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2.11: Symbols and Culture

Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) - The Rosetta stone has several different languages carved into it

Symbols are the basis of culture. A symbol is an object, word, or action that stands for something else with no natural relationship that is culturally defined. Everything one does throughout their life is based and organized through cultural symbolism. Symbolism is when something represents abstract ideas or concepts. Some good examples of symbols/symbolism would be objects, figures, sounds, and colors. For example in the Hawaiian culture, the performance of a Lua is a symbol of their land and heritage which is performed through song and dance [8] . Also, they could be facial expressions or word interpretations. Symbols mean different things to different people, which is why it is impossible to hypothesize how a specific culture will symbolize something. Some symbols are gained from experience, while others are gained from culture. One of the most common cultural symbols is language. For example, the letters of an alphabet symbolize the sounds of a specific spoken language.

Symbolism leads to the “Layers of Meaning” concept. Culture is the meaning that is shared to provide guiding principles for individual meaning.

Language is the most often used form of symbolism. There are 6,912 known living languages, and the diversity is caused by isolation. Most languages have a different “symbol” for each letter, word, or phrase. The use of symbols is adaptive, that means that humans can learn to associate new symbols to a concept or new concepts with a symbol. An example may be drawn from two populations who speak different languages that come into contact with one another and need to communicate. They form a language that has a large degree of flexibility in using either language’s symbols (in this case patterns of sound) or a hybrid set of symbols to communicate messages back and forth. This contact language, or pidgin gradually gives way to a creole with a more formal set of symbols (words), grammatical rules for their organization, and its own native speakers who transmit the language from generation to generation.

It is important for anthropologists to consider their own cultural background when looking at symbolism in a different culture. This is because many symbols, though similar in appearance, can mean drastically different things. These symbols can best be understood or interpreted though the eyes of the culture that they pertain to, otherwise they may lose their unique significance. One example of a misinterpreted cultural symbol is the “whirl log” symbol commonly used in Southwestern Native American blanket weaving. This symbol is almost identical to the Nazi Swastika, and therefore brings a negative response from many Americans. Although the Native American symbol has nothing to do with Nazi or Germanic symbolism, this design is rarely used on blankets today because of the symbolic misinterpretation. [9

References

  1. “African People & Culture – Ashanti”.
  2. “Japanese Hip Hop and the Globalization of Popular Culture” Ian Condry
  3. Southern California Quarterly “Cinco de Mayo’s First Seventy-Five Years in Alta California: From Spontaneous Behavior to Sedimented Memory, 1862 to 1937” Spring 2007 (see American observation of Cinco de Mayo started in California) accessed Oct 30, 2007
  4. “Health and Human Rights”, World Health Organization http://www.who.int/hhr/HHRETH_activities.pdf (pdf) Accessed June 2009
  5. “Discussion Group 10 Week 2- Marisa Mikelsons”
  6. Condry, Ian, 2001 “Japanese Hip-Hop and the Globalization of Popular Culture.” In Urban Life: Readings in the Anthropology of the City. George Gmelch and Walter Zenner, eds. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
  7. Democracy in Dakar, Nomadic Wax, 2008
  8. http://courses.wwu.edu/webapps/porta...82_1&frame=top
  9. Barton Wright Cruz Bay Publishing, Inc. http://www.collectorsguide.com/fa/fa040.shtml
  10. Schultz, Emily A., and Robert H. Lavenda. Cultural Anthropology : A Perspective on the Human Condition. New York: Oxford UP, Incorporated, 2009.pg.79.
  11. Philosophy Home, 2009. http://www.cultural-relativism.com/
  12. Zmago Šmitek and Božidar Jezernik, “The anthropological tradition in Slovenia.” In: Han F. Vermeulen and Arturo Alvarez Roldán, eds. Fieldwork and Footnotes: Studies in the History of European Anthropology. 1995.
  13. American Anthropological Association Statement on “Race”(May 17, 1998) http://www.aaanet.org/stmts/racepp.htm
  14. Peter L. Berger, Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective, Anchor, 1963, ISBN 0385065299
  15. C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination, Oxford University Press, 1961, ISBN 0195133730
  16. Louisa Lim, Painful Memories for China’s Footbinding Survivors http://www.npr.org/templates/story/s...toryId=8966942
  17. James A. Crites Chinese Foot Binding, http://www.angelfire.com/ca/beekeeper/foot.html
  18. http://www.allaboutphilosophy.org/cu...relativism.htm
  19. Justin Marozzi, The son of the Father of History, 2007, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/b...f-History.html
  20. Introduction to The Journey of Friar John of Pian de Carpine to the Court of Kuyuk Khan, 1245-1247, as translated by William Woodville Rockhill, 1900,http://depts.washington.edu/silkroad...s/carpini.html
  21. Schultz, Emily A., and Robert H. Lavenda. Cultural Anthropology A Perspective on the Human Condition. 7th ed. New York: Oxford UP.
  22. “RACE – The Power of an Illusion . What Is Race |.” PBS. 08 Mar. 2009 <http://www.pbs.org/race/001_WhatIsRa...01_00-home.htm>.
  23. Miller, Barabra. Cultural Anthropology. 4th ed. Boston: Pearson Education Inc., 2007.
  24. Lorber, Judith. “Night to His Day”: The Social Construction of Gender.” From Inquiry to Academic Writing: A text and Reader. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 617-30.
  25. Bourgois, Philippe. “Workaday World, Crack Economy.” The Nation (1995): 706-11.