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The Elementary Forms of Religious Life Paperback – June 15, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

Language Notes

Text: English (translation)
Original Language: French --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Carol Cosman has translated works by Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Balzac and Yasmina Reza Mark Cladis is the author of A Communitarian Defense of Liberalim: Emile Durkheim and Contemporary Social Theory (Stanford, 1992) and editor of Durkheim and Foucault: Perspectives on Education and Punishment (1999).

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford Paperbacks; 1 edition (June 15, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199540128
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199540129
  • Product Dimensions: 7.7 x 0.9 x 5.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #118,062 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

36 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Caraculiambro on June 1, 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Durkheim's "Elementary Forms of the Religious Life" is one of the deepest books I've ever read, but I will leave others to speak of that.

I would like to complain about this particular edition, the "Oxford's World Classics" edition. (This review has apparently been published elsewhere. The edition I'm talking about is a yellow-and-red "Oxford's World's Classics" paperback with a black-and-white photo of Durkheim looking off to his left.)

I have long been looking to replace my worn-out edition, and thought this offering (published 2001) would answer nicely. (Is it just me, or has this book been plagued with editions that have flimsy binding?)

Unfortunately, Amazon buries an important piece of information in its "Editorial Reviews" section: this edition is abridged.

Now, it's lightly abridged. The original, which I have a hand, is only slightly longer than what you're getting here.

Which is what puzzles me: why did they bother to abridge this at all? Printing the entire text would only have added about 30 pages to the thing. The lines they have disincluded seem, at least upon my examination, no more irrelevant or abstruse than what they've decided to include.


There are some good things about this edition, though. There are explanatory footnotes at the end of the text: useful glosses, not those "textual comparison" kind. (The footnotes on the bottom of each page are Durkheim's own.) There is a 29-page introduction. There is also an ethnographic map of Australia. But the biggest plus for me is that the (paperback) binding is super-sturdy and promises to last through many reads.

This is the translation by Carol Cosman, done in 2001 specifically for this edition.
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28 of 31 people found the following review helpful By T. Cushman on February 6, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I, too am disappointed that the new edition is abridged. One reviewer noted that only about 30 pages were taken out, but for serious readers, students, and teachers, it is important to have the book exactly as Durkheim wrote it. I am a professor of sociology and I suppose this edition would be OK for teaching (the introduction is fantastic), but for my own scholarship, I could not depend on it
because I am unsure what has been excised and the rationale. This is not just the idle complaint of a pedant - this is one of the most important books in the history of modern social thought and there is no excuse for abridging it, especially when the cover DOES NOT note that it is abridged. In a classic, every word counts.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By farington on August 25, 2008
Format: Paperback
This book is more than an explanation of the origins of religious belief; Durkheim was ultimately trying to show how religious thought lay the foundation for scientific thought, and how a priori knowledge was based on social norms rather than being "innate". I wouldn't say that Durkheim successfully proved all these notions, but there is enough good material in this book to furnish a reader with starting points for explorations in a number of different directions.

The most important concept in the book, from my perspective, is that of "collective consciousness", meaning the ideas, instincts, and general world-views that are formed by social cohesion. Social conventions are not external to people, they are internalized and appropriated emotionally, taking on the guise of "supernatural" or "divine" truth. Even outside of the religious sphere, one can begin to observe that much that is assumed as "truth" is a function of social convention. The process is organic, with individuals contributing to the process to create a greater whole--the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It opens up the question of what it means to be an individual in society, how much individuality of thought is truly possible, how resistance to collective "groupthink" is possible, and how much of individual identity is shaped by collective forces.

Related to this are ethical questions: are good and evil just products of social convention? Is the idea that there is an absolute measure of good and evil just a result of a social group's elevation of its social norms to divine/sacred status (which is the usual process, according to Durkheim)?
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By not a natural on December 10, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Much of the taken-for-granted substance of contemporary sociology is due to Emile Durkheim. His influence is greater than that of Marx or even the often cited and much lauded Max Weber. Read the prominent contemporary work of Pierre Bourdieu, commonly characterized as a Weberian, and you'll find that he is a Durkheimian through and through, particularly with regard to his best known concepts, cultural capital and social capital.

The question that guided Durkheim throughout his fruitful career was "how is society possible?" In other words, how do we explain social cohesion, avoiding the pathologies and divisiveness attendant to egoism (social isolaltion) and anomie (cultural deregulation), terms introduced by Durkheim in The Division of Labor in Society and effectively applied in his book Suicide?

The Elementary Forms of Religious Life makes a profound contribution to answering questions as to the basis of social cohesion. Though limited almost exclusively to simple, largely undifferentiated societies based on a collective consciousness, Durkheim's account of the emergence and role of elementary religious influences has lessons applicable to contemporary times.

Specifically, Durkheim's discussion of the totem, an animal, plant, natural physical force, or simple material artifact, used to represent a clan or tribe can be likened to the American flag in the U.S., a symbol that has quasi-religious significance. When the flag is displayed, especially to comparatively large aggregates of Americans, it elicits a shared emotional response reflecting a commonly held moral ideal and set of shared beliefs. The shared response, moreover, serves to reaffirm and rejuvenate the moral code and belief system on which the response is based.
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