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Sacred and Profane

Durkheim's Critics

Despite the profound influence of Durkheim on the structural-functionalist school of British anthropology, many of its practitioners were highly critical of the pertinence of his antithesis between sacred and profane. E. E. Evans-Pritchard proposed "a test of this sort of formulation …: whether it can be broken down into problems which permit testing by observation in field research, or can at least aid in a classification of the observed facts. I have never found that the dichotomy of sacred and profane was of much use for either purpose" (p. 65). Specifically, British anthropologists challenged its applicability to the real-life situations they observed in the course of field research.

Evans-Pritchard argued that among the Azande of central Africa, sacredness might be situational. Shrines erected for the purposes of ancestor worship in the middle of a compound might serve as a focus of ritual offerings on some occasions but on others, might be a convenient place for resting spears. W. E. H. Stanner found that the distinction was impossible to apply unambiguously in studying Australian religion, the very example on which it was ostensibly based. Jack Goody noted that many societies have no words that translate as sacred or profane and that ultimately, just like the distinction between natural and supernatural, it was very much a product of European religious thought rather than a universally applicable criterion.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Revaluation of values: to Sarin Gas - History And Global Production Of SarinSacred and Profane - Durkheim's Definition Of Religion, Sacred Versus Holy; Profane Versus Secular, Totems, Society, And The Sacred