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, people shape the patterns of their behaviors and give meanings to their experiences. Therefore, the goal of Symbolic Anthropology is to analyze how people give meanings to their reality and how this reality is expressed by their cultural symbols.
Symbolic Anthropology emerged in the 1960s and is still influential. Symbolic Anthropology does not follow the model of physical sciences, which focus on empirical material phenomena, but is literary-based. This does not mean that symbolic anthropologists do not conduct fieldwork. It refers to the practice of drawing on non-anthropological literature. The Symbolic Anthropologists view culture as a mental phenomenon and reject the idea that culture can be modeled like mathematics or logic. When they study symbolic action in cultures, they use a variety of analytical tools from psychology, history, and literature. This method has been criticized for a lack of objective method. In other words, this method seems to allow analysts to see meaning wherever and however they wish. In spite of this criticism, Symbolic Anthropology has forced anthropologists to become aware of cultural texts they interpret and of ethnographic texts they create. In order to work as intercultural translators, anthropologists need to be aware of their own cultural basis as well as other cultures they research.
An important contribution of symbolic anthropologists, specifically Geertz, is the “thick description,” which is an interpretation of what the natives are thinking made by an outsider who cannot think like a native. The classic example of thick description is the difference between a wink and a blink. A blink is an involuntary twitch (thin description) while a wink is a conspiratorial signal to another person (thick description). The physical movements are identical, but the meaning is different. The major accomplishment of symbolic anthropology has been to turn anthropology towards issues of culture and interpretation rather then grand theories.
Clifford Geertz (1926-Present, The United States)
Clifford Geertz is credited as one of the principal Symbolic Anthropologists. He researched and examined the meaning of cultural behaviors by his interpretations. Geertz viewed culture as an organized collection of symbolic system. He saw people’s cultural behaviors based on these signs and symbols. With a reference to socially established signs and symbols, people shape the patterns of their behaviors and give meanings to their experiences. In other words, people rely on meanings in order to sustain their social life. According to Geertz, “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs.” (1973:5)
Geertz believed that each culture is unique and refused to seek universal laws among different cultures. Therefore the task of anthropology is to figure out signs and symbols in a specific society and to sort them out according to their significance. This method requires anthropologists to read meanings not only as the native people do but also beyond that level. The goal of this method is to determine the patterns of meanings in the society and make people’s behaviors interpretable to outsiders. This method implies that anthropologists are intercultural translators who use ethnography to convey the meanings of different cultures.
Victor Turner (Britain- The United States, 1920-1983)
Victor Turner is one of the symbolic anthropologists, who examine how people give meanings to their reality and how this reality is expressed by their cultural symbols. Turner mainly studied rituals in non-western societies and looked at the roles of the symbols in specific social situations. He believed that people in a particular society have their own symbolic system to make sense of their lives. He analyzed rituals and demonstrated the symbolic meanings that derived from social contexts. What mattered to Turner was not the symbols themselves, but the roles of the symbols in specific social situationsTurner considered symbols as mechanisms for the maintenance of societies. He argued social solidarity needs to be continually reinforced and ritual symbols play important roles by keeping social orders. He believed that anthropologists are neutral observer and therefore, they can interpret customs of other cultures. He concluded that the following three kinds of information are all legitimate for symbolic analysis: observed data, informants’ interpretations, and anthropologists’ analysis.