Totemism

Claude Lévi-Strauss

translated from the French by Rodney Needham
Merlin 1964
A book review by Danny Yee © 1993 http://dannyreviews.com/
Totemism is one of the essays (along with The Savage Mind) in which Lévi-Strauss laid the foundations of structuralist anthropology. It begins with a brief description of the history of theories of totemism, and explains why totemism was finally discredited as an organising principle ("Totemism" is a heterogeneous collection of facts rather than a fundamental category.) Lévi-Strauss then looks at several of the attempts to explain "totemic" phenomena, weaving in details of his own structuralist viewpoint in as he goes.

He gives a sympathetic summary of Elkin's acute observations of Australian totemic systems, but argues that Elkin goes too far in his cutting up of the data in order to avoid the criticism of previous theories. The functionalist and naturalist theories of Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown are critically (but again sympathetically) discussed, and the intellectualist ideas of Fortes, Firth and Evans-Pritchard and the later work of Radcliffe-Brown are seen as precursors to a structural explanation. Throughout the discussion the ethnographic data on which the theories were based is presented and reanalysed from Lévi-Strauss' own point of view. Finally it is pointed out that a structural explanation of totemism was prefigured in the work of Bergson and Rousseau.

Whether one agrees with all of the details of the structuralist explanation of totemic phenomena presented (and it seems plausible enough, although it does seem to suggest as many questions as it provides answers), Lévi-Strauss is worth reading for a different viewpoint cogently argued. Totemism provides an introduction to many of the different strands of modern anthropology as well as a good explanation of the basic ideas of structuralism.

June 1993

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%T Totemism
%A Lévi-Strauss, Claude
%M French
%F Needham, Rodney
%I Merlin
%D 1964
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0850363829
%P 116pp