Category Archives: 12 – Symbolic-Interpretive

The Interpretive Turn

Clifford Geertz is very well known in the area of interpretive/symbolic anthropology.

Geertz has many quotes linked to him. This is likely his most quoted:

“Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun,”….“I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretative one in search of meaning. It is explication I am after, construing social expression on their surface enigmatical.”

Also, Geertz’ two most read/cited articles are the following:

-Clifford Geertz, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” (1973) 

-Clifford Geertz, Thick Description: Towards a Theory of Culture (1973) 

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

-Mary Douglas, External Boundaries (1966)

-Victor Turner, Symbols in Ndembu Ritual (1967)

See more here


Is anthropology:
an experimental science in search of law
an interpretative “science” in search of meaning?

Laura & Selena pose the following:
Q1: Geertz says at one point that the function of the cockfight is interpretive… Would this also make him a functionalist? Why or why not?
Q2: And what does he mean when he writes:
“For it only apparently cocks that are fighting there. Actually, it is men.”
Why was it that cock fights were so important to his study of the Balinese culture?

quotes to ponder; ponderous quotes?

“operators in the social process, things that, when put together in certain arrangements in certain contexts, produce essentially social transformations.”

Who wrote this?

more importantly, for this subject, What would you be able to interpret from the quote?


1. If you have 7. something billion people on the rock called Earth, are there going to be 7 billion different interpretations of culture?

2.Mary Douglas, Victor Turner, and Clifford Geertz all have different interpretations on symbolism from each other. Would other anthropologists have different interpretation on symbolism and each other’s work? Why?

3. Give an example of a symbolic interpretation that differs between your own personal view and how others will perceive it. Explain why.

Example: You see a cop rolling in a your neighborhood. Some people may see it as a problem because they are afraid to get in trouble and others may feel safe when the police are present.

Symbolic and Interpretive Anthropology

Symbolic and Interpretive Anthropology Summary

            To summarize the week’s reading on symbolic and interpretive anthropology, I believed it would have been important to include a short description of the fore mentioned subject. Defining the subject as a methodology to studying symbols or symbolic actions; a field of study that takes an interpretive perspective to cultures using psychology, history, and literature rather than the use of mathematics and logic. However, since the field of study does not use logistics per say on cultural studies, it has been the duty of the anthropologist to interpret their studies that could be understood to their peers and colleagues. Thusly the subject is up to criticism because it is only up to the skill of literary interpretation that the anthropologist has in order to display their studies. Since that explanation is complete I will transition to the first reading that focuses on Mary Douglas.

To start the new topic, will be a short biography about Mary Douglas. Born in 1921 and passed away in 2007, Mary Douglas was a social anthropologist. She went to school at the University of Oxford in the years of 1939-1943. She later went to school in the early 1950’s to receive her doctorate. She later went on to teach at the University of England for 25 years. Her work Purity and Danger is well known and also featured in the book.

Mary Douglas focused on symbolic actions of purity that was associated with the human body. She sought to find universal patterns of such purity and used two examples to prove her theory in her chapter of External Boundaries. The first example is the Coorgs fear of impurities, and their fear of anything that has left the body and reenters is repulsive, Douglas shares a myth about their fears. The second example focuses on the Caste system, of the idea as the Coorgs, anything that leaves the body is repulsive, and thus the lowest members of the caste society are tasked to clean up the human impurities, such as poop. The symbolic natures of impurities create a sense of reality to culture.

Victor Turner born in 1920 and died in 1983. Attended University College of London in 1938-1941 for English and Literature. He went back to school to receive a B.A. in Anthropology; hence he was trained with British structural functionalism.

Turner’s work was based on how symbols are used to create a social action. He uses the Ndembu tribe and their symbol of the Mudyi tree to represent his ideas of how a symbol can create social transformations. The Mudyi tree is viewed as a motherly figure to the tribe, as such a figure, girls who are about to embark on the journey to be a mother are placed under the tree. This rite of passage is shared amongst women and young girls. This represents a linkage in their society however it separates the women from the men because the tree is more towards women of the society.

Clifford Geertz was born August 23, 1926 and died on October 30, 2006. He joined the US navy prior to receiving his degree in Philosophy. He earned his degree in Antioch College in 1950 and after went to Harvard University as a student in Social Relations. His first wife Hildred Geertz trained him as an anthropologist. He taught at many schools before becoming a faculty in the Department of Anthropology in University of Chicago. Here, Geertz started to expand his research on culture anthropology on cultures such as Java and Bali to name a few examples. In his Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight, he talked about how the culture interprets symbolic meaning with cockfights. Geertz believed that “symbols operate as vehicles of culture.” He uses the cockfights in Bali as an example because cockfights in their culture symbolisms a lifestyle. It is compared to the men of Bali and who he is as a person. They are compared to their cocks and their cocks represent them.

Slides on the Subjsect

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.

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)