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Symbolic or Interpretive Anthropology

1960s 1970s general reevaluation of cultural anthropology as a scientific enterprise


From function to meaning away from materialist theories towards idealist theories shift toward issues of culture and interpretation and away from grand theories

increased emphasis on the way in which individual actions creatively shape culture
Greater emphasis on meaning in definitions of culture

Symbolic anthropology: not a tightly organized or clearly bounded school... a loosely-conceived project of a variety of anthropologists of varied intellectual antecedents who see the decoding of public symbols as being the key activity of anthropological analysis... three main theoretical sources:
Durkheimian sociology

Sapir and emic theory


psychoanalytic theory (Freud, Jung, Rheim, Betelheim)

SYMBOLIC ANTHROPOLOGISTS

Raymond Firth Victor Turner

Meyer Fortes Mary Douglas

Sherry B. Ortner
Gregory Bateson

Monica Wilson
Gilbert Lewis

Barbara Babcock
Renato Rosaldo Terence S. Turner Maurice Bloch Marilyn Strathern

Paul Rabinow
Barbara Meyerhoff Milton Singer Robert A. Paul James Fernandez

Since symbolic anthropology is not an organized school, there are no hard-and-fast dogmas or principles Most symbolicists would however agree on these two points: culture is, fundamentally, a symbolic system and so analysis of cultural symbols provides the natural point of entre into a cultural universe If culture is symbolic then it follows that it is used to create and convey meanings since that is the purpose of symbols. If meanings are the end products of culture then understanding culture requires understanding the meanings of its creators and users

Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take cultures to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law, but an interpretive one in search of meaning. (Geertz 1973:5)

Victor Turner
Scottish social anthropologist, 19201983 student of Max Gluckman at Manchester

1950-54 fieldwork among the Ndembu of Zambia


early work in conflict structuralism Schism and continuity in an African society [1957]... later work in pilgrimage theory, experiential anthropology, and performance theory but central career interest = symbolic anthropology

VICTOR TURNER
KEY MONOGRAPHS IN SYMBOLIC ANTHROPOLOGY The forest of symbols* (1967) The drums of affliction (1968)

Chihamba: the white spirit (1969)


The ritual process: structure and anti-structure (1969) Dramas, fields, and metaphors: symbolic action in human society (1975) Process, performance, and pilgrimage: a study in comparative symbology (1979) Blazing the trail: way marks in the exploration of symbols (with Edith Turner) (1992) * collected early papers, including Symbols in Ndembu ritual [reading for
this course]

TANZANIA

CONGO-KINSHASA ANGOLA
NDEMBU

MALAWI

MOZAMBIQUE

ZIMBABWE NAMIBIA

MATRILINEAL BELT

NORTHWESTERN BANTU

MONGO

EQUATORIAL BANTU

LUBA

SOUTHWESTERN BANTU

CENTRAL BANTU (WEST)

MIDDLE ZAMBEZI BANTU

NDEMBU
typical society of the Matrilineal Belt: matrilineal descent

virilocal postmarital residence


shifting cultivation on poor savanna land impermanent villages:

new villages continually reforming


ambitious headmen seek to attract villagers away from their present headmen (big man political process) individual continually being pulled in opposing directions by conflicting matrilineal loyalties and ties based on Fa-So relationship lots of ritual Lots

Social dramas
In Schism and Continuity in African Society (1957) Based on his fieldwork among the Ndembu Social dramas were recurrent units of social life
exist as a result of the conflict that is inherent in societies.

social dramas have "four main phases of public action, accessible to observation" breach, crisis, redressive action, and reintegration.

Social dramas
The first phase is "signalized by the public, overt breach or deliberate nonfulfillment of some crucial norm regulating the intercourse of the parties" (ibid.). Once a breach occurs "a phase of mounting crisis supervenes" in which the breach widens and extends the separation between the parties. The crisis stage has "liminal characteristics, since it is a threshold between more or less stable phases of the social process" (Turner, 1974:39).

The third phase of redressive action occurs to limit the spread of the crisis with "certain adjustive and redressive mechanisms

The redressive phase is the most liminal because it is in the middle of the crisis and the resolution.
It is in this phase that the liminal ritual may be enacted to resolve the crisis and provide an opportunity for the final phase of reintegration to occur. The reintegration phase involves the resolution of the conflict by reintegrating the disturbed group into society or by the "social recognition and legitimization of irreparable schism between the contesting parties" this four-phase model fits into van Gennep's phases of rites of passage. Breach and crisis correspond to van Gennep's separation phase, redress aligns with the transition phase of rites of passage and reintegration represents van Gennep's incorporation phase

Arnold van Gennep

MUKANDA
Photos from Victor Turner: Mukanda: the rite of circumcision. In: The Forest of Symbols

Ndembu circumcisers with knives

Gate to mukanda bush. Childhood clothes left on gate

Novices daubed with clay

LEFT: hut where novices sleep in the mukanda bush BELOW: iron pot in which novices porridge is cooked

Novices receiving instruction from elders

Masked figure (Chizaluki) representing the authority of the ancestors

Last day of mukanda: initiates don new clothes and dance in public for first time as men

RITUAL SYMBOLS Turner not concerned with all possible symbolism. All social groups have some symbolism, down to couples and dyads. Turner is mainly concerned with cultural symbols or (in his term) ritual symbols Ritual symbols = a small number of objects which have more or less generally shared meanings within a community of interpretation (culture)
Milk Tree for Ndembu
Cross for Christians Norwegian flag for Norwegians

wedding garland for Greeks

PROPERTIES OF DOMINANT RITUAL SYMBOLS 1. CONDENSATION: Many things & actions are represented in a single iconic formation
Non-literate people have every incentive to economize on their use of information storing messages. Since all knowledge must be incorporated in the stories and rituals which are familiar to the living generation, it is of immense advantage if the same verbal categories, with their corresponding objects, can be used for multiple purposes.
Edmund Leach, Ritualization in Man, in relation to conceptual and social development. Royal Society of London. Philosophical Transactions. Series B. 251:403-08. 1966

PROPERTIES OF DOMINANT RITUAL SYMBOLS

2. UNIFICATION: Many disparate significata are interconnected & unified by virtue of the common possession of certain analogous qualities
analogy = the mechanism whereby many significata are able to be condensed in one dominant symbol

PROPERTIES OF DOMINANT RITUAL SYMBOLS 3. POLARIZATION: The symbol typically possesses two distinct poles of meaning, one normative (moral rules of society) and the other sensory (natural and physiological process) All that is quintessentially Ndembu is transmitted from mother to child, and so the dominant symbol of cohesion and continuity is symbolized by milk and the female breast The sensory pole is gross and may be expected to arouse emotions (breast, penis, blood, semen, tears)

PROPERTIES OF DOMINANT RITUAL SYMBOLS Polarization = the linkage between the conscious or ideological aspects of symbols and the emotional aspects... e.g. why certain acts (profanation, incest, shedding of blood) instantly trigger emotional responses This linkage is clearly a learned response (behavior)
TURNER: criticizes Sapir & psychoanalytically oriented writers for ignoring the ideological pole in favor of the emotional

PROPERTIES OF DOMINANT RITUAL SYMBOLS


4. POLYVALENCE Dominant symbols do not just have one meaning (A = B) but are invariably polyvalent or polysemic, and link into many domains of the culture and at a variety of levels

DECODING RITUAL SYMBOLS

Ritual symbols can be decoded by triangulating between three main bodies of information:

external form and observable characteristics

interpretations of ritual specialists & lay persons

significant contexts worked out by the anthropologist

Ritual symbols can be decoded by triangulating between three main bodies of information: operational meaning external form and observable characteristics
e.g. dominant symbol used in girls puberty rite, the latex exuded by a particular tree = milk = fertility = motherhood = the continuity of lineages in a matrilineal society = the unity & equality of all Ndembu

exegetical interpretations of ritual specialists & lay persons

Positional significant contexts worked out by the anthropologist

SIGNIFICATA

ARROW: Diplorrhyncus condylocarpon, the Milk Tree

A `milk tree' growing in the compound of a Senior Chief in southern Zambia. Regarded as feminine by the inhabitants of the compound, the milk tree twines as a palpable dependent on its deciduous `masculine' host.

Many Bantu peoples strongly associated this tree with womanhood because of the thick white, milk-like sap which the live wood exudes when cut. the blood-red sap of the so-called `

A fresh cut in the milk tree showing the milky white sap that gives the tree its common name

A fresh, bright scarlet cut on a `blood tree' in Kangaba, Mali

marked that wood as masculine

Ritual symbols can be decoded by triangulating between three main bodies of information: operational meaning external form and observable characteristics exegetical interpretations of ritual specialists & lay persons

Positional significant contexts worked out by the anthropologist

Get the official and the lay perspective: document any possible layering of meanings, from exoteric to esoteric

Ritual symbols can be decoded by triangulating between three main bodies of information: operational meaning external form and observable characteristics
in some specific ritual contexts, Milk Tree = unity of women the novice herself loss of child by mother

exegetical interpretations of ritual specialists & lay persons

Positional significant contexts worked out by the anthropologist

Ritual symbols can be decoded by triangulating between three main bodies of information: operational meaning external form and observable characteristics
in some specific ritual contexts, Milk Tree = unity of women the novice herself loss of child by mother Tree implies certain cleavages in Ndembu society

exegetical interpretations of ritual specialists & lay persons

Positional significant contexts worked out by the anthropologist

classic contrast between what people say and what they do e.g., despite the ideology of Ndembu unity, actually the Milk

...in the Nkanga ritual, each person or group in successive contexts, sees the milk tree only as representing her or their own specific interests and values at those times. However the anthropologist, who has previously made a structural analysis of Ndembu society, isolating its organizational principles, and distinguishing its groups and relationships, has no particular bias and can observe the real interconnection and conflict between groups and persons. What is meaningless for an actor playing a specific role may well be highly significant for an observer and analyst of the total system. On these grounds, therefore, I consider it legitimate to include within the total meaning of a dominant ritual symbol, aspects of behavior associated with it which the actors themselves are unable to interpret, and indeed of which they may be unaware... Turner, Symbols in Ndembu ritual Victor
Erockson & Murphy 2001: 364

By including esoteric meanings, Turner departs from earlier theorists of symbolism, for whom only the exoteric meanings (shared by everyone) were truly public symbolism (Nadel, Wilson) But esoteric meanings are a significant part of most knowledge systems...
are particularly clear in Central African initiation systems...
at various points in initiation ceremony, the novice is presented symbolically encoded information... memorized by rote much of the symbolism is undisclosed & will never be formally disclosed

however even by the end of the bush school, some novices will have figured out by context, or by recognizing an image presented earlier in a song learnt later those who show a talent for grasping the more elusive meanings become the officiating priests, witchdoctors, and bush school instructors of future generations thus the populace sorts itself out in various strata of intellectual and/or spiritual depth most people content to live in a universe of signs and symbols whose meanings are known to others, but not them a self-selected few become guardians of the societys symbolic resources

OTHER KEY CONCEPTS IN TURNERS APPROACH TO RITUAL SYMBOLISM 1. liminality extensive elaboration of van

Genneps notion of liminality in rites of passage


2. communitas & structure structure inherently hierarchical & liminality inherently communal/egalitarian