Emile Durkheim: Sociologist and Moralist

By Stephen P. Turner | Go to book overview
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An essay on the origins of Durkheim’s sociology of religion

Robert Alun Jones

Durkheim’s sociology of religion can hardly be considered a ‘neglected area’ in the study of his thought. It is a concern of sections or chapters in every major study of Durkheim’s life and work (LaCapra 1972:245-91; Lukes 1972:237-44, 450-84), a favorite topic in the journalistic literature on the history of the social sciences (Isambert 1976; Jones 1977; 1981; 1986), and a central focus for edited volumes and monographs on Durkheimian sociology (Pickering 1975; 1984). Moreover, while these discussions frequently disagree on the precise nature, origin and/or significance of Durkheim’s ideas on religion, there is virtual unanimity on one specific point—that is, that Durkheim was profoundly influenced by La Cité Antique (1864), the classic work on the religion of Greco-Roman antiquity written by Fustel de Coulanges, under whom Durkheim had studied at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in the early 1880s (Jones 1986:621; LaCapra 1972:30, 197; Lukes 1972:60-3; Pickering 1984:56-8). The ironic parallel to this unanimity is the relative absence, within the same literature, of any detailed discussion of their intellectual relationship.

This essay is part of an ongoing effort to redress this imbalance between assertion and evidence. As such, it begins with a brief account of Fustel’s life and the social context of his work, and proceeds to a more detailed analysis of the ideas contained in La Cité Antique, noting agreements and disagreements with ideas later developed by Durkheim. The third section provides a still more detailed treatment of Fustel’s profound but ambiguous influence on Durkheim’s sociology of religion, particularly as this was revealed in Durkheim’s posthumous Leçons de Sociologie: Physique des Moeurs et du Droit (1950). Finally, the brief conclusion attempts to place this influence within the context of Durkheim’s other concerns, including the comparative method, the growing body of ethnographic evidence about primitive religions, the theories of


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