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Article

Reassembling the ambiguity of the sacred: A neglected inconsistency in readings of Durkheim

Journal of Classical Sociology. 2015. Vol. 15. No. 4. P. 377-395.

The ambiguity of the sacred combines two opposite modes, the pure and the impure, as its fundamental feature. Present in the work of Durkheim and most scholars of the sacred, as well as in actual social practice, the impure sacred is not the profane, the sphere that opposes the sacred. However, in most interpretations of Durkheim, and even in aspects of his own argument, the ambiguity of the sacred is neglected and, in several important cases, treated as if it were profane: this has negative consequences for cultural sociology and the study of culture in contemporary society. In certain cases, the impure sacred and the profane can be hard to tell apart. Yet, if the boundaries between the sacred (pure and impure) and the profane are not clearly distinguished, the overall approach to culture in terms of distinctions and boundaries loses its logical and theoretical coherence. This article elucidates the ambiguity of the sacred and reintegrates that ambiguity into cultural sociology. The model proposed here treats the impure as a transient result of violation of the sacred/profane border with no independent status of its own.