Symbolic (Interpretative) Anthropology

Symbolic or interpretative anthropology is a broad approach that arose in the late 1960s with the work of authors like Victor Turner, David Schneider, and Clifford Geertz, all of them worked simultaneously at the University of Chicago around 1970. The two names for this approach stem from the theoretical and methodical position that states that anthropologists should focus on interpreting cultures understood as complex webs of symbols and meanings. Symbolic anthropology was influenced by Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism, as it also treats culture as language, but departed from structuralism in its refusal to use scientific methodology and rejection of Lévi-Strauss’s deep structure of symbols that are innate for all humans and cultures. Symbolic anthropology also built on the American anthropological tradition of Boas' cultural particularism and the culture and personality approach of Ruth Benedict. Symbolic anthropology was the most popular in the US but also had followers in some European countries.

Victor Turner (1920–1983) was born in Great Britain and studied anthropology at Manchester University under anthropologist Max Gluckman. He is most famous for his ethnographic fieldwork with the Ndembu people, a Bantu population in Zambia, and several books written based on that research. The first of those books is Schism and Continuity in an African Society: A Study of a Ndembu Village (1957). In this book, Turner focuses on the contradictions in Ndembu society, especially marriage instability. The matrilineal account of kinship was at odds with the virilocal residence. Turner’s research of genealogical data revealed regular divisions of villages that were counterbalanced with rituals as a source of solidarity and inter-village cohesion.

Turner wrote several books on symbolism and rituals in Ndembu people - Ndembu Divination: Its Symbolism and Techniques (1961), The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual (1967), The Drums of Affliction: A Study of Religious Processes among the Ndembu of Zambia (1968), and The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (1969). The most influential area of study was his analysis of rites of passage and time intervals known as “liminal periods”. The liminal periods, which Turner also calls „anti-structure“,  are periods where the transition from two socially structured states happens. The book Dramas, Fields and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (1974) further explores how rituals and symbolic thought create socially beneficial outcomes.

David M. Schneider (1918–1995) did fieldwork for his doctoral thesis on the Pacific island of Yap, and that thesis was published as Kinship and Village Organization of Yap, West Caroline Islands, Micronesia: A Structural and Functional Account (1953).  Schneider co-edited Kluckhohn and H. Murry's Personality in Nature, Society and Culture (1953). Schneider worked with G. C. Homans and they published Marriage, Authority and Final Causes (1955), a book on the American kinship system. In his American Kinship: A Cultural Account (1968), he further examines the American system of kinship. In this book Schneider states that the cultural system is an autonomous “system of symbols”, but not all symbols are equal because some symbols are central to the culture and everything else depends on them. In American kinship love, sexual relations, and blood are those central symbols or categories that are the basis for the ideological construction of kinship.   

Clifford Geertz, (born 1926-2006) reinterpreted Weber’s concept of Verstehen as “webs of significance in which individuals are caught”. Geertz spent the 1950is doing fieldwork in different parts of Indonesia. In 1960, he published The Religion of Java. Geertz is most famous for the book, The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) which represented a collection of essays in interpretative anthropology. In this book, he champions the concept of „thick description“, which focuses on the „emic“ significance of social action. Every culture is unique and that should be presented to the reader. In the essay on religion Geertz, based on his research of symbolism and the ecstatic psychic state that people go through in religious rituals, comes to his definition of religion. Religion is “(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic“.

Other notable members of symbolic (interpretative) anthropology are: Marshall Sahlins (his later writings), Sherry Ortner, Renato Rosaldo, and Mary Douglas.



Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger (1966);

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures (1973);

     -     Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (1983);

Ortner, Sherry. Sherpas Through their Rituals (1978);

     -     On Key Symbols (1973);

Rosaldo, Renato. Ilongot Headhunting, 18831974 (1980);

Sahlins, Marshall. Culture and Practical Reason (1976);

     -     Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities: Structure in the Early History of the Sandwich Islands (1981);

Schneider, D. (1980 [1968]) American Kinship: A Cultural Account, 2nd edn,

Sperber, David. Rethinking Symbolism (1975);

Turner, Victor. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual (1967);

     -     The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (1969);

     -     Dramas, Fields and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (1974);

     -     The Drums of Affliction: A Study of Religious Processes among the Ndembu of Zambia (1968).


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