Symbolic & Interpretive Anthropology: Definition & Concepts

Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.

Is culture something that can be measured just like phenomenon in the natural sciences? If not, how should anthropologists conduct their work? This lesson looks at how symbolic anthropologists addressed this question.

Beyond Quantitative Data

Pretend for a moment that you're an anthropologist observing a foreign culture so that you can report back to the academic community about your findings. You have collected a lot of numerical data - counts of people and their incomes, numbers of births and deaths, etc. Yet something's missing in your results. There's more going on in this community of people than can be measured like in other sciences.

Beginning in the 1960s, anthropologists began to place much more focus on the symbols used in a culture. They aimed to interpret the meaning of these symbols from within that society rather than just looking at them from their own society's point of view. This often caused them to question whether any ''grand theory'' can be applied to all cultures universally.

This reconsideration of the field became known as symbolic anthropology, also described as interpretive anthropology.

Clifford Geertz

Clifford Geertz, an American symbolic anthropologist, saw human beings as ''suspended in webs of significance they themselves have spun.'' We'll explore two of his key contributions: the use of thick description and hermeneutics.

Thick Description

In an episode of Seinfeld, George Costanza gets grapefruit in his eye causing him to wink at inopportune moments, implying unintended meaning to others. Hilarity ensues. Why? Because a wink can act as a symbol meaning that a person is joking or communicating in a conspiratorial, just-between-you-and-me kind of way.

A thin description of this phenomenon would be looking at the blinking of an eye and saying: ''A blink is an eye closing.'' It's a general observation that anyone could make, regardless of culture. Yet it's incomplete.

A more nuanced study is known as a thick description, one where anthropologists go much deeper than merely observing things from their own perspective. Geertz advocated that we try to grasp how certain patterns of behavior (like a wink) have a particular symbolic meaning to the culture they're trying to understand. He argued that if we don't do this, we miss out on some very valuable information!


One of Geertz most famous essays is ''Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight.'' In it, he describes how the Balinese use the fighting between two roosters to play out some significant tensions from their society related to hierarchy. More than just individuals pitting one animal against another, there is symbolic meaning to actions of the participants.

Cockfighting in Bali is more than meets the eye.
Balinese cockfight enthusiasts gathered together

By investigating cockfighting in this depth, Geertz was engaging in hermeneutics , the study of meaning. While it would be one thing for an outsider to go to Bali and make notations about what they were seeing with their own eyes, Geertz aimed to also grasp how the Balinese viewed cockfighting and what it represented to their society.

Victor Turner:

Victor Turner was another anthologist concerned with hermeneutic study. Originally from Scotland, Victor Turner would later teach anthropology in the United States. One of Turner's biggest contributions to the field was his explanation of social drama.

Although the term sounds like it's talking about what goes on in reality shows social drama, according to Turner, is a process much more applicable to understanding the meaning of lot of different circumstances. It's a 4-step scenario that goes like this:

  • Breach: A conflict becomes apparent in a society but is not yet a full-blown crisis
  • Crisis: Things get bad - really bad - and normal societal measures cannot resolve the situation
  • Redressive action: Think mediation, legal action, war, or rituals that address the conflict
  • Reintergration or schism: Either the society resolves the conflict in some form or the parties at odds go their separate ways

As examples, think of the American Revolutionary War and Civil War as two different social dramas, one ending in reintegration over time (the North and South after the Civil War), and the other in schism (between Britain and the U.S. after the Revolutionary War).

His theory raises the question of how many themes are consistent across cultures. Can everyone, everywhere relate to the social drama in some form? Or is this another circumstance of an outsider-looking-in and creating a big, ol' theory to explain it all? It's still a good question to debate.

Mary Douglas

Let's touch on two more major contributors to this field: Mary Douglas and David Schneider.

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