Magic, superstition and Durkheim

Posted on December 14, 2007


A while ago I received a comment to one of my posts that was dismissive enough to be down right rude. The poster was protesting my use of Durkheim’s religion/magic distinction to talk about the difference between religion and superstition. He objected to my equating magic with superstition. As the poster neglected to justify his assertions in any way there was no basis for judging whether they were right. Indeed, there was no basis for judging whether he wrote what he did because he was more familiar with Durkheim than I am (something that would not be hard) or was simply protesting because he believed in magic and disliked the derogatory tone of ‘superstition’. Either way, I decided to follow up the point.

This left me with two separate issues that needed to be considered. The first was scholarly and concerned whether magic and superstition are to be differentiated between on Durkheim’s account. The second was whether magic and superstition actually are different.

The first thing I did was to go back to the three texts that are classics in the area of psychology of superstition and that many of my own ideas are based upon: Jahoda’s 1969 The Psychology of Superstition, Zusne and Jones’ 1989 Anomalistic Psychology, and Vyse’s 1997 Believing in Magic. The three appear to be in consensus. Superstition and magic are to be explained on the basis of the very same psychological mechanisms, and studies into one are used freely in understanding the other. Jahoda did a study of whether African university students retained various magical beliefs, which was published in Nature along with several follow up studies that used the same methodology to examine the superstitious beliefs of students in, among other places, Harvard. The results were very similar. Also, both Jahoda and Vyse applied to superstition what Durkheim and other anthropologists said about magic.

I decided to ask an anthropologist colleague of mine what he thought and he went back and looked at Durkheim. His conclusion was that Durkheim says nothing about any distinction between superstition and magic and that his definition of magic applies to superstition. This left the question of what difference, if any, there is between magic and superstition. The obvious difference is that anthropologists have looked at magic in the context of traditional societies while, at least in today’s pluralist times, we tend to talk about superstition within our own society. This difference of context brings along with it a number of differences in the contents of the beliefs and the kinds of practices involved as well as in the kinds of social institutions that are involved. However, as the previously mentioned research and various other studies seem to show, the psychological basis for both magic and superstition seems to be the same.

This leads to a somewhat complex answer to whether magic and superstition are the same. It depends on whether one is interested in their sociological or psychological aspects. However, even if one wants to look at the sociological aspects, it is important to recognise that the differences are due to the specific social context rather than to any underlying processes. Certainly, given that I am mainly concerned with superstition as a cognitive phenomenon, I feel well justified to keep equating magic and superstition and applying what we’ve learnt about magical practices and beliefs to my studies of superstition.