Basic Premises 

The major focus of symbolic anthropology is studying the ways in which people understand and interpret their surroundings as well as the actions and utterances of the other members of their society. These interpretations form a shared cultural system of meaning, i.e., understandings shared, to varying degrees, among members of the same society. (Des Chene 1996:1274). Symbolic anthropology studies symbols and the processes (such as myth and ritual) by which humans assign meanings to these symbols in order to address fundamental questions about human social life (Spencer 1996:535). According to Geertz, man is in need of symbolic "sources of illumination" to orient himself with respect to the system of meaning that is any particular culture (1973a:45). This shows the interpretive approach to symbolic anthropology. Turner states that symbols instigate social action and are "determinable influences inclining persons and groups to action" (1967:36). This shows the symbolic approach to symbolic anthropology.

Symbolic anthropology views culture as an independent system of meaning deciphered by interpreting key symbols and rituals (Spencer 1996:535). There are two major premises governing symbolic anthropology. The first is that "beliefs, however unintelligible, become comprehensible when understood as part of a cultural system of meaning" (Des Chene 1996:1274). The second major premise is that actions are guided by interpretation, allowing symbolism to aid in interpreting ideal as well as material activities. Traditionally symbolic anthropology has focused on religion, cosmology, ritual activity, and expressive customs such as mythology and the performing arts (Des Chene 1996:1274). Symbolic anthropologists also study other forms of social organization that at first do not appear to be very symbolic, such as kinship and political organization. Studying these types of social forms allows researchers to study the role of symbols in the everyday life of a group of people (Des Chene 1996:1274).

Points of Reaction

Symbolic anthropology can be considered as a reaction to the structuralism that was favored by, among others, L�vi-Strauss. Structuralism was grounded more in linguistics and semiotics (Des Chene 1996:1275). This dissatisfaction with structuralism can be seen in Geertz's article The Cerebral Savage: On the Work of Claude L�vi-Strauss (1973b). L�vi-Strauss's focus on meaning as established by contrasts between various aspects of culture and not on meaning as can be derived from the forms of symbols alienated the (largely American) symbolic anthropologists. Structuralists also focused on actions as being separate from the actors, while symbolic anthropologists believed in "actor-centric" actions (Ortner 1983:136). Also, structuralism utilized symbols only with respect to their place in the "system" and not as an integral part of understanding the system (Prattis 1997:33). This split between the idealism of the symbolic anthropologists and the materialism of the structuralists dominated the 1960s into the 1970s.

Symbolic anthropology is also a reaction against materialism and Marxism. Materialists define culture "strictly in terms of overt, observable behavior patterns, and they share the belief that technoenvironmental factors are primary and causal" (Langness 1974:84) while symbolic anthropologists view culture in terms of symbols and mental terms. The thrust of the attack against Marxism was that Marxism is based on historically specific Western assumptions about material and economic needs and thus cannot be properly applied to non-Western societies (Sahlins 1976; see also discussion in Spencer 1996:538).

Leading Figures

Symbolic anthropology can be divided into two major approaches. One is associated with Clifford Geertz and the University of Chicago and the other with Victor W. Turner at Cornell. David Schneider was also a major figure in the development of symbolic anthropology, however he does not fall entirely within either of the above schools of thought (although it should be noted that Turner, Geertz, and Schneider were all at the University of Chicago briefly in the 1970s). 

The major difference between the two schools lies in their respective influences. Geertz was influenced largely by the sociologist Max Weber, and was concerned with the operations of "culture" and not with the ways in which symbols operate in the social process. Turner was influenced by Emile Durkheim and was concerned with the operations of "society" and the ways in which symbols operate within it. (Ortner 1983:128-129; see also Handler 1991). Turner, reflecting his English roots (see below), was much more interested in investigating whether symbols actually functioned within the social process in the ways that other symbolic anthropologists thought they did. Geertz focused much more on the ways in which symbols operate within culture, i.e., how individuals "see, feel, and think about the world" (Ortner 1983:129-131).

Clifford Geertz (1926-) studied at Harvard University in the 1950s. He was strongly influenced by the writings of philosophers such as Langer, Ryle, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Ricouer, as well as by Weber, adopting various aspects of their thinking as key elements in his interpretive anthropology (Handler 1991; Tongs 1993), the results of which can be found in his compilation of essays entitled "The Interpretation of Cultures" (1973c). 

Geertz believes that an analysis of culture should "not (be) an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning" (Geertz 1973d:5). Culture is expressed by the external symbols that a society uses rather than being locked inside people's heads. He defines culture as "an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and their attitudes toward life" (Geertz 1973e:89). Societies use these symbols to express their "worldview, value-orientation, ethos, [and other aspects of their culture]" (Ortner 1983:129). For Geertz symbols are "vehicles of 'culture'" (Ortner 1983:129), meaning that symbols should not be studied in and of themselves, but should be studied for what they can reveal to us about culture. Geertz's main interest is in "how symbols shape the ways that social actors see, feel, and think about the world" (Ortner 1983:129). Throughout his writings, Geertz has "characterized culture as a social phenomenon, as a shared system of intersubjective symbols and meanings" (Parker 1985).

Victor Witter Turner (1920-1983) is the major figure in the other branch of symbolic anthropology. Born in Scotland, Turner was influenced early on by the structional-functionalist approach of British social anthropology (Turner 1980:143). However, upon embarking on a study of the Ndembu in Africa, Turner's focus shifted from economics and demography to ritual symbolism (McLaren 1985). Turner's approach to symbols was very different from that of Geertz. Turner was not interested in symbols as vehicles of "culture" as Geertz was but instead investigated symbols as "operators in the social process" (Ortner 1983:131) and believed that "the symbolic expression of shared meanings, not the attraction of material interests, lie at the center of human relationships" (Manning 1984:20). Symbols "instigate social action" and exert "determinable influences inclining persons and groups to action" (Turner 1967:36). Turner felt that these "operators," by their arrangement and context, produce "social transformations." These social transformations tie the people in a society to the society's norms, resolve conflict, and aid in changing the status of the actors (Ortner 1983:131).

David Schneider was another important figure in the "Chicago school" of symbolic anthropology. He did not make the complete break from structuralism that had been made by Geertz and Turner, rather he retained and modified L�vi-Strauss' idea of culture as a set of relationships (Ortner 1983; Spencer 1996). Schneider defined culture as a system of symbols and meanings (Keesing 1974:80). Schneider's system can be broken into categories, however there are no rules for the categories. According to Schneider (1980:5), regularity in behavior is not necessarily "culture," nor can culture be inferred from a regular pattern of behavior. A category can be made for an observable act, or can be created through inference. Therefore, things that cannot be seen, such as spirits, can embody a cultural category (Keesing 1974:80). Schneider was interested in the connections between the cultural symbols and observable events and strove to identify the symbols and meanings that governed the rules of a society (Keesing 1974:81). Schneider differed from Geertz in that he detached culture from everyday life. He defined a cultural system as "a series of symbols" and a symbol as "something which stands for something else (1980:1). This is in marked contrast to the elaborate definitions favored by Geertz and Turner.

Key Works
Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, Inc.
Geertz, Clifford. 1983. Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology. New York: Basic Books, Inc.
Geertz, Clifford, ed. 1974. Myth, Symbol, and Culture. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc.
Sahlins, Marshall. 1976 Culture and Practical Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Schneider, David. 1980. American Kinship: A Cultural Account. 2nd edition. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Turner, Victor W. 1967. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.
Turner, Victor W. 1980. Social Dramas and Stories about Them. Critical Inquiry 7:141-168.
Edith Turner, ed. 1985. On the Edge of the Bush: Anthropology as Experience. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

For general discussions of careers, see: 
Geertz, Clifford. 1995. After the Fact: Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Handler, Richard. 1991. An Interview with Clifford Geertz. Current Anthropology 32:603-613.
Schneider, David M., as told to Richard Handler. 1995. Schneider on Schneider: The Conversion of the Jews and other Anthropological Stories. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Turner, Edith. 1985. Prologue: From the Ndembu to Broadway. In On the Edge of the Bush: Anthropology as Experience. Edith Turner, ed. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Principal Concepts

Thick Description is a term borrowed by Geertz from Gilbert Ryle to describe and define the aim of interpretive anthropology. It can be broken down as follows. Social Anthropology is based on ethnography, or the study of culture. Culture, in turn, is based on the symbols that guide community behavior. Symbols obtain meaning from the role which they play in the patterned behavior of social life. Because of the intertwined nature of culture and behavior, they cannot be studied separately. By analyzing culture, one develops a "thick description" of a culture which details "what the natives think they are up to." This thick description is developed by looking at both the whole culture and the parts of the culture (such as laws). Thick description is an interpretation of what the natives are thinking made by an outsider who cannot think like a native. Thick description is made possible by anthropological theory (Geertz 1973d; see also Tongs 1993).

To illustrate thick description, Geertz uses an example taken from Ryle which discusses the difference between a "blink" and a "wink." One, a blink, is an involuntary twitch (the thin description) and the other, a wink, is a conspiratorial signal to a friend (the thick description). While the physical movements involved in each are identical, each has a distinct meaning "as anyone unfortunate enough to have had the first taken for the second knows" (Geertz 1973d:6). A wink is a special form of communication which is: deliberate; to someone in particular; to impart a particular message; according to a socially established code; and without the knowledge of the other members (if any) of the group of which the winker and winkee are a part. In addition, the wink can be a parody of someone else's wink or an attempt to lead others to believe that a conspiracy of sorts is afoot. Each type of wink can be considered to be a separate cultural category (Geertz 1973d:6-7). The combination of the blink and the types of winks discussed above (and those that lie between them) produce "a stratified hierarchy of meaningful structures" (Geertz 1973d:7) in which winks, twitches, etc. are produced and interpreted. This, Geertz argues, is the object of ethnography: to decipher this hierarchy of cultural categories. The thick description, therefore, is a description of the particular form of communication used, e.g., a parody of someone else's wink or a "normal" conspiratorial wink.

Hermeneutics is a term first applied to the critical interpretation of religious texts. The modern use of the term is a "combination of empirical investigation and subsequent subjective understanding of human phenomena" (Woodward 1996:555). Geertz used hermeneutics in his studies of symbol systems to try to understand the ways that people "understand and act in social, religious, and economic contexts " (Woodward 1996:557). An example of this can be seen in the hierarchy that surrounds Balinese cockfighting (Geertz 1973f:448). Turner used hermeneutics as a method for understanding the meanings of "cultural performances" (dance, drama, etc.) (Woodward 1996:557).

Social Drama is a concept devised by Victor Turner to study the dialectic of social transformation and continuity. A social drama is "a spontaneous unit of social process and a fact of everyone's experience in every human society" (Turner 1980:149). This drama can be broken into four "acts." The first act is a rupture in social relations, or breach. The second act is a crisis that cannot be handled by normal strategies. The third act is a remedy to the initial problem, or redress and the re-establishment of social relations. The final act can occur in two ways: reintegration, the return to the status quo, or recognition of schism, an alteration in the social arrangements (Turner 1980:149). In both of the resolutions there are symbolic displays in which the actors show their unity. These displays often take the form of rituals (Des Chene 1996:1276). In Turner's theory, ritual can also be seen as a kind of plot that has a set sequence. Ritual is linear, not circular, i.e., it "goes somewhere" rather than returning to where it begins. (Turner and Turner 1978:161-163; Grimes 1985). Social dramas occur within a group that shares values and interests and has a shared common history (Turner 1980:149). 

For examples of some published discussions of social dramas, see Turner (1967; 1974) and Grimes (1985). 


Like all forms of cultural anthropology, symbolic anthropology is based on cross-cultural comparison (Des Chene 1996:1274). One of the major changes made by symbolic anthropology was the movement to a literary-based rather than a science-based approach, e.g., symbolic anthropology, with its emphasis on the works of non-anthropologists such as Ricoeur, etc., utilized literature from outside the bounds of traditional anthropology (see Handler 1991:611). In addition, symbolic anthropology examines symbols from different aspects of social life, rather than from one aspect at a time isolated from the rest. This is an attempt to show that a few central ideas expressed in symbols manifest themselves in different aspects of culture (Des Chene 1996:1274). 

This was in contrast to the structuralist approach favored by European social anthropologists such as L�vi-Strauss (Spencer 1996:536; see also mention of rebellion against "the establishment" with respect to social theory in Schneider 1995:174). Symbolic anthropology focuses largely on culture as a whole rather than on specific aspects of culture that are isolated from one another. 


The major accomplishment of symbolic anthropology has been to turn anthropology towards issues of culture and interpretation rather than grand theories. Geertz, through his references to social scientists such as Ricouer, Wittgenstein, etc, has become probably become the most often cited anthropologist by other disciplines (Spencer 1996:536-538). The use of similar citations by Schneider, Turner, and others helped anthropology turn to sources outside the bounds of traditional anthropology, such as philosophy and sociology.

Geertz's main contribution to anthropological knowledge is in changing the ways in which American anthropologists viewed culture, e.g., from being concerned with the operations of culture to the way in which symbols act as vehicles of culture. Another contribution can be seen in the emphasis of studying culture from the perspective of those actors that exist within that culture. This means that one must view individuals as attempting to interpret situations in order to act (Geertz 1973b). This actor-centered view is central to Geertz's work, however it was never developed into an actual theory or model. Schneider developed the systematic aspects of culture and separated culture from the individual even more than Geertz (Ortner 1984:129-130).

Turner's major addition to anthropology was the investigation of how symbols actually operate, i.e., do they actually function in ways in which symbolic anthropologists say they do. This was an aspect of symbolic anthropology that Geertz and Schneider never addressed in any great detail. This is an indication of the influence of British social anthropology (Ortner 1984:130-131).


Symbolic anthropology has come under fire from several areas, most notably from Marxists. Asad attacks the dualism evident in Geertz's arguments. While acknowledging Geertz's strengths, Asad believes that Geertz's weakness lies in the hiatus between external symbols and internal dispositions along with the corresponding gap between "cultural system" and "social reality" that becomes apparent when attempting to define the concept of religion in universal terms. Asad argues that this should be done away with, instead focusing on the historical conditions that are crucial to the development of certain religious practices, i.e., "how does power create religion?" (Asad 1983). A movement away from the definition of religion as a whole is important, Asad argues, because the development of religious practices differ from society to society. In addition, Marxists charge that symbolic anthropology, while describing social conduct and symbolic systems, does not attempt to explain these systems, instead focusing too much on the individual symbols themselves (Ortner 1984:131-132; Des Chene 1996:1277).

Symbolic anthropologists replied to this attack by stating that Marxism reflected historically specific Western assumptions about material and economic needs. Because of this, it cannot be properly applied to non-Western societies (Sahlins 1976; Spencer 1996:538).

Another attack on symbolic anthropology came from cultural ecology. Cultural ecologists considered symbolic anthropologists to be "fuzzy headed mentalists, involved in unscientific and unverifiable flights of subjective interpretation" (Ortner 1984:134). In other words, symbolic anthropology did not attempt to carry out their research in a manner so that other researchers could reproduce their results. Also, since different anthropologists could view the same symbol in different ways, it was attacked as being too subjective.

Symbolic anthropologists answered the cultural ecologists by asserting that cultural ecology were too tied to science. Cultural ecologists ignored the fact that culture dominates all human behavior, thus they had lost sight of what anthropology had established (Ortner 1984:134).

Asad, Talal. 1983. Anthropological Concepts of Religion: Reflections on Geertz. Man (N.S.) 18:237-59.
Des Chene, Mary. 1996. Symbolic Anthropology. In Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology. David Levinson and Melvin Ember eds. Pp. 1274-1278. New York: Henry Holt.
Geertz, Clifford. 1973a. The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man. In The Interpretation of Cultures. Pp. 33-54. New York: Basic Books, Inc. 
Geertz, Clifford. 1973b The Cerebral Savage: On the Work of Claude L�vi-Strauss. In The Interpretation of Cultures. Pp. 345-359. New York: Basic Books, Inc.
Geertz, Clifford. 1973c The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, Inc.
Geertz, Clifford. 1973d Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture. In The Interpretation of Cultures. Pp. 3-30. New York: Basic Books, Inc.
Geertz, Clifford. 1973e Religion as a Cultural System. In The Interpretation of Cultures. Pp. 87-125. New York: Basic Books, Inc.
Geertz, Clifford. 1973f Notes on the Balinese Cockfight. In The Interpretation of Cultures. Pp. 412-453. New York: Basic Books, Inc.
Grimes, Ronald L. 1985. Victor Turner's Social Drama and T. S. Eliot's Ritual Drama. Anthropologica (N.S.) 27(1-2):79-99.
Handler, Richard. 1991. An Interview with Clifford Geertz. Current Anthropology 32:603-613.
Keesing, Roger M. 1974. Theories of Culture. In Annual Review of Anthropology. Bernard J. Siegal ed. Palo Alto California: Annual Reviews Inc.
Langness, L. L. 1974. The Study of Culture. Chandler and Sharp Publishers, New York.
Manning, Frank E. 1984. Victor Turner: An Appreciation. The Association for the Anthropological Study of Play Newsletter 10(4):20-22.
McLaren, Peter L. 1985 A Tribute to Victor Turner (1920-1983). Anthropologica (N.S.) 27(1-2):17-22.
Ortner, Sherry B. 1984. Theory in anthropology since the Sixties. Comparative Studies in Society and History. 26:126-166.
Parker, Richard. 1985. From Symbolism to Interpretation: Reflections on the Work of Clifford Geertz. Anthropology and Humanism Quarterly 10(3):62-67.
Prattis, J. Ian. 1997. Parsifal and Semiotic Structuralism. In Anthropology at the Edge: Essays on Culture, Symbol, and Consciousness. Lanham: University Press of America, Inc.
Sahlins, Marshall D. 1976. Culture and Practical Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Schneider, David M. 1980. American Kinship: A Cultural Account. 2nd edition. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Schneider, David M., as told to Richard Handler. 1995. Schneider on Schneider: The Conversion of the Jews and other Anthropological Stories. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Spencer, Jonathan. 1996. Symbolic Anthropology. In Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. Alan Barnard and Jonathan Spencer ed. Pp. 535-539. London and New York: Routledge.
Turner, Victor W. 1967. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.
Turner, Victor W. 1974. Ritual Paradigm and Political Action: Thomas Becket at the Council of Northampton. In Dramas, Fields and Metaphors:m Symbolic Action in Human Society. Pp. 60-97. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. 
Turner, Victor W. 1980.Social Dramas and Stories about Them. Critical Inquiry 7:141-168.
Turner, Victor and Edith Turner. 1978. Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture. Lectures on the History of Religions Series. New York: Columbia University Press.
Tongs, Alan. 1993. The Philosophical Basis of Geertz's Social Anthropology. Eastern Anthropologist. 46:1-17.
Woodward, Mark R. 1996. Hermeneutics. In Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology. David Levinson and Melvin Ember eds. Pp. 555-558. New York: Henry Holt.

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