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Durkheim and Geertz approaches to religion in society

Updated on March 22, 2017
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Jade is a graduate of Aberdeen University in Philosophy, Anthropology and Teaching.

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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 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).


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.


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.


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    • Sara Karesh Coxe profile image

      Sara Karesh Coxe 

      7 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."


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