsley (essay date 1956)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[In the excerpt below, Worsley draws from recent ethnographic evidence to reassess Durkheim's theory of knowledge, as exemplified by his study of totemism among aboriginal tribes in his Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.]

As a theorist, Emile Durkheim is perhaps unique amongst recent writers in the extent of his influence upon both sociologists and anthropologists, though it is particularly the thinking of a whole generation of anthropologists which bears the impress of Durkheim's influence—either as a result of direct study of his works, or, indirectly, via the teachings of Radcliffe-Brown. In his comparative sociology, he never hesitated to utilize material from primitive society...

(The entire section is 5568 words.)

Leo F. Schnore (essay date 1958)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[Schnore is an American sociologist and educator who specializes in the sociology of urban life. In the following essay, he identifies three domimant themes in Durkheim's work, explicates his theories, and faults earlier critics for misrepresenting his methods and conclusions.]

Émile Durkheim, of course, was not himself a human ecologist. The ecological viewpoint did not develop within sociology until near the end of Durkeim's life, and then in America. There is no evidence that this new approach to social phenomena exerted any profound influence upon his thought, despite the fact that he regarded "social morphology" as one of the major branches of sociology. In Durkheim's scheme, this field...

(The entire section is 6774 words.)

Harry Alpert (essay date 1959)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[In the following essay, Alpert lauds Durkheim's establishment of and contribution to the social sciences.]

Emile Durkheim was born on April 15, 1858, just seven months and ten days after the death of Auguste Comte. Comte had conceived the potentialities of a science of society and had provided sociology with its barbaric and controversial cognomen, but Durkheim was needed to provide the persistent efforts, by means of theoretical formulations and empirical demonstrations, which made possible the release of the new discipline from the near-pariah status it had acquired in France. Despite the warning of a Sorbonne professor of philosophy that sociological study leads to insanity, Durkheim...

(The entire section is 2138 words.)

Bruce P. Dohrenwend (essay date 1959)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[In the following essay, Dohrenwend provides a conceptual analysis of Durkheim's four types of suicide.]

In recent years, there has been a growing number of empirical studies of relations between environmental factors and mental illness. Such work is confronted by large theoretical problems. Not the least of these is how to conceptualize social and cultural sources of psychological stress. Although existing theory in sociology offers no readymade solution, it does contain some major guideposts. Perhaps the single most important source of these is Emile Durkheim's study of suicide. For in this study, Durkheim locates diverse social conditions or states as major sources of stress for individuals...

(The entire section is 4356 words.)

Robert N. Bellah (essay date 1964)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[The author of Tokugawa Religion (1957), Bellah is an American educator and writer with a special interest in Far Eastern and Middle Eastern societies. The following essay, first published in the August 1959 edition of American Sociological Review, discusses the importance of history to Durkheim's comparative method.]

History was always of central importance in Durkheim's sociological work. Without understanding this, a full appreciation of his contribution to sociology is impossible. From his earliest to his latest work, Durkheim urges the closest rapprochement between sociology and history. In one of his earliest published papers, ["Introduction a la sociologie de la famille,"...

(The entire section is 5120 words.)

Anthony Giddens (essay date 1982)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[In the following essay, Giddens discusses Durkheim's conception of socialism and its current value in his political writings.]

My aim in what follows will not be to offer a textual examination of the various discussions and comments on socialism that are to be found scattered through Durkheim's writings. Rather, I want to pose the question: is there anything in Durkheim's account of socialism that remains of value today, when we inhabit a world which has changed profoundly since Durkheim's time? I do not write as a particular admirer of Durkheim's views about sociology. These views have had an enormous influence, in varying ways and contexts, upon the subsequent development of the social...

(The entire section is 6162 words.)

David Lockwood (essay date 1982)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[Lockwood is an English educator and author of works examining class consciousness and labor. In the following essay, he discusses Durkheim's concept of fatalism and why it "remains Durkheim's hidden theory of order. '

The significance of Durkheim's concept of fatalism [in Suicide] is wholly unappreciated. The idea is seldom discussed and then only in relation to the study of suicide. Unlike anomie, it has had a most undistinguished sociological career. This is curious because if anomie can serve to illuminate in a quite general way the nature of social disorder, why should fatalism not be regarded as having the capacity to provide an explanation of order that is of equally wide scope?...

(The entire section is 7886 words.)