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1In general, in trying to understand Durkheim’s work, it is essential to understand the French context in which it was written and intended to be read. But with his creation of Les Formes élémentaires, it is the English context that becomes pre-eminent. Indeed, it is inconceivable without the impact of English anthropology. More specifically, it is inconceivable without the impact of Baldwin Spencer and Francis Gillen’s The Native Tribes of Central Australia (1899), followed by The Northern Tribes of Central Australia (1904). Taken together, their two studies are overwhelmingly his main ethnographic source.

2So it is instructive to enquire how they themselves viewed his use of their work. Spencer was preparing The Northern Tribes when he had a letter from James Frazer about Durkheim’s essay on totemism (1902 a). In writing back, he says the essay is “full of misconceptions.” So he will add a footnote dealing with one of the many points on which Durkheim is “quite astray” (Spencer, letter of 1903, in Marett and Penniman, 1932, 84-85). The footnote duly appeared, although in fact it covers a whole set of points about social organization. But in general it is on the lines: “The difference between the actual state of affairs and the erroneous supposition of M. Durkheim is fundamental” (Spencer and Gillen, 1904, 121, n. 1).

3Durkheim replied in a footnote in his essay on matrimonial organization (1905, 131, n. 2). But Spencer could not have been entirely impressed:


“Sometime I must certainly have a go at Durkheim […]. He does not I think deliberately distort things in order to make them fit in with any theory of his own. He simply does not understand matters.”
(Spencer, Letter of 1906, in Mulvaney and Calaby, 1985, 394.)

5However, he never had his “go at Durkheim,” or at least never appears to have publicly commented on Les Formes élémentaires. His old friend, Gillen, died the year it came out, while he himself was on an expedition to northern Australia. A later study brings together their fieldwork on the Arunta (Spencer, 1927), but says nothing about Durkheim or his theories.

6Although many questions are generated by Les Formes élémentaires, they might be boiled down to two. One is to do with what, in the end, Durkheim identifies as basic, continuing, “eternal” forms of religious and social life. The other is to do with his use of ethnographic material, its role in the construction of his theory, and if this really depended on a trip to Australia. Here, my business is with the second question, and how his use of Spencer and Gillen is a particularly revealing case of the relation, in his work as a whole, between theory and “facts [1].”

An Intellectual Crisis

7Durkheim completed the manuscript of his new book in 1911. But its first known version is in lectures of 1906-1907, which is also when he wrote in a letter:


“C’est seulement en 1895 que j’eus le sentiment net du rôle capital joué par la religion dans la vie sociale. C’est en cette année que, pour la première fois, je trouvai le moyen d’aborder sociologiquement l’étude de la religion. Ce fut pour moi une révélation.”
(1907 a, 404.)

9Yet wasn’t this somewhat dramatic story of the past influenced by the present, and work on his new book itself? Or are we just to believe that, like a latter-day saint, he had a sudden and miraculous conversion on the road to Damascus?

10In asking what happened, it is essential to check through the only evidence that in the end counts – his actual sociological publications. In general, this means tracking the career of his belief in digging around in the “elementary” in the sense of the early and primitive, in order to unearth the “elemental” in the sense of the basic, continuing and universal. In particular, it means tracking the career of his view of early society and religion.

11In brief, there are only two significant changes in this view between 1893 and 1898 – that is, between his thesis on the division of labour and the essay that launched the Année sociologique (1898 a). In his thesis, ancient Israel is his paradigmatic case of how, in the beginning, there are societies based on the clan and permeated by religion. In his new journal, Australia has become his paradigmatic case of how, in the beginning, there are societies based on the clan and permeated by religion, and this religion is totemism.

“In the Beginning”: the core view of the new journal

12Durkheim’s thesis has only a single mention of a work on Australia and says nothing about totemism. It is the new edition that inserts a reference to totemism (1902 b [1893], 273), together with a deletion of passages expressing his earlier picture of the first stages of religion. This had become an embarrassment, since based on theories he now considered the rubbish of the ages. Why the change?

13In his letter of 1907 about a “revelation” in 1895, he talks of a special debt to William Robertson Smith. Yet there is reason to suspect that he owed more to a work by someone else, Frazer’s Totemism (1887). True, the two Scots were in close intellectual dialogue with one another. But Robertson Smith offered a biblical scholar’s textually based, speculative theory of religion among peoples in the ancient Middle East. Frazer offered a clear, concise, highly accessible manual of up-to-date ethnographic “facts” about the totemic clan in Australia and North America – in a word, a “must” to put on a student reading list for a new course on the sociology of religion. Moreover, Durkheim himself might have noted with interest the challenge: “No satisfactory explanation of the origin of totemism has yet been given” (Frazer, 1887, 95). In any case, the first work after his “revelation” that investigates religion is his opening essay for the Année. In this, the reference that he approvingly cites again and again as a source of ethnographic information is Frazer’s Totemism.

14Two of Durkheim’s most important reviews for his new journal are of Marxists – Ernest Grosse and Heinrich Cunow – who see a social organization that is earlier and more fundamental than the clan, and that is not a religious organization. So he criticizes Grosse as having “completely misunderstood” life in Australia (1898 b, 328), while Cunow is someone else who has “completely misunderstood” the situation (1899 b, 317). Yet on what basis did he make these confident assertions?

15His opening essay for the Année uses three main ethnographic references. One is the study of Australia cited in his thesis, Lorimer Fison and William Howitt’s Kamilaroi and Kurnai (1880), in which Fison wrote about the Kamilaroi people, Howitt about the Kurnai. Another is Frazer’s manual on totemism (1887). The most recent, on structures of kinship in Australia, is by none other than Cunow (1894).

16His book begins with a chapter on the Kamilaroi and how they exemplify a particularly complex type of kinship structure involving intersecting local groups, clans, marriage-classes and sections (Cunow, 1894, 1-24). To help with understanding this structure he constructs a diagram of it, based on Fison’s original ethnography but adapted in light of new information to show only two sections. Durkheim – perhaps by coincidence – uses a diagram similar to Cunow’s, but gives the erroneous impression of having based it on the original ethnography. It can’t be, since this reports four sections (Fison and Howitt, 1880, 43-45). In any case, he sees the Kamilaroi system as an evolutionary development in which totemism flourishes and yet the clan itself is no longer a coherent local group but an amorphous “floating mass” (Durkheim, 1898 a, 20). In other words, it is a later development of some earlier form of Australian society. But which form?

17This is where the Kurnai assume a key role. Cunow goes through Howitt’s material to show that among the Kurnai the fundamental unit is the local group and the totemic clan does not exist. Accordingly, they are best described as a society of “totem-less local groups” (Cunow, 1894, 56). So here is an examination of the evidence that threatens Durkheim’s whole theory. But he just ignores its account of the Kurnai as actually observed, and instead plays the evolutionary card to see “vestiges of an ancient totemism” (1898 a, 24). So if we check his reference, it is to how the Kurnai trace their descent from the ancestral “mythic pair” Yeerung and Djeetgung – the names of two species of birds – to identify all Kurnai men with Yeerung, all Kurnai women with Djeetgung (Fison and Howitt, 1880, 194, 235). This isn’t very impressive as evidence of an ancient totemism, involving two exogamous clans with a rule of intermarriage. The Yeerung are all men, the Djeetgung are all women. So wouldn’t they have intermarried anyway?

18In any case, and in terms of Durkheim’s own approach, the Kurnai and the Kamilaroi might be seen as disturbingly different cases of a same evolution. Either totemism is a “vestige,” as among the Kurnai. Or it flourishes, as among the Kamilaroi, yet the totemic group itself is merely a “floating mass.” True, he offers a couple of references about present-day Australian peoples among whom “the cult of the totem is still the basis of social organization” (1898 a, 24). But his main reference is another work’s mention of further references, since it is Frazer’s pocket guidebook to totemism.

19This suggests that he hadn’t got round to going through the primary sources for himself. Indeed, compared with Cunow, he seems an amateur. Cunow works through the primary material on Australia, in an effort to build up a systematic analysis of different types of organization among its societies. Of course, it comes with the limitations of the ethnography on offer. Even so, it could have been appropriately entitled The Elementary Structures of Kinship.

20But it didn’t budge Durkheim from his beliefs. It also remained as involved as he was in a general ambivalence among theorists and ethnographers over the meaning of “Australia.” Is it about its present-day peoples, supposedly a living museum of the “primitive,” yet nonetheless as actually described in present-day studies? Or is it about the folk of a vanished land of the early and elementary, inaccessible to these studies, yet nonetheless motivating and driving them?

21Like his contemporaries, Durkheim switches between the two meanings and it is often unclear what “Australia” he has in mind. But at some point he became gripped by the idea – expressed in a work to become almost a Bible for him – that in the beginning there is totemism and it is “both a religion and a social system”:


“How in the origin of totemism these two sides were related to each other it is, in our ignorance of that origin, impossible to say with certainty. But on the whole the evidence points strongly to the conclusion that the two sides were originally inseparable.”
(Frazer, 1887, 3.)

23Except for its uncertainty, this summarizes Durkheim’s core view in his new journal. But it was already under a threat too serious for him to ignore.

Shock News from Australia

24Spencer and Gillen’s study was based on fieldwork conducted in 1896-1897. It was written up and completed in 1898, then published early in 1899 in London, where its impact was immediate. According to the President of the Anthropological Institute, it is “a work of exceptional merit” that has “enriched the literature of anthropology” (Rudler, 1899, 322). In a comment by the President of the Folk-Lore Society: “I heartily join with reviewers elsewhere in expressing the gratitude of anthropologists for a work which must for a long while rank among those of the first importance” (Hartland, 1899, 239). Two further examples might be given, each in its own way revealing. In one, the reviewer of a new book on ethnology regrets it is already out of date, since completed before publication of Spencer and Gillen’s “great work” (Crooke, 1899, 185). In the other, a leading authority on totemism hails Spencer and Gillen’s “momentous discoveries,” which constitute “one of the most valuable contributions ever made to the early history of mankind” (Frazer, 1899, 286, 281).

25Frazer’s patronage is part of the explanation of this whole impact. He had been in correspondence with Spencer since 1897. He had persuaded his friend and fellow Scot, the publisher George Macmillan, to take the work and to produce it in such a handsome edition. Not least, he organized its “launch” at a meeting of the Anthropological Institute at the end of 1898, assembling the great and the good of anthropological England to tell them about the study’s far-reaching significance.

26Another reason for the impact is the impressive nature of Spencer and Gillen’s fieldwork itself. Commentators remarked on their access to sacred, hitherto unobserved ceremonies, their detailed description of these as well as of other aspects of life, and their extensive pioneering use of photographs. It was particularly noted, for example, that they were “fully initiated members of the Arunta.” This wasn’t altogether accurate, just as they didn’t really know the language of the people they called “the Arunta” and didn’t live among them in a way that would nowadays count as participant observation. What is nonetheless relevant is that their fieldwork was seen as exceptional in the context of the time.

27It is also only in the context of the time that it is possible to understand the impact of their news from Australia. As explained at the “launch,” the new research changed everything and it was with Frazer’s blessing that his old theory of how totemism had “both a religious and a social aspect” was quoted only to be rejected in the paper by Spencer (1899, 275). As explained in the work itself, the unit of ordinary everyday life among the Arunta is not the so- called clan – a term abandoned as “misleading” (Spencer and Gillen, 1899, 59). It is the group that along with its other roles is centrally involved in the regulation of marriage, in which “the question of totem has nothing to do with the matter” (Ibid., 116). In brief, the Arunta represent an early way of life in which totemism isn’t a social but a magico-religious affair and these two aspects are separate.

28However, the work’s impact is perhaps best summarized by an independent, eminent reviewer, Sidney Hartland. It is indeed the institution, discussed in the literature as “totemism,” that is at stake:


“But it is totemism of a kind that turns our previous ideas on the subject topsy-turvy; and we shall have enough ado to reconstruct the theory so as to make it fit the newly discovered facts.”
(Hartland, 1899, 238.)

30This was the shock news from Australia, which then made its way from London to Paris.


31Durkheim had dismissed Cunow as having “completely misunderstood” things. It was impossible to hand out the same treatment to Spencer and Gillen. His initial strategy, in collaboration with Marcel Mauss, was to praise their fieldwork while questioning their theory. Thus his nephew’s review starts with how their book is one of the most important works of descriptive sociology that he knows (Mauss, 1900, 205). Or as Durkheim’s own review ends, it is “rich in materials” (1900, 336). Yet it was after having gone through the new “materials” in a determination to stick with old ideas.

32Even so, it is 1900 that begins the road to Les Formes élémentaires. But it wasn’t a straight direct road. It involved the possibility of three different works – Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté, Les Formes élémentaires de la pensée and Les Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse.

33It is the essay on matrimonial organization in Australia that especially suggests a project on elementary structures of kinship. It is an impressive, even brilliant piece of research. It is truly intellectually formidable, in its effort to sift through a mass of ethnographic material on structures of kinship that include variations of highly complex systems, to crack their “mathematics,” and to uncover an underlying “logic” at work in them as a whole (Durkheim, 1905, 147).

34It is the essay on classification, co-authored with his nephew (Durkheim and Mauss, 1903), that especially suggests a project on elemental forms of thought. But the plan that instead developed was to weave the topic in with the eventual work. This is explained in a letter of 1908 to Xavier Léon, in which Durkheim refers to “my book” as Les Formes élémentaires de la pensée et de la pratique religieuse (Durkheim, 1975, 2, 467). It was then publicly announced, in articles of the following year, as Les Formes élémentaires de la pensée et de la vie religieuse (1909 a, 1, n. 1; 1909 b, 733, n. 1). However, at some unknown point afterwards, it became Les Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse.

35It is the essay on totemism that especially suggests this as Durkheim’s eventual destination. It is still defensive, repeating his old core picture again and again (1902 a, 88-89, 94, 107, 113, 115, 116, 119). But it comes with the stirrings of at least two new ideas. One is a move away from a view of totemism as a negative affair of the taboo and forbidden, to see a positive cult of rites of communion at the heart of religious life (Ibid., 116). The other is a move away from a focus just on sacred things, to see the source of sacredness in an impersonal force that spreads on to all sorts of different things – although the Arunta themselves have no doubt only “a confused representation” of these “religious forces” (Ibid., 87).

36A problem, which he fails to mention but which no doubt helps to explain the Arunta’s “confused representations,” is that it is difficult to find report of such forces in Spencer and Gillen. The problem, put another way, is how Durkheim himself came up with the idea, since it doesn’t come from his ethnographic source. However, he wasn’t the only one to interpret the data along these lines.

37In a talk of 1899, the Oxford anthropologist Robert Marett had created something of a sensation by arguing that the way to make sense of early religion was through the notion of an essentially impersonal force, power or energy (Marett, 1900). It was followed up with a second article in which he linked Spencer and Gillen’s report of belief in a particular evil force called arungquiltha with the ethnographically well documented Melanesian idea of a general force called mana (Marett, 1904, 60-61). It led in turn to an even more influential paper entitled “The Conception of Mana” (Marett, 1908). The reason for its significance is that it converted “mana” from an idea associated with the regional ethnography of Melanesia into an anthropological term for a whole type of belief, found in a whole range of societies.

38Durkheim’s nephew had also unearthed the report on the particular evil magical force arungquiltha and, although it wasn’t anything like a vast general religious force, had also linked it with mana (Mauss 1909 [1904], 138-139). In effect, Marett and Mauss were heading in the same direction, towards the conversion of “mana” into a wider comparative term for religious belief involving some sort of impersonal force. Their work’s joint impact on the anthropology of the time is the context of the use of “mana” in this way in Les Formes élémentaires.

39Even so, what counts is evidence of a coming together of a set of ideas in a whole new theoretical system, as in Les Formes élémentaires itself, but already in the lectures of 1906-1907. A methodological mistake is merely to hail the first sighting of a particular idea, although it is necessary to try to track the overall career of particular ideas. One of them is re-conceptualization of the sacred in terms of an impersonal force, energy or power such as mana. Another is introduction of the idea of a positive cult, made up of rites of communion at the heart of religious life. In turn, this links with a new stress on the importance of assembly and effervescence. But a key to everything is a move merely from “two worlds” to emphasize two times of the sacred and profane.

40One of the reasons is that it is a way to tackle an internally generated paradox within Durkheim’s developing theory itself. It is all very well to introduce, as in his essay on the definition of religious phenomena, a universal dualism of the sacred and profane (1899 a, 19). But it is in continuing to insist that, in the beginning, religion spreads everywhere and permeates everything. As in one of his reviews, “at this time religion extends to everything” (1898 b, 329). Or again, “at this time there is nothing to which religion does not extend its empire” (1899 b, 317). An updated story of the sacred as a vast force, energy or power that can spread everywhere, and turn up in all sorts of “things,” is told in Les Formes élémentaires. Yet how can there be a dualism of “two worlds” of the sacred and profane, if the sacred is so powerful there can be nothing left that is profane? The idea of “two times” is a key to this internally generated paradox, since it locates the source of the sacred’s energy in special times, while erecting barriers to its spread everywhere and complete permeation of everything in ordinary times.

41But also and not least, it is a way to tackle the externally generated problem of Spencer and Gillen’s news from Australia. It makes it possible to concede that the totemic group might lack importance in ordinary everyday times. But it can now be triumphantly asserted that it remains the centre of socio-religious life, thanks to its pre-eminent role in the great communal rites and collective effervescent energies of special times.

Les Formes élémentaires

42So to turn to Les Formes élémentaires itself, its account of Australia is neither an accurate representation nor a hopeless falsification of what is overwhelmingly its main ethnographic source. It is an imaginative theoretical reconstruction, perhaps best described as a transfiguration of Spencer and Gillen’s Australia.

A Mystery: the opening account of Australia

43The account begins with an authoritative announcement:


“À la base de la plupart des tribus australiennes, nous trouvons un groupe qui tient dans la vie collective une place prépondérante : c’est le clan.”
(1912, 142.)

45Yet there is something odd about this. It is one of the few places where Durkheim fails to mention Spencer and Gillen to support a key ethnographic claim. The reason, of course, is their rejection of any such claim.

46Another sign of something odd going on is in a footnote, which says that social organization has “only secondary interest for our subject” (Ibid., 151, n. 9). This is meant to explain why he doesn’t examine it in detail. An extreme example is how his analysis of complex systems in the essay on matrimonial organization gets only a single mention in a note (Ibid., 153, n. 1). In general, Durkheim compresses his previous work on elementary structures of kinship into a few pages (Ibid., 148-155). The result is a picture of Australia that might as well have been taken from Frazer’s old manual, and as if Spencer and Gillen hadn’t changed anything.

47They had separated the sacred from the social. Re-uniting these is an essential function of the chapters introducing the innocent reader to Durkheim’s Australia. This means interweaving religious with social life, far from downgrading it to a “secondary interest.” Indeed, in summarizing his opening account, he says he has shown that totemism is a religion “inseparable from social organization based on clans” (Ibid., 238).

48So a criticism is that he has done no such thing, in that in contrast with his earlier essays he fails to come out into the open about key differences with Spencer and Gillen. A mystery, however, is why he adopted a strategy of cover-up and camouflage. He had found a way round Spencer and Gillen that he could quite easily have brought out into the open. Indeed, it is the underlying argument that drives his account. Thanks to the totemic group’s centrality in religious life, it is also central in social life.

49This involves locating the clan within a web of groups in a wider society, in which the cults of each clan are “elements of a same religion” and “totemic religion is the complex system formed by their union” (Ibid., 220-222). The clinch argument, however, is the clan’s key role in the great religious rites, which are not just an affair of the clan itself but involve assemblies of a whole wider society (Ibid., 221).

50This might or might not be the case in a “real” Australia, as described with total accuracy by a magically infallible ideal observer. A humbler empirical point is that it is a fair enough theoretical re-interpretation of Australia as described in Spencer and Gillen’s ethnography.

A Hidden God

51After his opening account, Durkheim gets on with a chapter on “the totemic principle” or “mana.” There are three main ways in which, at the start of the chapter, this is characterized (Ibid., 269-272). First, it is impersonal – an “anonymous, impersonal force.” Next, it is simultaneously immanent-transcendent – immanent, since “embodied” within all sacred things, transcendent, since it goes beyond all of these and is “not identified with any of them.” Finally, it is a one-and-manifold energy, force or power – an “energy, diffused throughout all sorts of heterogeneous beings,” which is both “a material force” and “a moral power.” In sum, then, it is a vast immanent-transcendent one-and-manifold power. So given these theological attributes, it isn’t surprising that Durkheim suggests it could be seen as the “totemic god” – only, as he says:


“C’est un dieu impersonnel, sans nom, sans histoire, diffus dans une multitude innombrable de choses.”
(Ibid., 269.)

53It is significant that it doesn’t have a name, and he talks of ideas that are “confused” (Ibid., 272), while his earlier lectures talk of the confused and “hidden” (1907 b, 92). But there is another reason for seeing a hidden god. This is his difficulty in finding evidence for it. He even seems to manufacture evidence.

54His opening account had provided a trail of clues about an underlying force, and the first of these comes with a long list of references (1912, 182, n. 1, 2). But on checking them through, it is hard to find reports of belief in such a force. There is simply a description of how people talk of the totemic species as “bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh” (Fison and Howitt, 1880, 169). Or there is simply a description of a belief that individuals eating a forbidden animal will fall sick and might die (Howitt, 1904, 769). Or, in yet another example, there is simply a description of how dietary restrictions “seem to be done away with in the instance of very old men; they may eat anything, but this only when they are really very old and their hair is turning white” (Spencer and Gillen, 1904, 167-168).

55Durkheim might well have been convinced, in reading into these reports, a notion of a force that in his view makes sense of what they describe. But he fails to make this clear. Instead, he creates the mis- leading impression of solid ethnographic “facts,” by citing the reports as if they actually record what he reads into them. Indeed, this is one of the main patterns that emerges from checking through all his many references to his most important source, Spencer and Gillen.

56There are also other problems with his use of their material in the chapter on the “totemic principle” itself. He picks out their report of the particular evil influence arungquiltha, and argues a way round how it doesn’t add up to a vast sacred force at the heart of totemic religion (Durkheim, 1912, 281-283). But he overlooks another difficulty. In their report, arungquiltha has no connection with totemic beliefs and practices at all (Spencer and Gillen, 1899, 548-552).

57In contrast, they describe the sacred objects called churingas as intimately bound up with totemic belief and ritual. So perhaps these are a concrete material focus of a vast religious force – except that they describe in great detail how churingas are bound up with belief about individual ancestral figures in mythical creational times of the alcheringa. Undaunted, Durkheim sees evidence of an impersonal force in the very meaning of churinga:


“Ce terme, disent Spencer and Gillen, désigne “tout ce qui est secret ou sacré. Il s’applique aussi bien à un objet qu’à la qualité qu’il possède” […]. C’est presque la définition du mana.”
(1912, 283, n. 4.)

59In fact they don’t talk of it as “designating all that is secret or sacred,” but just as “implying something sacred or secret” (Spencer and Gillen, 1899, 648). In any case, it is a triumph of hope to see almost a definition of mana. They never mention a notion of a general impersonal force, just as they never refer to the idea of mana.

60But he wants to situate their ethnography within a wider comparative discussion (1912, 273-279). This draws on the new anthropology of the 1900s, pioneered by Marett and Mauss, and converting “mana” to a generalized anthropological term. Yet the problem that remains is if it can really just be applied to the case of Australia in the absence of anything more than a few questionable crumbs of actual ethnographic evidence. Indeed, his boldest inference about a “hidden god” is still to come.

61This is in his next chapter, at the core of the work and its whole new theory. It describes an extraordinary effervescent energy created in special times of the sacred, alternating with ordinary times of the mundane, and it is this extraordinary collective energy that gives birth to “l’idée religieuse” (1912, 313).

62His inference, then, is that is impossible for explosions of all this energy to take place without also generating notions of a vast power itself. And perhaps he is right. At any rate, it is again a fair enough theoretical inference to draw from the ethnography if it in fact describes such extraordinary, remarkable scenes.

The Soul

63But before asking about these, let us consider yet another inference in the chapter that follows, on the soul. At death, this departs the body for “the land of souls” (Ibid., 350). Or rather, it is a particular moment in its career. A key belief is in a continuing series of reincarnations in which souls come back to re-enter the bodies of new generations, and all living individuals are re-creations of totemic ancestors associated with the time of the alcheringa (Ibid., 353-355). In turn, Durkheim’s key interpretation of the belief involves a dualism within the soul itself. One of its elements is individual, while the other is impersonal and common to all souls. So, as we might put it, an impersonal soul-stuff is part of every soul. As he himself puts it, “the soul is none other than the totemic principle, incarnated in each individual” (Ibid., 357). Or again, the soul is “mana individualized” (Ibid., 378).

64How does this compare with Spencer and Gillen? They never mention “the soul.” Still, some of Durkheim’s references are accurate enough. Others are misleading or merely erroneous. An example is his talk of a “land of souls.” Citing Spencer and Gillen, he says the Arunta imagine this as a place where rivers never run dry and the sun always shines (Ibid., 350). In fact, their report of places with “streams of running water and perpetual sunshine” is about haunts of spirits called iruntarinia (Spencer and Gillen, 1899, 513, 524). A dead person’s spirit has a different name and goes somewhere else. This is made clear in their original account, though revised in a number of details in a later work. For example, it re-names the alcheringa the alchera.

65In brief, when an ancestor of the time of the alchera died, he left behind his churinga along with a “spirit part” of his being, identified in the later work as the kuruna. At the place where the ancestor descended into the earth, there arose a rock or tree called the nanja, and there issued from this another form of the ancestor’s spirit, called the arumburinga. It is the kuruna that enters a woman to reincarnate itself in her child, while its independently existing counterpart, the arumburinga, takes a general interest in the new individual’s career. On death, the individual’s kuruna becomes a spirit called the ulthana. This watches over the grave until the final mourning ceremony has been completed. It then departs, returning to live alongside its arumburinga and to resume the form of a kuruna that can be reborn. In the original account, it returns to the nanja rock or tree. In the later work it is to where the churingas are stored, now named the pertalchera. But in both versions these are nearby, closely associated places, which together constitute a centre of sacred life (Spencer and Gillen, 1899, 512-515; Spencer, 1927, 421-423).

66It is in no way like Durkheim’s picturesque, far-off “land of souls.” Each nanja-pertalchera cluster is part of a set of specific sacred places situated throughout the landscape, each forming a specific locus of a whole way of thinking about birth, life and death. Moreover, these sacred places and this way of thinking are embedded in a cosmology about a world formed through the ancestral beings of the time of the alchera. Although Durkheim gives readers at least some idea of this cosmology, he nonetheless creates the overwhelming impression of a world formed through an impersonal force. In effect, he “mana-izes” the alchera.

67Yet it is in making perhaps his most convincing inference that there must be a “hidden god” involving an impersonal force and soul-stuff. The cosmology of the alchera is about a sense of identity in which individuals feel linked with one another as members of a same community of the dead, the living and the not yet born. Belief that the soul comes from somewhere before birth and lives on after death is a religious symbolism of this community. So, as he emphasizes, society exists only in and through individuals. Yet it precedes as well as survives each individual, to be renewed in every generation (1912, 384-385). More specifically, it is in an identity constructed through kinship. But it isn’t a merely biological kinship. It is a spiritual kinship. It is through souls that all stem from ancestors of the alchera and that are re-embodied in individuals of each new generation. It is the cosmology itself that entails an impersonal soul-stuff, common to all souls and linking the souls of every past, present and future individual. Or as he himself says, it entails a “mystical form of germinative plasma,” transmitted from one generation to another and creating the clan’s “spiritual unity” across time (Ibid., 385).

Two Times of the Sacred and Profane

68Let us now return to Durkheim’s concern with two times of the sacred and profane. This relies almost entirely on a single reference to Spencer and Gillen.

Spencer and Gillen[2]
“From the moment of [a boy’s] initiation, however, his life is sharply marked out in two parts. He has first of all what we may speak of as the ordinary life, common to all the men and women, and associated with the procuring of food and the performance of corrobborees, the peaceful monotony of this part of his life being broken every now and again by the excitement of a fight. On the other hand, he has what gradually becomes of greater and greater importance to him, and that is the portion of his life devoted to matters of a sacred or secret nature. As he grows older he takes an increasing share in these, until finally this side of his life occupies by far the greater part of his thoughts.”
(1904, 33.)
“La vie des sociétés australiennes passe alternativement par deux phases différentes […]. Ces deux phases contrastent l’une avec l’autre de la manière la plus tranchée. Dans la première, l’activité économique est prépondérante […]. L’état de dispersion où se trouve alors la société achève de rendre la vie uniforme, languissante et terne. Mais, qu’un corrobori ait lieu et tout change […]. Ce sont des transports d’enthousiasme.”

69Durkheim clearly isn’t saying quite the same as Spencer and Gillen. But it might boil down to a difference of perspective in interrelated concerns. In his case, it is with a social calendar and an external division of life into two times. In their case, it is with men’s increasing absorption in an internal world of thought on the sacred.

70The trouble is that in searching through their ethnography it is hard to find any report of a fixed calendar, establishing two clear-cut periods, requiring performance of ceremonies during one of these, and laying down when each of them should take place. Indeed, there is little interest in the issue of a social calendar at all. Durkheim’s key idea of two times of the sacred and profane again appears to involve a transfiguration of Spencer and Gillen’s Australia. Its essential ethnographic basis is their description of the rites themselves.

Collective Effervescence

71It is commonplace to suspect Durkheim of wild exaggeration in his account of effervescence in Australia. But perhaps it is because his critics have not read what he read. On the whole, he is quite faithful to Spencer and Gillen:

Spencer and Gillen
“The smoke, the blazing torches, the showers of sparks falling in all directions and the mass of dancing, yelling men with their bodies grotesquely bedaubed, formed together a genuinely wild and savage scene of which it is impossible to convey any adequate idea in words.”
(1904, 391.)
“La fumée, les torches toutes flamboyantes, cette pluie d’étincelles, cette masse d’hommes dansant et hurlant, tout cela, disent Spencer et Gillen, formait une scène d’une sauvagerie dont il est impossible de donner une idée avec des mots.”
(1912, 312.)

72Here, if anything, he tones down the original text. But also, on occasion, he touches it up. This is what happens in his showcase passage on effervescence (1912, 310-311). Or rather, it is what happens at the end. The passage is sometimes quoted as if a product of Durkheim’s own fevered imagination. In fact, almost all of it is almost word-for-word from Spencer and Gillen (1904, 237-238).

73They describe a ritual concerned with an ancestral snake, Wollunqua. Its main phase began on the fourth day. But at night, “amidst a scene of the wildest excitement, fires were lighted all around the ceremonial ground, making the white trunks of the gum-trees and the surrounding scrub stand out in strong contrast to the darkness beyond.” There was dancing, swaying, chanting, a great clanging of boomerangs and shrieking – “Yrssh! yrssh! yrssh!” – around a mound linked with the snake. After a climax, activity continued on and off until morning, when the mound was destroyed in a furious attack. Then, as we read:

Spencer and Gillen
“The fires died down, and for a short time there was silence. Very soon, however, the whole camp was astir.”
(1904, 238.)
“Les feux moururent et ce fut un profond silence.”
(1912, 311.)

74It is obvious that the change in some way transforms the original account. Yet in what way? Doesn’t it help to capture the whole dramatic atmospherics in the rite’s creation of a sense of the sacred? Even if literally false, isn’t it artistically true?


75Les Formes élémentaires is as much as anything, in my view, a great work of art. But this is not least because it can also be seen as a great work of science, in its creative fusion of detailed empirical enquiry and theoretical reason. In any case, Durkheim himself claimed to be doing science. So it is absurd to discuss his theory without even asking about its relation with the “facts.” A test case is his use of Spencer and Gillen. What then becomes clear is that it is also absurd just to assert he imposed a pre-existing theory on the “facts,” with no need to visit Australia or anywhere else.

76Durkheim had no choice other than to attempt a response to Spencer and Gillen’s account of Australia. He couldn’t brush it aside. It had an immediate sensational impact in London, and undermined the old theory he had just set out in his new flagship journal of social science. Indeed, there is a gap of well over five years between the publication of their first ethnography in 1899 and the appearance of the first known version of Les Formes élémentaires in 1906-1907. This was a time of experimentation, when he tried out a variety of responses involving a variety of projects, which could have given birth to three major works. Thus it is also when he began to come up with at least the germs of ideas that appear in Les Formes élémentaires. But what counts – as at last happens in the first known version – is the coming together of a set of ideas in a whole new theoretical system. And it is abundantly evident that the need to re-visit Spencer and Gillen’s Australia was a major driving force and stimulus in the creation of this new theoretical system.

77It is also clear that Les Formes élémentaire isn’t always accurate in its representation of their Australia. I have gone over some examples, without trying to cover everything. But what is essential, in coming to an overall view, is to evaluate Durkheim’s active search through the ethnographic material to put together a whole new theory. What then emerges might be summarized in a sentence. Les Formes élémentaires is a work of the creative intelligence that involves both a transfiguration of Spencer and Gillen’s Australia and a transfiguration of the old Durkheimian Australia.


  • [1]
    This is based on a study that investigates De la Division du travail social, Les Formes élémentaires and the route from one to the other (Watts Miller, 2012). It is guided by an essential maxim. In investigating Durkheim’s work, “Read what Durkheim Read” (Borlandi, 2000).
  • [2]
    V. Spencer et Gillen, North. Tr., p. 33.(1912, 307-308.)

This explores The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life through a focus on the relation, in the work, between theory and “facts.” In the early issues of L’Année sociologique, Durkheim constructed a core view of things in which Australia is the paradigmatic case of how, in the beginning, society and religion are fused together in a world of the totemic clan. He confidently dismissed rival accounts as having completely misunderstood the situation. But it was his own account that soon seemed a complete misunderstanding, thanks to shock news from Australia. This came in a pioneering ethnography by Spencer and Gillen, who described a society in which the main unit of ordinary life has nothing to do with totemism, the clan or religion. The Elementary Forms was created in an effort to answer Spencer and Gillen, and to glue society and religion together again. In the process, it often misrepresented their account, yet without amounting to a total falsification of their ethnography. It is instead an imaginative re-construction, which involved its author in developing a whole new seminal theory of his own. The work is both a transfiguration of Spencer and Gillen’s Australia and a transfiguration of the old Durkheimian Australia.


  • Australia
  • Durkheim
  • Frazer
  • Marett (R. R.)
  • religion
  • sociology (history of)
  • Spencer (B. W.)
  • totemism

Références bibliographiques

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William Watts Miller
Directeur des Durkheimian Studies/Études durkheimiennes, membre du British Centre for Durkheimian Studies de l’université d’Oxford (Royaume-Uni)
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