ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Durkheim and Geertz approaches to religion in society

Updated on March 22, 2017
jadesmg profile image

Jade is a graduate of Aberdeen University in Philosophy and Anthropology and remains interested in these areas while training as a teacher.

World Religions
World Religions | Source

Both Durkheim and Geertz’s views of religion place emphasis on it‘s importance within a group, in relation to morality especially. However, they greatly differ in their approaches. Durkheim’s position is that the sacred is society which we are obliged to yield to and adopt within ourselves. Others though would argue that this withholds any power from the individual and also fails to consider religion as a source of power. Geertz considers religion to be a cultural system consisting of a collection of symbols which contain public and social meaning constructing the world as peoples perceive it. Yet Geertz fails to account for different interpretations and meanings of symbols despite the importance of symbols in his theory.Both theorists have ethnographic support despite their vast differences, however neither approach is completely clear of criticism.

Durkheim

Durkheim regards religion as the means through which the clan expresses it’s being a society. According to Durkheim people experience society as a force outside themselves imposing rules of thought and behaviour which they explain in terms of God and religious forces. Religion acts as an expression of ‘a sense of dependence on a power outside ourselves’ (Radcliffe-Brown 1945: 35). This though also requires a lack of independence as within this theory people conform to society in order to be. Radcliffe-Brown claims this increases confidence as people are better able to face life’s difficulties when they know there are powers outside themselves, even if this means submitting to control (1945: 43). Amongst the Tallensi, Fortes found that the concept of person ‘presupposes living humanity contained in a social system’ so the individual does not fully exist without society to bolster them (1973: 294). Totemic beings to Durkheim act to represent the clan itself in a physical form so as to enable worshipping of something. Fortes agrees that it is through ‘totemistic observances…that [Tallensi are] constantly reminded and made aware of who and what they are as persons’ (1973: 313). It is through correct behaviour and fulfilling what their society deems to be their responsibilities that the Tallensi reach full personhood. This personhood can be endangered by such things as sacrilege so it is only through conforming to religion that peoples are able to become the ancestors they expect to after death (Fortes 1973: 294).

In the Aboriginal tribe studied by Durkheim he focuses on the totems of the tribe, claiming that more meaning is placed on the totemic emblem than on the clan as the totem acts as a flag; an object which acts to symbolise and contain the otherwise abstract and complex realities of the clan itself (1968: 165). This totemic emblem becomes the permanent, stable element of social life, existing through generations. However, further evaluation of the totems by Durkheim has proven to be negligible as the studies of following ethnographers argue the Aboriginals do not use totems as Durkheim portrayed, even by the admission of supporters of his theory such as Radcliff-Brown who claims sources which Durkheim employed where in fact unreliable (1945: 38). Evans-Pritchard also points out that there are ‘peoples with clans and no totems, and peoples with totems and no clans’ (Evans-Pritchard cited in Wallwork 1984: 49). Durkheim also seems to neglect the notion of power within society and religion, how some people can have power over others legitimised through religion. Maurice Bloch shows how religion is used to explain power within societies as the Marina of Madagascar consider ‘hasina’ to be a mystical source of power which people are born with legitimising peoples rank above others (1989: 65). Bloch also puts forward the issue of formalised language in religious settings which enable one speaker to ‘coerce the response from another that it can be seen as a form of social control’(1974: 64). Songs and other such religious rituals have even greater levels of social control as there can be no argument in song (Bloch 1974: 69).Durkheim’s theory also fails to empower the individuals within society with any autonomy, instead favouring the idea that people are wholly dependent on society without consideration that society is also dependent on individuals. Martin Southwold claims Durkheim fails more generally as his idea of sacred and profane ‘fails, both because it does not fit many of the data and because it is incoherent’(1978: 368).

Summary

Both Geertz and Durkheim’s theories are validated in some senses by ethnographic evidence. Despite this, neither seem to have found a true, irrefutable means of explaining religion as each theory has flaws which need addressed. It would seem that a consensus must be found in which neglected aspects are taken into account and those mistaken viewpoints are altered. It also seems a greater understanding of the purpose and use of symbols must be gotten for a new, more applicable theory of religion to be applied. Ambiguous meanings of symbols especially must be accounted for in a personal and cultural sense, allowing symbols to be understood within different contexts rather than as structural facts as Geertz would claim.

Bibliography

Bloch, M. 1974. ‘Symbols, Songs, Dance and Features of Articulation: Is religion an extreme form of traditional authority?’. European Journal of Sociology. 15 (1): 55-81.

Bloch, M. 1989. Ritual, History and Power: Selected Papers in Anthropology. London: The Athlone Press.

Durkheim, E. 1968 [1915]. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd.

Fernandez, J. W. 1965. ‘Symbolic Consensus in a Fang Reformative Cult’. American Anthropologist, New Series. 67 (4): 902-929.

Fortes, M. 1973. ‘On the Concept of the Person Among the Tallensi’. La Notion de la Personne en Afrique Noire. (ed.) G. Dieterlen. Paris: Editions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. 283-319

Geertz, C. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Geertz, C. 2004 [1966]. ‘Religion as a Cultural System’. Anthropological Approaches to the study of Religion.(ed.) M. Banton. London: Routledge. 1-46.

Mills, M. 2003. Identity, Ritual and State in Tibetan Buddhism. London: Routledge.

Radcliffe-Brown, A.R. 1945. ‘Religion and Society’. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. 75 (1/2): 33-43.

Southwold, M. 1978. ‘Buddhism and the Definition of Religion’. Man. 13 (3): 362-379.

Taussig, M. 1977. ‘The Genesis of Capitalism amongst a South American Peasantry: Devil’s Labour and the Baptism of Money’. Comparative Studies in Society and History. 19 (2): 130-155.

Wallwork, E. 1984. ‘Religion and Social Structure in The Division of Labour’. American Anthropologist. 83 (1): 43-64.

Wikan, U. 1989. ‘Illness from Fight or Soul Loss: A North Balinese Culture-Bound Syndrome?’. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry. 13 (1): 25-50.

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • Sara Karesh Coxe profile image

      Sara Karesh Coxe 

      5 years ago from Germantown, Maryland

      Thank you for posting this. I teach high school in the US, and I am always looking for short pieces for my advanced students to digest when I teach "how to study religion."

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, hubpages.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://hubpages.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)