A Durkheimian Analysis of the Execution of Troy Anthony Davis
Section A: Synthesis of Durkheim
Durkheim’s major argument in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) is that society is the basis of religion and religion is basis of society. Essentially for Durkheim, religion’s central concern is society. Religion is a set of symbols, rituals, and beliefs that exist in order to solidify and reinforce society. Religion is not just the realm of the supernatural, of spirits and gods. This is not to say that the supernatural cannot be part of religion, but it is not the essential aspect of religion. Rather the essential aspect of religion is the symbols and rituals that separate the sacred from the profane and serve to maintain social cohesion.
An essential element for Durkheim is the symbol. He describes totemism in order to explain how there is a parallel between the totem and the social group, from this the social is created and reinforced through the symbol of the totem. The example of the totem works because the clan has a totem (usually plant or animal) that represents the collective group, and is also the totem of each member. Members are joined by bonds of kinship, not in terms of blood relations but through mutual obligations such as “assistance, vengeance, mourning; the obligation not to intermarry” (88). The Totem serve as a name and an emblem, and most importantly the totem is a sacred thing: He uses the example of Churingas, polished stone or pieces of wood engraved with drawing of totem. The profane (women &uninitiated men) can’t touch or look at it; it has healing powers, reproductive powers, and imbibes strength, for “it is the emblem that is sacred” (99). The distinction between the sacred and the profane is central to the Durkheim’s concept of religion. Separating the sacred from the profane is the work of the negative cult. The negative cult works to separate the sacred from the profane by prohibitions. These prohibitions can be of speech, sight, contact, time, and place. Separating the sacred from the profane is important because the sacred and the profane are contagious, they are like free flowing energy, therefore separation is important. Durkheim connects such negative cult to asceticism, as the religious prohibitions implies ideas of the sacred through asceticism. Asceticism itself reinforces society through self sacrifice for a greater cause; this is reflected by individuals sacrificing for the better desires of the community. The negative cult can also lead to a positive cult, for often the negative cult can satisfy conditions that allow one to participate in a positive cult, such as initiation, where the initiation both separates the sacred from the profane but also involves positive rites. Positive rites are rites in which members of a community are obliged to participate in. These work to solidify the community by bringing individual consciousness back into a group oriented consciousness, and can help deal with problems within the group. Section B & C: A Durkheimian Analysis of the Execution of Troy Anthony Davis While in the past the execution was a public affair accompanied by substantial rivalry, reminiscent of a very public ritual, these former executions were quite consistent with Durkheimian rituals. The public execution in many ways works as both a positive and negative cult, negative in that it separates the profane, a criminal or a treasoner, from the sacred community. It was also positive such that the publicity of the event served to reinforce a social commitment to the law and order of the community, bringing them together, against a common enemy, and through the execution they removed this profane from the community. The location, taking place often in a central location such as a town square or outside the grounds of the court represents the triumph of the rule of law and the community in isolating the profane from itself. This Durkheimian analysis, although...
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