Symbolic/Interpretive Anthropology

Symbolic/Interpretive Anthropology always seems to find its way into current discussions of anthropology.  Is it a post-modern thing?  The following classics, particularly the Cockfight article, are great illustrations on the genre.

-Mary Douglas, External Boundaries (1966)
-Victor Turner, Symbols in Ndembu Ritual (1967)
-Clifford Geertz, Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight (1973)

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  • Jessica  On April 30, 2009 at 7:31 am

    When Clifford Geertz first entered his subjects’ village, they did not acknowledge his presence. They looked past him if he talked to them. When cornered, they would give a minimal response. Durind this uncomfrotable stage, Clifford and his wife decided to watch a cockfight. Cockfighting was illegal, but the townspeople thought they could get away with it. They hadn’t had a cockfight in a long time and they obtained the appropriate bribes. It was a fundraiser for the local school, and they thought the government might feel guilty for not providing the neccessary funds. The villagers were wrong. During the event,a truck full a policemen pulled in, armed with machine guns. Everyone ran, including Clifford and his wife. Looking for a place to hide, they entered the house of one of the men who attended the fight. His wife quickly set up a table and poured them cups of tea. The police came to his residence, and were surprised to find two white people inside. The man whose residence they entered spoke in their defense. He told the policeman that Clifford and his wife were anthropologists who were writing a book on Balinese culture. They had been cleared by the government and had a right to be there. He said the couple had been at his house the entire afternoon. Afterwards, the people of Bali teased Clifford. They wondered why he didn’t remain where he was standing and tell the police who he was. He could have pulled out his papers and asserted his Distinguished Visitor status. Clifford and his wife were finally accepted into the community. This led him to study cockfights, among other things. This story was crucial to Clifford’s analysis. It was a chance occurence that placed him in a better position to make observations. A decade later, postmodernists described how they arrrived at their insights. They were influenced by Clifford Geertz in other ways. He didn’t view society as an organism. Instead, he saw it as an intersection of competing views and interests. He also used textual analysis in his arguement, something postmodernists did. His work was foundational to the postmodernist movement.

  • Josh AKA "Marky Mark"  On April 30, 2009 at 9:24 am

    I agree with Jessica, and Clifford Geertz for that matter. I also think that not only are societies themselves intersections of competing views and interests, but then the world as a whole is just societies meeting at intersections and competing with their views and interests. Once we discover intelligent stellar life, it will just be planetary societies meeting at intersections of competing views and interests. (Notice i say, “Once we discover…” not if we discover). If you want to know more, I have meetings in my tent in the backyard, Friday nights at 11:00 pm.

  • Merrily  On April 30, 2009 at 9:56 am

    The gutteral moments of abject animal brutality, moving from once sentimental and beautiful pampering of the cocks; to the carnal desires of blood lust and money greed over betting on the death of the innocent creature…how simultaneously base and sophisticated, this working of the collective social psychic as it becomes something different than we originally perceive it to be!

    How similiar it is in context to modern baby beauty shows, when a mother and father pamper and coddle an innocent child, cloth it in finery and push it unsuspectingly onto a stage to compete with other children, beauty for beauty’s sake! It is the initial ramifications of vicious competition solely for the sake of looks and movement and represents a sum total of human perfection, at least in the minds of the parents and in the assumptions of the judges. How similar to a cock fight is this!

    Or compare a cock fight to a modern “kickboxing championship” or to a game of puck/hockey or a game of football or basketball….when the coach chews out his loosing team or the owner cusses out his players…is similar in context to a cock handler or owner ripping apart his dead bird and taking it home to eat it or give it up to the winner to lust over in a cannibal style.

    The game may be different, but the nature of the beast is still in existance!

    The Balinese use cocks to fight symbolically in stead of their male aggression and use the winnings to earn money.

    While American people use men to fight symbolically in stead of their male aggression and use the plunders of wars and sports games to perpetuate economy and superiority and power.

    Our tools may be different, but we people are no different from one another! And we begin learning these techniques of survival where ever we are the moment we are spit from the womb.

    Curls, combs, and cocks all spur us to actions and if we work really hard to focus it outside of ourselves or outside of our society we can lift a pointy finger at the OTHER!

    Balinese men did not fight among themselves because their aggression was all displaced through the mechanisms of the cocks and the cock fighting. However Americans do not have a beast of burden for their temperament. They are too civilized supposedly to fight animals, that is animal cruelty, however they use people, each other for this and they use their own children and then they deny all evidence of the game!

    My question about the behavior that I feel unanswered by the Balinese men, is “why were the women never jealous of the cocks?” By Geertz description of the care given to the cocks, they were treated much better than the wives of the men. Yet the strongest sentiment ruled in favor of the men pampering their cocks and not pampering their women…where did their jealousy go?

  • Kathryne J  On April 30, 2009 at 10:19 am

    I liked your final question, Merrily. “Why were the women never jealous of the cocks?” Of my personal opinion, I think that the women were just happy that the men had something to keep them occupied. I know my mom might get jealous of my dad’s motorcycle when he spends 4 hours waxing and buffing it, but my mom sure enjoys the quiet time. It’s something that channels all of their stress and keeps it from coming back to you. Men need hobbies, point blank. They might be different because they usually show a lot of affection for their hobbies, but they’re just as obsessed with hobbies as women. I just compared cocks to motorcycles.

    Douglas talked about a lot of the common misconceptions of physical gender jealousy, like the cutting of a male’s genitals so that it bleeds like a woman’s. She criticizes Bettelheim a bit for his notions on sex envy. She argues that Bettelheim simply made a coincidental observance that poorly interpreted the ritual.

  • Joy  On April 30, 2009 at 10:20 am

    Oh man, Josh. That was great and I bet you wrote that with a straight face.

    Other than meeting with extraterrestrial beings, of which meetings I have no knowledge, I think that Geertz and Symbolical Anthropology throw a very human (almost irrational) view into Anthropology. It seems to me almost a Psychoanalysis for culture, instead of for an individual. I must say though, that the idea that culture is more (or at least different) than the sum of the individual Psyches it arises from is very attractive indeed. This seems to be a more intuitive manner of observing and analyzing cultures, in opposition to the more dry and controlled materialistic views. This seems to be reflected in the relation of this Symbolic/Interpretive Anthropology to literature, whereas the more materialistic Anthropology views were seeking the ability to replicate findings and objective observations as the ‘hard’ sciences also seek. I think this is a dichotomy that is often made, but I question the necessity of such a break. In a way this chapter of Anthropological documents almost reintroduces the human side of Anthropology. I like it, even though the findings may not be falsifiable or replicable. To hell with Popper!

  • Daniel  On April 30, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    The reason that i believe that the women are not jealous of the cocks, is because they know the role that the cocks play in their society. In every society men and women and animals all have their own role. The women in Bahli do not feel the need to be jealous of the cocks because they understand the cocks’ role in the lives of their men. They are used simply as a hobby or something to help the men unwind. If the women did eventually grow jealous of the cocks, im sure that a couple of ruthless life or death bouts between them would quickly change their mind.

  • Selena Farnesi  On April 30, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    So I was doing some reading on Symbolic Anthropology and I came upon a confusing definition. “The theoretical school of Symbolic Anthropology assumes that culture does not exist beyond individuals. Rather, culture lies in individuals’ interpretations of events and things around them. With a reference to socially established signs and symbols.” It continued to say that, “The Symbolic Anthropologists view culture as a mental phenomenon and reject the idea that culture can be modeled like mathematics or logic.”

    Here is where I am confused?

    I always thought symbols were culturally constructed; we design them to mean and represent certain things and then expect society to understand that. For instance the hidden owl in the dollar bill represents fiscal intelligence, and the eagle facing 13 olives of peace while also holding 13 arrows of war means we prefer to act diplomatically but will defend our people as country. The unfinished pyramid represents each cultures contribution to society…

    I didn’t look at a dollar bill and make these things up; they’ve been handed down like a tradition. So can we really argue that my interpretation of these symbols wasn’t modeled like math or logic? I think it was.

    I guess the question is what came first… the symbol, or its meaning?

  • Mark  On April 30, 2009 at 4:53 pm

    To be quite frank, I have no clue if Symbolic Anthro is post-modernist or not. I tried looking up the definition for Post-Mod on wiki and just sat there for a moment thinking, “I really don’t want to read this…really, really don’t.”
    So I didn’t. Hence why I don’t know 😀

    But, to respond to Selana’s statement, I would have to argue that the symbol came before the meaning. Of course one can define peace before defining a symbol that represents peace is possible, but in specific instances used Douglas of spit or blood being represential as dirty that understanding of these objects being “dirty” had to come before the definition.
    To clarify this point further. I do not state that they preceded the entire definition of dirty. I simply state that the symbold preceded the defition of dirty as it is in application to the object in question. Since stating that blood can be dirty, has a very distinct connotation that differs from stating that “my computer screen is dirty.” Both use the same description, but with different values attributed to it, the word takes on different meaning.
    The only way for a eagle to represent “freedom” or “magisty” in the way it does in American culture couldn’t have come before the symbol was defined as being representative of “freedom” or “magisty”. Freedom, as attributed to the eagle, takes on a very specific meaning in sole application to that icon. It doesn’t deviate from its base definition however, but the “feelings” attached to it do.

    So, yea. With all that, I find it hard to state that the meaning of a symbol was derived before the symbol itself.

  • KateK  On April 30, 2009 at 5:08 pm

    I agree with Mark. I believe that the symbol did come before the meaning behind it. Whether Smypolic Anthro is Post-mod or not I’m still sketchy. I’m still fuzzy on the definition of Post-Mod.

    Anyway, I’m an archaeologist and I tend to be more of an Materialist and Functionalist when it comes to anaylazing cultures. I believe that the material culture becomes significant through the culture and then becomes a symbol of that culture. However I do believe that there are some practices that in some cultures that are purely symbolic but have to do with the culture and the needs (either spiritual, moral, physical, etc.) of that culture.

    PS I’m not feeling good and I’m not going to be in class today!

  • CorTney Parson  On April 27, 2010 at 11:40 am

    I agree with Selena that symbols are and always have been culturally structured. I therefore agree with Geertz interpretation of of Symbolic Anthropology that culture is an organized system of symbols athat originates within the culture.

    The issue of symbolic anthro being post modern or not is quite difficult to determine because no exact dates were given and most of the ideas and interpretations that were given on symbolic anthropology varied from one scientist to the other.

    Overall i still think symbols are used amongst cultures as a means of non verbal communication and vary from one culture to the next.

  • Megan Scholl  On April 27, 2010 at 7:41 pm

    I found something really interesting in Geertz’s article on the cockfights. In it he says “The Balinese revulsion against any behavior regarded as animal-like can hardly be overstressed. Babies are not allowed to crawl for that reason.”

    I was shocked! Crawling is a huge developmental thing that happens in a baby’s life. They have to crawl before they can walk. Not only does it build their muscles but they also learn to move around in that way. How can the Balinese not allow their babies to crawl? It’s too weird! I’d like to see the life of a growing baby that isn’t allowed to crawl. Do they develop more slowly in their cognitive skills? Do they learn to walk at a delayed age compared to American babies?

    And it’s somewhat funny that the Balinese don’t like anything “animal-like” in human behavior. Are they forgetting that humans are animals, too? Sure, we’ve evolved a hell of a lot more than a dog or even a gorilla, but in the end, we’re still animals. (And, as far as I know, animals don’t crawl before they’re able to walk–they walk soon after they’re born! No crawling there.)

  • Jason McClung  On April 28, 2010 at 7:43 am


    I think it’s less of a developmental retardation so much as an attempt at a clearer separation of human vs. other. Think along the lines of a high-class matron not watching The Price is Right because she wants to separate herself from the common folk; it may have a logic to it, but it’s nowhere near true to anything fundamental.

    I’m curious to see what we come up with in class today. These articles feel outside the box, but are incredibly intuitive; just think of some of the more powerful symbols were employ in our culture (the flag, motherhood, bank accounts) and you get a massively diverse range of the human experience.

    – Jason

  • charon193  On April 28, 2010 at 8:29 am

    I have no idea as to whether symbolic anthropology is post-modern or not. Like Courtney said, the meaning of a symbol varies from one scientist to the next, or even from person to person. I personally wonder if there is a reason for why some people interpret symbols in a certain way. Is it just a cultural thing or is it due to a similar upbringing or belief? Is there even a reason for believing a certian interpretation? For example, many cultures past and present have stories about dragons, and I don’t mean Komodo Dragons either. During the Middle Ages in Europe, dragons were portrayed as evil, man-eating monsters while in countries like China and Japan, they were portrayed as wise and benevolent, with the exception of a few evil dragons such as the eight headed one in the Japanese legends of Susano-o. Today, while dragons are considered fictional, they are often portrayed in these same views in a single community, though they are even more often portrayed as a mix of good and evil. If you look at movies like “How to Train your Dragon”, “Sleeping Beauty”, and books like Anne McCathery’s Dragonriders series, you get an idea of how diverse these opinions and the interpretations of dragons as a symbol can be. Is it still a cultural thing, or does the change in dragon symbolism represent a change in society today? Of course, the different views and interpretations of symbols can help create new questions for anthropologist to investigate, so I guess whether symbolic anthropology is post-modern or not is a moot point.

  • Patrick Stumpf  On April 29, 2010 at 10:15 pm

    I can see post-modernism within symbolic Anthropology. Post-modernism fowns upon western logic and explaniations (i.e. science) being used to evaluate other cultures. Therefore, I believe that post-modernism would not agree with Megan. A post-modernist would argue that science is simply a cultural perspective and that not allowing babies to crawl is only appalling to us because of this perspective.

  • Audra  On April 29, 2010 at 10:23 pm

    Interesting enough, it does not affect their walking capability. Even though they are not allowed to crawl, babies were naturally still use their legs. They will kick their legs and they cannot keep them from not crawling completely.

    That question was brought up about Native American children. Someone had said something that Native American children had trouble walking. I was not sure where they got this idea from but the only thing I could relate it to is cradleboard. Some Native American used these cradleboards to carry their infants. However, it did not cause them to not learn how to crawl or later walk.

    I know it might seem weird to us but that is because that is not in our culture. There are several cultures who do not want to resemble animals at all. I do not find this culture as ‘odd’ it is just their culture.

    And sense all Balinese seem to be able to walk just fine, I sincerely doubt it has an affect on walking.

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