Primitive Classifications

To think about ourselves and the world that surrounds us is a complex activity that can also be thought about. This sentence in itself demonstrates that it would be impossible to do this, to think, if we were not capable of designating all things, concepts, relations and objects to specific categories, and so classifying all that we experience and perceive into a coherent system of organization. Are our representations, our classifications a product of cognitive processes or rather, those of culture, or both?

Classifications is the focus of anthropological research

Classifications have always been the focus of anthropological research because they are in the root of both what anthropologists do when they conduct analysis and in the heart of what they are analyzing.

However, it is considered that Durkheim’s and Mauss’s work ‘Primitive Classifications’ opened the field for the effective and focused study of this topic. In order to determine whether anthropology is the study of indigenous classifications, and what this means and encompasses, this paper will cover a number of classic studies of indigenous classifications along with the mentioned work of Durkheim and Mauss.

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Social organization and social relations are that which create a model on which primitive classifications are based and according to which they take their shape, argue Durkheim and Mauss. Thus, in each society the way of classifying things and sorting out phenomena is a manifestation of the collective consciousness. In order to investigate this process, the anthropologist must study the ‘most rudimentary classifications made by mankind, in order to see with what elements they have been constructed’ (Durkheim, Mauss: 1963: 9).

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The simplest systems of classification

The simplest systems of classification for Durkheim and Mauss are found among the tribes of Australia, and there, the classification of things is a reproduction of the classification of people – all objects in nature are classified according to the division of tribes into moieties and moieties into clans, and all of these into marriage classes. The constraint of the logical order so created and it’s principles on the minds of these peoples is so strong that it determines their whole way of life.

Because people of the same clan feel closer to each other than to people of different clans of the same moiety, Durkheim and Mauss believe that the classification system is such that the individual sees all things as arranged into a number of concentric circles which surround him, of which the most distant are those related to the ‘widest genera’ and which he perceives to be the least part of him. On the other hand, the individual feels the closest to his essence, the thing that is the centre of all these circles – his totem. The principle of division of the Zuni Indians is somewhat different.

Classification is determined by the Zuni spatial arrangements and the seven regions that the Zuni believe space can be broken into – north, south, west, east, zenith, nadir and the centre. All things in the universe, social roles and functions, colors and the clans of the pueblo – all are assigned to these seven regions. However, Durkheim and Mauss find a similarity between the classification system of the Australians and the Zuni – both have a social organization into clans (the Zuni into ‘oriented clans’), and both are totemic, only the Zuni system is a more complex variant of the Australian one.

Although Durkheim and Mauss do not believe that a certain way of classifying is an essential consequence of totemism or the division of things by regions, they do believe the two are closely related, that is, that there exists a ‘close link between the social system and the logical system’ (Durkheim, Mauss, 1963: 41). After Durkheim and Mauss, a great number of anthropologists continued with the study of indigenous classificatory systems.


One group of studies placed a focus on what can be called symbolic classifications – like in the case of Mauss and Durkheim, where, as we have shown, it is maintained that classificatory systems are a cosmological expression reproducing the social and moral order by the means of categories – norms – that regulate social life. Additionally, within the study of symbolic classification fall anthropological works that are based on the idea of binary oppositions as underlying social thought, such as that of Mary Douglas.

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Primitive Classifications. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

Primitive Classifications
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