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 followed whether or not they are in line with the individuals intrinsic nature.
Because of this characteristic, society is itself an outside force that people are dependent on, whether or not they acknowledge it. Lastly, Durkheim acknowledges that these ritualized activities and shared moral values foster the social solidarity and cohesion of society. By partaking in shared activities, whether it be the Islamic ritual of praying to Allah multiple times a day, the American tradition of singing of the national anthem before the first pitch of a baseball game, or the Catholic ritual of aking communion, we are acknowledging that we belong to a group or society. Common activities help establish what Durkheim refers to as “collective consciousness”, that is a specified set of beliefs and values that are common to members of a given society or group. Praying to the same god or praising the same society, which according to Durkheim are one in the same, encourages the development and maintenance of a collectively held set of morals, values, ethics, and beliefs.