The Conceptualization of the Collective in Modern Politics: World-Making and Determinism in Durkheim

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The Conceptualization of the Collective in Modern Politics

World-Making and Determinism in Durkheim

By Pamela, Aldo, Monica, and Rami

Émile Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of Religious Life posits the idea that religion and religious life is not just a form of social life, but the first true form of social life. Through his study of primitive religions, Durkheim hopes to understand religion and the role it plays in human life, and, through that, he extrapolates what is universal and fundamental about man. Living in the France during the times of the Third Republic, Durkheim bore witness to a distinctly Catholic society’s transition towards secularism, and as such became driven with the question of whether or not it could be true to state that religion and religious life were the basis for all social life and societal relationships, and if so, whether french society (and others moving in the same direction) would be capable of surviving secularization.

One of the main themes which resonates and is repeated throughout the text is the idea that  the collective, or the group, is the societal system which defines the individual and, as such, the world. Unlike other authors such as Smith and Marx who emphasize some form of economic life (exchange and labor, respectively) as the center of their ideas of the human and the worlds they build, Durkheim claims that it is ultimately the collective and collective life which determines the person, and thus is what makes his world. As such, the conclusions he draws from his theories are quite different from these authors.

Part of this idea of world-making through the collective can be seen when Durkheim notes how even our basic concepts of space and time come as a result of social life. “…what if one tried to imagine what the notion of time would be, in absence of the methods we use to divide (…) a time which was not a succession of years, months, weeks, days, and hours?” (p.10) he asks.  In the case of the Zuñi, a tribe which conceives of space as circular in the same way their camp is modeled (p.11). As the number of clans changed, so did the way they perceived of space; Durkheim is led to conclude that “far from being built into human nature, no idea exists, up to and including the distinction between right and left, that is not, in all probability, the product of religious, hence collective, representations” (pp.11-12). In other words, it is social life and the collective which determines how we as individuals conceptualize the world we live in.

These same definitions of space are particularly relevant today, notably regarding the well-reported demonstrations at Standing Rock. The Sioux tribe living in that area received incredible amounts of publicity surrounding their struggles with the Dakota Access Pipeline, a federal project which had been rerouted through the tribe’s land, reportedly exposing the Tribe’s water supply to contamination and disrupting their land. The disagreement became largely centered around the two collectives – Standing Rock native tradition and greater American culture – and how each of their notions of space and the world they live in cause confrontation. The land, according to the natives, is sacred: a space to be respected because of it’s religious significance. A native woman spoke out in protest, shouting “…Our future lies in the knowledge that we are all of one people; that this earth is our mother.” Because of the government and american culture’s lack of understanding and respect for Native understanding of space, the pipeline disrespected the natives’ collective.

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One of the basis of all logical human thought is the principle of non-contradiction: if two statements are contradictory, they can never both be true in the same sense at the same time. Binary logic in this style is fundamental to human thought (and thus, the human) as a whole, says Durkheim. Throughout the text, Durkheim posits several irreducible dualities which are interlinked: for knowledge, he identifies empirical (individual, direct) and categorical (collective, imposed) knowledge; for man, his individual (body) and social (intellectual, moral) self; and for things/activities, their profane (material) and sacred (ideal, transcendent) identities. In fact, Durkheim notes that the division between these last two categories is so great, that it is forbidden for a man’s sacred and profane life to ever mix: “More generally, the typical actions of ordinary life are forbidden so long as those of religious life are in progress (…) For the same reason, all secular occupations are suspended when the great religious ceremonies take place” (p. 311). In this vein, Durkheim posits that this binary conception of logic that we humans share stems from our ability to differentiate between two contradictory dualities, such as the sacred and the profane. As such, this religious concept may be the source for human logical thought.

Yet these dualities are not unrelated from one another. For Durkheim, the collective itself is a sacred ideal, because it not only shapes our thoughts and interactions (and thus determines ourselves as persons), but because it infuses individuals with feelings which can only have a sacred quality ascribed to them. When an individual feels himself to be part of a true collective, a clan, he is filled with indescribable feelings and urges which are not found in everyday profane activity.

Firstly, there is an urge to announce and solidify the feeling of belonging to the clan. This feeling is stronger than just the feeling of being in a group; there is a need to objectify it in physical form, to announce to the world that you are a part of this clan. This is where the totem comes from: it expresses a representation of the shared qualities of the collective and its sacredness. The concept of the totem transcends throughout history; it can be Catholic church; it can be the pursuit of liberty in French Revolution; and even today we see that it takes the form of the great American flag, in this example from Donald Trump’s inaugural address: “It is time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget: that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American Flag.” It is quite interesting that he uses the word “salute,” inferring that the flag has some sort of innate quality ascribed to it that demands respect. A modern day totem, the flag is an outward and physical sign of the idea of the American society.

Being part of the collective also carries with it a feeling that we carry part of the collective within ourselves. When a person is initiated into the clan and anointed with the clan’s totem, Durkheim claims, they not only feel that they are a part of the clan, but that the clan is a part of them as well. This is the idea of Force, or Mana – the combined influence of the collective causing individuals to act how they otherwise might not, for the good of the collective. In fact, actions taken under the influence of the collective Force, due to its social and sacred nature, tend to be powerful and contagious: this can be seen even today, such as on January 21st, 2017, when the Women’s March was held across the United States and even the world to protest against Donald Trump in favor of women’s rights. The number of people involved was greater than ever expected – the 250,000 people in the streets of Chicago and over 3 million across the world engaged in a manifest form of collective effervescence. They abandoned their everyday lives for a moment of kinship and solidarity to protect their rights and their society. It was not only women who marched: despite all of the female symbolism, there was more than pink at the rally. People (and creatures) of all kinds joined in this because the fight expanded beyond the title, beyond the cat ears, and beyond the pink. When people joined this march, they were no longer only themselves, they were in the movement fighting the discriminatory and derogatory actions and words that Trump committed and continues to commit. The strength and collective feeling of the March itself was an act caused by social forces.

Women take part in a protest against Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in Chicago

This builds on to the idea of the soul; the fragmentation of this collective Force in the individual. As individuals, our experience is always limited, yet our soul, the part in us that contains the “collective forces” of universal consciousness, liberates us from the physical limitation of the body. Through the soul, we get to experience what the society experiences collectively. According to Durkheim, the idea of the soul comes as a result of this feeling of ‘not feeling like oneself’ that is brought about by the force of the collective, but more personal: it is your ‘inner voice’ that comes as a result of immersion in the collective, which guides your rituals, actions, and your morality. While the original reason for performing a certain ritual or being forbidden to perform a certain action or say a certain word (taboo) can be lost to time, the Force (and thus the soul) keep the practice going for generations and generations. Again an example from Trump’s inaugural address: “we are one nation — and their pain is our pain. Their dreams are our dreams; and their success will be our success. We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.” Here we are in a modern clan named the United States of America! And we share kinship with our ancestors, our founding fathers, with our fellow brothers and sisters, and even with our future generations. The universal consciousness of being a citizen in this nation and the force of acting morally according to the morality of the collective truly make us feel we are involved in something more mighty. Through the wholeness of which we call “our nation,” we and the society are intertwined together in this symbiotic relationship. Society asks the individual to sacrifice himself, be it figuratively (by going against the individual’s own self-interest) or literally (to die for it), and in doing so he gains a grand purpose of existence and moral uplift.

The idea of morality due to the soul also leads back to our previous discussion of the totem: the Force, or mana, is diffused in this tangible form, according to Durkheim’s theory. And the force has a morally imperative nature to perpetual people to fulfill their obligation to the group they are involved in. Going back to the example of the flag in Trump’s inauguration speech, we see how the flag, our modern day totem, functions as the source of our fellow Americans’ moral life. While obeying their societal cause, they feel lifted, as if living a higher life beyond their individual impulses. It also ties back to the idea of the duality of man: the individual feels like there is a second version of himself which compels him to act against his own self interest for the good of the collective – the conscience (in this case, the soul according to Durkheim).

As we can see, the world that Durkheim builds in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life is one centered around the collective, and how that determines social relationships and the individual. Through the study of religion and religious concepts, Durkheim claims to show how the collective not only determines the individual as such, but in doing so shapes the world and society.

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4 thoughts on “The Conceptualization of the Collective in Modern Politics: World-Making and Determinism in Durkheim

  1. Your example of world-making in the Standing Rock protest was really striking to me. The disagreement between the protestors and the rest of the country was not just about which spaces are sacred, but also, as you suggest, a disagreement over understandings of space more broadly. Our collective understanding of land treats it as an economic commodity, and this understanding is wholly incompatible with that of the Standing Rock Sioux; when the two collective understandings intersect, the conflict is massive. I liked also that your post dealt more broadly with conflicts between different coexisting collectives, a topic that Durkheim unfortunately does not address. Both the Trump movement and the Women’s March express deeply totemic elements, but the two are clearly very different groups, though they exist in the same space and time. The conflict between them seem to be essential to defining these groups–the Women’s March, as you point out, emerged as a response to Trump’s inauguration. In 2017, the clan-country is segmented into various groups, and each of us is simultaneously a member of many different collectives; consequently, understanding conflict between collectives is essential to understanding their social functions, and I think you are right to draw attention to these conflicts as subjects for analysis.

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  2. Your example of world-making in the Standing Rock protest was really striking to me. The disagreement between the protestors and the rest of the country was not just about which spaces are sacred, but also, as you suggest, a disagreement over understandings of space more broadly. Our collective understanding of land treats it as an economic commodity, and this understanding is wholly incompatible with that of the Standing Rock Sioux; when the two collective understandings intersect, the conflict is massive. I liked also that your post dealt more broadly with conflicts between different coexisting collectives, a topic that Durkheim unfortunately does not address. Both the Trump movement and the Women’s March express deeply totemic elements, but the two are clearly very different groups, though they exist in the same space and time. The conflict between them seem to be essential to defining these groups–the Women’s March, as you point out, emerged as a response to Trump’s inauguration. In 2017, the clan-country is segmented into various groups, and each of us is simultaneously a member of many different collectives; consequently, understanding conflict between collectives is essential to understanding their social functions, and I think you are right to draw attention to these conflicts as subjects for analysis.

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  3. I appreciated your inclusion of the section in your introduction on why it was historically relevant for Durkheim to be interested in religion. I also thought your connection of the Zuñi to the Sioux tribe of the Standing Rock protests was an insightful connection. I wish you had touched on why the pipeline was going to profane the sacred space more. You have the general idea from Durkheim that the sacred and profane should not mix but I would have appreciated even a short straightforward sentence categorizes the pipeline and the potential consequences of it as profane. I appreciated your point though that since the government does not share the same understanding of space, they are free to ignore the disruption of the pipeline on the collective. I was interested at how you approached the American flag as a representative of American society while simultaneously speaking on the Women’s March, two groups that overlap but don’t all share the same belief system (especially as you talk about the flag in connection to Trump’s quote and inauguration) but the Women’s March was largely fighting for women’s rights they feared Trump would take away.) What does it mean that these clans disagree, especially as one contains the other? What difference in mindset allowed such a group like the Women’s March protesters (or even protesters who burn the American flag to make a point) to exist when we should be conditioned by the larger American society clan to support the American clan?

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  4. I was really impressed by the juxtapositions that are demonstrated within this post. While Durkheim uses religion as broad overarching term, the spirituality he discusses within this is one of not an inherently ‘religious’ nature. This post did a wonderful job expressing the universality of Durkheim’s work: that mana, soul, and collective effervescence is a crucial part of all social groups. However, I do think that there is an obvious difference between the Standing Rock protest and The Women’s March. While both groups are fighting for their rights, one of them uses traditional sacred terminology while the other is a more politically and liberal based protest. I think that there is a difference between secular religions and traditional religions and the way that they see their existence. However, you still demonstrate an excellent point that these groups are both experiencing the same Durkhiemian existence within their fights. I think this is also interesting as that (like what Ariel said) we have so many different manas and souls because we have so many different collectives: which ones over rule us? Which manas define us more than others? I would argue that the native American protesters are more defined by the Standing Rock collective than protesters who are not as directly impacted. I don’t know the correct answer to this, I just think its something to ponder over!

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