Application of durkheim’s theory of social gravity and the importance

This third exercise is based on application of Durkheim’s theory of social gravity and the importance of rituals to your own lives and experiences; see especially pp. 188-191 of the Collins book.

Emile Durkheim is aptly considered one of the founders of the discipline of sociology and his ideas have exercised broad influence over the field for more than a century. His basic question of what forces hold society together is the central issue for the social order perspective. The point of departure for his efforts to address this question is his notion of “social gravity”—the theory that as societies grow larger and population density increases, then the effect of this greater proximity to greater numbers of peoples (“social density”) on individual behavior and ideas becomes more decisive. Some aspects of this are the growing differentiation of roles and greater interdependence among them (what he called “organic solidarity), and this holds true at the level of social groups as well as society as whole.

With greater differentiation (people’s lives and livelihoods are more different) and interdependence (people need each other fulfilling those different roles more to sustain their own lives) comes the challenge of social solidarity. What creates enough individual identity with and commitment to the larger group or society for it to hold together? The primary answer to this question, for Durkheim, was to be found in social rituals. As Collins explains, “A ritual is a moment of extremely high social density….by going through common gestures, chants, and the like, people focus their attention on the same thing. They are not only assembled, but they become overwhelmingly conscious of the group around them.” (p. 190). And rituals serve to draw individual attention to symbols, ideas and values that serve to orient their behavior toward the group or society; it becomes part of their identity.

It is within religion that this crucial role of rituals is most apparent, but the same dynamic can be applied to virtually any group or collectivity of social significance (families, schools, workplaces, clubs, communities, cities, countries, etc.). So for this exercise, train your sociological imagination on yourself and discuss these questions:

  1. What social groups or organizations are important in your life? Choose at least two and describe one or more patterns of interaction for each of them that can be analyzed as social rituals.
  2. What symbols are associated with those rituals? What ideas or values do you think those rituals are helping to reinforce?
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