Durkheim- The Division Of Labor In Society - Clark University- Classical Sociological Theory - Summary Essay

749 words - 3 pages

Zoe Wright
Prof. Delehanty
Classical Sociological Theory
October 10, 2018
The Elementary Forms of Religious Life- Durkheim
Durkheim opens his writing, “The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life” by taking on
a historical lense through which to examine religion. In order to understand the basic tenets of
modern religion, one must go back and observe religion, and society at its most primitive form.
When looking at religion, it becomes difficult to distinguish the central rituals of one religion
from those which are less important. This becomes especially difficult due to the subjective
nature through which religion is often studied. “Lower societies,” as Durkheim refers to them,
come in handy here. Because of the lessened diversity and “intellectual and moral conformity”
displayed within more primitive societies, we see religion displayed in its most true form, before
moral dialogues between divergent sets of though have had the chance to refine or transform
From here, Durkheim focuses on two sets of theories surrounding society and knowledge.
The first, apriorist theory, relies on the idea that our basis of knowledge and thought consists of
two elements, which rely on but cannot be “reduced into one another”. Essentially, man and
society are tied together, and both an individual being and a social being lives within men. The
individual being consists of strictly limited ideas, while the social “represents the highest reality
in the intellectual and moral order”. Durkheim argues through the apriorist theory, that society
allows for a higher level of thought than man could achieve on his own. This leads us to ideas,
which are agreed upon by society without necessitating proof. We must agree on ideas, or social
constructs, if you will, such as time, in order to exist as a society. We need to play into socially
constructed ideas both in order to be judged by others within society as “really human,” but also
to satisfy the bit of society “represented inside of us,” made up by the ideas which we have
internalized. Durkheim argues that since these ideas are “made merely to express social
conditions,” they create our own human reality, and cannot be applied to other realities, such as
that of animals or nature. Our reality, since it is clearly the most evolved, serves as the highest
representation of nature itself. From this, Durkheim concludes that social constructs, such as
time, must originate from nature. This is the empiricist theory in action; the idea that experience
and evidence inform our knowledge. Durkheim unites these two theories here, arguing that
knowledge, which serves to form society comes both from the relationship between individual
and social thought, and through our experiences and observations of the natural world.
Durkheim now turns his focus back to religion, now honing in on the relationship
between society and religion. He first points out that religion is by no means utopic. Even among
popular religions, such as Christianity, there is a designated place and spirit of evil (in this case,
Satan), who serves as an antigod. This is necessary, Durkheim argues, because religion reflects
society, and must reflect both its good and bad aspects. Religion serves as an idealized reality,
which is not to say that evil does not exist. Society, like religion, is created with an ideal in mind,
and idealization is central to both humanity and society.
Religion is also defined by rituals, which serve to honor specific religious events, but also
to draw people within the religion together. Geertz sees events in culture, such as cockfighting in
a similar way. These events draw people within a society together under a culture. In the same
way that we can study religion as a mirror of society, we can study culture. In this way, we can
look at aspects of specific cultures and phenomenon within them, and also learn about the people
and societies who lived under these cultures. Essentially, the cockfight is a representation of
society, social order, and pride, and can tell us a great deal about the inner workings of the
societies which engaged in them.
Durkheim closes his writing by asserting that his theory of religion is not merely a
restatement of historical materialism. Historical materialism claims that social change is driven
by conflicts in relation to the mode of production. Durkheim’s claim, that religion is inherently
social, could then be applied to the theory of historical materialism to deduce that the mode of
production also drives religion, which is not the point which Durkheim is trying to make here.

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