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Totemism

From Academic Kids

Totemism (derived from the root -oode in the Ojibwe language, which referred to something kinship-related) is a religious belief that is frequently associated with shamanistic religions. The totem is usually an animal or other naturalistic figure that spiritually represents a person or, more likely, a clan.

Totemism played an active role in the development of 19th and early 20th century theories of religion, especially for thinkers such as Émile Durkheim, who concentrated their study on primitive societies. Drawing on the identification of social group with spiritual totem in Australian aboriginal tribes, Durkheim theorized that all human religious expression was intrinsically founded in the relationship to a group.

In his essay Le Totemisme aujourdhui (Totemism), Claude Lévi-Strauss shows that human cognition, which is based on analogical thought, is independent of social context. From this, he excludes mathematical thought, which operates primarily through logic. Totems are chosen arbitrarily for the sole purpose of making the physical world a comprehensive and coherent classificatory system. Lévi-Strauss argues that the use of physical analogies is not an indication of a more primitive mental capacity. It is rather, a more efficient way to cope with this particular mode of life in which abstractions are rare, and in which the physical environment is in direct friction with the society. He also holds that scientific explanation entails the discovery of an arrangement; moreover, since the science of the concrete is a classificatory system enabling individuals to classify the world in a rational fashion, it is neither more nor less a science than any other in the western world. It is important to recognise that in this text the egalitarian nature of Lévi-Strauss and his work is manifested in all its force, and more importantly Lévi-Strauss diverts the interest of anthropology towards the understanding of human cognition.

Strauss looked at the ideas of Firth and Fortes, Durkheim, Malinowski, and Evans-Pritchard to reach his conculsions. Firth and Fortes argued that Totemism was based on a physical or psychological similarties between the clan and the totemic animal. Malinowski proposed that it was based on empirical interest or that the totem was 'good to eat.' In other words there was rational interest in preserving the species. Finally Evans-Pritchard argued that the reason for totems was metaphoric. His work with the Nuer led him to believe that totems are a symbolic representation of the group. Strauss saw Evan-Pritchard's work as the correct explanation.

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