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Totemism and Structuralism Exploratory Essay

Totemism and structuralism are some of the key topics that place Levi-Strauss in the limelight. The two elements are not only important in the analysis of system composition, but also in determining the relationships between systems.

In structuralism, classification and systems play a foreground role in determining what makes a structure (Tilley 1990). This study seeks to identify what makes Levi-Straus theory of totemism and structuralism


According to Levi-Strauss, structuralism in the social context can be achieved through language, kinship relations, and myths. The four elements have different features which qualify them to be considered among the most reliable structures in human science.

For instance, Essential elements of linguistics offer the appropriate paradigms that can be used to elaborate the existence of structures in the social domain. Various linguistic components, such as language have been used to explain the existence of structures in human science (Derrida 1978).

In this regard, language is not only an element of culture, but a different type of structure that comprises of different components.

Language qualifies to be grouped among the structural bodies in the social arena such as art, culinary practices, rituals, kin connections, and exchange systems (Jenkins 1979).

Language as a structure within the human culture has various systems that are vital in the construction of a valid structure. A good example of system within structure of language is speech.

The system of speech is arranged in an organized way where every element plays an important role in constructing the system. The individual acts of speech make up the speech system. Subsequently, different speech systems make up the language structure.

In this regard, the theory tends to compare the system of speech with composition of a chess game where every move in the game is influenced by rules and conventions. The moves in the game constitute each system within the chase game.

The same case applies to language where speech system consists of different elements that move during communication (Tilley 1990).

Every system of language may take different stances. However, the interplay between the different systems enables the structure to convey a particular meaning. Despite the differences, the relationship between them is essential in building the ultimate structure.

For instance, in language every act of speech has to be comprehensive to achieve the objective of communication (Derrida 1978). Language as structure demonstrates the characteristics of various systems.

The different elements that constitute language have the privileges to undergo changes without significant effects in other elements. Therefore, any transformation on one of the elements may result to observable changes, which can be deduced empirically (Scholte 1981).

Kinship relationship is another element in cultural aspect that is used to elaborate on the existence of structures in the social domain. Kinship relation, just like language, can be categorized as a structure due to the existence of different systems that constitute the whole structure (Tilley 1990).

The ties between different groups and families are equal to the systems, which are analogous to the components within the linguistic context.

In this regard, it is therefore important to embrace the fact that language and kinship relations are major elements of communication in the social context (Radcliffe-Brown 1929).

In elaborating the connection between kinship members in the society, Levi-Strauss tends to contravene the suppositions raised by earlier theorists in the field of human science.

The scholar does not agree with the descriptions of kinship connections where biological linkages between the family members are used to exhibit the connections between different systems (Tilley 1990).

For instance, according to the biological linkages, kinship systems are constructed from the relationship between the father and the son, the mother and the daughter, and the father and the mother.

The connection extends to other members of the family, such as uncles, cousins, and nephews. Critics of biological linkage posit that a pair of relationship between family members cannot be used to elucidate the connections of different groups.

To this end, Levi-Straus applies the concept of myth and totemism in elaborating the connections between different groups and individuals that constitute kinship relations (Scholte1981). Structures in the social context reveal that human beings are the key building blocks of any social setting.

The interaction and relationships between the human beings contribute to the construction of social structure (Jenkins 1979). The theory portrays structures as elements that truly exist since they have the ability to surpass theoretical description.

Structures comprise of models that are derived from empirical authenticities. The true existence of structures is also hinged on their impacts on the social aspects of life (Derrida 1978).

Another element that qualifies for a structural analysis within the context of social dimension is the issue of myth. A myth in the society serves the purpose of telling stories that try to locate the existence and origin of different things in the society.

Myths have strong narrative powers that can be used to situate the existence and roles of human beings in the society.

However, myths tend to contravene the provisions of science or any aspect of logical thinking. Levi-Strauss’ theory of structuralism embraces the disparity between science and myth (Tilley 1990).

Myths as structures can also be exhibited in the case of history and archaeological works. For instance, history is structured like language since it has components and systems.

History not only explains the origins of things, but also employs a chronological order that is guided by proper infrastructure (Scholte 1981). History has strong narrative powers, which are used to highlight different elements of culture.

On the other hand, archaeology has structural elements that embrace transformation and development in various aspects (Derrida 1978). Archaeology as an element of structure exhibits cultural developments and changes in the society.

It also relies on historical records which are arranged in some order to exhibit the presence of structures (Radcliffe-Brown 1929).

The interplay between history, archaeology, and time also highlight the role of time in determining the existence of structures in the historical world. Archaeological records are arranged in some organized sequence based on their relationship with time (Levi-Strauss 1963).

Structuralism, as applied in the context of myths, relies on the relationship between different myths. Myths form the key component of oral tradition in every society.

The narrative powers of myths and interactions between different categories of myths tend to establish the structure in the linguistic world.

Myths portray the occurrences of different events in the society. The events may have significant relationships between them that are vital in conducting a comprehensive and reliable structural analysis.

For instance, each myth has a meaning which can be derived from the overall composition of myths within the system (Levi-Strauss 1963).

Mythical structures may be affected by changes in the society or geographical disparities. For instance, the relationship between the contemporary myths and the myths of the ancient world may be affected by changes in technology.

However, all myths have some identical features, which contribute to the composition of their structure.

The determinant factors of relationship such as infrastructure and ideas may be similar, but the adjustments in the environment may result to some contradictions that are related to content.

Despite the contradictions, it is widely evident that every myth in the society is developed from the existence of other myths in different regions.

A myth from a particular area may be used to influence the culture of the people in another foreign land. This connection exhibits the element of structure that is present in myths (Derrida 1978).

From the above structural analysis, it is therefore evident that every myth relies on the existence of another myth. A single myth is an incomplete portion of the overall mythical system. Myths rely on their interactions and relationships to explain the existence of humanity in the society.

However, their differences may communicate contradicting messages about human nature and existence (Bourdieu, 1977). The differences between the myths mainly stem from culture and infrastructural elements.

For instance, the composition of every infrastructure consists of different words, phrases, and sentences that can be divided into several parts. These parts convey different messages depending on the arrangement.

The structural analysis also reveals that the relationships between myths surpass historical and social thinking. The relationships are based on logical reasoning where the elements of the system depend on each other.

Myths as structures have transformational and constant differences, which determine their composition. In this case, myths can be compared to the human mind. Just like the mind, myths perform a collection of functions that interact to influence the composition of the system.

However, the main goal of a myth is to achieve some sense of social reality that can be decoded by the mind. Any event in a mythical context can be attributed to some social reasons (Bourdieu 1977).

To this end, Levi-Straus has made significant contributions in the field of human science. The author has played a greater role in describing structures from different perspectives.

His contributions in the sector have attracted enormous interest, especially with regards to the issue of structuralism. His theory purports the view that every social aspect of human life is marked by the presence of some structures.

The social world is therefore organized in the form of structures (Levi-Strauss 1963). Structures in their own rights have extensive genealogy in the social domain.

The theory also portrays structures in the social context as observable elements that have specific and empirical aspects analogous to the skeleton of a biological organism (Levi-Strauss 1963).


Unlike structuralism that portrays the composition of different systems, totemism highlights the relationship between various elements in the system.

The concept reveals how the interdependence between various things in the environment enables them to interact and relate with each other (Derrida 1978). Totemism also reveals how the relationship can be influenced by individuals or groups for their own benefits.

Based on the differences between different functions of structuralism and functionalism, the element of totemism demonstrates the limitations of functions or benefits. Totemism further highlights the stance of structuralism in the analysis of such differences.

Totemism reveals how the interplay between different things in the world constitutes a structure. Relations that determine the existence of a structure may exist between plants, animals, individuals, and different collectivities in the society (Levi-Strauss 1963).

Totemism brings into to perspective aspects of relations that that span from mythological nuances to rituals in the society. The relations may also include beliefs that are associated with particular behaviours and practices in the society.

The aspect of totemism may also restrict particular behaviours within a clan or societal setting due to the relationship between the behaviours and structures of the clan (Tilley 1990). In traditional anthropological contexts, totemism has been associated with primitivism.

In such cases, totemism has been portrayed as a form of religion, which tends to promote the development of rudimentary structures (Radcliffe-Brown 1929).

The same stance is taken by Levi-Strauss, who expounds on the concept to include broader elements of culture that are associated with totemic practices (Scholte1981). However, functional branch of anthropology tends to associate totemism with biological functions.

In this regard, the concept is perceived as uncontrolled advancement among biological organisms. In the biological arena, totemism is used to highlight the interaction and relationship between different members of the ecosystem.

The concept demonstrates how the interaction between different animals and plants determine the composition of food chains and food pyramids in the ecosystem (Tilley 1990).

Totemism in the social and cultural aspect of human life has significant impacts on the food chains and pyramids in the ecosystem. For instance, rituals that govern the type of foods that should be eaten by human beings determine how animals and plants interact in the environment.

The rituals also control the population of plants in the surrounding. Totemism, therefore, gives human beings the privileges that not only control the composition of the ecosystem but also affects the beliefs and customs of the people (Bourdieu 1977).

Totemism exists in different categories. Moreover, the elements of content and form as applied in structuralism portray the disparities that exist between the different categories. The role of totemism in promoting the development of human science should not be overlooked.

The concept plays an important role in promoting social order. The concept ensures that there is stability among the various social components in the society.

It also fosters solidarity where individual and group objectives are integrated to promote the unity of the people in the society (Levi-Strauss 1963).

Plants and animals in the environment convey various symbols that promote unity of different groups. For instance, the rituals that govern the interaction between the people and other vital resources can be exhibited by the activities of groups such as fruit gatherers and hunters.

This position elucidates the role of totemic form in promoting group unity and the achievement of group objectives (Scholte 1981).

However, totemic benefits are only limited to particular plants and animals in the ecosystem. There are cases where certain animals and plants may not be located within the functional framework (Radcliffe-Brown 1929).

For example, animals that spread diseases such as mosquitoes represent totems that have no benefits to the human society. The same case applies to poisonous plants. In other circumstances, such totems may be useful, especially in areas where their benefits have been identified by particular individual.

Reference List

Bourdieu, P 1977, Outline of a theory of practice, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Derrida, J 1978, Structure, sign, and play in the discourse of the human science in writing and difference, Routledge & Kegan, London.

Jenkins, A 1979, The Social Theory of Claude Levi-Strauss, Macmillan, London.

Levi-Strauss, C 1963, Totemism, Beacon Press, Boston.

Radcliffe-Brown, A.R 1929, The sociological theory of totemism, Cohon & West, London.

Scholte, B 1981, Critical anthropology since its reinvention: The anthropology of pre-Capitalist societies, Macmillan, London.

Tilley, C, 1990, Claude Levi-Strauss: Structuralism and Beyond, Basil Blackwell, Oxford.

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