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An Instance of Applying an Anthropological Approach Towards the Interpretation of Foreign Symbols
Symbols: they are found etched among the petroglyphs of Stone Age artistry, neatly printed within the yellowed-pages of sacred religious texts, or plastered upon the rear bumpers of candy-colored cars. They are responsible for signifying either the commencement of an ancient tradition, the occurrence of a miracle, or the presence of pestilence and death. They are, in their most simplest forms, products of a universal human process: symbolization.
In absence of a specific context, a symbol is defined as any medium, such as an object, sound, or gesture that either directly or indirectly relates a meaning that has been established through human consensus. An unbiased assessment of the instituted significance of a symbol then serves to resolve the issue of disjunction, which describes the differentiation of an overt action and its definite, underlying connotation.
Within one’s own society, the misunderstanding between an action and its essential symbolic meaning may not seem a true detriment, but when approached on a cross-cultural scale, such a miscommunication may have horrific consequences.
It is therefore of vast importance for an unbiased approach to be comparative, observationalist, functionalist, and neutralist. Through the application of these methods, the association of symbolism with a specific social structure or event can be attained.
Raymond Firth, author of “An Anthropologist’s Reflections on Symbolic Usage” presents a mild scenario, wherein cultural differences resulted in a misinterpretation of a symbolic ritual. This occurrence involved the head chief of a Tikopia society - situated among the Solomon Islands- who commenced to bathing a great centre post of a temple with coconut oil. While doing so, he muttered the words “May your body be washed with power”.
Without employing an unbiased analysis of this event, the visible action of rubbing the centre post in addition to the invisible action of his utterance would perhaps translate to a chemically unbalanced leader treating a pole in a fairly intimate manner. Yet, when the cultural significance is considered, the aforementioned actions become incredibly familiar. The timber stands in representation of a body, while the oil serves as a decorative medium meant to symbolize anointment.
In Western culture, anointment is also a crucial element between the recognition of the status of Jesus Christ by his disciples. Furthermore, the wooden cross of Christendom has a similar symbolic value as the timber post in Tikopia culture. The manifestation in said post may also be comparable to the Eucharist and its representation of the mystical body of Christ. So, while the people of the Solomon Islands may appear completely alien to the Western eye, the symbolic parallels between these cultures is undisputable.
Keeping this short explication in mind, consider the ways in which ordinary persons think about symbols, and behave symbolically in every-day scenarios.
What symbolic significance is invoked in you personally by the images below? A selection of explanations is provided beneath each photo.
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