Emile Durkheim was the first European to actually hold a ‘chair’ in sociology. Actually it was in education and sociology because there were no ‘pure’ sociology departments back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was born in 1857 and died in 1917 just before the end of World War I. There is much in Durkheim that I disagree with but much that I consider brilliant. I disagree with his reification of society and his notion that a society can either be healthy or ill. He refers to sociology as social pathology, or the study of what makes society ill. That’s a bit of a stretch for me. I’ve been a sociologist for a long time but I’m not sure that ‘society’ exists. Social relations exist in a myriad of interweavings and interdependencies, but society as a thing? No, I’m not convinced. But does that negate his whole ‘oeuvre?’ Not at all. His Elementary Forms of the Religious Life is quite brilliant and for two important reasons. First, he argues, based on his studies of Australian aboriginal clans (from his office in France), that religion and society are one and the same thing. Clan and totemic organization are so intertwined as to be singly incomprehensible. In a more general sense, he argues that gods are personifications and projections of the society itself. Projections (which are a complex of moral and behavioural precepts) are then used to judge individuals in the society itself. This makes perfect sense to me. He’s not the only one who argues similar things, but his argument is prototypical. The second reason is his emphasis on ritual as the application of ‘glue’ that holds us together in our social bonds. Ritual brings people together in an attempt to strengthen social connections and interdependencies, even when these are built on a foundation of power imbalances and sometimes extreme inequalities.
So, what is the upshot of all of this? Well, a most important one is that God (or gods) and all of religious belief and ritual are socially-constructed. So, as a Christian, when you pray to God you are praying to your society. In our case, Christianity is fully compatible with the notion of individual responsibility and private property rights. Christianity has been able over the centuries to adapt to the political and economic engines of the ages and it has served those political and economic interests well. In saying this I disagree in a sense with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins in their intractable denial of the existence of God. I agree with them that there is no God ‘out there’ somewhere looking after each and every one of us. But God does exist, in the minds, institutions and habits of people all over the world. In a future blog I address the issue of self-esteem and complete surrender to God which is a driving idea for many Christians. That notion makes complete sense from the perspective of Durkheim’s work.
Another important lesson arising from engagement with Durkheim’s work is his focus on ritual as a binding force. As humans we are driven by ritual in our relations with others. Durkheim argues that the less we are integrated into society by engaging in ritual which must always involve others(fully bound by its morality) the more we are susceptible to suicide. These are critical concepts for sociology, at least my sociology.