Elementary Forms of the Metaphorical Life: Tropes at Work in Durkheim’s Theory of the Religious

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Scholars have not infrequently called attention to the master metaphors in Durkheim’s writing, those figures, typically drawn from biology, physics and chemistry, which structure his sociological thought. Less attention has been given to the work that metaphors do in Durkheim’s texts, or to Durkheim’s fundamental ambivalence about metaphor. This paper argues that Durkheim depends on metaphor to construct the building blocks, and not just the overall architecture of his argument in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912). His conception of the ‘gods’ of totemism makes the theory relevant to modern European religion, and in his construction of the concept of the sacred depends on electrical and epidemiological metaphors. I argue that Durkheim’s theory of social representation (the central argument of the book) is a theory of metaphorical relations between social organisation and the organisation of the cosmos.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)203-221
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Classical Sociology
Issue number2
Early online date18 Jul 2013
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • Durkheim
  • metaphor
  • religion
  • social representation
  • totemism


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