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The Elementary Forms of Religious Life Paperback – Abridged, June 15, 2008
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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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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.
The same might be said of the crucifix for Christians, the Star of David for Jews, or a crescent and star on a green background for Muslims. As material artifacts the symbols are of little intrinsic value. However, as symbols of a collectively shared, morally binding world view they provide much-needed psychological sustenance, especially when invoked for aggregates gathered together to celebrate the rightness of a commonly held perspective.
Readers of Durkheim's earlier work will recognize that such assemblages and displays of a totem will be most effective in simpler societies where experiential commonality gives rise to a well developed collective consciousness. In more complex societies, where a vast diversity of life experiences diminishes the content and efficacy of the collective consciousness, symbols that have totemic influence are hard to find. While the American flag remains one such symbol in the contemporary U.S., the rancorous social, cultural, and political differences that separate Americans make clear that the flag as a totem means different things to different people. This diminishes its value as a source of social cohesion that reminds us of shared beliefs and common outlook. The diminished value of the flag as a totem is both a consequence and a cause of exaggerated diversity, not to be found within simpler organizational forms such as the clan or tribe among Nineteenth Century aboriginal Australians.
Having read The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, one can see the social provenance of commonly held, taken-for-granted ideas of space, time, number, cause and effect, and other fundamental categories. Moreover, Durkheim's conclusion that when people worship their totem they are, in effect, worshiping their clan or tribe is insightfully compelling. As already noted, however, one wonders if increasingly complex and diverse societies are foredoomed to dysfunction and dissolution because the cultural commonality that is manifest in the totemic principle is hard to find in highly differentiated social systems.
Durkeheim's genius, as manifest in his life-long commitment to finding intrinsically social explanations for a broad range of phenomena that are too often erroneously reduced to psychologisms, is abundantly evident throughout The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. His contribution to sociology as a discipline is enormous and typically under-valued.
As an addendum, it is surprising that Durkheim did not use fundamental concepts such as mechanical solidarity, organic solidarity, and collective consciousness (used once), as well as anomie, egoism, altruism, and fatalism in a large number of perfectly suitable ways throughout The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Perhaps they were lost in this translation. Their absence works against establishing explicit continuity with his earlier work.