Totemism – quick summary

Just a few observations on relevant ideas from my study on structuralism from a previous anth lecture.

Totemism is a theoretical concept of structuralism that aims to observe the belief of kinship between a certain group of people, or an individual in that group, and a natural object like a plant or animal (Bardnard 2000). Levi-Strauss believed there were four terms in totemism including; groups, categories, individuals and particular animals or plants that could all be inter-related. Totemism is a useful theory as the Levi-Strauss model does link a vast spread of societies and cultures for logical and scientific comparison. Radcliffe-Brown’s functional explanation of totemism only uses the terms of group and animal and can be seen as a weakness of the discipline for not having a means of wide comparison across a range of societies. Levi-Strauss’ Totemism model makes the assumption that everything is connected. For example; the relationship between Category A and Category B is analagous to the relationship between Group A and Group B (Descola, 2005). This doesn’t leave much room for discrepencies and outliers in the relationships. This theory suggests questions about the identity of particular groups, their spirituality, customs, history and religious beliefs. By studying a societies attatchment to animals and plants, a lot can be learnt about ritual and tradition as well as collective and individual spiritual ideas and beliefs. The ideas of totemism are focused on particularly amongst tribal and hunter/gather societies where kinship between people and nature is most prevalent. The Aboriginal Australians are a great example of a group of people having spiritual relationships with their environment that serve in ritual, tradition and their cosmology (Bodley, 2005).


Barnard, A. 2000. History and Theory in Anthropology. Cambridge: CUP.

Bodley, John. 2005 Cultural Anthropology: Tribes, States, and the Global System. The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Descola, P. 2005. ‘On Anthropological Knowledge’, Social Anthropology, 13 (1): 65-73. ISSN 0-282-0400084-9


Add a comment May 27, 2009
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May Day versus ANZAC

The reading this week by Mach got me thinking about the similarities and differences between the May Day parade and our own Anzac Day celebrations. There were more contrasting ideas rather than similar features.

The May Day parade contrasts with Anzac services greatly due to the lack of personal meaning for individuals attending because of the compulsory attendance whereas with Anzac day here the people that attend the dawn parade and following services do so because they feel a personal need to show respect and/or have first hand experience with the loss of family and friends at Galipoli.

The May Day parade seems to be one of celebration contrasting with the quiet, thoughtful and respectful mood of New Zealanders on Anzac Day.

An important similarity is that that both events emphasize patriotism although the May Day parade celebrates more of a collective patriotism rather than our anzac celebrations showcasing the patriotism of the individual.

Add a comment May 6, 2009
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Anzac Day

Theres nothing like dragging oneself out of bed early on a Saturday morning to go to the Dawn Parade, to make one feel more like a real New Zealander.

Add a comment April 26, 2009
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Rituals of initiation into political collectives

Regarding the reading by Christel Lane (1981), I found one of her most significant examples to be concerning Soviet society. The idea that rituals of initiation link the ‘endeavour of the individual to that of the collective’ got me thinking about whether or not this is a prominant feature in countries where elites do NOT aspire to total ideological domination. I can see clearly how Soviet society uses rituals of initiation as an alternative means of political socialization, but don’t think this approach would be effective in New Zealand due to our system of government. It seems to me to be a way of repressing individuality and promoting a conformist society. Maybe this isn’t such a good thing?

1 comment April 7, 2009
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Female Rites of Passage

Came across this clip on youtube:

It shows the rites of passage of an Apache girl. This clip seemed important to me as it demonstrates traditional rites of passage in a modern and western society and it focuses on the female transformation from girl to woman rather than a transformation from a boy to man which are so often the examples we study.

Add a comment April 5, 2009
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Clifford Geertz

Just thought i’d share a bit of info on an interesting article I recently studied by cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz. In the article ‘Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture’, Geertz puts forward the idea that it is personal and cultural interpretations of actions that are what makes them meaningful. To Geertz, culture is meaning produced locally. An action that means something particular to one person may mean something entirely different to another person. He explains that all actions people perform intentionally are actions that actually embody meanings and are not flippant in nature. These meaningful actions include who the actors are that perform the actions, what they are actually doing and why they are performing that particular action. Geertz places a lot of emphasis on culture being defined as public meanings, not just individual and personal meanings. Particular actions can be so personal and meaningful to and individual but to the public may mean absolutely nothing.

I know this blog entry doesn’t focus on rituals, I think that there is much of Geertz’ work and his approach to studying other cultures and their actions that can furthur our understanding of how to percieve and study ritual action. Particularly his studies on the Balinese people.

Reference for Geertz article:
Geertz, C. 1973. ‘Thick Description: toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture’ in his The Interpretation of Cultures, NY., Fontana.

3 comments March 30, 2009
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Change of plan

So i decided to give away the idea of observing a law office and instead observed the carpark of Thorndon New World supermarket. And am I glad that I did!!! I observed some very interesting ritualistic behaviour and now feel that I have alot of content to write about. Alrighty, better get crackin’!

2 comments March 18, 2009
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Observation assignment

Inspiration has finally struck me.

What do you guys think about observing the waiting room of a busy law office?

I can imagine a lot of emotions: worry, fear, guilt, anger, sorrow, happiness etc. I think it would be interesting to see how those emotions are displayed in the confines of a waiting room, waiting for something important such as a meeting with a lawyer. I’m sure there will be some very interesting characters to observe at some point or another.

Good idea???

1 comment March 12, 2009
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Ah, sweet blog, we meet again.

So week two (yaaay) has nearly come to a close and it’s about time for a serious blog post.

I found the reading this week by Moore and Myerhoff on Secular Ritual to be amazingly thought-provoking. I ‘ve gone over the question “What is it about collective ritual that often gives it a tradition-celebrating role?” quite thoroughly and agree that while collective ritual may indeed traditionalise new material as Moore and Myerhoff state, I think that the main priority or aim, if you will, is to actually keep old traditions alive versus incorporating new ones into ritual life. I think this is a pretty important idea because it shows a different angle on collective ritual and keeps the traditional relevant.

Just a thought šŸ™‚

Add a comment March 12, 2009
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Testing,testing, 123!

Hello there my little anth buddies! this is my practise/possible failure of a first blog….ever. It’s probably best to ignore these ramblings all together whilst I try and get myself organised (somethingĀ I seeĀ I should have really done earlier in the week!)
Em x

Add a comment March 11, 2009
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