Not being self-deprecating enough to say that I was awake during my undergraduate sociology classes at Erie Community College, I will maintain that I first became familiar with the writings of Monsieur Durkheim while I was in graduate school in England. To receive my degree in anthropology, I was forced to digest the mind numbing proclamations of Durkheim and, worse yet, I was forced to regurgitate them during my examinations.
It was not until I returned to the land of SUVs and strip malls that I realized the value of what I had learned. The light bulb went on during the fractious events of last years Superbowl half-time show when the sight of Janet Jacksons breast sent shockwaves through the moral infrastructure of mainstream America. How could something as seemingly insignificant as a wardrobe malfunction cause such an uproar? The answer is to be found in the dusty volumes of Emile Durkheims functional sociology.
Durkheim wrote much about how societies stay together and how social rules maintain and reproduce cohesion. Many of his theories are an explicit attack on notions of utilitarianism and individualism that attempt to understand society in terms of maximizing free actors. Writing at a time when industrialization was causing major changes in the way that society was organized, Durkheim postulated that individualism is really a collective moral phenomenon that has accompanied the erosion of traditional society and marks a re-orientation of past morality, which was based mainly on the strongly defined values and beliefs of religion.
In other words, individualism is a load of crap because the choices that people make are based on pre-existent social norms. This body of norms is called the collective conscience and it determines what human needs and desires are and how they are to be satisfied.
The collective conscience is the moral glue that holds society together. It determines individual behavior, and it can be readily grasped in simpler societies (where social organization is based largely on kinship) through the value-imperatives and beliefs manifest in religion. According to Durkheim, religious ritual is as an expression of the unity of society. Its function is to re-create society by affirming and strengthening the sentiments on which social solidarity and the social order itself depends. In this way, religion can be described as society becoming conscious of itself. Religion then represents the functional social institution par excellence. And in a rational, capitalist society such as our own undergoing a morally ambiguous transition from one form of collective conscience to another, what we need to know is what the religion of today should be.
In the United States, the religion of today is football and its Christmas is the Superbowl. This Sunday, mainstream America will revel, as it does every year, in its most important and profound expression of social solidarity. America will celebrate itself with million-dollar beer and truck commercials, military exhibitions, flag-waving patriotism, and sprinklings of hip hop.
To millions of Americans, the Superbowl is much more than just a championship contest between two football clubs. It is freedom, democracy, and the strength of our ideals. It is a man walking on the moon and elections in Iraq. It is the colonization of Mars and the death of Osama Bin Laden.
But above all else, the Superbowl is a religious ritual. As such, it helps mainstream America make sense of the world around itself. As Durkheim explained, all people understand the world through socially created systems of classification. Fundamentally, these classifications are built on oppositions between the sacred and the profane. In the United States, the sacred is conservatism, consumerism, corporatism, militarism, patriarchy, and raw power. The sacred embodies the force with moral supremacy over the individual and is thus, unbeknownst to its adherents, the representation of the collective conscience.
It is for all these reasons that Janet Jackson being attacked in front of millions of viewers last year was not worthy of reprobation, but the fact that her breast was exposed in the process was. Her nipple effectively crossed the line of moral acceptability and deviated from the sacred, sex-starved, puritanical values of conservative America during the most important ritual in American life.
So, this Superbowl Sunday, as you eat your taco dip and bask in the glory of mainstream American culture, remember Durkheim, the collective conscience, and the fact that your participation in this ritual is helping to keep America unified in troubled times. In many ways, your celebration of freedom through your celebration of the Superbowl is helping to win the war on terror. Make sure that you keep your eyes and ears open for profanity and GO PATRIOTS! By Edward Ellis
Superbowl Sunday will soon be upon us and with its annual onset, the shadow of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim will once again be cast over all of American society.