Durkheim’s Social Mystification

In a recent post on Durkheim, I observed that he seems to have been mystified by the fact that humans are social and live in groups. Since writing that post, I read Gary Trompf’s “Durkheim on Original and Aboriginal Religion” (2011) (open), in which he discusses Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s considerable influence on Durkheim. In particular, Durkheim took from Rousseau the idea that in the prehistoric past (i.e., “the state of nature”), humans were not social. For Rousseau and Durkheim, society was not “natural phenomenon” and social conventions are artificial, “manifestly contrary to the law of nature” (Trompf at 269, quoting from Durkheim’s Montesqieu and Rousseau: Forerunners of Sociology).

This squarely states one of the problems I have with Durkheim. While he and Rousseau may wish (for methodological reasons) to imagine a time when humans were not social and did not live in groups, there was no such time. Humans are primates and we have been living in social groups or “societies” for millions of years. In fact, humans are the most social of primates because we have language, which is itself the outcome of millions of years of intense sociality.

While Durkheim may have been mystified by human sociality and society, there is no reason for us to be (or to accept the abstruse argument he makes in Elementary Forms of the Religious Life). It really is not that hard to explain, and we certainly don’t require “religion” (in the form of totemism) to account for it. People are talking primates. With words or symbols, we can fictitiously extend kinship and comradeship to non-kin. In doing so, we extend the bounds of our in-group and form ever larger groups.

Also since writing that last post (which juxtaposed Emile Durkheim with Frans de Waal), I’ve come across an extended interview in which de Waal pimps his new book explains that humans are primates and (except for language) really aren’t all that special or different from other primates. In “The Cosmopolitan Ape,” de Waal also has a number of things to say about religion. Check it out.


Did you like this? Share it:

4 thoughts on “Durkheim’s Social Mystification

  1. Juggernaut Nihilism

    Hi Cris,

    I’m still working my way through the blog archive, getting a feel for your train of thought, so correct me if I’m wrong:

    Your idea is that Durkheim is wrong to think that religion (specifically in the form of totemism) was solely responsible for the first instances of extra-kinship human sociality, since such an explanation is only necessary if one assumes that humans are naturally anti-social. If you do not assume that humans are naturally anti-social, then you need no deus ex machina, and see extra-kinship sociality as a natural step for an inherently social species once we acquired language, since larger groups incorporating non-kin groups have a natural advantage over smaller, kin-only groups.

    But would you also say that, during the Neolithic and early Bronze Age, when population density went parabolic, religion (along with brutal autocracy) received more emphasis in response to the new urban arrangements that had non-kin living literally next door to one another and interacting on a daily basis? For although language provided man the ability to develop symbolic kinship, he doesn’t seem to use it for that without the impetus of a priest and a king wielding their carrots and sticks. I haven’t seen much evidence of kinship-based aboriginals forming complex societies without being forced or converted. I suppose the Iroquois League may be a counter-example, but generally I think of the accounts of Buganda and other places where the typical struggle in early complex societies was of a fledgling state nearly at war with its own constituent tribes over the loyalty of their individual members. You have said that what we usually call “religion” is really a specific Axial Age version that arose specifically to deal with the unique challenges of urban sociality.

    It has been a decade since I read Durkheim’s book, and I was under duress, so I need to go back and look into it again. It seems to me that humans are naturally social within the kin group, and certainly language was the deciding factor in allowing human societies to transcend kinship boundaries; however, I don’t think it is enough to simply say that, once we acquired language and symbolic thinking, it was only natural that we began to form larger, extra-kin groups. Many groups have had language for a long time and still today have not transcended the kinship-system. We can imagine that a great, great majority of societies in the history of the world never transcended the kinship system, only they were exterminated by those that did. One massive extra-kin society came to North America in the 16th century and quickly annihilated countless little groups who had not made the jump. So I can hardly think of it as a natural step for a social animal once it acquires language. The specific ends to which the language is directed seem to be very important, and it seems to be the exception, rather than the rule, that those ends are invoked – only, when they are invoked, it leaves a mark. I guess my point is, I cannot imagine that early men, having acquired language and concepts complex enough to suit the task, began forming groups based on shared goals, common aspirations, etc. I simply can’t imagine because I have seen no evidence, even in our “advanced” modern society, that this has been the case. That would be the “natural” step that a social creature would take once he acquired language, but I just don’t see it. I find it much easier to imagine early men – and modern ones – using language to demonize an Other, rallying non-kin who are nonetheless relatively close into a social organism formed – always – in opposition to that Other, on which it depends for its existence. Under this scenario, complex societies are not a natural outgrowth of man’s inherent good nature, but a mutation of his inherent hostility to outsiders.

  2. Sabio Lantz

    Interesting — your writing style is great — I can hardly wait for the book(s) you will publish.

    Do you recommend reading DeWaal’s stuff (even if self-promoting — which ain’t so bad,eh? that is what humans do).

    I can see how viewing prehistoric humans as asocial or peaceful or one-with-their-environment or any such thing could twist a theory irreparably.

  3. Cris Post author

    Sorry that took so long Sabio (semester just ended and I had finals to grade) and thanks for the compliment. I definitely recommend de Waal’s stuff, though after you’ve read a few of his primary books his observations will become repetitive.

    This was a point made be a reviewer of his recent book, along with some additional observations about religion-atheism that might interest you. The article is behind a paywall but you can find it here.

Leave a Reply