An Overview on W.S.F. Pickering's Study of Durkheim's Work

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AN OVERVIEW ON W.S.F. PICKERING'S STUDY OF DURKHEIM'S WORK W.S.F. Pickering, Durkheim's Sociology of Religion. Themes and Theories, Cambridge: James Clarke & Co, 2009, 576 pages

Key Words: sociology, religion, the sacred, the profane, the social, the individual, society, God, representations, ritual, secularization

One of the most famous scholars who have written about Émile Durkheim's works is Dr W.S.F. Pickering, the author of a number of books on the French sociologist and his followers, and the General Secretary of the British Centre for Durkheimian Studies, a center that he initiated and founded in 1991, in the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Oxford University. His well-acknowledged book on Durkheim's views on religion is Durkheim's Sociology of Religion, Themes and Theories, first published in 1984. The 2009 edition of the book includes, on the back cover, extraordinary remarks on Pickering's book: a "book of great erudition" and "the summation of all that one can know - or almost know - of Durkheim's sociology of religion", the single book that "has explained Durkheim's views on religion using the whole corpus of his writing" (2009). The book is intended to respond to a call, states Pickering (2009: xxv), much similar to the one of W. E. H. Stanner, the Australian anthropologist, who, fascinated by "this inexhaustibly interesting scholar", responds to the impulse of repeatedly turning back in order "to study again and again" Durkheim's great book on religion, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, one of the classics of sociology because "it is constantly read and reread", providing permanent "academic refreshment and insight" (xix).

Doctor Pickering's Introductory remarks synthesizes the content of he book making reference to some rationale, the purposes of the book as well as the presentation of the works written by Durkheim on the subject of religion in his "attempt to explore social phenomena scientifically" (xix). What the author is underlining from the very beginning is that it is not only The Elementary Forms that is the focus of his analysis but also the many articles, reviews, writings, i.e. "the entire corpus of his writings which deal with religion and allied subjects" (xx). Furthermore, the reader is told, Durkheim's Sociology of Religion gives attention to the sociologist's followers and critics, not much taken into consideration previously. Dr Pickering repeatedly expresses fascination for the subject of his study, "a classical writer whose mind has been shown to be outstandingly great" (xx), who must be analyzed "with a degree of reverence" (xxii) and explains that in approaching a classic, one has to "expound what the man has written" (xx). There are three main reasons for this: (1) the number and the complexity of the ideas and their ramifications, (2) the stringent criticism on Durkheim's atheistic, positivist and reductionist believes and (3) the attempt to focus less on the weaknesses of Durkheim's works but rather to "expound Durkheim's thought" because "the overall task is to come to terms with Durkheimian thought about religion, not to argue about how one come to terms with any classic or classical thought in general" (xxi). Minute examination is the principal method of analysis of Durkheim's texts and their meaning that Dr Pickering uses, often implying a going back and re-interpretation of the French original in order to avoid misinterpretation and obscurity, for "one can only judge him by what he did and what he set out to do" and any other judgment entails "a completely different set of criteria" (xxii). That is the reason why, Dr Pickering explains, the book is not to compare Durkheim with any other sociologist because his sociological thought is a "complete system", a "sociological Thomism" and any attempt to compare systems would be a "futile exercise, only excusable as an examination question for undergraduates" (xxii). Another aspect to take into consideration when analyzing text and life is the historical perspective, an imperative, the reader is told, for Durkheim was "very much a man of his time"; therefore, the book connects the religious issues of Durkheim's time, his religious background, his education, ideals, as well as the changes that his thought underwent during his lifetime (xxii). …