Analysis of Durkheim's "The Elementary Forms of Religious Life" Specifically with Reference to "Totem"

Topics: Émile Durkheim, Religion, Sociology Pages: 2 (507 words) Published: October 12, 2011
As described in Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, a totem is apparent in every society. A totem is a symbolic figure of some creature, being, or thing that represents the sanctity and principle of god. Essentially, a totem is a profane, ordinary object that has been deemed by society to have some holy, sacred characteristics. With this being said, the object itself does not have any holy or sacred qualities; rather it is merely the representation of the totem that holds these characteristics. For example, if a society’s totem is a turtle then an actual turtle would merely be a turtle, but when the turtle is presented as a totemic emblem then this symbolic representation of the turtle is sacred. Durkheim argues that, because the totem is a socially constructed representation of god then the totem itself represents society as well. Durkheim makes this assumption evidently clear by stating that “the god of the clan, the totemic principle, can therefore be nothing else than the clan itself, personified and represented to the imagination under the visible form of the animal or vegetable which serves as totem.” From this, one can conclude that Durkheim viewed the worship of totem as worshipping society. Durkheim goes on to make the argument that god and society are “equivalent.” God is an outside, figurative force that holds the people worshiping it to certain manners and actions. The act of worshipping said god or totem is an indication that the followers, believers, or worshipers are dependent upon this force to determine the actions they partake in, the behaviors they exhibit and so on. God and religion exist in order to keep people “in line” via ritualized activities and setting moral and ethical guidelines that people abide by. Society, in and of itself, possesses the same qualities. The norms and values of a society, which for the most part have been incorporated into the moral and ethical guidelines laid out in the society’s religion, are...
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