An Open Letter to Emile Durkheim

Subject: An Open Letter to Emile Durkheim
From: Abhijit Guha
Date: 7 Jan 2018

Respected Professor Durkheim,

I came to know of you and your work through my social anthropology teachers at the Department of Anthropology, University of Calcutta, which happened to be the oldest Anthropology Department in India established in the year 1920, seven years after the publication of your last major and one of the most influential books The Elementary Forms of Religious Life.(1913). Despite the fact that our British colonial masters founded the oldest Anthropology Department and we were taught to learn more of A.R.Radcliffe-Brown and his British structural-functional school, our teachers did not forget to remind us that Brown was largely influenced by you. As a corollary, we were also taught that you the French master was the source of Brown and you undoubtedly enjoyed more intellectual superiority amongst us than our British master.

My next encounter with you took place during my M.Sc. special paper classes in Social-Cultural Anthropology (a unique hybrid unknown in your country) but this time via one of your modern interpreters, Anthony Giddens. His book was easier for me, although my teacher Biswanath Banerjee suggested to read Raymond Aron! I tried and failed to understand Aron’s chapter on your thought in his classic Main Currents in Sociological Thought. (1967). In Giddens’ Capitalism and Modern Social Theory (1971), I could compare you with Marx and Weber who too bothered with collective consciousness in their own ways and I found them more modern than you. Marx’s idea on ‘class in itself’ and ‘class for itself’ and Weber’s ideas on Protestant ethic and bureaucratic rationality were more contemporary for me than your ideas on ‘elementary forms of religious life’ simply because your ideas seemed to me too naïve to understand student or peasant unrest of Bengal in the 1970s. No wonder the students of France also did not find your variety of collective consciousness interesting in their famous May 1968 uprising!

Only in my third encounter with you, I read you in original under the advice of a brilliant Indian anthropologist, my one time Ph.D supervisor and who in any case, not your admirer. Sinha preferred to ally with the American culture and civilization school founded by Robert Redfield who might have some interest in your ideas of solidarity. I read your book The Division of Labour in Society and also parts of the Rules of Sociological Method, which I think only helped me to understand how we could argue with the psychologists and economists and additionally they also helped me understand at least theoretically, the difference between tribal segmentary lineage and caste society. The idea of collective consciousness generated no special or original flavour in my mind. Moreover, I was terribly disappointed when I found that your most famous French successor Claude Levi-Strauss had finally transformed your ‘collective consciousnesses’ into the cerebral functions of the human brain which according to the maverick resulted into ‘binary opposites’.

My fourth and final encounter with you began when I was invited to speak in a seminar organized by the premier governmental institute, Anthropological Survey of India on ‘passages through collective consciousness’. I was reminded to speak on your contemporary relevance in India. So, I had to reflect back and forth through my own readings and fieldworks done over the last thirty years and found no other option but to say goodbye to collective consciousness not for the fact that it does not exist in India but that functions of your kind of elementary forms of collective consciousness has little or no use as a sociological concept in present day India. I found groups of peasants who got dispossessed by clever politicians and the main task of the latter was to tear apart the collective consciousness of resistance built up around deprivation caused by development. Generating public consciousness against the greed of the capitalists appeared to me as the urgent task for the anthropologists and sociologists and your kind of collective consciousness which you viewed as the superglue for holding the parts of any society seemed to be a kind of false consciousness which would only help the powerful to tighten their control over the dispossessed. So let me say goodbye to your collective consciousness. I hope your followers around the globe would be able to ignore my ignorance.
Sincerely yours,
Abhijit Guha.
PS I was inspired by Michael Burawoy, Professor of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley by reading his ‘Open Letter to C. Wright Mills’ published in the journal Antipode. (2008)40 (3) 365–375.