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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 157

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The Elementary Forms of Religious Life extends Durkheim's past work in the tradition of French sociology, applying the field's concepts to religion. He casts religion as a purely social phenomenon which developed as a way of providing people with group identification and emotional security, not unlike the benefits of group living.

One of Durkheim's central analyses is about the totem, which is the term for any material object of worship. He argues that totems are made to stand in for the societies worshipping them, symbolizing a social unity. Holding that the totem stands in both for the society and its god, he argues that through substitution, the society becomes its own god.

Finally, viewing most social constructs as predicated on totemic substitution, Durkheim asserts that totems are the primary vehicle for inscribing new symbols to the collective unconscious. The collective unconscious is therefore the most capacious body of knowledge that humans can possess about their social realities.