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Malinowski’s Perspective on Religion

The Anthropologist Bronislow Malinowski is the third of ‘three functionalist thinkers’ it’s useful to know about for A-level sociology, the others being Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons.

Malinowski was one of the founding fathers of anthropology, who lived as a participant-observer on the Trobriand Islands, in the South Pacific (near New Guinea) for four years between 1914 and 1918. He  developed his theory of religion based on his observations of the role of religion in this one small-scale society.

Malinowski Trobriand Islands

Religion and Life-Crises

Malinowski argued that the main function of religion was to help individuals and society deal with the emotional stresses which occur during life crises such as birth, puberty, marriage and death.

Death, for example, is socially disruptive, because it not only removes an individual member from the fabric of society, which potentially creates tension, it is also stressful for those with close emotional ties to the deceased, who may not be able to function efficiently for a period of time.

Religion deals with the problem of death through both belief and ritual: a belief in the afterlife (common in many cultures) denies the fact of death and comforts the bereaved, while the funeral ceremony offers a chance for other members of society to comfort the bereaved with their physical presence and it may also act as a form of catharsis.

The funeral is effectively an expression of social solidarity which serves to reintegrate society following the ‘stress’ caused by a loss of one its members.

Religion and control

Manlinowski argued that a second function of religion was to help people deal with situations or events which could not be fully controlled or predicted.

To illustrate this Malinowski contrasted the way in which two different types of fishing were conducted on the Trobriand Islanders (NB – it’s an Island culture, fish is a staple food): Inland Lagoon based fishing was a very different affair to deep-sea ocean fishing.

Fishing in the calm, inland waters of the lagoon was very much a day to day, relaxed affair – there was a high level of certainty that fish would be caught using the tried and tested method of poisoning. There were no religious ceremonies performed during this type of fishing activity.

However, when men went out to fish in the ocean, beyond the barrier reef, there was no certainty of getting a catch, this depended on the luck of a shoal of fish being present, and there was also the danger of death usually associated with going out to sea. During these times the Trobriand Islanders engaged in religious rituals to try to ensure a favourable outcome.

Malinowski theorised that when people are in control of the situation (or at least feel they are) and can rely on their knowledge and skill to provide predictable results, there is no need for religion.

However, when there is uncertainly and unpredictability and danger, people engage in religious rituals to try to ensure a particular outcome: these were social events which served to reduce anxiety by providing confidence and a feeling of control over the situation.

The similarities and differences between Malinowski and Durkheim….

Like Durkheim, Malinowski theorised that the key role of religion was to reinforce social norms and values and promote social solidarity.

Unlike Durkheim, Malinowski did not see religion as reflecting society as a whole, nor did he see religious rituals as involving the ‘worshipping of society’ – he argued that religion had a more specific function: that of reinforcing solidarity during times of emotional stress that threaten to undermine the stability of society.

 

Sources used to write this post

  • Haralamabos and Holborn: Sociology: Themes and Perspective, seventh edition (unchanged in the eighth!).

 

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Emile Durkheim’s Perspective on Religion

In the Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) Durkheim argued that all societies divide the world into two basic categories: the sacred and the profane:

  • The profane refers to mundane ordinary life: our daily routine/ grind of getting up in the morning, doing our ablutions, going to college, eating our daily Nachos, and doing the dishes.
  • The sacred refers to anything which transcends the humdrum of everyday life: which typically take the form of collective representations which are set apart from society (spiritual places such as churches or mosques are the most obvious examples of ‘sacred’ spaces.)

For Durkheim, Religion is the collective practice of marking off and maintaining distance between the sacred and the profane, which is typically done through rituals, such as those associated with the daily or weekly visit to the church or mosque: prayer is an obvious example of an ‘occasional (sacred) ritual’ is marked out from ordinary mundane (or profane) life.

Or in Durkheim’s own words:

Durkheim religion.pngImportantly for Durkheim, anything can be sacred (or rather, a society can determine that anything is sacred): there is nothing in any object or action that makes it inherently sacred: anything can be sacred: not only churches, mosques, and religious books, but in some cultures, trees, or even rocks may be regarded as sacred.

Durkheim believed that in order to understand the role of religion in society, the relationship between sacred symbols and what they represent must be discovered.

A work in progress, to be updated shortly!

Totemism

Durkheim saw Totemism as one of the earliest and simplest form of religious practice. It is most commonly found among aboriginal peoples, such as the Australian aborigines, and North West Native American Indians, who have clan based societies.

Durkheim TotemismDurkheim used the totemic religion of Australian aborigines to develop his theory of religion. Aboriginal society was divided into a number of clans, and members of the clan had certain obligations that had to be fulfilled – such as mourning the death of other clan members or helping seek vengeance if another member was wronged by someone external to the clan. Each clan was also exogenous – people had to marry someone outside of the clan.

Each clan had a totem, typically an animal or a plant which was represented by drawings or carvings made on wood or stone, typically linked to a ‘creation myth’ that explained the origins of that clan and linked current members into that history. The totem served to distinguish the clan from all other clans.

To clan members, the totem was as sacred object, nothing less than ‘the outward and visible form of the totemic principle or god’ – their animal/ plant was sacred and the totemic representation just as sacred if not more so.

Durkheim’s ‘big idea’ is that by worshipping the totem, clan members are actually worshipping society, and thus individuals are reminded that society is more important than the individual, which is essential in Functionalist theory because individuals are dependent on society.

The reason why humankind needs a totem to worship rather than just literally worshipping society (or the clan in the case of Aborigines) is because the clan is too complex a thing for people to conceptualise – religious symbols are just much simpler entities to worship!

Sources used to write this post

Beliefs in society revision bundle for sale

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How I would’ve answered the AQA A level sociology topics exam, June 2018, section B: beliefs in society

Answers to the AQA’s A-level sociology (7192/2) ‘topics’ exam: beliefs in society, section B only. Just a few thoughts to put students out of their misery. (Ideas my own, not endorsed by the AQA)

I won’t produce the exact questions below, mainly because I haven’t actually seen the paper at time of writing, just the gist..

Q13: Outline and explain two ways in which globalisation may affect religious beliefs and practices(10)

I would have gone for two very general ‘ways’ and then expanded on them….

Firstly I would have gone for ‘postmodernisation of religion’ – the decline in the numbers of people being dogmatic about religion as people access more and more information about a wider and wider array of religions, and discuss how the new ages movement and ecumenicalism expand

Secondly I would have used Fundamentalism as a reaction to secular globalism.

Q14 – Analyse two reasons why minority ethnic groups in the UK are often more religious that the majority of the population

Using the item as a base, you would have had to have gone for:

  • Minority ethnic groups arriving with a different culture from the host society – you can apply Weberianism and cultural transition theory to this.
  • Members of minority groups facing racism… developed using the cultural defence theory, possibly using Pentecostalism as an example. You could also throw in some Marxist analysis to beef it up.

Q15: Evaluate the view that an increase in spirituality in the UK has compensated for the decline of organised religion

This is basically Postmodernism/ new ageism + secularisation. My plan would have looked something like this:

  • Outline key features of NAMs (in item)
  • Postmodern explanations of NAMs- growth individualism/ rejection metanarratives
  • Outline (briefly) evidence on the decline of organised religion (secularisation)
  • Postmodern explanations of organised religion – doesn’t FIT PM society!
  • Highlight what NAMs do that Organised religion used to do… (arguing for the view in the question) – e.g.
  • Criticise the view in the question… highlighting the differences between NAMs and organised religion…
  • Conclusion… it isn’t replacing organised religion and that’s a god thing?

Beliefs in society revision bundle for sale

If you like this sort of thing then you might like my ‘beliefs in society’ revision bundle.

The bundle contains the following:

  • Eight mind maps covering the sociological perspectives on beliefs in society. In colour!
  • 52 Pages of revision notes covering the entire AQA ‘beliefs in society’ specification: from perspectives on religion, organisations, class, gender ethnicity and age and secularisation, globalisation and fundamentalism.
  • Three 10 mark ‘outline and explain’ practice exam  questions and model answers
  • Three 10 mark ‘analyse using the item’ 10 practice exam questions and answers
  • Three 30 mark essay questions and extended essay plans.

The content focuses on the AQA A-level sociology specification. All at a bargain price of just £4.99!

I’ve taught A-level sociology for 16 years and have been an AQA examiner for 10 of those, so I know what I’m talking about, and if you purchase from me you’re avoiding all those horrible corporations that own the major A-level text books and supporting a fully fledged free-range human being, NOT a global corporate publishing company.