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Symbolic and Interpretive Anthropology

Victor Turner member of Manchester School wrote books and essays on ritual and symbols. His monograph Schism and Continuity in an African Society illustrates the interest in conflict and its resolution. The Forest of Symbols (1967) is a collection of essays about symbols and rituals among the Nbembu of Zambia where Turner did his field work. In The Forest of Symbols, Turner examines how symbols and rituals are used to redress, regulate, anticipate, and avoid conflict. Turner recognized links between symbolic anthropology and fields as social psychology, psychology, and psychoanalysis. Turner’s symbolic anthropology flourished at the University of Chicago where David Schneider (1968) developed a symbolic approach to American culture in his book American Kinship: A Cultural Account. Clifford Geertz was the main advocate of Interpretive anthropology. Geertz defined culture as ideas based on cultural learning and symbols. During enculturation, individuals internalize a previously established system of meanings and symbols. They use this cultural system to define their world, express their feelings and make their judgements. Interpretive anthropology approaches culture as texts whose forms and especially meanings must be deciphered cultural and historical contexts. Geertz’s approach recalls Malinowski’s belief that the ethnographer’s primary task is to grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world. Interpretive anthropology has considered the task of describing and interpreting that which is meaningful to natives. Cultures are texts that natives constantly read, and ethnographers must decipher. According to Geertz, anthropologists may choose anything in a culture that interests or engages them, fill in details and elaborate to inform their readers about meanings in that culture. Meanings are carried by public symbolic forms including words, rituals, and customs.