Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

3.7: Some More Theories

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    ( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)


    The theoretical school of Symbolic and Interpretive Anthropology assumes that culture does not exist beyond individuals. Rather, culture lies in individuals’ interpretations of events and things around them. It "views public symbols and actions as the manifestation of culture that is formulated through the construction of reality" (Harris & Johnson 2007, p. 28). With a reference to socially established signs and symbols, people shape the patterns of their behaviors and give meanings to their experiences. Therefore, the goal of Symbolic and Interpretive Anthropology is to analyze how people give meanings to their reality and how this reality is expressed by their cultural symbols. The major accomplishment of symbolic anthropology has been to turn anthropology towards issues of culture and interpretation rather than grand theories.

    Definition: Symbolic and Interpretive Anthropology

    The theoretical perspective that views public symbols and actions as the manifestation of culture that is formulated through the construction of reality.

    Symbolic and Interpretive Anthropology emerged in the 1960s when Victor Turner, Clifford Geertz, and David Schneider were at the University of Chicago and is still influential today. Symbolic and Interpretive Anthropology does not follow the model of physical sciences, which focus on empirical material phenomena, but is literary-based. This does not mean that Symbolic and Interpretive anthropologists do not conduct fieldwork, but instead refers to the practice of drawing on non-anthropological literature as a primary source of data. The Symbolic and Interpretive Anthropologists view culture as a mental phenomenon and reject the idea that culture can be modeled like mathematics or logic. When they study symbolic action in cultures, they use a variety of analytical tools from psychology, history, and literature. This method has been criticized for a lack of objective method. In other words, this method seems to allow analysts to see meaning wherever and however they wish. In spite of this criticism, Symbolic and Interpretive Anthropology has forced anthropologists to become aware of cultural texts they interpret and of ethnographic texts they create. In order to work as intercultural translators, anthropologists need to be aware of their own cultural biases as well as other cultures they research.

    There are two schools of thought within Symbolic and Interpretive Anthropology. The British school was interested in how societies maintained cohesion and is illustrated by the work of Victor Turner and Mary Douglas. The American school is exemplified by Clifford Geertz and Sherry Ortner and was focused on “how ideas shaped individuals subjectivities and actions” (Johnson 2013, p. 842). An important contribution of Symbolic and Interpretive anthropologists, specifically Clifford Geertz, is thick description, which encourages rich descriptions and explanations of behaviors with an end goal of understanding their cultural significance. Geertz borrowed this concept from Gilbert Ryle, an Oxford philosopher. The classic example of thick description is the difference between a wink and a blink. A blink is an involuntary twitch (thin description) while a wink is a conspiratorial signal to another person (thick description). The physical movements are identical, but the meaning is different.


    Postmodernism is a theoretical approach that arose in the 1980s to explain a historical period, post-modernity, which is generally accepted to have begun in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This is a period related to the Cold War and social upheaval in many parts of the world. The postmodernism theoretical approach is difficult to define and delineate. It is generally scoffed at in the Natural Sciences, debated in the Social Sciences, and more favorably accepted within the Humanities. In the past, debates on the merits of the postmodern approach have created divisions among faculty and derision between disciplines. The postmodern approach challenges the “dominating and bullying nature of science and reason” and focuses on “…splitting the truth, the standards, and the ideal into what has been deconstructed and into what is about to be deconstructed, and denying in advance the right of any new doctrine, theory, or revelation to take the place of the discarded rules of the past” (Cooke 2006, p. 2014). It is the academic equivalent of the social clamor against the establishment that arose in the 1960s and 1970s.

    Definition: Postmodernism

    A theoretical perspective that focuses on culture as open-ended negotiated meanings and stresses the examination of how ethnographies are written (Sidky 2004, p. 436).

    Postmodernists claim that it is impossible for anyone to have objective and neutral knowledge of another culture. This view comes from the notion that we all interpret the world around us in our own way according to our language, cultural background, and personal experiences. In other words, everybody has their own views based on his or her social and personal contexts. Because of this aspect of human nature, anthropologists can never be unbiased observers of other cultures. When postmodern anthropologists analyze different societies, they are sensitive to this limitation. They do not assume that their way of conceptualizing culture is the only way. The postmodernists believe that anthropological texts are influenced by the political and social contexts within which they are written. Therefore, it is unreasonable when authors try to justify their interpretations and underlying biases by using the concept of objectivity. The postmodernists claim that the acceptance of an interpretation is ultimately an issue of power and wealth. In other words, we tend to legitimize particular statements represented by those with political and economic advantage. In order to heighten sensitivity towards those who are not part of mainstream culture, the postmodernists often promote underrepresented viewpoints, such as those of ethnic minorities, women, and others. Postmodernists also re-introduced a focus on individual behavior, which has become known as agency theory. Agency approaches examine how individual agents shape culture.

    Postmodern anthropologists gave other anthropologists an opportunity to reconsider their approaches to cultural analysis by ushering in an era of reflexive anthropology. The anthropologist tries to become sensitive to his or her unconscious assumptions. For example, anthropologists now consider whether they should include in ethnographies different interpretations of culture other than their own. Furthermore, anthropologists need to determine their own standards for choosing what kind of information can be counted as knowledge. This reflection leads anthropologists to enrich their work. At the same time, the challenges by postmodernists often result in backlash from those who feel their understandings are threatened. Some anthropologists claim that the postmodernists rely on a particular moral model rather than empirical data or scientific methods. This moral model is structured by sympathy to those who do not possess the same privilege that the mainstream has in Western societies. Therefore, postmodernism will undermine the legitimacy of anthropology by introducing this political bias.

    Another typical criticism of postmodernism comes from the fear of an extremely relativistic view. Such critics argue that postmodernism will lead to nihilism because it does not assume a common ground of understanding. Some opponents claim that postmodernism will undermine universal human rights and will even justify dictatorship. Postmodernism is an ongoing debate, especially regarding whether anthropology should rely on scientific or humanistic approaches.


    Feminist anthropology is a four-field approach to anthropology (archaeological, biological, cultural, linguistic) that seeks to reduce male bias in research findings, anthropological hiring practices, and the scholarly production of knowledge.[1] Simultaneously, feminist anthropology challenges essentialist feminist theories developed in Europe and America. While feminists practiced cultural anthropology since its inception as an American discipline? (see Margaret Mead and Hortense Powdermaker), it was not until the 1970s that feminist anthropology was formally recognized as a subdiscipline of anthropology. Since then, it has developed its own subsection of the American Anthropological Association – the Association for Feminist Anthropology – and its own publication, Voices.

    Definition: Feminist Anthropology

    A four-field approach to anthropology (archaeological, biological, cultural, linguistic) that seeks to reduce male bias in research findings, anthropological hiring practices, and the scholarly production of knowledge.

    Feminist anthropology has unfolded through three historical phases beginning in the 1970s: the anthropology of women, the anthropology of gender, and finally feminist anthropology.[2] Prior to these historical phases, feminist anthropologists trace their genealogy to the late 19th century.[3] Erminnie Platt Smith, Alice Cunningham Fletcher, Matilda Coxe Stevenson, Frances Densmore—many of these women were self-taught anthropologists and their accomplishments faded and heritage erased by the professionalization of the discipline at the turn of the 20th century.[4] Prominent among early women anthropologists were the wives of ‘professional’ men anthropologists, some of whom facilitated their husbands research as translators and transcriptionists. Margery Wolf, for example, wrote her classic ethnography “The House of Lim” from experiences she encountered following her husband to northern Taiwan during his own fieldwork.[5]

    While anthropologists like Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict are canonical representatives of the next stage in the history of feminist anthropology, the true theoretical pioneers of the field were women of color and ethnic women anthropologists. Hortense Powdermaker, for example, a contemporary of Mead’s who studied with British anthropological pioneer Bronislaw Malinowski conducted political research projects in a number of then atypical settings: reproduction and women in Melanesia (Powdermaker 1933), race in the American South (Powdermaker 1939), gender and production in Hollywood (1950), and class-gender-race intersectionality in the African Copper Belt (Powdermaker 1962). Similarly, Zora Neale Hurston, a student of Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology, experimented with narrative forms beyond the objective ethnography that characterized the proto/pseudo- scientific writings of the time. Other African American women made similar moves at the junctions of ethnography and creativity, namely Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus, both of whom studied dance in the 1940s. Also important to the later spread of Feminist anthropology within other subfields beyond cultural anthropology was physical anthropologist Caroline Bond Day and archaeologist Mary Leakey.


    Cooke, Bill. “Postmodernism.” In Encyclopedia of Anthropology, Vol. 4, edited by H. James Birx, 1912-1915. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Reference, 2006.

    Harris, Marvin and Orna Johnson. Cultural Anthropology, 7th edition. Boston: Pearson, 2007.

    Johnson, Michelle C. “Symbolic and Interpretive Anthropology.” In Theory in Social and Cultural Anthropology: An Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, edited by R. Jon McGee and Richard L. Warms, 841-846. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Reference, 2013.


    1. Brodkin, Karen; Morgen, Sandra; Hutchinson, Janis (2011). “Anthropology as White Public Space”. American Anthropologist 113 (4). doi:10.1111/j.1548-1433.2011.01368.x.
    2. Lewin, Ellen (2006). Feminist anthropology: a reader. Malden: Blackwell. ISBN 1405101962.
      Parezo, Nancy (1993). Hidden scholars: women anthropologists and the Native American Southwest. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 0826314287.
    3. Gacs, Ute D.; Kahn, Aisha; McIntyre, Jerrie; Weinberg, Ruth (1989). Women anthropologists: selected biographies. Champagne: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0252060849.
    4. Rofel, Lisa (September 2003). “The outsider within: Margery Wolf and feminist anthropology”. American Anthropologist (American Anthropological Association) 105 (3): 596–604.doi:10.1525/aa.2003.105.3.596.
    5. Golde, Peggy (1970). Women in the field: anthropological experiences. Los Angeles: University of California Press.ISBN 0520054229.

    3.7: Some More Theories is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.