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The anthropological roots of Émile Durkheim’s British career

Les racines anthropologiques de la carrière britannique d’Émile Durkheim
William Watts Miller

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1Émile Durkheim contributed a paper, read in his absence, to a meeting in 1904 of the newly founded Sociological Society (Becquemont, 1995). However, his British career had much stronger roots in anthropology. A seminal point came in 1898 when his nephew, Marcel Mauss, visited England to meet key writers on religion such as James Frazer and to acquaint them with the launch of the Année sociologique (Fournier, 1994). In lectures given on radio half a century later, Edward E. Evans‑Pritchard, the professor of social anthropology at Oxford, explained to a wider public that É. Durkheim was a “central figure” in the discipline’s history. This was not just thanks to his general sociological ideas but because “he and a band of talented colleagues and pupils applied them with remarkable insight to the study of primitive societies”. Another reason was his influence on “Professor A. R. Radcliffe‑Brown and the late Professor B. Malinowski, the two men who have shaped social anthropology into what it is in England today” (Evans‑Pritchard, 1951, pp. 51‑53).

Early Years

2The Année sociologique was one of the main ways in which the work of É. Durkheim and his group first became known in England, the hub of “Britain” and its “Empire”. Sidney Hartland, a member of the Royal Anthropological Institute and for a number of years the President of the Folklore Society, reviewed each issue of the Année as it came out, and welcomed its overall project, but regretted the decision to discontinue, after 1907, its mémoires originaux. He especially appreciated these, and early on, for example, had picked out the brilliance and suggestiveness of Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss’s essay on sacrifice (Hubert & Mauss, 1899; Hartland, 1900). In any case, the 1900s saw an increasing awareness of É. Durkheim and his school in the universities where anthropology was established and among the discipline’s senior academics such as Cambridge’s Alfred Haddon and William Rivers and Oxford’s Robert Marett –who was particularly impressed, for instance, not just by M. Mauss’s essay on seasonal variations among the Eskimo but by the author himself as the “most able and thoroughgoing of anthropological researchers” (Mauss, 1906; Marett, 1909, p. 152). A key moment in the process came in 1910, when the young, up‑and‑coming Alfred Brown (later Radcliffe‑Brown) gave a set of lectures at Cambridge on “Comparative Sociology”, but in effect on É. Durkheim (Stocking, 1995, pp. 306‑310). Moreover, thanks to notes taken by or for A. Haddon, it is the earliest surviving course on É. Durkheim at a British university.

3Among other reasons for the course’s significance, it was almost certainly attended by Jane Harrison and helped to inspire the development of the explicitly Durkheimian approach of her book on the social origins of Greek religion: Published the same year as Les Formes though written before this, it particularly cited É. Durkheim’s essay on the definition of religious phenomena (Harrison, 1912; Durkheim, 1899). But it above all drew on his emphasis on collective life together with his interest in ritual rather than just in belief. It also involved an enthusiasm for É. Durkheim that she spread to a close colleague and author of another book on Greek religion, Francis M. Cornford: Indeed, according to their reviewer in the Année sociologique, both of them were more Durkheimian than É. Durkheim himself (Cornford, 1912; David, 1913a, b; and the discussion in Segal, 1999, pp. 134‑139).

  • 1 . Letter of 1903 from B. Spencer to J. Frazer, in Marett & Penniman, 1932, pp. 84‑85.
  • 2 . Letter of 1912 from A. R. Radcliffe‑Brown to M. Mauss, in Radcliffe‑Brown, 1979, pp. 2‑4.

4The course was also important as a key moment, not just for É. Durkheim in England, but in A. R. Radcliffe‑Brown’s own career, in which he had recently completed a thesis on the Andaman Islanders and was about to set off to do fieldwork in Western Australia. His thesis had been under the guidance of A. Haddon and W. Rivers, and the lectures went on to revisit his Andamanese material through É. Durkheim, but by way both of critique and fundamental agreement. On the one hand, he saw the Andamanese as evidence of a socioreligious life that predated totemism, in contrast with the account of origins that É. Durkheim had developed in a series of three major Année essays (Durkheim, 1898, 1902, 1905). The second two were in response to difficulties for his account represented by the Australian ethnographies of Baldwin Spencer and Francis Gillen (1899, 1904; and the discussion in W. Watts Miller, 2012, pp. 86‑91, 111‑113), and indeed, B. Spencer had dismissed the reinterpretation of their ethnography in É. Durkheim’s essay of 1902 on totemism as “full of misconceptions”.1 Later, in discussing the update of É. Durkheim’s theory in a third essay in 1905, A. R. Radcliffe‑Brown drew on his own Australian research to write off the theory as “not supported by the facts” (Radcliffe‑Brown, 1913, pp. 193‑194). Moreover, in reporting his work in a letter to M. Mauss, he repeated his lecture‑course’s point about the pretotemic Andamanese and then added the new critique of Durkheimian Australia itself. On the other hand, all this was rooted in sympathy with a Durkheimian approach. He drew on basic arguments in É. Durkheim’s thesis on the division of labour to explain the transition from a pretotemic to a totemic stage, and in insisting, as in the letter, on his “complete agreement” with the perspective of the Année sociologique, he clearly remained attached to a combination of collective, functionalist concerns with an interest in evolutionary origins.2

  • 3 . See Bacciochi, 2012. The analysis that follows uses the invaluable online collection of reviews i (...)

5Alfred R. Radcliffe‑Brown’s letter, with its date of August 1912 and comments on É. Durkheim’s “new book” that had come out only a few months before, suggests he was one of its first and most eager English readers, yet also raises the mystery of why he never reviewed Les Formes or the English‑language version that appeared soon afterwards in 1915 (Durkheim, 1912, 1915). This was initiated by Joseph Swain, a young American who consulted É. Durkheim himself on various points of translation, and who first enquired in New York about the project but was redirected to London, where the book was taken by the publishers Allen and Unwin, with a print‑run of 1,000 copies and a largely British circulation.3 Indeed, if É. Durkheim’s British profile increased through the many reviews –not only in journals but also in publications such as Melbourne’s Evening Post, London’s Athenaeum, The Scotsman and The Irish Times– it is evident from these that there was already a lively, sympathetic British interest in the book’s author and “his school”. Taking Les Formes and The Forms together, the main British reviews mostly involved a senior generation of scholars, E. Hartland in Man, A. Haddon in The Times, J. Harrison in The New Statesman and A. Lang in the Review of Theology and Philosophy. The younger generation was represented only by B. Malinowski in Folk‑Lore –drawing on his work on É. Durkheim for a thesis on Australian kinship (Malinowski, 1913)–, but arguably also by T. S. Eliot in The Westminster Gazette –drawing on his interest in É. Durkheim in a still unpublished manuscript on primitive ritual (Eliot, 1913). In any case, and despite all the differences between these reviews, it is possible to identify common themes running through them. A recurrent worry was with É. Durkheim’s attempt at a social explanation of basic, universal categories of thought. There was nonetheless general support for his interest in basic, universal elements of religious life, and for his effort to recognize the role of collective factors, even or especially in the uplift of the individual. More significantly, perhaps, reviewers each had their own criticisms –such as his overdependence on a particular ethnography, or his underappreciation of initiation ritual, or his questionable insistence on the primitiveness of totemism– but it was in acceptance of the very search for origins. This was not just an attitude of the elders. Like the young A. R. Radcliffe‑Brown, B. Malinowski also shared their concern with beginnings.

The “Revolution in Social Anthropology”

  • 4 . See, e.g., Barth, 2005, pp. 22‑31.

6Alfred R. Radcliffe‑Brown’s book, simply entitled The Andaman Islanders and radically rethinking his earlier thesis, eventually came out in 1922 and was hailed as a “revolution in social anthropology”. Bronisław Malinowski’s book, somewhat poetically entitled Argonauts of the Western Pacific and reporting on material amassed during his long fieldwork among the Trobrianders, was also published in 1922 and similarly described as revolutionary. Both books, even so, were the product of gradual developments, and both of their authors still had to struggle to advance their careers and build up positions of institutional as well as intellectual leadership in their discipline.4 Alfred R. Radcliffe‑Brown went from appointment to appointment in South Africa, Australia and the United States before securing –with the help of B. Malinowski– the chair of social anthropology at Oxford in 1937. Bronisław Malinowski, born in Austrian‑occupied Poland and interned in Australia as an enemy alien during the Great War, faced considerable prejudice on his return to England but eventually obtained a readership in social anthropology at the London School of Economics (LSE) in 1924, then a chair in 1927. Thanks to his dynamism and ability to attract talented research students, the LSE emerged as the centre of British social anthropology at a time when it became increasingly moribund at Cambridge and Oxford.

7In going on to ask about É. Durkheim’s role in a revolution that involved a growing emphasis on fieldwork, something needs to be said, as well, about J. Frazer. It was again in 1922 that an affordable, abridged edition of The Golden Bough first saw the light of day, was an instant commercial success, and over the years went into reprint after reprint. This accordingly helped to maintain J. Frazer’s status among a wider public as a leading anthropological authority, in contrast with his sinking reputation among the trade’s professionals. So why did they not also turn against É. Durkheim, another armchair theorist par excellence? It is all the more a problem, since the revolution was about the emergence of the anthropological “hero” as simultaneously a hardened fieldworker and a brilliant theorist on their own account. Yet for A. R. Radcliffe‑Brown and B. Malinowski –the two new British “heroes”– É. Durkheim did not just belong to the past but remained a living reference. One of the reasons was his usefulness to them in defining their own theoretical claims and credentials vis‑à‑vis each other, with B. Malinowski as critic of É. Durkheim pitched against A. R. Radcliffe‑Brown as his arch‑supporter. It is not necessarily helpful, therefore, to become lost in the details of debates that took place between them and that were sometimes rather jokingly staged as theatrical performances. An alternative strategy is to focus on A. R. Radcliffe‑Brown, the self‑proclaimed “Durkheimian”, and to try to say in broad outline what this meant.

8Far from merely following É. Durkheim to the letter, A. R. Radcliffe‑Brown quite reasonably asserted that his work incorporated “the most valuable part of É. Durkheim’s analysis ” –a passage quoted in a clear, incisive and sympathetic account by Robert Segal, who nonetheless concludes that A. R. Radcliffe‑Brown served up “a truncated Durkheim” (Radcliffe‑Brown, 1952, p. 120; Segal, 1999, pp. 148‑157). The anthropological revolution that he helped to lead seized on É. Durkheim’s synchronic, functionalist concern with integrated socioreligious systems, and discarded his interest in the dynamics of origins and sources of change. Or while emphasizing the sociological and collective against the psychological and individual, it overlooked É. Durkheim’s insistence that a basic universal collective function of religion was to emancipate and uplift individuals rather than just to mould them in the service of society. No doubt it could be argued, on any or all of such points, that the surgery of a “truncated” É. Durkheim is about his rescue from the museum and reinvigoration as a living force. However, this is also a route to mythology.

Which Durkheim?

  • 5 . Evans‑Pritchard, 1981. On his Catholicism, see Larsen, 2014.

9There are few explicit references to É. Durkheim or indeed to any other theorist in E. E. Evans‑Pritchard’s various fieldwork studies. Yet Pascal Sanchez is surely justified in casting E. E. Evans‑Pritchard’s ethnography of the Azande, with its detailed account of their ritual practices, logical procedures and beliefs, as “the most successful empirical illustration” of É. Durkheim’s view of the essential unity of modern and “primitive” thought (Evans‑Pritchard, 1937; Sanchez, 2012, pp. 492‑493). At any rate, E. E. Evans‑Pritchard was sufficiently impressed by É. Durkheim and the Année group to sponsor a series of English editions of their work, such as the translations, in 1960, of Robert Hertz’s essays on death and on the right hand, and, in 1963, of É. Durkheim and M. Mauss’s essay on primitive classification. Yet whether or not thanks to his conversion to Catholicism, E. E. Evans‑Pritchard became increasingly hostile to É. Durkheim, and his last, posthumously published piece has hardly a good word to say about him.5

  • 6 . See, e.g., Needham, 1962, 1973; Hertz, 1960; Durkheim & Mauss, 1963.
  • 7 . See, especially, Douglas, 1966, 1970, 1975. On her own and E. E. Evans‑Pritchard’s Catholicism, s (...)

10This contrasts with the approach of some distinguished students, including Rodney Needham, a successor in the chair of social anthropology at Oxford and author and translator of various studies of classification and structure.6 Another was Mary Douglas, a Catholic like E. E. Evans‑Pritchard, but who, thanks to her work, could be seen as taking over from A. R. Radcliffe‑Brown as the star British Durkheimian.7 But even or especially in the differences between them, a similar underlying problematic is at stake in selecting some things from É. Durkheim and discarding others. In M. Douglas’s case, a factor might again be Catholicism, as in her insistence that the sacred is found rather than only created, or in her emphasis on É. Durkheim’s concern with the mysterious and obscure, but rejection of his hope in a modern enlightenment that, with the help of social science’s uncovering of the hidden, moves towards a transparent, self‑understood social world. In general terms, however, the problematic is not so much a matter of whose É. Durkheim –A. R. Radcliffe‑Brown’s, M. Douglas’s, or anyone else’s– as a question of which É. Durkheim, the historical, the living or, indeed, the mythic.

11The interest in Durkheim in 1960s Oxford was an important context of the project for a detailed, comprehensive, historical investigation of his life and work that Steven Lukes undertook over many years and that was eventually published as a book in 1973. This helped to set the scene for further, historically orientated studies, notably, in 1984, a work on Durkheim’s sociology of religion by W. S. F. Pickering. Not long afterwards, in the early 1990s, he established a centre for Durkheimian studies at Oxford and for over two decades was the inspirational driving force of its seminars, conferences and publications. Yet although, for various reasons, the historical Durkheim has had a growing scholarly attention, it remains a minority concern. The overwhelming pressures are to focus on his relevance nowadays. An even more extreme attitude is expressed in the view, at one point, that it is a waste of time to study the historical instead of the Parsonian Durkheim. On the one hand, this is a useful reminder that the job of a current, contemporary Durkheim can be to serve as a negative rather than as a positive reference. On the other hand, what at bottom is wrong with it? A cause for serious concern is if a version of a living Durkheim is so little rooted in history that it amounts to mythological fiction. It is an altogether different matter if, in contrast with a strictly historical approach, an interpretation of Durkheim draws on yet transcends the past in a way through which it acquires what is in effect a living mythic power. A role of historical investigation is, then, its involvement in distinguishing these cases. But it also has interest and value in itself.

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1 . Letter of 1903 from B. Spencer to J. Frazer, in Marett & Penniman, 1932, pp. 84‑85.

2 . Letter of 1912 from A. R. Radcliffe‑Brown to M. Mauss, in Radcliffe‑Brown, 1979, pp. 2‑4.

3 . See Bacciochi, 2012. The analysis that follows uses the invaluable online collection of reviews in Bacciochi & Théron, 2013.

4 . See, e.g., Barth, 2005, pp. 22‑31.

5 . Evans‑Pritchard, 1981. On his Catholicism, see Larsen, 2014.

6 . See, e.g., Needham, 1962, 1973; Hertz, 1960; Durkheim & Mauss, 1963.

7 . See, especially, Douglas, 1966, 1970, 1975. On her own and E. E. Evans‑Pritchard’s Catholicism, see Larsen, 2014.

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William Watts Miller, « The anthropological roots of Émile Durkheim’s British career », Sociologie [En ligne], N° 3, vol. 8 |  2017, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2017, consulté le 13 juin 2024. URL :

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William Watts Miller
British Centre for Durkheimian Studies, Bristol/Oxford

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