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EP Today – Making society better by ignoring the top shelf?

I recall sitting in a gym writing my final exam for sociological theory. It was an undergraduate course but the professor was waaay above average. He covered the “Big Three” classical sociological theorists (Karl Marx, Max Weber and Émile Durkheim) along with some lesser lights and the cultural climate in which they all lived.

So this morning I remember what it might be called when someone confuses spirituality with social effervescence. Durkheim came up with the term effervescence:¹

According to Durkheim, a religion comes into being and is legitimated through moments of what he calls “collective effervescence.” Collective effervescence refers to moments in societal life when the group of individuals that makes up a society comes together in order to perform a religious ritual. During these moments, the group comes together and communicates in the same thought and participates in the same action, which serves to unify a group of individuals. When individuals come into close contact with one another and when they are assembled in such a fashion, a certain “electricity” is created and released, leading participants to a high degree of collective emotional excitement or delirium. This impersonal, extra-individual force, which is a core element of religion, transports the individuals into a new, ideal realm, lifts them up outside of themselves, and makes them feel as if they are in contact with an extraordinary energy.²

Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim (Wikipedia)

Durkheim, as innovative as he was (in 1897 he was the first to use statistics and method to try to understand and improve society),³ is guilty of vulgarizing spirituality. Spirituality is not some kind of electric force generated by bodies in close proximity. It comes from above and brings a higher purpose to life.

Spirituality may permeate bodies but to confuse social excitement with spirituality is, imo, sadly inadequate. It’s like chimps trying to figure out algebra. It just won’t happen.

¹ Durkkheim wrote in French. See this discussion about two different French terms for power, puissance and pouvoir.


³ As far back as the ancient Romans, census data was collected but this was to facilitate ruling and tax collection. In his 1897 work Suicide, Durkheim tries to link social data with four different types of suicide. Something like a doctor of society, he tries to “diagnose” social problems rather than using stats for ruling and taxation.

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Revisiting Durkheim

Black Panther à côté dun Space Invader géant - Rue Emilie Durkheim

Black Panther à côté d’un Space Invader géant – Rue Emilie Durkheim: yoyolabellut / Lionel via Flickr

Here’s an essay I wrote as an enthusiastic (and pretty naive) undergraduate in the 1980s at Trent University: Emile Durkheim’s Theory of Egoistic Suicide.

I converted it to PDF in 2009. Since then I’ve picked up a better scanner, so I might try redoing it some day. But this copy is legible.

The essay was written on my very first computer, an Atari. It was one of the first PCs to hit the market, replete with an external floppy drive (those big, old floppies) and a modified wheel printer. A portable b&w TV from my parents’ kitchen served as my monitor.

I remember deciding to shell out $500 for that Atari and sort of tricking my professors because the printer looked like I’d typed the papers out when, in fact, I hadn’t. Hee hee. Most computers back then, you see, had early generation (lousy quality) dot matrix printers, and professors hated grading work printed on them. Some even refused to accept papers printed by dot matrix.

My Atari was a great investment because for the first time in my life, I could word process without having to use whiteout or cut and paste real paper. And I could also play space invaders at home! 😉

The paper, itself, is an analytical assessment of Émile Durkheim‘s pioneering theory on suicide. My professor was excellent, and very British. So I guess I semi-consciously let loose the UK roots within my Canadian personality, hoping to connect. (Looking back, I can see that I wrote differently for my Canadian, American and European professors, already developing a flexible writing style.)

On the theoretical side, I remember being impressed at how Durkheim looked at European demographics to try to understand suicide as a social phenomenon, just as social psychologists, advertisers and researchers examine data today. But like any thinker, old or new, Durkheim had his limitations…

Feel free to mention this – and the ideas it contains – in university and college assignments. Be sure to use one of the standard online citation styles if you do.

» Emile Durkheim’s Theory of Egoistic Suicide