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Totems

Critique And Elaboration

By the time Durkheim and Freud were writing, the very concept of totemism had already come under attack in a long article by American anthropologist A. A. Goldenweiser, "Totemism: An Analytical Study" (1910). Goldenweiser began by listing the main features believed to be symptomatic of totemism:

  1. An exogamous clan.
  2. A clan name derived from the totem.
  3. A religious attitude towards the totem; as a "friend," "brother," "protector," etc.
  4. Taboos, or restrictions against the killing, eating (sometimes touching and seeing), of the totem.
  5. A belief in descent from the totem (pp. 182–183).

In a comparison of cases from around the world, he arrived at the devastating conclusion that "Each of these traits … displays more or less striking independence in its distribution; and most of them can be shown to be widely-spread ethnic phenomena, diverse in origin, not necessarily coordinated in development, and displaying a rich variability of psychological make-up" (p. 266). Goldenweiser was not quite prepared to give up the concept altogether and proposed a definition of the phenomenon in terms of the association between "definite social units" and "objects and symbols of emotional value" (p. 275). Arguably, such a definition was far too vague and general to be of any use. A few years later, in a highly influential synthesis of cultural anthropology, Robert Lowie was to summarize Goldenweiser's findings and draw an even more radical conclusion: "Why not abandon the vain effort to thrust into one Procrustean bed a system of naming, a system of heraldry, and a system of religious or magical observances?" (p. 143). In other words, he suggested that there was no such thing as totemism, that it was for all intents and purposes an invention of anthropologists.

British functionalism and structural-functionalism.

British anthropologists were less ready to give up the concept of totemism than their American colleagues. Bronislaw Malinowski is often credited with an excessively utilitarian explanation of totemism: "The road from the wilderness to the savage's belly and consequently to his mind is very short, and for him the world is an indiscriminate background against which there stand out the useful, primarily the edible, species of animals or plants" (p. 44). Actually, Malinowski's position was slightly more complex, and he conceded that the "primitive" interest in nature, selective as it might be, was not limited to the edible, but included sentiments of admiration or fear. One way or the other, "the desire to control the species, dangerous, useful, or edible … must lead to a belief in special power over the species, affinity with it, a common essence between man and beast or plant" (p. 45).

A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, Malinowski's rival and contemporary, had a more sophisticated approach to the problem, seeing it as part of "a much wider group of phenomena, namely the general relation between man and natural species in mythology and ritual. It may well be asked if 'totemism' as a technical term has not outlived its usefulness" (p. 117). More specifically, he suggested that totemism was a product of segmentary forms of social organization, the division of society into moieties, clans, or other similar institutions. He proposed a tentative analogy with sainthood in Roman Catholicism: saints are, at one level, universally recognized within the church, but also have particular relationships with specific congregations. In a similar manner, totem species do not simply stand for the clan, as Durkheim suggested, but also for the clan's place in a broader social scheme that includes all totemic species.

The students of Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown tended to eschew general pronouncements on the nature of totemism. Instead, Raymond Firth, Meyer Fortes, and E. E. Evans-Pritchard, among others, wrote sophisticated ethnographic analyses of religion and social organization in specific societies, discussing totemism among the Tikopia, the Tallensi, or the Nuer in terms that could not readily be generalized. For example, Evans-Pritchard sought to understand totemism in terms of broader Nuer beliefs about kwoth, "God" or "Spirit." There were both higher and lower manifestations of "spirit," with totemic spirits definitely belonging to the realm of "spirits of the below." Nuer totems, he noted, were not symbols of lineages, since some lineages had none and other lineages shared the same totem but did not otherwise acknowledge kinship with one another. Nor did totems symbolize Spirit as such, but rather the relationship between God and a particular lineage. In short, such an analysis embedded totemism within the religious beliefs and practices of a particular society.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Thallophyta to ToxicologyTotems - Evolutionary Theories, Durkheim And Freud, Totem And Taboo., Critique And Elaboration, The Structural Study Of Totemism