Author Archives: jesteenburns

Symbolic Anthropology

Dame Mary Douglas (1921-2007)

Mary Douglas, British anthropologist, known for her writings on human culture and symbolism. Her area is social anthropology, where she is considered a follower of Durkheim, with a strong interest in comparative religion. She was born as Margaret Mary Tew in San Remo, Italy; her parents were in the British colonial service. She had a Roman Catholic education at the Sacred Heart Convent in Roehampton. She went on to study at the University of Oxford from 1939 to 1943; there she was influenced by E.E. Evans-Pritchard. She worked in the British Colonial Office until 1947, when she returned to Oxford to take up graduate study she had left. She studied with M. N. Srinivas as well as Evans-Pritchard. In 1949 she did field work with the Lele people in what was then the Belgian Congo; this took her to village life in the region between the Kasai River and the Loange River, where the Lele lived on the edge of the previous Kuba kingdom.  Mary Douglas is best 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. For example, pigs’ place in the natural order was ambiguous because they shared the cloven hoof of the ungulates, but did not chew cud. Douglas claims that rituals of purity that focus on sexuality are meant to mark the boundaries of the human body, in the same way by which the boundaries of society are marked.  She begins “Purity and Danger” by stating what she considers obvious, that “ambiguous things can seem very threatening” (xi) and claims that “taboo is a spontaneous device for protecting the distinctive categories of the universe… taboo confronts the ambiguous and shunts it into the category of the sacred”.  Douglas’ observations about the differences in traditional African societies’ views of risks such as sorcery led her to formulate a functionalist theory of how social structures generate supportive worldviews. She developed this more fully into the Cultural Theory of risk in Risk and Culture, written with political scientist Aaron Wildavsky. While the Cultural Theory of risk has not been hugely important within anthropology, it has made an impact on the inter-disciplinary field of risk perception.

Victor Turner (1920-1983)

Victor Witter Turner was born on 28 May 1920 in Glasgow, Scotland, the son of Captain Norman Turner, an electronics engineer, and Violet Witter, founding member and actress of the Scottish National Theater. At the age of 11, Turner left Scotland and went with his divorced mother to live with his maternal grandparents in Bournemouth, England. After attending Bournemouth Grammar School, he studied English language and literature at University College of London (1938-41). During World War II, Turner, a pacifist and objector to military service, became a non-combatant bomb disposal soldier in Britain. In 1943 he married Edith Davis who remained his wife and collaborator throughout his life. After the war the Turners and their two sons lived in a gypsy caravan near Rugby Town, England, a proper home being unobtainable due to German bombing. In the public library there, Turner came across Coming of Age in Samoa by Margaret Mead and The Andaman Islanders by A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. From these books Turner discovered that tribal life was even more down-to-earth than that of the British soldier which he had experienced during the war. He decided to study anthropology at University College of London, where he attended the seminars and received his B.A. with honors in 1949. Max Gluckman, the exiled South-African anthropologist and spiritual leader of the Manchester School, then offered Turner a grant from the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute to carry out fieldwork in an African tribe. Turner accepted and was assigned to the Mambwe tribe. However, he never reached the Mambwe homeland; during his stay at the Institute in Lusaka he received a telegram from Gluckman: “Suggest you change to Ndembu tribe Northwestern Province much malaria yellow fever plenty of ritual” (E. Turner 1985:2). In 1950 the Turners moved to the Mukanza village in the Mwinilunga district of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Here Victor Turner started his fieldwork among the Ndembu.

Clifford Geertz (1926 – 2006)

Clifford James Geertz (August 23, 1926, San Francisco – October 30, 2006, Philadelphia) was an American anthropologist who is remembered mostly for his strong support for and influence on the practice of symbolic anthropology, and who was considered “for three decades…the single most influential cultural anthropologist in the United States.”[1] He served until his death as professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. Clifford James Geertz was born in San Francisco, California on August 23, 1926. After service in the U.S. Navy in World War II (1943–45), Geertz received his B.A. in philosophy from Antioch College in 1950, and his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1956, where he studied social anthropology in the Department of Social Relations. He taught or held fellowships at a number of schools before joining the anthropology staff of the University of Chicago (1960–70). He then became professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton from 1970 to 2000, then emeritus professor. Geertz received Honorary Doctorate Degrees from some fifteen colleges and universities, including Harvard University, the University of Chicago and the University of Cambridge. He was married first to the anthropologist Hildred Geertz. After their divorce he married Karen Blu, also an anthropologist. Clifford Geertz died of complications following heart surgery on October 30, 2006 Please keep in mind of how these three correlate with one another, we will test your knowledge of how to use their theory in an everyday setting.

Sociobiology, Evolutionary Psychology, and Behavioral Ecology

Edward O. Wilson (born June 10, 1929) is an American biologist, researcher (sociobiology, biodiversity), theorist (consilience, biophilia), naturalist (conservationist) and author.  His biological specialty is myrmecology, the study of ants.  Wilson is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.  He is known for his scientific career, his role as “the father of sociobiology”, his environmental advocacy, and his secular-humanist and deist ideas pertaining to religious and ethical matters.  Wilson received his early training in biology at the University of Alabama (B.S., 1949; M.S., 1950).  After receiving his doctorate in biology at Harvard University in 1955, he was a member of Harvard’s biology and zoology faculties from 1956 to 1976.  At Harvard he was later Frank B. Baird Professor of Science (1976–94), Mellon Professor of the Sciences (1990–93), and Pellegrino University Professor (1994–97).  He was professor emeritus from 1997.  In addition, Wilson served as curator in entomology at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology (1973–97).  A recent project of Wilson’s, the Encyclopedia of Life website, catalogs all key information about life of Earth — including data about every living species — and makes it accessible to everyone.  Launched with money from his 2007 TED Prize, the Encyclopedia of Life recently received an additional $10 million from the MacArthur Foundation.  Wilson also is the recipient of the U.S. National Medal of Science, the Crafoord Prize (a sister to the Nobel), and the Audubon Medal.  He is the University Research Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, and continues to research at the Museum of Comparative Zoology.  Recently, Wilson teamed with Harrison Ford to create a new PEN Literary award titled the PEN/E.O.  Wilson Award for Literary Science Writing.

Hailed as a genius of modern science, he’s also been accused of racism in a vicious debate over evolution.  The controversy of sociobiological research is in how it applies to humans.  The theory established a scientific argument for rejecting the common doctrine of tabula rasa, which holds that human beings are born without any innate mental content and that culture functions to increase human knowledge and aid in survival and success.  In the final chapter of the book Sociobiology and in the full text of his Pulitzer Prize-winning On Human Nature, Wilson argues that the human mind is shaped as much by genetic inheritance as it is by culture (if not more).  There are limits on just how much influence social and environmental factors can have in altering human behavior.

Although much human diversity in behavior is culturally influenced, some has been shown to be genetic – rapid acquisition of language, human unpredictability, hypertrophy (extreme growth of pre-existing social structures), altruism and religions.  “Religious practices that consistently enhance survival and procreation of the practitioners will propagate the physiological controls that favor the acquisition of the practices during single lifetimes.  Unthinking submission to the communal will promotes the fitness of the members of the tribe.  Even submission to secular religions and cults involve willing subordination of the individual to the group.  Religious practices confer biological advantages.”

Jerome H. Barkow is a Canadian anthropologist at Dalhousie University who has made important contributions to the field of evolutionary psychology. He received a B.A. in Psychology from Brooklyn College in 1964 and a Ph.D. in Human Development from the University of Chicago in 1970.  He has conducted field research in West Africa, Nova Scotia, and Indonesia, and is currently collaborating on an analysis of mass media and gossip from an evolutionary perspective.  He is Professor of Social Anthropology at Dalhousie University and a Distinguished International Fellow at the Institute of Cognition and Culture, Queen’s University Belfast (Northern Ireland).

Professor Barkow has research and teaching interests in evolution and human nature and in the anthropologies of food and of health.  The connecting theme of his publications is that our evolved psychology underlies human society and culture.  Barkow has published on topics ranging from sex workers in Nigeria to the kinds of sentients SETI might find.  He is best known as the author of Darwin, Sex, and Status: Biological Approaches to Mind and Culture (1989). In 1992, together with Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, Barkow edited the influential book The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture.  In 2006, he edited Missing the Revolution: Darwinism for Social Scientists.

In his article “The Elastic Between Genes and Culture” he argues that a society’s culture may come to include information tending to lead to fitness-reducing behavior on the part of some or all of its members.  This phenomenon results from conflict among factions within each society, from transmitted misinformation (e.g., cupping restores health), from natural and human-caused environmental change so that previously adaptive information becomes maladaptive, and from the long and short-term negative “side effects” of information that may otherwise be fitness enhancing.  Because some cultural information may be fitness reducing, we apparently have been selected for individual-level traits that often result in our revising socially transmitted information that might otherwise have maladaptive consequences.  Two examples of such traits are adolescent “rebelliousness” and the tendency to learn most readily from those higher than ourselves in status.  Such leading-to-culture-revision traits are very imperfect mechanisms, however, so that some likely-to-be maladaptive cultural information, such as medical cupping or denying infants the colostrum, remains part of the culture.  It is doubtful, given the structure of modern human populations and the ubiquity of culture change, that such maladaptive socially transmitted information leads to natural selection for genetic “direct biases” against accepting the practices in question.

The Hunting Handicap: Costly Signaling in Human Foraging Strategies, by Rebecca Bird, Eric Smith, and Douglas Bird

In this article, the authors use a study conducted on the small island of Mer to support their theory of genetics as controlling human behavior — specifically the act of turtle hunting. As described by the authors, men who participated in turtle hunting (either as individuals or in hunting parties) stood to gain something more than what can be acquired nutritionally. According to Optimal Foraging Theory (OFT), human foragers pick food that results in maximum gain for minimal input. As this is not the case in turtle hunting, the authors argue that men use hunting as a way of signaling something significant to other members of the group, thereby making up for the extra energy expended on a less calorically efficient activity. As a result of surveys conducted on the island, the authors found that men who killed more turtles than others were recognized as better hunters, which may mean that they were held in higher esteem and possibly more attractive to the women on the island, thus making it more likely that they will be able to pass along their genes. The question is, can all of this be attributed to genetics? Is all just a result of the basic urge to pass along genes to future generations?

Ethnoscience and Cognitive Anthropology

Harold Conklin

Harold C. Conklin used Sapir and Whorf Hypothesis that has to do with the relationship of language and thought. And together they came up with this idea that language not just a tool for communication but rather it a way they communicate base on the their perception of the world. So back to Conklin studies in Hanunoo, and use of color, is his way of proving weather Sapir and Whorf Hypothesis is true or not. In the study, they interviewed students about colors and relate back the how those color associate with thing that exist in their daily life or what it is they use to associate them with. Conklin came up with two levels of color distinctions that the people used in Hanunoo. Level one has to do with opposition between light and dark, then there was the opposition between dryness(desiccation) and wetness(freshness) that exist among the living component of the living environment. Then he had a third opposition that has to do with “colorless substance”, often associate with manufacture goods. Level II require more specification then level I. Level II will further explain the detail of level one color. Then there are different vocabulary or usage in the language base on who using it, men language can and will differ from women in Hanunoo.

In result Conklin determine that “what appear to be colot ‘confusion’ at first may result from an inadequate knowledge of the internal structure of color system and from a failure to distinguish sharply between sensory and from a failure to distinguish sharply between sensory reception on the one hand perceptual categorization on the other.” (Conklin 1926)

Stephen A. Tyler (can you guess which one?)

Previous theoretical orientation of Anthropology can be very general that are divided into two different type; One concerns with changes and development and those concerned with static description. Which they mere their experience on “speculative History” that conform base within the caparison system. This would only be a matter of time before a research formulates and defines the group, in particular way, and without the approval of a tribe by his definition of what he has to define them. As a result, many Anthropologists have become more and more particularistic rather than general and universal. Early attempt of ethnography was a way to discover ethnology fieldwork. Cognitive Anthropology is a way of studying base on the discovering how people organize and use their culture. Rather than focusing on the material he or she used, another way they approached it is based on the how an individual organizes the thought of men (human beings). So the question that they asked in doing cognitive approach is “what material phenomena are significant for the people of some culture; and how do they organize these phenomena?” There’re many ways that culture can be organize.

Personality and Culture

The theorists of the culture and personality school argue that culture creates personality patterns. One’s culture helps shape people’s emotions, thought behavior, values and norms that fit their surroundings.  Ruth Benedict focuses on the relationship between culture and individual personality and Mead describes the relationship between culture and human nature.

Question: Does personality create culture, or does culture create personality?

The Psychological types in the culture of the southwest

Ruth Benedict “attempts to demonstrate the difference between the ritual practice of the pueblo people and the other tribes around them in the article, “psychological types in culture of the southwest”.  She categorizes the characteristics into two terms, Dionysian and Apollonian. She obtains these categories from the German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. In his work, he compares the contrast between the two Greek gods by the name of Dionysus and Apollo. These characters represent the two central principles in Greek culture.

Benedict defines the two categories and affirms that the differences between them are the “way of arriving at the value of existence. The Dionysian pursues them through “the annihilation of the ordinary bounds and limits” (p. 201). These emotions can be emotion closely relate to drunkenness, self control or danger. The Apollonian is the opposite of this; they prefer the arrival to existence in a more controlled orderly manner.

Benedict uses these two points of views and applies it to the pueblo people and the other tribes in the area. She applies this to the ritual behavior that is done by the tribes. She notices that the Pueblo people are the only ones that live in sobriety; they do not produce alcohol, nor practice self-induced trance. The Pueblo people would be consider the Apollonian in this cast. Actually doing such things would be considered Dionysus behavior. (NOTE:  In later evidence it is seen that Benedicts claim that the Pueblo people don’t indulge in “Dionysian behavior” was disproven. Smith and Roberts go to say that the most common crime in Zuni is drunkenness (p.202).

Introduction of coming of age in Samoa

Margret Mead was interested in the effect of early childhood influences on adult personality and behavior. Her investigations centered on the interplay of biological and cultural factors, based on Freud’s notion that childrearing practices had profound effects on adult personality. Her attempts to separate the biological and cultural factors that control human behavior and personality development led to establishing the cultural configuration and national character approaches in American anthropology. (197)

Due to her academic relationship studying with Boas. He influenced her to answer the debate of whether adolescence was a universally traumatic and stressful time due to biological factors or whether the experience of adolescence depended on one’s cultural upbringing. She chose to specifically study female adolescences in Samoa and based her study on 68 girls in three villages of Ta’u island. In her findings, Mead reported that adolescence was not a stressful time, compared with the expectation of adolescent “stress” in Western societies. She attributed this difference to cultural factors. She argued that, living in a small culture where people shared a similar value system, Samoan adolescent girls did not face numerous conflicting personal choices and demands. (214) This conclusion was based on the observations that Samoan cultural patterns were very different from those in the United States.

The Never ending Nature verses Nurture debate: To what extent are human personality and behavior the products of biological factors and to what extent are they products of cultural forces?

Personality Types 

Personality types always seems to interest people.  The following link is a test that can tell you which type you are:


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