Lecture 10 Oct. 11. 2011
The Legacy of Durkheim
Emile Durkheim (1858-1917)
• ‘Toward the end of the 19th C, theoretician Emile Durkheim moved social sciences in the
direction of French rationalism. In the 20th C this led to the anthropological schools of
structuralism and functionalism. (p.17)
• Inheritors of Durkheim’s innovation are Radcliffe-Brown, Malinowski and Levi-Strauss.
• What are the elements which arose out of his attempt to reconcile two philosophical positions,
which gave rise to these different theoretical approaches?
We can trace elements in Durkheim which include an evolutionary perspective as well.
• Durkheim is one of the big three
• Durkheim • Marx & • Weber
• He stresses the value of studying the simplest societies, those that are the most primitive in
order to understand religion
• In these cases, explanation is possible without borrowing anything from any other religion.
• He speaks of ethnographers and historians interchangeably - the simplest forms will tell us
what is essential and permanent in religious aspect of humanity.
• The most barbarous rite - translates into a human need.
• By studying other forms of religion (primitive) we are learning about ourselves.
• Echoes Morgan’s ‘germ of an institution’ & that of Mead
What is the philosophical opposition he resolves?
• Empiricism - analysis of sensually observable facts
• Nominalism (rationalism; aprioritism) - a priori categories (Kantian Position as well)
• name things and then look for evidence in the world to fill that category
• Can either one of these positions adequately explain social phenomenon?
• No - in order to understand religion, for ex, we have to understand the collective
representations which represent the collective realities of the community (society.)
• These collective representations are shared and historical - powerful differentiation between
individual and society.
• His suggestion is that individual behaviour is guided by this representation - what happens to
• does change take place in Durkheim’s thought?
• structuralist model that could not account for change
The Cosmos Reflects Society
- not only do humans create this representation of themselves but ..
• Makes argument that the division of time into periods reflects human activities, particularly
• Makes argument that cosmological notions of space reflect spacial arrangements in
• Society not just acts as a cohesive point for human beings but also structures their
perceptions of the cosmos. Man has dual nature; founded in the organism and a social being as a result of being a
member of society.
• ‘In so far as he belongs to society, the individual transcends himself, both when he thinks and
when he acts.’ (p.85)
• similar to organic/super organic
• Cartesian duality: mind/body but also moral elements
What Key problems does he pass on to next generation of theorists?
• He, like Kroeber, sees the social/cultural as existing beyond the human being (the individual).
The question is how does this disembodied entity change?
• His approach is static in the sense that it does not allow for change (Radcliffe-Brown)
His approach sees society and its various institutions as serving basic human needs. This
echoes a kind of psychic unity of mankind of the evolutionists but also presages Malinowski’s
functionalist idea of basic needs.
• He is concerned about how the world is classified and talks about ‘categories of
understanding’ such as time, space, number, class etc (p.80-81) Levi-Stauss and others
became concerned with classification and elementary structures.
The Concept of Structure
Definition of Structure
• Structure is about relationships
• What are the relationships between elements.
• In understanding what elements the theorist identifies as most significant and then
understanding the relationships between them that are seen as critical, a clear sense of the
distinctiveness of the theory can be gained.
• Once this is undertaken it is possible to use pairs of opposites to contrast different theorists
Exercise: w/ examples.