Academic journal article Italian Sociological Review

The Sacred in Current Social Sciences Research

Academic journal article Italian Sociological Review

The Sacred in Current Social Sciences Research

Article excerpt


The aim of this paper is to offer an overview of the recent scientific literature about the sacred from a multidisciplinary perspective covering the years between 2000 and 2013.

To organize the literature on the subject, we first analyzed the most classical perspectives about the sacred in a preliminary study. We found that - although classic studies about the sacred in anthropology, sociology, and psychology date back to about one century ago, and the literature on the matter is countless - we could identify at least two main theoretical issues that are still relevant. The classic studies about the sacred, in fact -and mainly the sociological and anthropological ones started by the Durkheimian school (especially in relation to the moral value of the sacred) and those posed by Max Weber(regarding charismatic power) -trace two strands with which we can organize some of the latest research: the research strand about the moral and social cohesive function of the sacred, and the research strand about the relations between the sacred and power. These two general issues are analyzed in this paper in detail.

Our definition of the sacred goes beyond the realm of religion and the sociology of religion, expanding toward a more comprehensive perspective on society intended as a structure pervaded by sacrality. In the first section of the paper, we provide a theoretical account of the sacred from this perspective, considering both classic and some recent theoretical contributions from a multidisciplinary perspective.

Although we can only present some of the research strands about the sacred and only a few examples of the research on the subject within the limits of this paper, we are confident that this presentation could offer a useful overview of the current developments in research about the sacred in various scientific disciplines, which all contribute to the comprehension of the theme.

1. Defining the sacred. A theoretical framework in light of classical and recent contributions

1.1 A secular perspective on the sacred

The sacred is a classical but today almost neglected sociological category. Nevertheless, it could still be a useful category to interpret our culture and society because it identifies the core of social and cultural order, and some fundamental dynamics of their changes. Certainly, we have to conceive that contemporary societies are very complex, so they are clearly not understandable within only one interpretative category, as much as it goes to the core of many social processes. In fact, we know that social variables are countless, and their dynamic compositions need always to be considered in the context in which they appear. Due to this complexity, we consider the sacred as a fruitful category for sociological analysis.

The sacred can be defined in various ways. In the phenomenology of religions is the mysterium tremendum and fascinans, or numinous (Otto, 1936[1917]). From a Durkheimian perspective, indeed, it is an emotional- based quality, with many important symbolical expressions, socially attributed to something that is set apart from the profane reality; the sacred is revered and feared, protected with interdictions, and in some way, it appears as exceptional, in contrast with ordinary things. Sacred things have absolute and non-utilitarian value, and they constitute the core of society because they are the absolute, inviolable principles to which the social order is anchored, providing it the necessary solidarity and cohesion (Durkheim, 2005[1912]).

We prefer the Durkheimian perspective because we find it more sociologically interesting, since it seems able to express sacred aspects of society beyond the boundaries of religion. In fact, this definition of the sacred does not necessarily include any reference to supernatural forces, which inevitably lead to the specific object of religion and the frequently debated problem of clarifying the boundaries between magic and religion (Goody, 1961; Malinowski, 1948; Mauss, 2001[1902]; Stark, 2001) and also between magic, religion, and spirituality (e. …

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