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Chapter 13: Symbols, Structures, and the “Web of Significance” © 2014 Mark Moberg
Idealism: human behavior is governed by beliefs, meanings, and values that are often independent of the material conditions of life. French structuralism: according to Claude Lévi-Strauss, culture arises from the structure of the human mind, which creates binary oppositions: i.e. the mind is structured to think in terms of opposites. Cultural practices (kinship systems, ritual, mythology, and even cuisine) can be “de-coded” to reveal these underlying oppositions. L-S identifies a number of universal contrasts found in all cultures: sacred–profane, man–woman, self–other, and most importantly nature–culture. Sherri Ortner developed a structural analysis of what she called the “universal” subordination of women to men. She argued that women’s consignment to reproduction and the home reflects their affinity for “nature,” while men’s command of technology and commerce aligns them with “culture.” (Note the arbitrariness of this classification: one could argue that since women socialize babies into culture-bearing adults that their affinity lies with “culture.” In his analysis of media advertising, Ingersoll inverts Ortner’s formulation, equating the world outside the home with “nature” and the home itself with “culture”.) © 2014 Mark Moberg
Symbolic anthropology: Clifford Geertz and Victor Turner were among the first to challenge the materialist trends of the 1960s–1980s. They contended that anthropologists who relegate meaning to “superstructure” fail to appreciate the powerful motive force of symbols in daily life. What Harris might describe as an “etic behavioral act”—the smudging of a cross on one’s forehead at Ash Wednesday—cannot help us understand why this simple gesture may cause a believer to dissolve in tears. The ash represents in concise form the central aspects of Christian experience: sin, redemption, death, and resurrection. Geertz argued that the goal of anthropological writing should be “thick description,” consisting of highly detailed, novelistic descriptions of individual scenes of action. This brings the reader into greater appreciation of how symbols provide guideposts for action, and represents a complete break from anthropological conventions emphasizing detachment and 3rd-person narration. Given that such accounts may be second- or even third-order interpretations, materialists are troubled by symbolic anthropology’s disregard of replicability: whose “textual analysis” of culture is correct, and moreover, whose text is left out of the account? William Roseberry argued that Geertz’ famous analysis of the Balinese cockfight omitted the experience of village women—who were relegated to the outskirts of the match—as well as a rising tide of political conflict that would soon emerge in a brutal military coup. Like most materialists, Roseberry is troubled by the fact that symbolic anthropology produces interpretations of culture that cannot be verified, observing that there is a critical difference between documenting peoples’ lives and interpreting literary texts. © 2014 Mark Moberg
Ethnoscience: ethnoscience was developed by a number of American anthropologists in the 1950s and 1960s out of frustration with the unsystematic way anthropological data were gathered. Rather than imposing western cultural categories on ethnographic data, ethnoscientists sought to render descriptions that employed the mental categories of native informants. This perspective was heavily influenced by the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, which contended that perceptions of reality are contingent on the language used to describe the world. Ethnoscience focuses on the terms used by native speakers for a particular semantic domain (i.e. any realm of perception for which members of a culture have a working terminology, such as kinship terms, plants, colors, parts of the body, diseases, etc.). Terms are then elicited to produce a taxonomy that presumably reflects how native speakers view that domain. Although ethnoscience promised a systematic method for identifying a given culture’s emic view of reality, its practitioners soon realized that its assumptions of cultural consensus were unrealistic: i.e. two or more informants from the same culture may generate taxonomies that do not coincide. As later postmodernists claimed, our knowledge and perceptions are heavily influenced by our identity and social position, which may well be why interest in ethnoscience waned with the postmodern turn. © 2014 Mark Moberg
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