Thursday, March 15, 2012

Durkheim's totemic principle in modern western societies

Emile Durkheim's concept of the totem or totemic principle is illustrated through the aboriginal practice of creating figures in the shape of plants and animals that represent, according to Durkheim, the group itself which takes on the shape of fetishism. According to Emile Durkheim, when a group worships the totem it in actual fact warships itself, thus creating social cohesion and a sense of identity through the totem.

One of the interesting questions that can be, and often is, asked regarding to Durkheim's concept of the totemic principle is whether and how it translates into society's that don't have an actual totem. In other words, is a totem, or the workings of the totemic principle on society, can be traced and located in the abstract god of monotheistic religions and in modern western culture.

In searching for Durkheim's totem or totemic principle in modern times what we should be asking ourselves, or looking for, is what serves as the symbolic manifestation of society in its own eyes. Also, the totem has to be something public, something that is not only shared by all or most members of the group but also something which has ritualistic characteristic which brings the group together. The modern totem has to create unity in order to exert society's power over its members. For that reason the modern totem has to distinguish sanctity and profanity, which are according to Durkheim the basic opposition on which religion is established. The modern totem has to be some object in which society imagines itself and to which it subjects itself.
 Durkheim himself gave the national flag as an example of a modern object which resembles the totem in its function and as something which assumes the role of the totemic principle. Another candidate for the modern totem is of course the television. Television can serve as an example of the modern totem or totemic principle in that that it is a symbolic manifestation of society itself which is ritually celebrated (think of various award ceremonies), has the capacity to create deities (celebrities) and something through which society can understand itself.    


Suggested reading on and by Durkheim:



  1. I am reading Owen Barfield's 'Saving the Appearances' it references Durkheim quite extensively. Thanks for your definition of the totemic principle which is extremely helpful. Interesting that you use television as a candidate for the modern manifestation of the totemic principle. I immediately thought of Star Trek and it's so-called 'nerdy' followers attending conferences and dressing

  2. Up as characters from the series, as particularly appropriate to this comparison.