Durkheim on Imitation – from Holism to Interactionism

Friday, 20 July 2018: 18:00
Oral Presentation
Bjørn SCHIERMER, Oslo University, Norway
The paper has a double aim. On the one hand, I seek to demonstrate the explanatory potential lying dormant in the late Durkheim's theory of the relation between the social and the material in religious experience; on the other hand, I want to show that the concept of imitation plays an all-important role in this relation.

I take as my point of departure the debate between Durkheim and Gabriel Tarde. I seek to show that Durkheim's strong reaction to Tarde – inseparable from his attempt to circumscribe the new science of sociology – leads him into a radical and untenable holist position. His insistence on the social sui generis leads him to overemphasize the "exteriority" of the social and its "constraining" character, which, conversely, leads him to marginalize collectivity and "decollectivize" both the social and the individual. He ends up with a sole individual facing a normative "societal" structure; i.e. a typical schism between actor and structure.

Yet, as I will demonstrate, the interactionist turn of the late work also implies a reconfiguration of the role of imitation. Here it enters the work in a modified and positive shape, in the form of a dynamic of collective entrainment which now takes center stage. The concept of imitation thus plays a crucial role in Durkheim's theorizing of religious experience; it helps to account for the very coming into being of the sacred object.

The last part of the paper seek to investigates the empirical potentials of this template in the present context, it seek to generalize and extent it to new cultural areas and it discusses why Durkheim (largely) overlooked this potential.