Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Durkheim tradition in cultural analysis

One of Emile Durkheim's primary occupations was with his notion of collective consciousness. Durkheim understands culture as the mutual ability to perceive reality in a certain manner. For Durkheim culture is the first and foremost medium through which a collective entity presents itself to itself and gains a sense of its own existence.

Durkheim argued that culture maintains these functions through collective representations and classificatory systems. Collective representations are symbols and rituals which express values and meanings common for a social group (Durkheim famously gives the example of the Totem pole). Classificatory systems are ways in which social life are regulated and "wrongs" and "rights" established. According to Durkheim, classificatory systems define subjects such as the family and kinship, collective time and space and what will be considered as sanctified.

Durkheim stressed the functional role of culture and studied the structure of culture's engagement with society. And this Durkheim is justly associated with structuralism. Durkheim viewed a given culture's content as something which is collectively formed and that only exists collectively. There is no one person which creates culture and every one of us takes part in a culture (or cultures) which constructs conditions and positions him. In this sense, for Durkheim, culture exists externally from any single person; it exists objectively in the form of objects, symbolism rituals, texts and so on.

Durkheim widely influenced the fields of sociology, anthropology and cultural studies. His approach continues to occupy a prominent position and influence in contemporary cultural research, as it did throughout the 20th century, even with structuralism slightly falling out of grace in certain academic currents. Such research which follows the tradition Durkheim initiated focuses on social structures (and "social facts") which generate perceived solidarity and the manner in which rituals, faith, memory and other cultural sites function within culture.