Symbolic anthropology

The term symbolic anthropology is usually used to cover a broad tendency in the anthropology of the late 1960s and 1970s. Symbolic anthropology involved the study of culture as a relatively autonomous entity, a system of meaning which the anthropologist would attempt to unravel through the decoding or interpretation of key symbols and rituals. If symbolic anthropology ever constituted a distinctive school, its home was in American anthropology, especially in those students and colleagues who had been influenced by its three key figures -Clifford Geertz, Victor Turner and David Schneider – all of whom briefly coincided at the University of Chicago around 1970. Geertz and Schneider were both products of Talcott Par-sons’s Harvard Social Relations department of the early 1950s, while Turner was a genuine maverick: a Scottish protege of Max Gluckman whose eclecticism and intellectual ambition found a more comfortable home in American anthropology. The founding texts are Turner’s analyses of the rituals and symbols of the Ndembu of Zambia (Turner 1967), Schneider’s American Kinship: A Cultural Account (1980 [1968]), and Geertz’s essays of the 1960s and early 1970s, collected in his Interpretation of Cultures (1973). To this trio, we should probably add the work of Marshall Sahlins, who started the 1970s an economic anthropologist of a gently Marxist persuasion, but declared his conversion to the American cultural tradition in the highly influential Culture and Practical Reason (1976).


Although influenced by Levi-Strauss’s structuralism, most obviously in treating culture as analogous to language, symbolic anthropology departed from Levi-Strauss in two important ways. One was a resistance to scien-tistic methodology, most clearly articulated in Geertz’s post-1970 writings. The other was an emphasis on cultural particularism, which had deep roots in American anthropology from the time of Boas, and his successors like Ruth Benedict, but which was at odds with Levi-Strauss’s concern with the panhuman roots of specific symbolic structures. Although symbolic anthropology was an American expression for a predominantly American movement, its effects were felt much more widely. In Britain, Scandinavia, Holland and France, for example, where structuralism and structural Marxism had far more impact in the late 1960s and early 1970s, by the late 1970s there was a marked shift towards issues of culture and interpretation, and away from grand theories. This was least true in France, but even there the work of Sahlins proved influential in linking American culturalism to more characteristically European traditions of social anthropology.

Decoding symbols

If Geertz and Schneider were mainly responsible for grounding symbolic anthropology in a coherent theoretical framework, Turner probably exercised the most influence by sheer ethnographic virtuosity. He carried out fieldwork in the early 1950s as a research officer at the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute, by then emerging as the African base of the so-called Manchester school of anthropologists which gathered around its former director Max Gluckman.As such, it was a particularly stimulating, but nevertheless conventional, example ofstate-of-the-art British anthropology of the time. Turner followed this, though, with a series of extraordinary papers exploring the ritual and symbolism of the Ndembu.

In particular, from work with one exceptionally gifted informant – Muchona – he was able to elicit extremely rich and detailed accounts of the meaning of specific symbols employed in Ndembu ritual. These decoded symbols were then placed within an analytic framework derived from van Gennep’s classic model of rites of passage, and from Turner’s own earlier sociological account of Ndembu society. So, for example, the mudyi tree, a dominant symbol in certain rituals, exudes a white latex: according to Turner it stands for milk, mother’s breasts, the link between mother and child, the principle of matriliny, and ultimately the endurance of Ndembu custom itself (1967: 20-1).

Such detailed exegesis, of course, raises serious questions about the whole question of symbols and their meaning. Whose meanings are these – the ethnographer’s, his gifted native informant, all the participants in the ritual? What of all those cases, numbingly familiar to fieldworkers, in which informants claim an incapacity to interpret or decode complex symbolism – ‘we do it this way because the ancestors told us to’, ‘we don’t understand these rituals ourselves, you should ask the priest or ritual specialist’? In a forensic critique of prevailing theories of symbolism, Dan Sperber (1975) argued that symbols were not simply elements in a conscious or unconscious code, and that exegesis, where it occurs, does not so much represent the ‘meaning’ of symbols, but rather an extension of symbolic discourse itself. Sperber’s critique, based in large part on Turner’s Ndembu examples, emphasized the way that symbols ‘evoke’ in an indeterminate manner, rather than carry fixed and unambiguous ‘meanings’.

Sperber’s essay on symbolism was part of a much more ambitious project to ground anthropological analysis of cultural forms in a new science of cognition. As such, it was seriously out of step with the growing disillusion with positivist theories in anthropology, and the resultant tendency to retreat into ethnographic particularism. Although Turner’s qualities as an ethnographer might have encouraged such a retreat, in fact he was no more comfortable with the restrictions of uncritical culturalism, than he had been with the anxious boundaries of late-1950s British social anthropology. In fact, he retained an interest in the somatic bases of symbolic efficacy throughout his life, whether this was manifest in his argument that behind the triad of colours (red-white-black) in Ndembu ritual lay a triad of primal bodily experiences (blood-semen/milk-faeces), or in his meditations in his late work on the neurobiology of ritual and symbolism.

Core symbols and cultural systems

David Schneider was in many ways the reverse of Turner. His most influential work, American Kinship, can be most charitably described as schematic. Instead of Turner’s flesh-and-blood accounts of rituals, symbols and explanations, Schneider provides a short, highly stylized account of American ideas about kinship, synthesized from interviews with middle-class White residents of Chicago. In this, American ideas about what constitutes a person, about what makes a person a relative, about blood and sex and biology, nature and law, substance and code, were explored systematically. Behind Schneider’s oddly deadpan prose style lay a hugely ambitious idea: that it was possible to abstract a ‘cultural system’ from statements and behaviour and render it in a clear, analytic way which demonstrated that culture was both systematic and autonomous. As the cultural system in question was the central area of kinship and family in Schneider’s own society, his account required a heroic effort of self-abstraction.

Schneider defines a ‘cultural system’ as ‘a system of symbols’, and a ‘symbol’ as simply ‘something which stands for something else’ (Schneider 1980 [1968]: 1). What interests him, though, is less the project of decoding individual symbols, and more the idea that symbols constitute an autonomous system; within this system, certain symbols are central points of orientation on which all else depends. The claim that culture is a system of meanings which cannot be reduced to accounts of individual behaviour derives from Parsons; the emphasis on the system as a set of relationships derives to some extent from Levi-Strauss; the focus on the cultural core or distinctive essence of an apparently complex society derives from Ruth Benedict and the later work of the culture-and-personality school on national cultures.

Although Schneider’s account of American kinship is empirically weaker than the work of Geertz and Turner — almost self-evidently so in the areas of class, race and ethnicity – and although his theoretical emphasis on the autonomy of culture as a system is clearly contentious and has hardly stood the test of time, nevertheless it can be argued that his work stimulated some of the most imaginative anthropology of the 1970s and 1980s. Partly this is because of his position as a teacher and supervisor of students at Chicago, some of whom were responsible for both the most penetrating critiques of Schneider’s work and the most interesting developments of it. Mostly, though, it is because his example opened up important areas for ethnographic enquiry: the systematic examination of indigenous ideas (and especially systems of ideas) about persons and relatedness, work which has transformed research into areas as diverse as caste in South Asia and gender in Melanesia.


From reading to writing

Clifford Geertz’s career has interesting parallels with Schneider’s: Harvard beginnings, a short period in California and a longer one in Chicago, an attachment to a concept of culture as meaning derived in equal part from Parsons and the Boasian tradition in American anthropology, and oracular pronouncements in the 1960s on symbols and cultural systems and the idea of the person. But it also has its differences too: Geertz left Chicago for the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in 1970; where Schneider’s influence was as much felt through his students and followers, Geertz’s influence was broader (especially outside anthropology itself) but more diffuse, owing more to literary and intellectual panache and less to personal attachments. And while Geertz’s influence, like Turner’s, owes much to sheer ethnographic elan, it is ironic that his best-known and most apparently virtuosic work — the essays on the person and the cockfight in Bali (Geertz 1973: 360-453) – has now been almost completely rejected by many area specialists (cf. Wikan 1990).

Geertz has carried out fieldwork in Java, Morocco and Bali and published important monographs on such apparently diverse topics as agricultural development and the dual economy in Java, the rituals of the pre-modern state in Bali, Islam, kinship, and ethnographic writing. Despite this, his most influential work is contained in four topics of his first collection of essays: ‘Thick Description’, ‘Religion as a Cultural System’, ‘Person, Time and Conduct in Bali’ and ‘Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight’ (Geertz 1973). The earliest of these, the essay on religion, reveals much of Geertz’s Parsonian heritage – not least in the isolation of a cultural system, in this case religion, as a ‘system of meanings’, which once it is understood in its own terms can then be related to questions of psychology and social structure. The essays on the person and the cockfight investigate the area of ethos – the distinctive moral, aesthetic and affective ‘tone’ of a culture — which was a central concern of the culture-and-personality theorists of the 1930s. (Critics would claim that his essays on Bali owe as much to the study of Balinese Character by Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, as to anything the Balinese themselves might do or say.)

And the opening essay of the collection, ‘Thick Description’, makes a powerful case for anthropology as an interpretive activity, concerned above all with the elucidation of local detail rather than grand comparison. The expression ‘thick description’ itself derives from the philosopher Gilbert Ryle, and refers to the embeddedness of the tiniest detail of human life in layers of contextual significance. Anthropologists deal above all in interpretations, and interpretations of interpretations. To employ the word which was just beginning to gain wider currency through the work of Ricoeur (whom Geertz cites) and Habermas (whom he doesn’t), anthropology should be concerned with herme-neutics. Understanding another culture is like reading, and interpreting, a text. And difficulties in formulating and communicating that understanding are as much as anything problems of writing. Geertz concludes by making ethnography, conceived as a kind of writing, central to anthropological practice.

In many ways, Geertz represents the sharpest break with earlier anthropology. His commitment to the particularity of ethnographic description sets him far apart from the grand ambitions of structuralism or Marxism, even as it anticipated the noisily trumpeted ‘decline of metanarratives’ (or big stories) of the postmodern 1980s. Similarly his intellectual points of reference — Ricoeur, Kenneth Burke, the later Wittgenstein – helped prepare the ground for the so-called ‘literary turn’ in anthropology, signified above all by the publication of Writing Culture (Clifford and Marcus 1986). Certainly when scholars from the humanities — historians and literary critics — cite an anthropologist, it is more often than not Geertz they are citing, and usually it is Geertz on thick description or Geertz on the cockfight.

After culture

Although lesser anthropologists may have described themselves as ‘symbolic anthropologists’ and thought of themselves as constituting a ‘school’, it is quite clear that the three most influential figures in the emergence of symbolic anthropology — Geertz, Turner and Schneider — differed considerably in their intentions and approaches. What they shared, and what gives retrospective coherence to the work of the 1970s in particular, is the triumph of a certain vision of culture as a set of shared meanings. Where they differed was in the extent to which they attempted to relate their vision of cultural meaning to social processes and social practices. Turner never completely lost his sociological roots in British social anthropology, and Geertz’s early work makes frequent reference to issues of sociology (although he gradually distanced himself further and further from the concerns of his British and French colleagues). Schneider was most overt in his attempts to remove the study of culture from the study of society.

This uneasiness with what was felt to be sociological or functionalist reductionism separated American symbolic anthropologists from colleagues pursuing apparently similar goals elsewhere. In Britain Mary Douglas, for example, saw her work on symbolic boundaries and natural symbols as a direct continuation of Durkheim’s comparative sociology, as to some extent did "Rodney Needham, who nevertheless managed to isolate a domain of symbols and symbolic exegesis every bit as isolated from social action and history as the work of his American contemporaries. The work which most explicitly confronted the European sociological tradition with the cultural concerns of American symbolic anthropology was Sahlins’s Culture and Practical Reason (1976). As well as arguing against all those who would ‘reduce’ cultural phenomena to social explanations, Sah-lins first confronted, then co-opted, the two main rival strains of 1970s European theory, Marxism and structuralism. Marxism, Sahlins argued, is ultimately predicated upon peculiarly Western assumptions about material needs and economic rationality; as such it can function as a compelling self-account of ‘the West’, but imposes one historically specific and inappropriate cultural logic on to non-Western societies. He is much more sympathetic to Levi-Strauss’s structuralism, and employs its procedures in his analyses, yet is clearly uneasy about its location of an ultimate cause in the transcultural ether of the human spirit. In the ascension of culture-as-meaning in the late 1970s, Sahlins’s argument carried more weight with European anthropologists, not least because it was so palpably engaged, however critically, with their own intellectual traditions.

Intellectually, there were certain obvious problems with the symbolic anthropology of the 1970s (ably summarized by Ortner 1984). Too often symbols were abstracted from social action, resulting in an idealist and oddly conservative view of the world. Similarly, symbolic systems seemed curiously atemporal and, like structuralism, unable to deal with history. Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977) seemed to point the way out of the first dilemma by showing how implicit meanings were marshalled in the service of power, and how individual agents pursued strategies rather than mutely obeyed rules. Moreover, Bourdieu argued that in emphasizing problems of meaning, translation and interpretation, anthropologists unreflexively equated their problem, as academically trained outsiders trying to make sense of an unfamiliar social landscape, with the human condition. Bourdieu’s work was, nevertheless, equally open to the second criticism, that of being unable to deal with history and change. Sahlins provided the most remarkable attempt to provide a theorized account of historical change within the logic of a cultural or symbolic system in his work on first contact in Hawaii (Sahlins 1981). Many others followed, gradually shedding Sahlins’ structuralism but not his attachment to symbolic analysis, in their interpretations of societies in history.

The least resilient aspect of symbolic anthro pology was the notion of culture itself. Empirically, it became less and less possible for anthropologists to maintain the necessary fiction of a world made up of separate, discrete, internally homogeneous cultures. This may have been obvious in the world-system of the 1980s, but it could be shown to have been equally dubious as a depiction of the 1880s, 1780s or even 1680s (Wolf 1982). Moreover, it could easily be shown that ‘culture’ was itself every bit as ‘Western’, and therefore culturally and historically specific, as Marxism and functionalism and any of the other forbidden reductionisms of the symbolic anthropologists. And the whole problem of ‘meaning-for-whom’ was reopened in the light of feminist and post-structuralist critiques which challenged both the view of cultures as unpro-blematically homogeneous, and the idea that meaning can be unequivocally fixed. Finally, Sperber’s 1970s challenge to the notion of ‘meaning’ returned, as anthropologists interested in the cross-disciplinary study of cognition started to argue that a great deal of cultural knowledge was not analogous to language at all.

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