April 7, 2003

· Sociology

In about an hour I’m due to give a lecture to my undergraduate social theory class. We’re reading Durkheim this week. As usual, I’m trying to think up accessible examples to illustrate some of the ideas. This is especially important for Durkheim, as his arguments are often terrible and his examples a little out of date. Last year, I mistakenly assigned the bit of The Division of Labor in Society discussing why the skulls of Parisian women are so small. It’s not one of his stronger moments.

Durkheim argues that, as a society becomes more structurally differentiated, the form and content of its moral values change. (Durkheim calls these shared values a society’s conscience collective.) In particular, the symbols and rituals that express the conscience collective become less binding on individuals, more abstract in form and less explicitly religious in content. Durkheim suggests that as societies differentiate, and people share less and less, the idea of the individual itself becomes a sacred object. “As all other beliefs and practices assume less and less religious a character, the individual becomes the object of a sort of religion.” (More on this idea here.) A further consequence is that appeals to solidarity based on traditional religion are unlikely to command wide agreement.

Which brings us, via Atrios, to this column by Ron Martz of the Atlana Journal-Constitution. In it, Martz describes riding in an armored vehicle near Baghdad, seated between two soldiers. In an exchange of fire, the two soldiers were both hit. Martz was not. He interprets it this way:

The soldiers were there for a reason.

The logical, rational explanation is that they were there because their tank caught fire and had to be destroyed. So, without a ride, they jumped onto the armored personnel carrier with me.

I prefer to believe it was the hand of God that put them there, one behind me, one to my left. They were there to protect me…

That more were not wounded is nothing less than a minor miracle…

A few inches more, and it would have been me flying off on those helicopters, my blood staining the stretcher. Instead, I was unscathed, thanks to those two soldiers. I will forever be indebted to them.

Thanks also, I believe, to the hand of God.

The sheer contingency of Matz’s experience—the fact that it could easily have been him, but wasn’t—defeats him. So he reads religious significance into the outcome, at the expense of reducing the other guys to marionettes in God’s Plan For Ron Martz. To borrow a phrase of Harrison White’s, with the help of religion, “the awful grip of chance and the arbitrary on human affairs is shrugged off”. A story from the Onion makes a similar point. The headline reads, God Answers Prayers of Paralyzed Little Boy: ‘No’ says God.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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