Symbolic Anthropology By Victor W. Turner.

The anthropology of symbolism emerges as a theoretical school in the 1960s and is based on the notion that culture cannot be analyzed by logical-mathematical methods. Culture is the product of the interpretations that people give to the world around them. Constantly referring to signs and symbols, socially grounded, people determine their behaviors and interpret their experiences. Symbolic anthropology studies the symbols and processes that make them meaningful. Traditional symbolic anthropology focuses mainly on religion, ritual, cosmology, mythology, literature and art. Finally, it often deals with both social and thematic organization such as kinship and political organization. After a brief historical introduction.

Victor W. Turner (1920 – 1983) was a Scottish cultural anthropologist, a student of symbols and rituals of tribal cultures and their role in societies.

He entered University College London, where he began studies of poetry and literary classics. However, he was forced to abandon them because of the outbreak of World War II. After this conflict, he became interested in anthropology and began his university studies under the influence of structural-functionalism.

Upon completion of his studies, he began his field work in Africa where he studied the Ndembu, a Central African tribe (in present-day Zambia). It is at this time that he begins to be interested in ritual practices, a topic that he will develop further later.

In 1955 he finished his doctorate. His thesis exerted a strong influence on British structural-functionalism, despite the fact that his orientation began to break with classical structural-functionalism by introducing a new symbolic-interpretive perspective.

His works include:

  • The jungle of symbols(1967). The work is made up of a series of articles on the symbolic and ritual system of the Ndembu people. It is structured in two blocks: the first provides theoretical data on symbolism and the second provides descriptive data on aspects of the ritual.
  • The ritual process(1969). In it, Turner analyzes more fully the concept of liminality of Van Gennep but, above all, highlights his relationship with the concept of communitas.
  • Other works of note: Schism and Continuity(1957), From Ritual to Theater (1982).

As for their studies, they are focused on rites of passage, understood as those rituals that indicate and establish transitions between any type of culturally recognized stable situation.

  1. Turner considers that a rite of passage is a process that takes place in three stages:
  2. Preliminary stage. It consists of the separation of the individual from one of his social status; from a predetermined point in the social structure, which involves a certain symbolic behavior.
  3. Liminal stage. Also known as the “threshold phase.” During the intermediate liminal period, the state of the ritual subject is ambiguous between the points of the social structure, that is, the individual experiences a symbolic state in which he has few or none of the attributes of his past or future state.
  4. Postliminal stage. It is about the regrouping of the individual with his new status. In this phase the individual reintegrates into the social structure, often at a higher status level.

Furthermore, the author creates and develops the concept of communitas . This term explains the result of the passage through the liminal stage within the ritual process. The communitas is the ideal result of a culture or utopian as it seeks that the individual is able to intervene in social action in their community, because learning the Edenic aspects of their new status. Furthermore, incorporated into the individual, it gives direction to the social structure.

Therefore, Turner approaches society not only as a social structure, but also as something else: the combination of the structural and the ideological.

Regarding his methodology, Turner proposes a method of studying symbolism based on the three main categories of anthropology: cultural anthropology, structuralist theory, and social dynamics. In his work, he will focus on the polysemic – with various meanings – and multivocal (which can represent multiple themes simultaneously) nature of symbols.

It should be noted that Turner established three levels in the interpretation of the meaning of the symbols:

  • Exegetical level. Achieved through ethnographic interview. It reveals the perspective from which native actors interpret their own symbols.
  • Operational level. Achieved through anthropological observation of the behavior of native actors in front of the symbol.
  • Positional level. Level of interpretation used by the anthropologist when trying to reveal the full meaning of a symbol.

We can therefore affirm that his methodological proposal consists of separating the observation and interpretation materials, being necessary to contextualize the symbols in a ritual in order to understand them.

His methodological approach consists of uniting anthropology and history to understand, through ritual symbols, the sociocultural changes that a community experiences. This methodological approach has been called “procedural symbolic analysis” and discussed due to the alleged universality of its analysis steps.


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