Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Is Durkheim's "Sociologism" Out-Dated? Debating "Individualism" in Contemporary French Sociology of Religion

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Is Durkheim's "Sociologism" Out-Dated? Debating "Individualism" in Contemporary French Sociology of Religion

Article excerpt

Introduction

In Northern and Southern Europe, North and South America, but also beyond the boundaries of the western world, the attention of contemporary sociologists has been captured by the emergence of "individualized" religious practices and beliefs. This feature of modernity, conceptualized in terms of "individualization", and understood in light of a certain kind of individualism, has been widely discussed over the past century. Individualization, it is argued, has, ostensibly, contributed significantly to the transformation of societies, cultures, as well as religious beliefs, conduct, feelings and organizations. Contemporary sociologists in France (and elsewhere) have coalesced around this model, attempting to demonstrate on an empirical basis that religion has undergone such profound changes and that "classical" theoretical models used in the sociology of religion no longer correspond to contemporary realities. It is argued that the sociology of religion needs to be reinvented, and pioneering work in the discipline, particularly those of Emile Durkheim, should be relegated to the history of ideas. The emergence of new concepts, methods and perspectives has come with the expectation of furthering this analytical abandonment of anachronistic "classical" social theorists, encouraging the acceptance of purportedly more "relevant" and innovative approaches. The current argument in favour of this modernizing shift in sociology is that the present and future of religion cannot be understood with the now passe methodological and conceptual tools used to study religions of the past. However, I argue that the repeated criticism of the alleged neglect of individualism in Durkheim's sociology (which apparently makes it an impediment to grasping contemporary religious life), conceals another reality, namely the appropriation of the culture of individualism as a social fact by contemporary religions.

Over the past two decades in French sociology of religion, Durkheim's works, once considered "crucial," have been subjected to considerable criticism, more so than those of Max Weber, which appear to be more in vogue (Willaime 1995). French sociology was born and institutionalized under Durkheim's influence. Pierre Bourdieu is arguably among the last sociologists to be committed to Durkheim's legacy. In France, Durkheim's theoretical legacy is typically seen as rooted in his theory of religion. Prominent French religion scholars, like Daniele Hervieu-Leger, Marcel Gauchet, or Jean-Paul Willaime all agree that Durkheim's sociology is ill-suited to the study of religion in modern society, especially because it supposedly ignores the rise of modern individualism and its wide societal acceptance. Social scientists studying religion have developed this emphasis on individualization in three different ways. First, individualization and individualism are still considered to be unquestioned empirical historical fact. Second, in terms of a broader theory of social change, the cultural history of individualization is considered to be the main feature in the emergence of "modernity." Third, following from the other two points, predominant contemporary French social scientists contend that the conceptual matrices of the pioneering theories of the "founders" of the discipline, should be rethought and reframed.

The charge against the obsolescence of "classical" sociologies, among them Durkheim's theory of "religion-as-society", explicated in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (hereafter, EFRL), is somewhat specious. First, the concept of "individualism" itself is a multifaceted one and its nuances have been neglected. Second, there is a noticeable partial understanding of Durkheim's approach to individualism. My contention here is that a serious consideration of Durkheim's sociology of religion, in The Forms and in other works, offers an interesting vantage point for understanding the contemporary debate over "sociologism" and "individualism" in modern French sociology. …

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