Debate Magazine

Emile Durkheim’s “Elementary Forms”

By Cris

In continuing my survey of early evolutionary theories of religion, I have finally gotten to Durkheim and his successors. In an earlier post, I listed the scholars who preceded Durkheim and covered those (i.e., Auguste Comte and William Robertson Smith) who most influenced him. In this post, I’ll place Durkheim into historical and critical context. He was of course a major participant in evolutionary debates about religion and fundamentally altered the course of those debates. In Britain, he reigned supreme and became the intellectual godfather of British social anthropologists. In the United States, anthropologists rejected many of his ideas and went their own particularist-ethnographic way. Here I present the story of that divergence.

Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912) is a hugely ambitious and complicated book. While it can and often is read in isolation, as a stand-alone and sui generis monograph that firmly established sociology as a distinct discipline and which fundamentally re-oriented the field of evolutionary religious studies, this kind of isolated treatment obscures both its message and Durkheim’s goals. Because Elementary Forms continues to exert enormous influence over the social sciences in general and evolutionary religious studies in particular, an isolated treatment will not suffice. To understand this book, Durkheim’s goals, and its effects, more context is needed.

The starting point for this context is France, its history, and its future, which were always Durkheim’s primary concerns. This history prominently featured the 1789 revolution which had so fractured French society, revealing both deep schisms and apparent fragility. The Revolution and Reign of Terror was promptly followed by the tumultuous Napoleonic era (1799-1815) and what has been called France’s long century, which featured a dizzying array of restorations, republics, empires, and revolutions. After its decisive defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the new republic embarked on a program of national soul searching. Durkheim, then a graduate student, was sent to Germany to study its vaunted university system, which the French suspected had given Germany a distinct advantage in the war. While on tour, Durkheim was deeply impressed by German unity or nationalism and was also exposed to Wilhelm Wundt’s pioneering work in social psychology.

Upon his return to France, Durkheim reported on these issues and then turned his attention toward the effects being wrought by the rapid industrialization of French society. He was particularly interested in the division of labor and the apparent atomization of society into distinct or autonomous spheres. With recent French history much on his mind, he worried that specialization would lead to more schism. In his mind, advancing individualism posed a serious threat to society or the collective. Durkheim was concerned first and foremost with social cohesion and (French) solidarity. This prescriptive concern can be found in all of Durkheim’s work.

Working in this milieu, Durkheim aspired to establish a new science of society. He was keenly aware of the fact that Tylor had attempted to do something similar with anthropology. Durkheim, however, was dissatisfied with the culture-concept, which in practice seemed to focus far too much on individuals, minds, and psychology. Because scholars and scientists could not enter or know the minds of individuals, Durkheim thought the entire enterprise far too speculative, especially as practiced in its evolutionary forms. Minds were too subjective, unknowable, and variable as objects of scientific study. They were not “facts.” In contrast, Durkheim thought that society itself was a “fact” could be studied scientifically.

During the 1890s, Durkheim was mostly concerned with establishing sociology as a new discipline and science. He published several works with this goal in mind, including The Division of Labor in Society (1893), The Rules of Sociological Method (1895), and Suicide: A Study in Sociology (1897). In 1898, he founded L’Année Sociologique, an academic journal devoted to the new discipline. While doing all this, Durkheim closely followed developments in anthropology, which he saw as a rival and inferior discipline. He was keenly aware of the fact that anthropologists were publishing at a torrid pace and that anthropology was establishing itself in the minds of academics and the public as a premier discipline. This posed a threat to Durkheim and his new discipline. 

Given his disagreement with anthropology’s focus and methods, Durkheim searched for ways to shift the debate and turn attention to his new science. Because most of the debates in anthropology at the time revolved around religion, Durkheim saw an opening. He would enter these debates, shift the focus, re-orient the field, and establish sociology as the dominant or premier discipline. The new science of humanity would, according to Durkheim, be social and collective rather than cultural and individualist. It has to count as one of the most remarkable facts of intellectual history that Durkheim largely succeeded. After he published Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, sociology would be firmly established as a discipline and its rival, anthropology, would be forever changed.

Durkheim’s goals, all of which he attempted to realize in Elementary Forms, were so diverse and ambitious that it is hard to know where to begin. An adequate exegesis would require an entire book and there are in fact such books, not to mention an academic cottage industry surrounding Durkheim in general and Elementary Forms in particular. With these things in mind, it is perhaps best to begin at the end: with modern understandings of Elementary Forms.

Elementary Forms is of course a classic. It is required reading for most undergraduate social science courses, and is considered a foundational text of sociology. It is also required reading for anyone interested in religious studies. As a consequence of its canonical status, many educated people have either read it in whole or part and have a general understanding of its import. This understanding has seeped into the popular consciousness and references or allusions to Durkheim and Elementary Forms are common. As these understandings go, there is something like a general consensus regarding Durkheim’s thesis. 

This understanding usually goes like this: Durkheim thought that religion was a binding and integrating social force. All societies, from the simplest and most “primitive” to the most complex and modern, used or required religion to bind and bond the group. Without religion, societies could not cohere. This coherence is engendered primarily by rituals in which all group members participate. These rituals arouse emotions that make people more devoted to the collective or group. Durkheim attempted to prove these propositions by showing how them at work among most “primitive” and simplest society known: the Australian aborigines. Aborigine society was structured around clans and each clan had a totem. The totem was sacred and rituals organized around it. The duties and obligations of clan members toward one another all flowed from totemic ritual. Thus, ethics and morals were grounded in religion. In the end, all societies are structured around religion and without religion, society can neither cohere nor survive.

When stated and understood this way, it is easy to see why Elementary Forms has become an enduring and influential classic. It offers a bit of something for everyone: liberals who place emphasis on society or collectives like its pro-social message. Conservatives who place emphasis on faith and ritual like its pro-religion message. Everyone, it seems, finds in Elementary Forms what they want to find, and read into it – or out of it – whatever it is that suits their needs and interests. The irony is that most or nearly all these understandings are partial, distorted, caricatured, or simply wrong. The larger irony stems from the fact that Elementary Forms is flawed on several levels: points of fact, logic of argument, assumptions of method, and understanding of authorities. Although Durkheim pays a great deal of lip service to science and scientific methods, these are more honored in the breach than the observance. Elementary Forms often reads like a sacred text or metaphysical treatise. Despite all this, its canonicity is secure.

All this requires some, or a great deal, of explanation. I do not claim to have discovered any special meaning in Elementary Forms and have not, for the first time, cracked its metaphysical-social code. What I have done is read it, for the first time (in four readings spread over three decades), in the historical and intellectual context in which it was written. Elementary Forms may be read alone today, and it may stand alone as a work of scholarship, but it was deeply embedded in the debates that surrounded early anthropology and which established sociology as a discipline. Durkheim was responding directly to the early anthropologists and conversing with them. In the process, he was bringing to these debates a new and valuable perspective, one that had tangled roots in French history, Kantian philosophy, Enlightenment progressivism, Comtean positivism, and Victorian anthropology. Durkheim, in other words, was doing far more than writing what he considered to be (and is) the foundational text for the new academic discipline of sociology.


Durkheim opens Elementary Forms with an extended critique of anthropological theories of religion, with which is deeply familiar. He parcels those theories into two categories: “animism” and “naturism,” with some overlap between them. As articulated by Tylor, Spencer, Frazer, Lubbock, and others, the former asserts that people naturally generate soul and spirit beliefs. These beliefs form the foundation of animism which eventually evolves into religion. As articulated by Max Müller, RR Marett, and others, the latter asserts that people are awed by wondrous nature and thus equate its powers and forces with the supernatural or spiritual. These ideas form the foundation of naturism which eventually evolves into religion. Durkheim examines these theories in detail and rejects them, initially at least, on their own terms. He argues either that similar ideas might arise in alternative ways, or that these ideas were formulated recently in time and thus cannot be foundational. 

This part of Durkheim’s critique is less than convincing. His alternative psychological explanations for animist-naturist beliefs and ideas are counter-intuitive and abstruse; moreover, even if we assume Durkheim is correct, alternatives are not refutations. And when Durkheim resorts to arguing that some of these ideas came later in time and were not, therefore, evolutionary precursors, he is entering the speculative swamp that bogged down the cultural evolutionists and resulted in so much criticism from Boas and others. There simply is not enough prehistoric, ethnographic, or evolutionary data by which he (or anyone else) can judge these temporal and sequential issues.


But Durkheim does not end his critique here; his next objection is far more interesting. He observes that these theories assume or assert that animist-naturist beliefs and ideas are mistaken, erroneous, false, or illusory. For two reasons, Durkheim finds this unacceptable. First, he contends that for a theory of religion to be scientific, it must be founded on data and that data must be real – it must actually exist. In Durkheim’s estimation, mistaken beliefs and illusory ideas are phantoms or chimera – they are not the kind of data on which a scientific theory can or should be built. When animist-naturist beliefs and ideas are dismissed as phantasmagorical or explained as epiphenomena, there is no substance left: neither sufficient data nor solid facts on which to ground a theory of religion. While this is of course arguable (and may even be doubtful), it is a nice cautionary and methodological note. Regardless, it leads directly to his second point: if animist-naturist beliefs and ideas are nothing more than error, mistake, and falsehood, how can their persistence be explained?

Durkheim argues that if animist-naturist beliefs and ideas are errors, mistakes, and falsehoods, they would have had deleterious effects. Over evolutionary time, these effects would have been discovered, corrected, and eliminated. Yet they have not, and animism-naturism persists, as does religion. Though he was a positivist and considered himself a scientist, Durkheim could not accept the progressivist argument, made by so many of his peers, that these errors and illusions had in fact been discovered and corrected, by science.

Durkheim apparently found it hard to believe that humanity could have survived or succeeded, and accomplished what it obviously had, while laboring under falsehoods and illusions that were neither discovered nor corrected until the Enlightenment. And even then, Enlightenment had come to only a few. Durkheim knew that for the vast majority of people in the world past and present, there was no science, no discovery, no correction, and no Enlightenment. For Durkheim, this was inexplicable. There had to be some other explanation for religion – there must, he insists, be an “ever present cause” that has sustained religion, and which continues to sustain it, over time.

What is this cause? It cannot be that the beliefs and ideas are themselves true, in a factual or scientific sense. They are, Durkheim asserts, in fact false. Their existence must be accounted for in some other way, in terms of something present, real, active, and “objective.” Durkheim identifies this real and active force, toward which all religious rituals and beliefs are directed, as society itself. Society is an objective fact and, in Durkheim’s estimation, it is the single most important and potent force in human life. Without society, the group, or the collective, humans would be nothing – individuals cannot survive, grow, learn, flourish, or reproduce without it. All of existence is owed to society and that which makes us human is society.

This is the context we must consider when evaluating Durkheim’s metaphysical claim that society generates its own realities and imposes them on individuals. These realities, which need not be “true” or factual from a scientific perspective, are “social facts” produced by what Durkheim calls “collective consciousness.” While individualist-oriented Anglo-Americans may be quick to dismiss these claims as yet another instance of French obfuscation, this would be mistake. If we take Durkheim seriously, and evaluate these claims from an evolutionary perspective (which Durkheim took for granted), they make considerable sense. Over the long and continuing course of evolutionary time, humans have always been born into societies that are themselves the living product of a long evolutionary history. These societies, and the people within them, are the inheritors of a social-cultural past which they will, in turn, pass on (sometimes in modified form) to the next generation. This past is always a living, real, and present force. Society is this force and it has power. 

This perspective, which Durkheim originated, has come to be known as social constructivism. In reaction and opposition to the excesses of early evolutionist anthropology, Durkheim articulated this perspective in the strongest possible terms. Individuals are completely submerged and swamped by the sea of society and its collective representations. Society so dominates individuals that it acquires a dual aspect: it is above them but also inside them. This duality, in turn, gives rise to the symbols which seem to be internal (i.e., in our minds) but which actually are external (i.e., outside us in society). Individuals, Durkheim argues, cannot even have thoughts or experiences outside of those transmitted, mediated, and enabled by society. In fact, individuals are so utterly dependent on society that it creates the very categories and taxonomies that humans use to order, evaluate, and negotiate the external world. Society functions, in other words, as a neo-Kantian cognitive and behavioral apparatus. It structures everything. There is no individual psychology in Durkheim’s scheme.

While Durkheim has been justly criticized for overstating his case and turning group life or society into an all-determining monolith, he makes a powerful point. Tylor and others had in fact recognized this social point and recognized it as a weakness to their approach, one that they regretted but felt was necessary at the time. They understood that the culture-concept implied a much larger field of social interaction, but for methodological and tactical reasons they chose to launch anthropology on the basis of individual psychology. Tylor realized that his approach was simply a starting point that required social supplementation. Little did he realize that this (social) supplementation would not be complementary, but would be in opposition. Durkheim sought to wholly displace individualist anthropology and replace it with collective sociology. Ironically, he seems to have largely succeeded, at least among the next few generations of anthropologists.

But before we get to that part of our story, we must consider how, in Elementary Forms, Durkheim accomplished all this. Having examined and dismissed anthropological theories of religion, he builds his own on the foundation of a famous dichotomy: the supposed division of human life into the sacred and profane. Though Durkheim contends (and may have believed) that he derived this dichotomy from empirical observation, it seems more likely that it reflects and reproduces the ideological Enlightenment distinction between the religious and secular. As a secular or atheist positivist, Durkheim certainly would have been attracted to this idea and may have wanted to extend and embed it in his new science of sociology. Whatever the case, the distinction between the sacred and profane has an arbitrary, if not a priori, feel to it and hardly seems promising as a scientific foundation.

Perhaps sensing this weakness, Durkheim seeks to anchor this distinction empirically by locating it among Australian Aborigines. Because Aborigines supposedly represent the early human condition and a basal form of society, if the dichotomy exists among Aborigines it must be foundational. It is not surprising, therefore, that Durkheim has no difficulty finding that their lives do in fact revolve around the sacred/profane. As Durkheim interpreted the limited ethnographic record, Aboriginal life was seasonal and periodic. During profane times, Aborigines were widely dispersed in small foraging bands. This was ordinary, day-to-day life devoted exclusively to the practical business of making a living from the land. During sacred times, Aborigines gathered into larger groups for ritual activities. These were extraordinary and emotional affairs which aroused intense emotions and bonded individuals to the group.

These groups were of course clans, which Durkheim believed were the basic or fundamental units of Aboriginal society. He also believed these units were always associated with and structured around totems, which were sacred symbols of the clan. Because all ritual activity revolved around the clan totem, what was being worshipped was not the totem or symbol, but instead was the clan or society. By this view, everything associated with the clan or society was sacred and everything else was profane. Society creates the most basic or fundamental conceptual taxonomy by which people live and structure their lives. As Durkheim would have it, the social, emotional, and extraordinary is sacred, whereas the individual, practical, and ordinary is profane.

Given Durkheim’s insistence on the absolute dominance of society and the individual’s total dependence on it, one might reasonably ask how anything could ever be profane. This, however, is a question that Durkheim does not ask. It is just one of many problems with his scheme. Had Durkheim frankly acknowledged that his primary concerns were with complex societies and modern nation-states, and not insisted that his scheme was evolutionary and universal, he perhaps would not have been forced into so many errors. These errors began with his reading of Aboriginal ethnography.

At the time Durkheim wrote, the Aboriginal record was sparse and unrepresentative. The clan is not in fact the basic unit of Aboriginal society and clan totemism is not universal in Australia. There is little or no evidence which suggests that Aborigines dichotomize their lives, time, experiences, or life into categories that correspond to the sacred and profane. Though this is neither the time nor place to detail such issues, it is now clear – based on an enormous ethnographic record – that Durkheim had only the dimmest understanding of Aboriginal worldviews, including its most fundamental aspect, the Dreaming.

For reasons difficult to explain, Elementary Forms was an enormous success among anthropologists. It was, after all, filled with empirical errors and metaphysical speculations. It was based on an extremely limited ethnographic record, which Durkheim had interpreted in ways to suit his underlying purposes. Durkheim had not demonstrated, especially in any scientific way, that the purpose of religion and function of ritual was to bind people together and make society cohere. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how anything of this nature might be measured, tested, and proven.

While Durkheim had asserted all these propositions and argued for them rather ingeniously, the case was not made and certainly not closed. It may be that the second generation of anthropologists had tired of grand evolutionary theorizing and were eager to go about their business in a new way. While Boaz had long been critical of such theorizing, he had offered nothing to replace it: there was no frame (other than the dead end of diffusion) into which ethnographic data could be fitted. Durkheim offered a theoretical alternative that was, at least on its face, non-evolutionary. After Durkheim, anthropologists could simply accept it as a given that society was paramount and that all aspects of culture (including “religion” and ritual) functioned to maintain it.

Though there were some variations on this theme (i.e., Malinowski’s psychological functionalism) and its assumptions, the Durkheimian paradigm would dominate anthropology for the next fifty years. Anthropologists working within this paradigm could go to the field, gather data, and write ethnographies that stood on their own rather than in the service of evolutionary theory. During this period, a number of classic ethnographies were produced, many of which were concerned primarily with religion and ritual (or “magic, sorcery, and witchcraft”). While some (such as those by Radcliffe-Brown and Evans-Pritchard) explicitly acknowledged their Durkheimian theoretical orientation, others (such as those by Fortune and Benedict) simply assumed it and presented ethnographic data that was ostensibly free of theory.

This long outpouring of Durkheimian and structural-functional ethnography prompted Clifford Geertz to famously observe, in 1966, that the anthropology of religion was in “a state of general stagnation” and there had been no theoretical advances since Durkheim. While this was not entirely correct (for reasons I will later explain), his frustration was understandable. All these ethnographies had undoubtedly been empirically enriching, yet they did little to enhance our understanding of religion. They certainly were not interested in explaining it and neither was Geertz. His suggestion was to creatively and symbolically interpret it.

As invigorating as Geertz’s critique was, it ignored a critical point: Durkheim’s theoretical dominance, expressed most emphatically in structural-functionalism but assumed by most to be correct, was not a break from evolutionism. Elementary Forms is shot through with evolutionary ideas and theory. Durkheim had no problem with evolution and in fact was a cultural evolutionist. He simply did not care for the evolutionary theorizing of the early anthropologists. It was too focused on individuals, minds, and ideas or doctrines. In shifting the focus to collectives, emotions, and practices or rituals, Durkheim did not reject evolutionary theory. He transformed it, using religion as his instrument.

As Durkheim’s theory was interpreted and applied by anthropologists, its evolutionist aspects were either stripped out or ignored. While this gave post-Durkheimian ethnographies the appearance of being evolution-free, they were not. Whenever and wherever the “primitive” makes an appearance after 1912, cultural evolution is lurking in the background. This is due in large part to Durkheim, who variously asserted that “primitives” from simple or small-scale societies represent an earlier evolutionary stage of development. The long-term effects of his argument were twofold; both were pernicious.

The first effect was that most scholars assumed Durkheim had effectively explained religion, in part by refuting anthropological and cultural evolutionists. For these scholars, the issue was settled and there was no need for further explanation. Because Durkheim’s theory had accounted for evolution, or at least assumed it to be correct, there was no need for additional inquiry along evolutionary lines. While there might be elaborations and refinements of Durkheim’s theory, such as structural-functionalism, these elaborations and refinements would occur within the Durkheimian paradigm. This paradigm would lead, eventually, to social constructivism that not only ignored evolution, but which flatly rejected it. Evolution, whether cultural or biological or both, need not be considered or even discussed. Few seem to have noticed or cared that Durkheim’s theory was grounded in cultural rather than biological evolution. Any distinction between the two was simply ignored.

Ironically, the second effect of Durkheim’s dominance was that the cultural evolutionist concept of the “primitive” became deeply entrenched. Indeed, it became so deeply entrenched that many subsequent scholars seem not to have noticed that the study of so-called “primitives” implied and entailed evolutionary consideration. While explicit evolutionism could be ignored or rejected, the “primitive” nonetheless remained a valid concept and category. In Elementary Forms, Durkheim explained that he was using Aborigines to illustrate his theory because they were the simplest known society. He saw them as evolutionary exemplars – precursors to more complex forms. Totemism, Durkheim claimed, was the earliest form of religion. Everything that came later had been built on a base of totemism, which had been universal among humans at some distant point in the cultural evolutionary past. From so simple a beginning, the great religions had evolved in myriad and increasingly complex forms.

This view blinded later generations of scholars to the complexity of hunter-gatherer worldviews. Safe in the assumption that these worldviews were simple, there was no need to consider or analyze them with the seriousness they deserved and required. No one bothered to ask how those worldviews operated in terms of epistemology or ontology. Everyone simply assumed they were metaphysical and perhaps ethical, yet no one probed more deeply. These assumptions, and lack of procedure, still prevail among many scholars today. The concept of the simple “primitive” is alive and well. This is due in part to another effect of Durkheim’s theory: he took it as a given that what “primitives” had to say about their rituals and religion was false. Because their explanations and justifications were empirically mistaken, there was always some other explanation or justification for what they said, thought, and did.

This remarkable procedure became the stock in trade for later generations of anthropologists, causing them to provide all manner of fantastic and creative explanations for what “natives were really doing.” Primitives apparently had no idea why they thought and acted as they did; anthropologists knew better. This view would lead ultimately to purely symbolic approaches or “interpretations” of primitive worldviews and religion. While often brilliant, they revealed more about anthropologists than they did about natives.

Durkheim marks a major divide in the history of anthropology. While an evolutionist, he effectively put an end to evolutionary theorizing and ethnography. The functionalism that followed was based on Durkheim’s assertion that society was paramount and everything within a society functioned to maintain it. Some anthropologists, taking their cue from Boas, decided to dispense with theory altogether and content themselves largely with description. They could do so safe in the assumption that Durkheim (and his anthropological descendants) had formulated theories that made sense of their ethnographic data.

The result was a several decade long period during which a great deal of ethnographic data was gathered and several classic ethnographies were written. Many of these focused on subjects – such as magic, ritual, and religion – that had previously been the primary fodder for cultural evolutionist schemes. They were now fodder for social functionalist schemes that kept their cultural evolutionary assumptions about “primitives” hidden.

Some of the better known ethnographies from this period include Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), Radcliffe-Brown’s The Andaman Islanders (1922) and Social Organization of Australian Tribes (1931), Fortune’s Sorcerers of Dobu (1932), and Evans-Pritchard’s Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande (1937) and Nuer Religion (1956). All these ethnographies, along with a host of others less well known, chose simple, traditional, or “primitive” societies as their subjects, in part on the strength of the assumption that these represented an early stratum of evolutionary or cultural development. And because these ethnographies often focused on magic, ritual, religion, and the supernatural, “primitives” and “savages” were universally seen as being enveloped in myth and superstition.

In the United States, where Durkheim’s influence was less substantial, these same decades also produced a great deal of valuable ethnography. To the extent that it was guided or driven by theory, it was diffusionist and largely concerned with sequences, patterns, and culture areas. It was also driven by the recognition that Native American cultures were fast disappearing, and that those able to recall ancestral ways would soon be gone. Cultural evolutionist assumptions about “primitives” and “savages” were simply taken for granted without being discussed or analyzed in evolutionary schemes.

Under the influence of Boas and his well-placed students, American anthropologists generated a truly enormous body of ethnographic data, much of it focused on ritual, religion, and the supernatural. Some of these materials still sit in archives, having never been written up or incorporated into monographs. The materials that were written up tend to be descriptive and historical; they were not used to prove or illustrate evolutionary or functionalist theories. Today, these often brilliant ethnohistories tend to fall under the rubric of “native studies” and are not much read by scholars working in evolutionary religious studies. This is, as I will later explain, unfortunate.

The upshot of all this is that for nearly fifty years (i.e., from 1920 to 1970) most anthropological work on religion was either (Durkheimian) social-functional or (diffusionist) descriptive-historical. While it would not do justice to characterize this era as one of ethnographic butterfly collecting and theory confirmation, the characterization is in some ways apt. As Geertz observed in 1973, there had been little or no theoretical advance on religion since Freud and Durkheim. While this criticism had some merit, it ignored (among other things) the fact that not all anthropologists accepted Durkheim’s critique or his alternative paradigm. The first rejection appeared in 1924 with the publication of Robert Lowie’s Primitive Religion. Lowie’s book will be the subject of my next post in this series. 


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