on 6 November 2009
Heralding the consolidation of modern sociology as an objective and scientific discipline within the Humanities, the works of Emile Durkheim reach a fascinating and approachable culmination in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. It provides an important conceptual foundation to the history of French Intellectualism over the course of the twentieth century and is an eminently worthy departure in understanding suceeding writers such as Marcel Mauss, Robert Hertz, the Structural Marxists of the 1960s, and Claude Levi-Strauss.
His efforts in establishing sociology as a serious and pursuable academic discipline are of an invaluable and profound scope. Seeking to place the subject on a similar standing to that of the Natural Sciences and the nascent Psychology, Durkheim essentially came to analyse society in much the same way that a psychoanalyst would analyse an individual patient. He implemented several objective tools in this pursuit, such as the conception of the social fact and the social consciousness, and came to understand the influences of different parts of society upon the individual and the whole and how they related to one another.
Within the Elementary Forms of Religious Life Durkheim applies this almost psychological perspective to the operation of religion within societies and groups. Although both rich and fascinating in its myriad accounts of differing rituals and practices, the greatest power of the book is invariably its ability in looking past the subjective and surface values of religion and observing instead the universal structures and phenomenon which unite its purposes to all of humanity. It seeks, in an anthropological vein, to understand and analyse the "simplest" and "earliest" of religious practices so as to garner a greater idea of how more "complex" and more "global" religions function.
In brief, any student of the social sciences will benefit greatly from reading the book and gaining a firmer understanding of the history of their discipline - as an academic text it reveals much of where modern theories such as structuralism were gestated for example. Yet equally, to those with more of a broad interest, particularly concerning the nature of religion and its place in the modern world, the Elementary Forms of Religious Life offers both theory and praxis in objectively understanding the hidden structures of why humanity has had such a great need for religion throughout its history, and why, in a sense, "If God did not exist, there would be a need to invent him."