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According to old school anthropology, a totem is a symbol that represents a spiritual ancestor for a group in aboriginal Australia and North America. The totem usually takes the form of an animal or sacred plant. Normally there are taboos against slaying or eating the totem.

More recently, definitions of the totem have broadened to include the entire globe. Wikipedia says:

A totem is a spirit being, sacred object, or symbol that serves as an emblem of a group of people, such as a family, clan, lineage, or tribe. The totemic symbol may serve as a reminder of the kin group’s ancestry or mythic past.[1] While the term “totem” is Ojibwe in origin, belief in tutelary spirits and deities is not limited to indigenous peoples of the Americas but common to cultures worldwide.¹

Not to be confused with the totem pole, most thinkers probably project their own ideas onto the meaning of the totem. For instance, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim said the totem is nothing more than an emblematic center for a social group. For Durkheim, the aboriginal’s belief in ancestral spirits is spurious but the totem plays a crucial role in ensuring the social cohesion of the clan. From a modern perspective, it’s hard to know if the belief in ancestral spirits is somewhat misguided or genuine. But to dismiss it outright seems arrogant.

Sigmund Freud used the idea of totem to create a fanciful history of mankind that apparently supports his theories about the Oedipus Complex and the development of the superego. Today, Freud’s history isn’t taken too seriously, except, perhaps, by ardent Freudian psychoanalysists.

English: Portrait of Claude Lévi-Strauss taken...
Portrait of Claude Lévi-Strauss taken in 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anthropologists have advanced so many different ideas about the totem that one leading anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, questions the validity of the term.

However, the many and conflicting interpretations of the totem have raised some important questions:

  • Can one cultural system really understand another?
  • Do all members of a given culture hold the same beliefs?
  • What is a cultural system?
  • Could a researcher answer the above questions with any kind of certainty?


Related Posts » Emic-Etic, Levels of Knowledge, Lévi-Bruhl (Lucien)



  1. I just finished Jane M. Auel’s Earth’s Children series. She depicts the people commonly known as Neanderthals as the Clan of the Cave Bear and the people known as cro magnon humans as the Children of the Great Earth Mother. I have French heritage, so it’s possible that I’m descended from the cro magnon humans who lived in modern day France at the end of the last Ice Age. Most people of European descent would be. Though there can only be speculation about ancient civilizations, something feels right about the depictions of the Ancients and I resonate with it more than I ever have with culture depicted in historical fiction. The characters largely work in cooperation with each other and members of different cultures mostly viewed other people in light of similarities rather than differences. The idea of racial discrimination is covered, though, in some cultural attitudes about the Clan, who the cro magnons also call “Flatheads.” Even then, Auel brings the cultures together through her main character, Ayla, being raised by the Clan, then eventually finding others like her.
    I think our individual understanding is definitely influenced by our own experience, and someone else’s experience is uniquely their own. An underlying question here is, can anyone fully understand culture?
    As a humanities scholar, I would say that researchers have to place some criteria on definitions. For an anthropologist, the first question would need to be modified to, “Can members of any cultural system fully understand another cultural system?” But first, let’s define cultural system. I would frame a cultural system as any set of beliefs or doctrine that govern habitual, subconscious behavior and conscious choices of its members. Culture can be as general as generational culture, national culture, religious culture, or as specific as family culture and even individual culture. I would add the caveat that any definition is relative, and a definition’s relevance relies on the context of the research’s aim.
    I don’t think it’s entirely possible for a member of a cultural system to understand another cultural system. We are each governed by our own cultural experiences, and unless one can fully step out of their Ego, that understanding cannot be obtained, and once the Ego has been transcended, cultural systems no longer matter. We can understand the purpose of a cultural system, however, which is linked to the ancient survival instinct. A culture forms to create a sense of belonging so that a group can bond and feel safe knowing that they would unite against any outside threat.
    Do all members of a given culture hold the same beliefs? Most certainly not. Even when people claim to hold the same beliefs, their individual interpretation of those beliefs varies from individual to individual. Most people in a single cultural group share core beliefs, but peripheral details can fall anywhere in a spectrum of socially acceptable beliefs. Cultural deviance, secretly holding beliefs that contradict the cultural norm, is fairly common in all societies where behavior is out of alignment with the spirit of human nature.
    Thanks for sharing this, I had to think hard about my responses.


    • Amazing comment. Thanks. Yep, it looks like you caught me fair and square on the reification, if that’s what I did, of “cultural system.” To be honest, I wrote those points off the top of my head, without doing any recent research. It’s been a while since I was in school and sorta enjoy the luxury of relaxing the precision demanded there. But I also like getting it right. So thanks for correcting me on that!

      Being Christmas Eve, I won’t make any changes now. But I would like to incorporate some of your comments into the entry.

      Much appreciated.. 🙂


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