Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Symbolic Anthropology

Here is an excellent introduction to Symbolic Anthropology that includes thumbnail sketches of Dame Mary Douglas (1921-2007); Victor Witter Turner (1920-1983) and Clifford Geertz (1926-2006).

Mary Douglas was a British anthropologist, known for her writings on human culture and symbolism, whose area was social anthropology. Douglas was considered a follower of Émile Durkheim and a proponent of structuralist analysis, with a strong interest in comparative religion.  Douglas is known for her interpretation of the book of Leviticus, and for her role in creating the Cultural Theory of risk.In Purity and Danger, Douglas first proposed that the kosher laws were not, as many believed, either primitive health regulations or randomly chosen as tests of Jews’ commitment to God. Instead, Douglas argued that the laws were about symbolic boundary-maintenance. Prohibited foods were those which did not seem to fall neatly into any category. Such entities and experiences represent the boundless mystery feared by archaic humans. The same mysterious aspect is represented by the pre-dawn and pre-dusk murky light which cannot be categorized as day or night.

Victor Turner was a British cultural anthropologist known for his work on symbols and social structure. His work, along with that of Clifford Geertz, is referred to as symbolic and interpretive anthropology. Turner spend many years studying the Ndembu tribe of Zambia. There he became aware of the profundity of symbolism in the African social fabric, and especially the importance of rituals and rites of passage. As a professor at the University of Chicago, Turner began to apply his study of rituals and rites of passage to world religions and the lives of religious heroes. Turner noted that in the transitional state between two phases (liminality), individuals no longer belonged to their society and they were not yet reincorporated into that society. This ambiguous period is characterized by humility, seclusion, tests, sacrifice and rites of passage.

Clifford Geertz was an American anthropologist who influenced the practice of symbolic anthropology. Geertz was influenced by Gilbert Ryle and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Drawing on the tradition of ordinary language philosophy, he adopted the proposition of thick description from the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle and drew on the concept of family resemblances from Ludwig Wittgenstein. He served until his death in 2006 as professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton.

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