In its simplest definition, a symbol is a thing or action that represents another thing or action, and anthropologists agree that symboling is the unique cognitive capacity that allows advanced primates to have culture and to communicate their cultural concepts. Although they are used as synonyms, as verbs “symbolize” and “symbol” differ: to symbolize means to use existing concepts as symbols, and some higher nonhuman primates demonstrate this ability. To symbol means to symbolize, but also to create new symbols, a capacity of people but not yet convincingly shown to exist in apes and monkeys. In its most general usage, as representation and embodiment of meaning, and by the recognition that many cultural symbols are unintelligible separate from their cultural contexts, in the late 20th century the symbol became the focus of a specific field of anthropology: symbolic anthropology.
The term symbol is used popularly as synonymous with any of a variety of simpler forms of representation, for example, a sign, icon, or emblem. In fact, the symbol can do all that those forms can do, but it can do more: it not only represents, stands for, a thing or action; conceptually, the symbol can take on certain properties of its referent, and thereby it can stand in for, take the place of, the thing it represents. The symbol can be complex, embodying different levels of meaning, and even quite different realms of meaning, and displaying the quality sometimes known as “multivocality.” The symbol can convey different meanings simultaneously, within the same communicative context, or in different contexts.
Also, the symbol may or may not bear any resemblance to, or have any intrinsic association with, its referent. This becomes clear when we understand that words are symbols. The concept of abstract speech and thought is of the same order as symboling. Leslie White’s famous 1949 example of holy water (in The Science of Culture) illustrates the capacity, and complexity, of symbolic meaning. The unique capabilities of human culture are perhaps best demonstrated through religious ideas, and these semantic capabilities of the symbol are at the very core of religion. Raymond Firth observed in his 1973 work, Symbols, Public and Private, that “the relation [of the symbol to its referent] is such that the symbol by itself appears capable of generating and receiving effects otherwise reserved for the object to which it refers—and such effects are often of high emotional charge.” This illustrates the amazing strength of the symbol: the symbol can take on the very qualities of whatever it represents, and if its referent has power, then the symbol itself becomes powerful. The concept of powerful symbols is at the very core of religion, and is the means whereby magic is enacted. Religious symbols, such as the Christian cross, have power and are used protectively as amulets. Reproductive power is extremely strong, and objects representing the vulva, such as cowries, or the penis, such as horns, are ancient and widespread symbols of power. Some symbols transcend cultural boundaries and may be universal, such as eggs, horns, or the color red; most symbols are understandable only within their specific cultural/linguistic context.
Culture is recognized as a system of meaning, and each symbol is at once the locus and the vehicle of meaning. The social science focus on symbolism received strong stimulus by C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards’s The Meaning of Meaning, published in at least eight editions from 1923 through the 1940s. In the latter 20th century, a convergence of various influences— Freudian psychoanalysis, principles of linguistics, French structuralism, and the focus on symbolic meaning—gave rise to a new emphasis within cultural anthropology, the field of symbolic anthropology. Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis taught that certain unconscious drives and influences are revealed through the careful examination of certain conscious modelings and expressions, through his famous principles of displacement and condensation. Much of Freud’s reasoning has been dismissed, but he laid the foundation for recognition of basic cognitive dynamics and the nature and role of symbols in human consciousness. The study of linguistics expanded on understanding of the structure and processes of cognition; words embody meaning in culturally unique ways and, as explained by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, certain linguistic constructions can influence perception and human action. Linguistics provided the framework for a very painstaking mode of investigation into meaning, the field of ethnoscience, in the 1960s. Structuralism, particularly as expressed by Claude Lévi-Strauss, drew from certain principles of linguistics and semiotics—the study of signs—to reveal further patterns of cognition. Lévi-Strauss’ delineation of apparently universal cognitive dichotomies, such as culture/ nature, village/bush, east/west, right/left, sun/moon, male/female, sacred/profane, stimulated new and exciting ethnographic analyses of specific cultural, spatial, and cosmological constructions both within and beyond anthropology. And the recognition by certain anthropologists, notably Victor Turner and Sherry Ortner, of what Ortner called “key symbols” in culture helped to stimulate anthropology’s concentrated focus on symbolic meaning.
Symbolic anthropology became an American emphasis by the 1970s, though it had parallel emphases in Britain and Europe. Two of Turner’s works, The Forest of Symbols (1967) and The Ritual Process (1969) became classics. Turner came to focus on ritual as a stereotyped and formalized enactment of social drama, symbolic of many layers and complexes of meaning, “themes.” His concepts of the appositions of structure and “anti-structure” and his application of Arnold van Gennep’s notion of “liminal” states, were influential beyond anthropology. Clifford Geertz’ widely-cited essay, “Religion as a Cultural System” (1965) defines religion as “a system of symbols.” His concepts of “deep play” and “thick description” were also widely influential (it is interesting to note that outside of anthropology, Geertz’ use of the phrase “deep play” was misunderstood and has been variously applied and interpreted, including in terms of his “thick description,” as a phenomenon whose full meaning is revealed only after careful dissection of convoluted layers of meaning). Geertz was arguing that—contrary to earlier anthropological premises, especially the premises of ethnoscience—cultural meaning is not deep in people’s heads but is public, communicated, and expressed in symbols, and can be adequately interpreted by outsiders.
Symbolic anthropology as a separate field of emphasis was criticized for several reasons. By isolating and focusing on symbols, even symbolic complexes, it tended to lose sight of their relationship with other dimensions of culture, to homogenize differences within a culture, and to emphasize and even exaggerate them beyond their importance within their cultural contexts. Theorists with Marxist or other materialist bent complained that by emphasizing the conceptual, symbolic anthropology lost sight of the structural and the material, both of which are critical in explaining social conduct. And, it might be noted, for heuristic purposes anthropology breaks down various institutions of culture and regards them as lenses through which the cultural system may be viewed, and so we have social anthropology, ecological, economic, political, legal, religious, and so on, a theoretically endless string of anthropologies. It might be argued that symbolic anthropology probably could not last for long as a separately demarcated field because it is tautological; culture is symbols.
But symboling may again emerge as a central focus for anthropological study, prompted by the recognition of a likely biological basis for this universal human capacity. In his 1975 book Rethinking Symbolism, Dan Sperber had suggested that symbolism may be rooted in inherent aspects of human cognition. Such suggestions are being confirmed today by modern developments in neuroscience, which have indicated cortical bases for that very fundamental primate cognitive capacity: imitation. Experiments by Marco Iacoboni and his colleagues at UCLA have shown that specific areas of the human brain are involved in subjects’ imitation of actions, both when the stimuli are actions, and when they are symbolic representations of actions.
- Des Chene, M. (1996). Symbolic anthropology. In D. Levinson & M. Ember (Eds.), Encyclopedia of cultural anthropology (pp. 1274-1278). New York: Holt.
- Dolgin, J. L., Kemnitzer, D. S., & Schneider, D. M. (Eds.). (1977). Symbolic anthropology: A reader in the study of symbols and meanings. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Ogden, C. K., & Armstrong Richards, I. (1946). The meaning of meaning (8th ed.). New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.