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1 In this article, I shall examine how Émile Durkheim explains religion and posit that he explains it according to the rules of the sociological method he tested in 1893, [1] stated in 1894, [2] and confirmed particularly in 1898 and 1901. [3] First, I shall summarize these rules. I shall then demonstrate that with a single exception they find their most complete application in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, as if the enormous ethnographical documentation collected in this work was only waiting to encounter one of Durkheim’s youthful ideas to reveal its hidden order, which until then had escaped him in his research on Australia and certain other traditional societies. I shall conclude with three considerations.

Four Rules of Sociological Explanation

2 Social phenomena, Durkheim assures us, are regular combinations of actions performed by individuals influenced by ways of feeling and thinking that he calls “representations,” using the word in the sense in which it has been used in the vocabulary of philosophy since Descartes: representations are what correspond in the mind to external reality. Particular to social groups and in some cases common to society--that is, shared by groups that overlap on the surface of a delimited territory--representations include all mental states, among which beliefs are liable to be translated into required and repeated behavior. The first step in explaining a social phenomenon is thus to look for the origin of the representations of which this phenomenon is the expression.

3 Representations stem from increases in the moral density of groups. This locution—moral density—designates the frequency, measured by the number of exchanges, with which individuals interact. The more individuals are in contact, the more exchanges take place. The means of contact between individuals that most multiplies their exchanges is contiguity. It results that moral density is high in the places and on occasions where the population is concentrated.

4 This is what constitutes a “law of social gravity” in The Division of Labor in Society, stating that the longer numerous individuals remain together the faster civilization progresses (Durkheim [1893] 1902, 330). This is also shown in Rules and elsewhere in passages that find in “association,” that is, the way in which individuals are situated on the ground in relation to each other, the source of everything important (and even unimportant) produced during the evolution of humanity; the spatial situation of individuals (how are they reciprocally remote/close?) also constitutes their “internal social environment” (Durkheim [1895] 1947; [1893] 1902; [1898] 1951; [1898–1899] 1963).

5 The places and occasions where the population is concentrated are, respectively, cities and assemblies. During the latter, individuals temporarily gather in a limited space. In both cases, representations arise like emerging developments—although Durkheim does not use this term—each time an interpenetration occurs between two formerly separate consciousnesses accompanied by their fusion (a “coalescence”) which releases its “matter” (Durkheim [1893] 1902, 237–241). Thus released, the contents of these different consciousnesses consolidate and produce new mental states ([1898] 1951, 41–44). But, whereas the consequences of increases—even abrupt ones—in moral density appear slowly in great human agglomerations, in assemblies they are immediate.

6 In an assembly, as long as affinities take root, an unexpected feeling—attitude, emotion, or opinion—arises from the repeated interactions of individuals. It happens with their participation but independently of their will. “One and the same force is impelling them in the same direction” (Durkheim [1895] 1947, 11). Going from one mind to the other, this feeling grows. The vehemence of this sequence explains why the creative moments of history can be situated in assemblies. Confronted with changes that are most often sudden, groups tighten and give free rein to their fears, their anger, and their enthusiasm. When the meeting is over, society comes out of it regenerated, and sometimes renewed (Durkheim [1893] 1902,;[1895] 1947; 1897; [1898–1899] 1963).

7 The time needed to form representations does not however determine their nature. Elaborated in common by individuals, they are, in any case, collective. A supraindividual conscience, also collective, is its depository. Effectively, “collective” designates what manifests the traits of a group taken as a whole (Durkheim [1895] 1947, 5–6; Fauconnet and Mauss 1901, 142). The authority that is communicated by representations to social phenomena and that makes them obligatory depends on their collective nature.

8 Once a representation is born, it lasts only if it is corroborated by new moral contractions of the groups until the resulting social phenomenon solidifies. The duration of representations includes two things: the first is that they are individualized; the second is that the social phenomena prove to be useful.

9 Representations are individualized to the extent that each person varies them in his own way. It is expected that this will happen, for individuals have their own temperament and aptitudes; every social phenomenon must be separated from “applications by private individuals” and “private manifestations” (Durkheim [1895] 1947, 8–10). The utility of social phenomena is the “function” that they fulfill, which “. . . at least in a number of cases, serves to maintain the preexistent cause from which they are derived” ([1895] 1947, 96).

10 How is it possible to ensure that the cause confirmed by the function, the “efficient cause” to be found in the internal social environment, is the right one? By comparing the development of the phenomenon to be explained in societies of the same type where it is found. In each society, we will first go back to the origins of the phenomenon in order to identify the “most rudimentary type.” Next we may establish the additional characteristics with which it progressively diversified until it became what it is. If the progression of the phenomenon in question is everywhere the same, its explanation will be considered successful and the comparative method thus applied may be called “genetic” (Durkheim [1895] 1947, 137).

11 The first three rules of the sociological explanation that I have just noted—to show that all social phenomena arise from a moral tightening of groups is, in every stage of its progress, the outcome of a process of individualization and also persists because of its utility—structure without a doubt Elementary Forms, a work that finally posits between representations and actions, and particularly between beliefs and rituals, the same relationship that exists between thought and movement (Durkheim 1912, 50). The fourth rule—to follow the development of the phenomenon to be explained through the greatest number of homogeneous societies—is, however, modified. Durkheim renounces his extensive comparisons. He considers, however, it a given that a social phenomenon can only be accounted for by determining its beginnings.

The Moral Tightening of Groups at the Beginnings of Religion

12 The Australians, whose society is composed of clans (its smallest segment), matrimonial classes, phratries, and tribes, create religion during periodic meetings when, carried away and undone by repeated states of overexcitement and delirium, they feel both dominated and supported--that is, lifted above themselves by an extraordinary, anonymous, and diffuse force.

13 Preceded by the statement, thus not a novelty with Durkheim, that there is nothing better than observing the behavior of individuals in a group to be convinced of the “invigorating” action that social groups exercise on their members (note what happened in Versailles on the night of August 4, 1789), the account of scenes of exaltation (cries, dances, and violence) in which the Australians indulge during their meetings is taken especially from the reports of Baldwin Spencer and Francis Gillen (1899, 1904) on the Arunta, a tribe of central Australia (Durkheim 1912, 295–314). Durkheim moreover described this unchaining of passions twenty years earlier in The Division of Labor in Society, concerning social ties through similitude. The nature of this tie is illustrated by the vengeful feelings elicited by an offence that a social group perceives as serious:



The whole group attacked masses itself in the face of the danger and unites, so to speak, in itself. . . . The agitation which has gradually gained ground violently pushes all those who are alike towards one another and unites them in the same place; . . . the emotional reactions of which each conscience in the theatre are . . . in most favorable condition for unification. . . . They participate in the same uniformity, and, accordingly . . . lose themselves in one another, compounding in a unique resultant which serves as their substitute and which is exercised, not by each alone, but by the social body so constituted.
(Durkheim [1893] 1947, 103–104; corresponds to [1893] 1902, 71-72)

16 Spencer and Gillen recount what they saw, but did they understand that the Australian populations are scattered except when they participate in their ceremonies? Durkheim then brings forth his argument many times:


18 “The very fact of the concentration acts as an exceptionally powerful stimulant” (Durkheim [1912] 1965, 247). “. . . The coming together of a number of men associated in the same life results in disengaging new energies, which transform each of them” (252). “We have seen elsewhere how human sentiments are intensified when affirmed collectively. Sorrow, like joy, becomes exalted and amplified when leaping from mind to mind, and therefore expresses itself outwardly in the form of exuberant and violent movements” (446). “. . . Every communion of mind, in whatever form it may be made, raises the social vitality” (448). [4]

19 Did Durkheim have to go to Australia to discover the virtues, or conversely, the dangers of density? Of course not: these same remarks also appear in The Division of Labor in Society, almost word for word:


. . . We know what degree of energy a belief or a sentiment can take solely because it is felt by the same community of men in relation with one another. . . . Even as contrary states of conscience enfeeble themselves reciprocally, identical states of conscience, in exchanging, reenforce one another. . . . That is why, in large assemblies, an emotion can acquire such violence. It is because the vivacity with which it is produced in each conscience has repercussions in all the others.
(Durkheim [1893] 1947, 99)

21 Later, the idea that it was enough to bring individuals closely together for a psychic phenomenon to spring from their interaction—the thrust of Durkheim’s sociology—runs through his work. He stated it with verve at the Fourth International Congress of Philosophy (Durkheim [1911] 1951, 133–135). At this time, he draws on the additional evidence he has just collected in Elementary Forms, the manuscript of which was practically finished.

22 The unusual and anonymous force by which the Australian is comforted and invigorated is the “totemic principle.” It is attached to the simulacrum of the totem, the emblem of the clan—the group’s flag—that consequently becomes sacred. It is to the totem that the Australian ends up attributing this force that he has the impression of undergoing (it “comes from outside of us,”[ Durkheim 1912, 317]), which he would be unable to express alone and which he does not realize emanates from his clan. The advent of religion as a cult of the society to which we belong—a transfigured society in hypostasis—would begin then. However this objectification in an emblem is not typical of religious beliefs. It characterizes all representations to different degrees, and for two reasons.

23 The first has to do with how they form. For individual minds to fuse, the signs that translate their internal states first must do the same. After the appearance of a unified sign, the individuals realize that they are in moral unison. The second reason for which representations are objectified is related to practices and their confirmation. Indeed, once assemblies are dissolved, the feelings that arose there would tend to disappear if they were not anchored in durable things keeping them “perpetually alive,” to such an extent that “these systems of emblems, which are necessary if society is to become conscious of itself, are no less indispensable for assuring the continuation of this consciousness” (Durkheim [1912] 1965, 263).

24 And this reasoning that consists of deducing from the operative event of representations (the moral tightening of groups) the necessity that the latter include emblems (their exterior and tangible forms) also dates from The Division of Labor in Society:



Since these sentiments [demanding that these offenses caused to the group be repaired] have exceptional force because of their collective origin . . . , they separate themselves radically from the rest of our conscience whose states are much more feeble. They dominate us; . . . and, at the same time, they bind us to objects which are outside of our temporal life. They appear to us as an echo in us of a force which is foreign to us, and which is superior to that which we are. We are thus forced to project them outside ourselves, to attribute what concerns them to some exterior object.
(Durkheim [1893] 1947, 100)

27 What is original in Elementary Forms concerning the explanation of the origin of social phenomena developed there? A relatively new word: “effervescence.” The assembled Australian tribes enjoy days and nights of effervescence. The creative times when peoples develop their ideals are periods of effervescence (Durkheim 1912, in particular, 312–314, 323–324, 547, 611). On a scale of moral density, effervescence occupies the highest degrees. The word is relatively new, since Durkheim already used it in his course on traditions ([1896–1900] 1950, 150), twice in Suicide (1897, 102, 217) and at times contemporary with the writing of Elementary Forms ([1911] 1951, 134) to describe situations where, because of an increase in relations between individuals, social life intensifies; this is the definition with which he will use it thereafter. [5] But the term effervescence also denotes in Suicide (1897, 284, 308, 332, 422), in Moral Education ([1898–1899] 1963, 126–127), and again in 1911 (see [1911] 1977, 89) the state of “collective impatience” or “morbid agitation” that is determined when because of a loosening of social norms, “envy is unleashed” and “one hungers for new things.” Effervescence is a linguistic preciosity. Moral density is a concept.

The Individualization of Religious Beliefs

28 The individualization of religious beliefs begins just after they appear (and this “after” is more logical than chronological [Durkheim 1912, 382]), when the totemic principle is shared among the participants in the assemblies. Each one keeps a fragment of it that penetrates their body without however becoming a part of it. It remains exterior, a “passing guest” that will survive them (Durkheim [1912] 1965, 283). This fragment, this parcel of strength radiating from their communion, is their soul. Through it, the values that they have established together take possession of their consciences and direct them. This fact is universal, since the soul is a reality subscribed to by all cultures and exists everywhere only in opposition to the body. Whereas the latter is the seat of egotistical human penchants, the soul houses contrary inclinations marked by disinterestedness and abnegation. From this comes the ancient conviction that man is two faced, a being both “sensitive” and spiritual. Elementary religion demonstrates the legitimacy of this idea, since it shows that from the very first day, it is through the soul that society “establishes itself within us in a durable manner” (297).

29 When bodies die, the souls go to heaven, the “place of souls.” The most efficient souls descend to be reincarnated and ascend once more. Their circulation between the realms of the dead and the living goes on endlessly until every newborn is the avatar of an ancestor. This is how the ancestors acquire the consistency of spirits, most of them benevolent. Over time, a hierarchy establishes itself between the ancestral spirits, “secondary sacred beings” in relation to the totemic principle as well as subsequent results of its fragmentation. Some remain venerable personages of the clans and the object of local cults. Others are transformed into mythical heroes and founders of a civilization. Their cult unites the phratries, and therefore the clans, of a single tribe. Last (and here the order is chronological) come the ancestral spirits who are raised to the level of supreme, eternal Gods and creators of the world. They gather many neighboring tribes into their cult. These are the “international” entities. Durkheim’s sources assert that their conception is indigenous and not imported by the missionaries (Durkheim 1912, 415).

30 With the idea of a great God, totemism reaches the point “where it touches and prepares the religions which are to follow, and aids us in understanding them” (Durkheim [1912] 1965, 332). At the same time, the number of believers in this eminent God is so great that the variety of beliefs concerning him must be analyzed as an irreversible fact. This does not prevent these beliefs from bearing the mark of the anonymous force from which they derive. From totemism to the religions to come, things will no longer change in this respect. No individual cult will ever address itself to deities that are not “the individualized forms of collective forces” (472), and even if it sets itself apart, no religious belief will ever be individual at its inception, that is, created by individuals taken separately.


A philosophy may well be elaborated in the silence of the interior imagination, but not so a faith. . . . Now these beliefs are active only when they are partaken by many. A man cannot retain them any length of time by a purely personal effort; it is not thus that they are born or that they are acquired; it is even doubtful if they can be kept under these conditions.
(Durkheim [1912] 1965, 473) [6]

32 In his speech at the meeting of the Société française de philosophie [French Society for Philosophy] on February 4, 1913, Durkheim ([1913] 1975, 24–25) attributes Elementary Forms the merit of establishing the “duality” of human nature (the following year it will be renamed its “dualism” [7]). This is only partly true, because Durkheim always explained the best and noblest part of man in the same way. He always said that the attitudes of the latter translate the impact of social groups on him, according to the declaration in Suicide that two “antagonizing forces” are present. “One comes from the collectivity and tries to take over the individual; the other comes from the individual and rejects the former” (1897, 360). Durkheim is only original in relation to his earlier texts when he suggests that groups use the soul to assert their authority (“. . . I showed that the soul is the collective conscience embodied in the individual” [(1913) 1975, 35]).

33 However, Durkheim never returned to his talk on the way in which the Australians may have ended up, assembly after assembly, believing in the existence of a supreme god, creator of the universe. And this is his major contribution to the reasons for atheism. In The Division of Labor in Society, God is already a sure product of the imagination. Durkheim can see where the exceptional powers that the believer credits him with come from, but he does not yet say it. In Suicide this problem is resolved and God is the emblem of emblems: a hypostasis. A plausible description of the social construction of the idea of God is missing (how was it formed? by which steps?); here it is, even taken from contradictory ethnographic reports that a proposal on the nature of social representations (they all come from a collective development and later become individualized) makes nonetheless eloquent. A progression thus leads from the totemic principle to the great God. The path is no less suggestive if we return upon it:


The great tribal God is only an ancestral spirit who finally won a preeminent place. The ancestral spirits are only entities forged in the image of the individual souls whose origin they are destined to explain. The souls, in their turn, are only the form taken by the impersonal forces which we found at the basis of totemism, as they individualize themselves in the human body. The unity of the system is as great as its complexity.
(Durkheim [1912] 1965, 332–333)

The Function and the Cause

35 In Rules, defending his thesis that the function (the utility) of a social phenomenon consists in preserving the cause of which it is the effect, Durkheim summarizes as follows the relation that exists between the effect and the cause: the effect “draws its energy” from the cause, but also “an energy which returns to the cause. Consequently, if the effect disappears, there are repercussions on the cause” (1960, 157). To illustrate this reciprocal relationship, Durkheim cites the case of the function of the punishment that he established in The Division of Labor in Society. Punishment serves to maintain the diffuse values violated by the crime. In this way, it contributes to strengthening social cohesion ([1893] 1902, 52–57). The explanation that Durkheim gives for the function of rituals, that is, of the observable part of religion (what we see of it before understanding what it is and even if we cannot manage to understand it), models itself on the function of punishment in 1893. Rituals are the demonstration of beliefs and react upon them. Thus they reinforce the moral tightening of groups (the cause of beliefs) that would slacken without these cyclical revitalizations.


37 Durkheim identifies five types of religious rituals: ascetic, sacrificial, mimetic, commemorative, and piacular. These rituals are first “joyful” celebrations (types 1–4) and “sad” (type 5). As celebrations, they have properties. They force individuals to concentrate and intensify their contacts. The result is that the groups are as if regenerated and “the common faith is quite naturally renewed within the reassembled community” (Durkheim 1912, 494). We now know the reason for this: “Society is able to revivify the sentiment it has of itself only by assembling” ([1912] 1965, 391). Some of these rituals are also in response to a crisis, especial the rituals type 2, 3 and 5. To expected crises, connected to seasonal changes and economic rhythms, must be added unexpected crises (deaths and other calamities) and general fears such as those due to the delay in the reproduction of the totemic animal. And even crises and shared concerns incite clans to meet in such fashion that one way or another, the “true justification” of religious practices lies in “the invisible action which they exercise over the mind” (403), rituals are the “means by which the social group reaffirms itself periodically" (432). “By the fact alone that they are collective [rites] increase vitality” (1912, 583).

38 Separate research on the efficient cause and the function fulfilled is, according to Rules, an indispensable condition for a successful explanation. Where did Durkheim follow and illustrate this rule more carefully than in Elementary Forms? And how can we apprehend the coherence of this work (and its very structure, focused on the opposition of volume 2 and volume 3) if we do not follow this principle? However, Durkheim had already observed salutary crises like those of the Australian tribes. These are the political crises and wars that benefit the integration of groups and “stimulate collective feelings” (1897, 222; [1898–1899] 1963, 58).

The First Link in the Chain

39 As to the share that must be attributed to the past in sociological explanation, Durkheim had only certitudes, and he expressed them several times after what he upheld in Rules concerning the comparative method: his method of proof. This share is great, and so much more so when the phenomenon to explain is composed of accumulated traits, coming from an original heritage that has oriented its development ([1895] 1947, 136). This is the case with institutions, that is, “all beliefs and modes of behavior established by the collectivity,” beginning with religion, of which sociology is definitely “the science” ([1895] 1947, xxii; 1901, 15 [8]). Their study presupposes that we first establish their roots. This means that the sociologist is called upon to work like a historian, no more and no less; any difference between them is bound to disappear the day the historian also decides to make comparisons, leaving behind his taste for singular events isolated from each other ([1898] 1969, 32-33). This position is seen again, even more markedly, in the introduction to Elementary Forms. [9]


In the first place, we cannot arrive at an understanding of the most recent religions except by following the manner in which they have been progressively composed in history. In fact, historical analysis is the only means of explanation which it is possible to apply to them. It alone enables us to resolve an institution into its constituent elements, for it shows them to us as they are born in time, one after another. . . . Every time that we undertake to explain something human, taken at a given moment in history . . . it is necessary to commence by going back to its most primitive and simple form, to try to account for the characteristics by which it was marked at that time, and then to show how it developed and became complicated little by little, and how it became that which it is at the moment in question. One readily understands the importance which the determination of the point of departure has for this series of progressive explanations, for all the others are attached to it. It was one of Descartes’s principles that the first ring has a predominating place in the chain of scientific truths.
(Durkheim [1912] 1965, 15–16)

41 After having confirmed in this way the axiom according to which the beginning of things compromises their future, Durkheim puts his views on the comparative and retrospective analysis of religious phenomena into practice. He is supported in this by the errors of James Frazer and the “anthropological school” that compared the most disparate contexts in no particular order (Durkheim 1912, 132–133). According to Rules, this comparison should concern facts coming from societies of the same type, considered at the same stage of development, and if possible in the largest number due to the generality of religious phenomena themselves ([1895] 1947, 137).

42 On the contrary, in Elementary Forms, Durkheim limits himself to requiring that the societies be homogeneous and at the same level of development. Making a virtue of necessity, he justifies the fact that he is going to deal only with Australian and some North American societies. Then, in a clear shift, he says that the quantity of contexts to be retained is not a priority for him. Not only “the value of the facts is much more important than their number” (Durkheim [1912] 1965, 114),” he argues that “one single fact may make a law appear” (115). Farther on, in the conclusion, he maintains: “when a law has been proven by one well-made experiment, this proof is valid universally” (462). The idea assuredly exists in Rules that, all things being otherwise equal, a few well-chosen cases are enough to constitute the basis for a satisfactory comparison ([1895] 1947, 132), but there must be a threshold below which the number may not go. With a single fact, obviously, no comparison is possible.

43 Durkheim aims to avert the objection that the first link he discovered in Australia was not the same elsewhere. He did all that was necessary: that it be known, whatever the case, that a carefully conducted study is sufficient to produce results that may be generalized. And Durkheim sets out another of his major methodological principles: “One effect always has the same cause” ([1895] 1947, 127). “It is inconceivable that, according to circumstances, the same effect may be due now to one cause, now to another” ([1912] 1965, 463). Nevertheless, by excluding the number of cases from the conditions of a valid comparison, Durkheim made an exception—the only one—to his Rules.

Three Issues

44 The continuity of Durkheim’s method all through his work is a patent fact. Durkheim, who refers twenty-five times to his previous works in The Elementary Forms, underlines it himself. As in the following passage:



We know . . . that social phenomena stem not from the individual but from the group. Whatever part we play in their genesis, each one of us receives them from outside.
(Durkheim 1912, 331).


48 These lines end with a footnote: “See on this point ‘Rules of Sociological Method, 5f.’”

49 Sometimes Durkheim exaggerates his merits as a pioneer. The structure of Australian tribes? This is what in 1893 he already called “organization based on clans” ([1893] 1902, 136). Primitive man’s state of mind concerning death? It was already discussed in Suicide (1897, 383). And what about a vocabulary in which the terms also remain stable? “Collective conscience” (six citations) is in the forefront in Elementary Forms. In this work even the pages considered the most innovative, since a paper in L'Année sociologique (Durkheim and Mauss 1903), that is, those that claim that the categories of understanding were social in character, are not really pioneering, for here Durkheim only develops his idea that everything that exists in societies, and therefore also logical thinking, is composed of representations. And once they are born, we imagine that they will become individualized, since representations encourage their nature and combine according to their laws (Durkheim [1895] 1947; 1901; 1912). The analysis of the origins of logical thought again takes up the theses of “Représentations individuelles et représentations collectives” [Individual representations and collective representations, Durkheim (1898) 1951)], an article that is indeed mentioned three times. Certainly Elementary Forms focuses on showing how Australian society may have suggested to him concepts of genre, species, time, and so on, by its subdivisions and its movements. But high peaks of moral density were needed, moments of strong fusions of individual conscience—assemblies were needed—for these suggestions to happen, and this is what matters when we adhere to Durkheim’s way of explaining.

50 The fidelity of Elementary Forms to the rules of Rules raises three issues:

51 The first is the possibility of this fidelity. How can thirty years of field surveys (a considerable number of works analyzed) find their place and even a harmonious arrangement in a framework created so far in advance, conceived at the end of the 1880s, and reflecting a “study of the organization of superior societies”? [10] This is possible because one does not change a theory according to the data that one possesses, but a theory chooses and selects its data. In 1895, Durkheim blames Edward Westermarck for the blind recourse to ethnographic observations that leads to taking “the secondary for the essential and the curious details for fundamental facts” (1895 [1975], 74). He ends up saying that to understand primitive societies, one must leave them (74). And to Frazer, who denies the religious character of totemism that he attributed to it in 1887, because the Arunta (again according to Spencer and Gillen) did not practice the two bans on eating animals or the totemic plant and marrying in the same clan, Durkheim replies that, since the connection between totemism and exogamy were verified on numerous occasions:


. . . when a proposal has the authority of such widespread experience, it is contrary to all methods to give it up too easily, simply because of a fact that seems to contradict it.
(Durkheim [1902] 1969, 321)

53 One might assume that Durkheim also believes that new data can mean correcting or abandoning a theory. Nevertheless, he never encountered any that made him think that he should change his own, or if he did encounter them, he did not recognize them or pretended not to see them.

54 The second issue raised by the continuity of Durkheim’s method is how this constancy squares with a definition of religion that evolved from his first formulations of 1886–1887 and definitively focused on the dichotomy of sacred things/profane things only starting with a course in 1906–1907 (Durkheim [1907] 1975). [11] The method and the definition fit because, since sacred things are the seat of a force (“a power, an energy,” [1917] 1975), explaining religion means explaining where this force comes from and showing it in action. It forces the individual to act by exercising a “dynamogenic” influence, according to the bizarre adjective that Durkheim uses after 1912, [12] so that the believer is “a man who can do more”(1912, 595; [1913] 1975, 23 [13]).

55 Here we are at the heart of Durkheim’s thought: the social and the religious encroach on each other in their shared opposition to the individual. Indeed, all the social phenomena have the same origin as religion, since the representations that are their basis emanate from assembled individuals and all of them, especially morality, keep the individual in the same grip, in a more or less significant way. [14] The constraint permitting us to recognize them, that is, their compulsory nature—the consequence of their collective genesis—is definitely the manifestation of a force. Durkheim’s sociologies, the religious and the others, are thus also involved in the beginning of Rules: a social fact is exterior to individuals and endowed with an “imperative and coercive power” with which it imposes itself on them (Durkheim [1895] 1947, 4).

56 The third issue raised by the fidelity of Elementary Forms to the rules of Rules is the attitude to adopt vis-à-vis the interpretations, readings, and rereadings since Talcott Parsons, to set a terminus a quo, made the Durkheim of Elementary Forms a second Durkheim in relation to the first, that is, precisely the man of the Rules, the scientist and positivist. This attitude must be one of respect, the one accruing to the exercise of an activity common among sociologists, almost constitutive of their discipline: “presentism.” This consists of annexing yesterday’s sociology to today’s. The present contribution does not participate in these exercises. Its aim is to render things as they really happened, according to a maxim of Leopold von Ranke in 1824, whose last brave partisans have a hard time coming out in the open and assembling—certainly for fear of giving rise to a religion.


  • [1]
    The year of publication of his thesis, De la Division du travail social [The Division of Labor in Society] ([1893] 1902), completed in March 1892.
  • [2]
    Les Règles de la méthode sociologique [The Rules of Sociological Method] ([1895] 1947) first appeared at this date in Revue philosophique.
  • [3]
    Dates of publication: the first is of “Représentations individuelles et représentations collectives” ([1898] 1951) and the first volume of L’Année sociologique ([1898] 1969), whose preface I discuss here; the second date is of the second edition of Règles, with the addition of a new preface also appearing as an article (Durkheim 1901).
  • [4]
    See also Durkheim 1912, 493, 497, 499, and 582-583.
  • [5]
    Durkheim (1913) 1975, 57; (1914) 1970, 329. See Pickering 1984, 380-390.
  • [6]
    See this same idea in Durkheim 1899, 163–165.
  • [7]
    Durkheim (1914) 1970.
  • [8]
    Durkheim refers to Fauconnet and Mauss 1901, 150–151. He probably coauthored this text.
  • [9]
    I.e., in the article “Sociologie religieuse et théorie de la connaissance” (1909) partly included in Les Formes under the title “Objet de la recherche.”
  • [10]
    This is the subtitle of the first edition of De la Division du travail social.
  • [11]
    See G. Paoletti’s article in this same issue of L’Année sociologique.
  • [12]
    Durkheim [1913] 1975, 26; Durkheim and Mauss 1913, 706; and so on. Of French origin, the word “dynamogenic” seems to have returned to Durkheim from the United States via William James. See Jones 2005a, 229-230; 2005b, 93-94; and Watts Miller 2005, 18-22.
  • [13]
    See also Durkheim [1909] 1975, 144.
  • [14]
    “Moreover we have shown that there are no morals that are not imbued with religiosity” (Durkheim [1914] 1970, 327: an implicit reference to Durkheim [1906] 1951).

Émile Durkheim explains religion in line with three of his Rules of Sociological Method. These assert that social phenomena stem from the moral densification of groups, that they are, throughout their development, the outcome of a process of individualization, and that they persist, as well, because of their utility. A fourth rule, requiring that the cause of social phenomena be determined by broad historical comparisons, is, on the other hand, modified by Durkheim in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. He, nevertheless, takes it as given that a social phenomenon can be fully understood only if one goes back to its beginnings.


  • cause
  • comparative analysis
  • Durkheim
  • effervescence
  • function
  • history
  • individualization
  • moral density
  • religion
  • representations
  • sociological explanation
  • totemism


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Massimo Borlandi
Professor of Sociology at the University of Turin (Italy)
Uploaded on on 19/05/2014
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