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Boas and Durkheim

Page history last edited by PBworks 16 years, 1 month ago

Although Boas and Durkheim did not draw on each others' work, Boas's students were aware of Durkheim's ideas. Does Durkheim's influence show up in the work of (at least one of these): Kroeber, Benedict and/or Mead?

Durkheim and Mead, Benedict

Allison Moss

In Mead's introduction to Sex and Temperament, she references Durkheim indirectly. Durkheim wrote extensively about the universality of "sacred" and "profane" elements of culture. According to him, every culture had these two realms, and parts within the whole culture could be separated into one of the two groups. In Mead's work, she attacks this notion that everything is so black and white by applying Durkheim's concept to gender roles cross-culturally. At the time of her writing, it was a commonly-held belief that if women were submissive, men were dominant and vice versa. Mead states that there is no reason why women AND men can't share elements of these traits, thus attacking Durkheim's concept of more rigid divisions in cultures like "sacred" and "profane."


In addition, Mead and Benedict both draw on Durkheim's concept of the social fact and societal influence on the individual. It is difficult to say whether they agree or disagree; both comment about the agency of a culture to pick and choose traits (ie Southwestern Pueblos and their stubbornly Appollonian ways) but it is unclear at times whether Mead and Benedict are talking about the agency of the individual within the culture or the agency of the culture itself. Most likely, they are making the argument that a community of people has the ability to pick and choose, highlighting the superorganic quality of culture. In this way, Mead and Benedict would be in agreement with Durkheim.


re: Allison Moss


Jill Coen

Going along with Mead's rejection of Durkheim's strict binary of sacred and profane (and all dichotomies applied to cultural study), Mead affirms that "human cultures do not fall into one side or the other of a single scale and that it is possible for one society to ignore completely an issue which two other societies have solved in contrasting ways" (223). It seems that here Mead links the sacre/profane dichotomy with Durkheim's idea of the superorganic properties of culture. She seems to say that not only is culture more maleable than Durkheim would have suggested regarding gender/sex relations, for example, but that on a metacultural level there isn't a black-and-white classification scale of cultures----namely, savage or advanced. Here we see a manifestation of Mead's strong commitment to cultural relativism, as opposed to Durkheim's more universal thinking.


Kroeber and Durkheim

Savannah Fetterolf

With a discussion of Mead and Benedict previously laid out by Allison, I will address the influence of Durkheim on Kroeber. Kroeber, more openly than either Benedict or Mead, admits to Durkheim’s great influence on his work. While promoting Boas’ emphasis on the use of fieldwork in anthropological studies, he completely sides with Durkheim on the topic of the value of the individual in society. Like Durkheim, Kroeber was a strong adherent to the concept that culture is superorganic. Therefore, as laid out in profession four and six, Krober notes that the individual is not the force behind cultural change as indicated by the “Great Man” theory commonly seen in the field of history. Instead, culture functions at a level above the individual and is subject only to its own fluctuations. Kroeber’s vehement belief in this caused him to break away from Boas.


Kroeber’s only real breaks with Durkheim is on the topic of the origins of culture and the use of laws to define culture. In profession 14, Krober again reiterates his belief that culture should be defined as a superorganic entity, but takes this opportunity to point out that he does not in any sort of collective thought. Instead, he things that each mind works individually, straying from answering the difficult question of the origins of culture. In professions 15 and 16, Kroeber acknowledges the possible existence of social laws, but does not think that these are useful to anthropologists in their search for understanding culture.


RE: Savannah's post

Chelsey Megli

I think your description of Kroeber is fairly accurate. He was definitely a subscriber of superorganic theory. I do wonder, however, how much Kroeber's straying from collective thought has caused him to differentiate from Durkheim's theory. Where was Kroeber's influence regarding cultural origin ideas (I'm guessing Boas?)? I also think its problematic that social laws - as an aspect of this superorganic society are not studied under Kroeber. I feel that these sort of institutions were a huge part of Durkheim's focus and help to explain cultural framing in a more complete context.


Kroeber and Durkheim... part 2:

Abigail Parker

Durkheim’s writings show a clear influence upon the work of Kroeber, in that the two men shared many ideas about the nature of society and the scope of culture and society upon the actions of an individual. Both men affirm that society is sui generis and superorganic. In Kroeber, “Civilization springs from the organic, but is independent of it” (141), and in Durkheim “social facts thus acquire a body, a tangible form, and constitute a reality in their own right” (88). Durkheim was concerned with why societies stay together, concluding that it was because cultures were sui generis, “it is to society’s interest that these functions be exercised in a orderly manner” (85).


Focusing on socialization as an example, Durkheim illustrates that behavior is “merely inherited” (85) as a result of the realities of social facts. There is an illusion of choice in our actions when subconscious realities are foisted upon us (87) pervasively; we are free to fail, we are equally free to conform. It is in this that the Individual is juxtaposed with social facts (86). Variation emergers however as individuals interpret these differently (88). Kroeber sees individuals not as significant actors in the grand scheme of history, but only as illustrations of larger cultural trends (142; 6th Profession). Kroeber acknowledges that every human is steeped in her own culture, “the uncivilized man does not exist” (141). Durkheim acknowledges that individuals have choice within social facts, but there are consequences that usually make individual actions far from absolute. Moreover, the låme collective neutralizes most preconditions of the individual within a group (89).


Both men saw the social sciences as needing clear truths defined. Durkheim wished to have social facts seen as natural laws governing behavior. Kroeber’s essay was less oriented toward the natural sciences, however the mere fact that he titles his essay “Eighteen Professions” betrays his desire to have touchstones of truth in the social sciences. Kroeber, however, sees society/civilization/culture as a product of history to some extent (Profession 1), and therefore supporting data should come from artifacts (Profession 2). In a slightly different vein, Durkheim sees the evolution of the social sciences as a cross-disciplianry approach (89). The data culled by sociology would come from psychology and statistics alike, forming a “hybrid science” (89). With this in mind, although he did see society as a symbolic system (85), we can safely assume that Durkheim wished sociology to be a standardized, scientific practice, backed up with sound evidence.

Note: all my pages referenced are to the third edition to the reader


A Corollary To the Responses

Dave Schatz

After reading through these great answers, I noticed that an important bridge between Durkheim and Mead was missing from discussion. Although it may have been implied, we have to remember Mead's fascination with symbolic systems, especially how they are relayed in the societal scheme. I think back to the video, where Mead commented several times about culture-specific symbolism, the mindset of a given society. The "Idea of Class" article that we read for Durkheim reveals an emphasis on the symbolic representations used to classify several social factors surrounding a community. Both symbolic takes are connected in their descriptions of perspective. I also see Benedict's classes of Apollonian and Dionysian as relevant to Durkheim's discussions on classification and conception present in society. How we perceive the relationships between the things around us and our own worlds seem to be common veins between these remarkably diverse writers.


re: A Corollary to the Responses

Heddy Waters


On the issue mentioned above by Alison, on whether Benedict and Mead would agree with Durkheim concerning societies being comprised of social facts, I would like to argue that they would.  I think this is also what David is getting at with the similarities in their description of perspective and symbolic takes changing according with the society.  These are both cultural constructionist stances.





Although Mead clearly disagreed with Durkheim’s assumption that cultural dichotomies were needed to conceptualize the world, her strong cultural constructionist stance (perspectives of the would change with the culture) does have Durkheim to thank for its origins.  Durkheim wrote in “The Cosmological System of Totemism…” that “the fundamental notions of the intellect, the essential categories of thought, may be the product of social factors” (82).  He essentially states that the frameworks in which we think, and that influence our actions, are social constructions. As we can see from this statement, Durkheim was already asserting the basic tenet of cultural constructionism over 100 years ago.  Thus, both Benedict and Mead, who were huge proponents of cultural constructionist views on culture (i.e. in proposing that each culture emphasizes and highly values differing elements and factors and furthermore that these values are created by society and not some innate force) can be traced back to Durkheim’s similar, earlier statements.  



Mead and Benedict

Ojaswi Kafle


In Mead’s introduction to Sex and Temperament, she makes a point of stating that societies and cultures, and their different aspects, are not necessarily dichotomous. In the ethnography, one of her arguments is that this dichotomy does not always exist, even in gender roles and ideas about gender, since some of the cultures don’t exhibit ideas about gender being dichotomous that the West has exhibited. Understanding a culture in its own context is much more important to her.  In all of these ways, she disagrees with Durkheim’s dichotomous view (of the scared and profane) of the world.  

Benedict uses Durkheim’s concept of dichotomy in her work when she differentiates between the Apollian and Dionysian societies in North America. To her, societies are ultimately either Apollian or Dionysian, even if they might show traits of both.


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