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Sacred and Profane

Sacred And Profane Since Durkheim

The American anthropologist W. Lloyd Warner, after conducting ethnographic research in Australia, turned in the 1930s to field work in a New England town that he called "Yankee City." He published a series of monographs about American life through the lens of a small town, the last of which, The Living and the Dead (1959), focused on symbols and symbolism. The central chapter of the book, the one that most closely reflects the title of the book, was an analysis of Memorial Day rites, which "are a modern cult of the dead and conform to Durkheim's definition of sacred collective representations" (p. 278). These rites transcended the division of the community in terms of class, ethnicity, and religion, uniting it around sacred symbols, including the cemetery, and national heroes—Lincoln, Washington, the Unknown Soldier. "The graves of the dead are the most powerful of the visible emblems which unify all the activities of the separate groups of the community," whereas the celebration of the deaths of men who sacrificed their lives for their country "become powerful sacred symbols which organized, direct, and constantly revive the collective ideals of the community and the nation" (p. 279).

The sociologist Robert Bellah explicitly built on Warner's analysis of Memorial Day rites to elaborate a concept of "American civil religion"—"a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity" (p. 10). Examining various presidential addresses on ceremonial occasions, from the founding father down to Lyndon Johnson, he notes the strategic invocation of "God" and the complete absence of mentions of "Christ," which he argued signaled the transcendent, sacred nature of the nation while acknowledging the separation of church and state by avoiding references to any particular institutionalized religious faith. Ultimately, these analyses of American civil religion developed the analogies that Durkheim had suggested by stressing the identity of "flag" and "totem" and demonstrated the extent to which this conception of the sacred could not be opposed in any straightforward way to the secular.

More than any other contemporary anthropologists, Mary Douglas has made Durkheim's distinction between sacred and profane a central focus of her work. In Purity and Danger (1966), she proposed a sweeping cross-cultural analysis of rules concerning purity and pollution that stressed Durkheim's central thesis that religious ideas depended on the active separation of antithetical domains, a separation that in turn implied a system of classification. The central premise of her analysis


Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) was the founder of academic sociology in France and a thinker whose contribution to the social sciences, especially sociology and anthropology, continues to be fundamental. Born into a family of rabbis in Lorraine, he studied at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where his fellow students included the future philosopher Henri Bergson and Jean Jaurès, who was to become the leader of the Socialist Party. Philosophy was (and remains) a central focus of the humanities in France; Durkheim's first concern was to establish sociology as a legitimate branch. Consequently, his doctoral thesis and first major work, The Division of Labor in Society, published in 1893, sought to establish a "science of ethics."

The idea of looking for morality in the division of labor was startling, especially in light of the Marxist convictions of Durkheim's socialist friends. With equal daring, Durkheim suggested that such moral principles were reflected in the different types of law, repressive (criminal) and restitutive (civil). Repressive law rested on shared social understandings of "crime" morality, a domain Durkheim labeled the "conscience collective," which can be translated either as "collective consciousness" or "collective conscience." The moral underpinnings of such understandings amounted to "mechanical solidarity," the recognition of essential likeness between fellow members of a society. The increasing scope of the division of labor gave rise to a higher form of "organic" solidarity, reflecting complementarity rather than likeness. Ideally, organic solidarity was expressed by restitutive law stipulating reciprocal rights and obligations and redressing imbalances rather than punishing crimes. Durkheim was acutely aware of the gap between law and justice in modern society, a gap that he named "anomie," the absence of rules or norms. In his view, the economic aspects of the division of labor had temporarily outpaced the development of law and morality.

Two years later, in 1895, he published The Rules of Sociological Method, in which he insisted that "social facts," "ways of acting, thinking, and feeling, external to the individuals, and endowed with a power of coercion, by which they control him" (p. 3), could be explained only in social terms and were not reducible to biological or psychological explanations. In 1897 he published Suicide as a dramatic demonstration of the power of his methods; after all, the decision to take one's own life seemed a matter of individual psychology. However, he persuasively argued that psychological, biological, or climactic theories could not explain differences in suicide rates. For example, Protestants were more suicide-prone than Catholics, recently widowed men more so than women; suicide rates climbed during economic depressions and dropped in periods of revolutionary upheaval. Different types of suicide could be classified with respect to two axes: one in terms of the individual's commitment to social norms and the other in terms of the extent to which such norms were available to guide the individual in particular situations.

In 1896 Durkheim founded a journal, the Année Sociologique, which served as a forum not only for his own ideas but also for those of a growing number of brilliant pupils, including his nephew, Marcel Mauss. In 1912 he published his last book, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life; in it, he used Australian totemism as his central case on the grounds that native Australians were the simplest society known to humanity and that their religion was consequently free from confusing accretions. In stark contrast to his predecessors, nineteenth-century theorists of social evolution such as E. B. Tylor, Lewis Henry Morgan, and James Frazer, Durkheim did not use the Australians to demonstrate how far European society had evolved but rather as a means of uncovering universal features of religion and society that we share with them.

As a native of Lorraine, which was annexed by Germany in 1871, Durkheim enthusiastically supported the cause of France in World War I, with tragic consequences. His only son and most of his students died at the front, and he died a broken man in 1917.

was that "dirt is essentially disorder" (p. 12). For this reason, anomalous persons or animals, those that did not fit neatly into preconceived, socially determined categories, were especially powerful or dangerous. Seen in this light, European-American preoccupations with hygiene were not qualitatively different from non-European anxieties about ritual pollution. Such preoccupations with the maintenance of order and the separation of antithetical categories were intimately related to the perpetuation of social boundaries between insiders and outsiders.

Most recently, Durkheim's concepts have reappeared in a heated debate between anthropologists as to whether Captain James Cook, who arrived in the Hawaiian islands in 1778 and was killed by native Hawaiians in 1779, was really considered by his killers to be an avatar of the god Lono. Marshall Sahlins, in Islands of History (1985), asserted that Cook's murder was a direct outgrowth of his deification. Sahlin's analysis centered on the opposition between the god Lono, "associated with natural growth and human reproduction who annually returns to the islands with the fertilizing rains of winter" (p. 105) and the god Ku, associated with kingship, warfare, and human sacrifice.

Each year, the Makahiki festival celebrated the arrival of Lono along with the rains, his journey throughout the islands, and his departure/death, marked by the resumption of human sacrifice to the god Ku. The arrival of Cook in Hawaii, his journey around the island, and his departure all coincided with the ritual trajectory of the god Lono, with whom, Sahlins argued, Cook was literally identified, particularly by the priests of Lono. Disaster struck when, after his departure, Cook was obliged to return to Hawaii. The arrival of "Lono" at the wrong time and from the wrong direction was precisely a violation of rules of separation of antithetical categories, a direct threat to the god Ku and the king, who promptly had Cook killed. "Cook was transformed from the divine beneficiary of the sacrifice to its victim—a change never really radical in Polynesian thought, and in their royal combats always possible" (p. 106).

This analysis has been challenged by Gananath Obeyesekere, who has argued that such accounts of the deification of explorers like Cook were part of European imperial mythologizing rather than "native" thought. Advocating an approach derived from the sociology of Max Weber and emphasizing "practical rationality," he has suggested that Cook's death be interpreted more prosaically in terms of factional power struggles in Hawaii. Sahlins, it must be noted, carefully avoid the assertion that all Hawaiians accepted that Cook was a god. Rather, his point was that the historical events could be understood only in terms of the framework of Hawaiian ideas about the sacred, ideals that revolved around the classification of the social and the physical world in terms of one another, where the mixture of antithetical categories generated either great power or danger.

The debate shows clearly that Durkheim's distinction between sacred and profane continues to inform anthropological analyses of religion (as well as of ostensibly secular ideologies) but also that such approaches continue to be challenged and contested, and that the relevance of such distinctions is far from universally accepted.


Bellah, Robert N. "Civil Religion in America." In Religion in America, edited by William G. McLoughlin and Robert N. Bellah, 3–23. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1968.

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966.

Durkheim, Émile. The Division of Labor in Society. Translated by George Simpson. New York: Macmillan, 1933.

———. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Translated by Karen Fields. New York: Free Press, 1995.

———. The Rules of Sociological Method. Translated by Sarah A. Solovay and John H. Mueller; edited by George E. G. Catlin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938.

———. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Translated by John A. Spaulding and George Simpson; edited, with an introduction, by George Simpson. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1951.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. Theories of Primitive Religion. Oxford: Clarendon, 1965.

Goody, J. R. "Religion and Ritual: The Definitional Problem." British Journal of Sociology 12, no. 2 (1961): 142–164.

Lukes, Steven. Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work, a Historical and Critical Study. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.

Obeyesekere, Gananath. The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational. Translated by John W. Harvey. Rev. ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1936.

Sahlins, Marshall. Islands of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Stanner, W. E. H. "Reflections of Durkheim and Aboriginal Religion." In Social Organization: Essays Presented to Raymond Firth, edited by Maurice Freedman, 217–240. London: Cass, 1967.

Warner, W. Lloyd. The Living and the Dead: A Study of the Symbolic Life of Americans. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1959.

Robert Launay

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