Debate Magazine

Data Meets Durkheim

By Cris

Ever since Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), most scholars have assumed the collective rituals function to arouse emotions and bond people together into more cohesive groups. In this post, I commented on this assumption and the remarkable fact that Durkheim’s big idea had never been tested or supported with anything other than qualitative observations. The post also noted that the idea was in fact being tested by Dmitri Xygalatas and that this seemed to be a nice start. In response to all this, Dominik Lukes left a comment which bears close consideration:

My first reaction was “proof, what proof.” [Durkheim's idea] is so obvious, no additional proof is needed. And indeed, we could easily think of this in an axiomatic way. But on reflection, I think that it is far from obvious that “collective rituals function to maintain the cohesion of groups or society”.

This notion has such wide appeal because it resonates with so many situations all scholars can relate to both personally and professionally. It is hard to think of groups of any size that don’t develop some ritualized behaviors overtime. But I could easily think of at least two other ways in which this could be explained.

1. Since all groups have to have some cohesion to be groups in the first place (groups with no cohesion are not groups but just random groupings), rituals could be an expression of that cohesion rather than a necessity for it. This would explain why those who express stronger attachments are more likely to take part in the rituals.

2. Rituals could be an expression of something else (e.g. human tendency toward repetitive behavior) and groups simply have to accommodate them. They may become carriers of cohesion once they’re in place but they don’t do anything to maintain it.

But I don’t think you can test for these hypotheses because you always have to find some proxies – such as expressing a feeling of belonging – and make some testable predictions about them. But because group cohesion is such a complex thing (frankly we don’t have an unproblematic definition of group or ritual – let alone cohesion) you can’t formulate any definitive set of testable prediction types. Or it will be so large you’re bound to meet some and fail others simply by chance. But I think we can take these scenarios as metaphors and play them out on any given piece of evidence and see what that can reveal about them.

Can Durkheim’s idea be tested? In this recent Aeon article, Dmitri Xygalatas explains his research and findings in much greater detail. His methods and results appear sound, though the intensity of the rituals he has studied may limit any larger inferences. It’s a fantastic article, but while reading it I kept thinking about Dominik’s comments (above) and the alternative ways in which Xygalatas’ results might be construed. Regardless, some testing is better than no testing, and it’s nice to see data meeting Durkheim.


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