The Sacred in the Modern World: A Cultural Sociological Approach

TitleThe Sacred in the Modern World: A Cultural Sociological Approach
Publication TypeBook
Year of Publication2014
AuthorsLynch, G
PublisherOxford University Press
Keywordschild abuse, cultural sociology, Edward Shils, Emile Durkheim, industrial schools, Jeffrey Alexander, media, Robert Bellah, Sacred

The central aim of this book is to provide a theoretical framework for using the concept of the sacred as a tool for social and cultural analysis. It differentiates between ontological theories of the sacred which locate the sacred in the essence of the cosmos or the human person, and a cultural sociological approach which understands the sacred as culturally constructed. Adopting the latter, a critical re-reading is given of Emile Durkheim’s understanding of the sacred, and of later theoretical contributions made by Edward Shils, Robert Bellah, and Jeffrey Alexander. Using this framework, the intersection of multiple sacred forms is used to analyse the cultural meanings surrounding the systemic abuse and neglect of children within the Irish industrial school system. The role of public media in circulating sacred meanings is also discussed, and the case of the BBC’s refusal to air a humanitarian appeal for Gaza in 2009 is explored to demonstrate the tensions between the sacred function of public media and journalistic notions of impartiality. The book concludes by examining whether human society without sacred forms is possible, and argues that the communicative structure of the sacred underlies the very notion of moral, human society. A critical approach to the sacred is required which involves both a recognition of the harm that can be done through the pursuit of sacred commitments, and the development of critical practices that make it possible to understand the significance of the sacred in social life.