Testing Durkheim

When Emile Durkheim proclaimed, in Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), that collective rituals functioned to maintain the cohesion of groups or society, it was as if God had spoken. It did not take long for Durkheim’s diktat to become enshrined as the received wisdom in anthropology, sociology, and religious studies. I have always been amazed by the unquestioning acceptance of this idea and the rapidity with which it was adopted by scholars who are normally (or at least should be) skeptical. The notion is so deeply entrenched today that few bother to question it.

It may well be true that collective rituals function in this way, but I’ve never seen any actual proof. While the idea feels correct and appears to accord with observation, feelings and appearances can be deceptive. I’ve long thought that the closest thing we have to proof on this issue comes from Nazi Germany, where the regime deliberately and systematically promoted group rituals in the name of collective solidarity. While it seems to have worked, this is a post hoc and qualitative assessment. It is, in other words, subjective history.

I’ve also long been suspicious of the ritual-solidarity idea because of its origins and later use by scholars with a pro-religion agenda. Though few are aware of the fact, Durkheim lifted this concept from William Robertson Smith’s Religion of the Semites (1889). While Smith was a brilliant scholar, he was also a deeply committed Christian who was, for much of his life, embroiled in theological disputes. His understanding of ritual was, as a result, part of a larger debate. This does not, of course, invalidate the idea but it should cause us to question it.

Even better, the idea could be tested. As Science Nordic reports, this has — apparently for the first time — been done:

A popular explanation of [group commitment] is that we humans form bonds and find a shared identity through collective rituals. This explanation has now been confirmed experimentally for the first time by a group of researchers headed by Dmitri Xygalatas of the Interacting Minds Centre (IMC) at Aarhus University, Denmark. The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, was conducted on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. It concludes that the locals who watch or participate in the annual Kavadi ritual subsequently experience a stronger sense of attachment to society.

Though I have not yet read the study and its methods section, the Science Nordic description causes some concern. Unless study participants were randomly assigned to rituals of differing intensity, they may have had prior preferences which biased the results. Controlling for this self-selection bias would be critical and I’m confident the authors thought of this and did so.

If any readers have the time and inclination to scrutinize the study and would like to report on it, I’ll be happy to post it here.


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5 thoughts on “Testing Durkheim

  1. reternaljudith copithorne

    it seems perhaps that there are several problems here in describing the statement and the further question. Right now we are in a time of people both needing to conform and others needing to break free either to be on their own or to bind with another group. So the results of any test as you indicated would depend on the choice of participants . And then the basic culture and also what various social/economic stresses there were strongest at that time. And then there are the beliefs of the group and so forth. The statement begins to sound fairly questionable to start with doesn’t it? Unless it is worded, with an, “all other factors being equal” statement doesn’t it? Unless we were supposed to assume that.\?

  2. reternaljudith copithorne

    Sorry for all the typos in the above comment! And also I suspect the question becomes whether when Durkeim said rituals he mean extreme rituals or just all the various rituals that any group has in common such as, well they are endless from coffee breaks for example to weddings. Of course when it is taken to mean extreme rituals the comment has more meat to it although the context and the character of the participants again makes the question indefinite.

  3. Dominik Lukes (@techczech)

    What a great insight. My first reaction was ‘proof, what proof’. This 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.

  4. Dominik Lukes (@techczech)

    I’ve been thinking about this some more and two podcasts triggered some additional thoughts.

    First, this In Our Time podcast on the Book of Common Prayer http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/radio4/posts/In-Our-Time-The-Book-of-Common-Prayer show the complex interplay between ritual, the maintenance and negotiation of ritual, personal beliefs and group politics. In this context, I think, it makes less sense to talk about the function of ritual because it is intertwined with a complex network of phenomena than it would make sense to talk about the place of ritual, something which is within our interpretive grasp.

    Second, this Freakonomics podcast http://freakonomics.com/2013/10/14/the-troubled-cremation-of-stevie-the-cat-a-new-freakonomics-radio-podcast/ reminded me about American funerary rituals around pets. Many of these are private and cannot possibly serve group cohesion (in many cases and at this stage of their development, at least). They are simply an expression of a personal feeling. That expression is shaped by the inventory of possible behaviors offered by the culture and there will be some feedback reinforcing belonging to that culture, but the initial driver for initiating those ritual is private thought and emotion. Of course, Durkheim talks about ‘collective rituals’ but many of the decisions taken around those have a personal cognitive or affective dimension.

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