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Chapter 3

Cultural Anthropology Chapter 3.docx

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University of Toronto Scarborough
Maggie Cummings

Cultural Anthropology, Chapter 3 THE SOCIAL AND CULTURAL CONSTRUCTION OF REALITY INTRODUCTION The Central Question How is it that people can believe in a God whose existence cannot be proven?  People believe in the existence of ancestor spirits, or witches, or devils, or the power of magic to call forth spirits of the dead  Although there is no material proof of these things people still believe in them  How to deal with the question of belief has long been a concern of anthropologists  Edward Tylor wrote in Primitive Culture (1870) : religion and a belief in the supernatural developed through people’s efforts to explain basic phenomena, such as death and dreaming  Tylor imagined early human beings thinking: o People must have thought that there was some essence that left the body at death or in sleep o Once the idea of a soul came around, people began to believe there were places where departed souls resided, the souls became gods, people began to appeal to these departed spirits for help in controlling life’s uncertainties, belief in God’s and spirits developed through the attempts of humans explaining why things happened as they did  French sociologist Emile Durkheim in his work The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912) looked at what led to the concept of God o He Speculated the secret must lie in the beliefs of early humans o He read about religious beliefs of indigenous Australians, & their beliefs about totemism o Totem was some element of nature—an animal, an insect, a plant, or some celestial phenomenon—that served as a symbol for a group/clan Totemism- the use of a symbol, generally an animal or a plant, as a physical representation for a group, generally a clan  Totem was worshipped, considered holy and sacred by members of a group  Durkheim asked since the totem was a symbol of the group, and members worshipped it, was the clan itself the object of worship?  Durkheim said what suggested to people that the totem had sacred power was that the constraints people felt were imposed on them by the group and by society and in the special power that people felt when groups come together in a celebration and ritual Ritual- A dramatic rendering or social portrayal of meanings shared by a specific body of people in a way that makes them seem correct and proper  If amall-scale groups worship themselves through their totem, in large-scale societies do people worship society through god or gods? Is God society?  Early anthropologists approached God, and religion with the assumption that these beliefs were in error  Believed that religious believes served a purpose  Perhaps beliefs and rituals increased group cohesion or provided supernatural sanctions  Today anthropologists don’t attempt to understand others beliefs with the idea that others are irrational or wrong  They strive to understand the nature of belief or religious practice and how people come to believe that their world view is correct  We need to examine many concepts in explaining and contextualizing people’s beliefs  Metaphor is one of the tools we apply to make our knowledge meaningful to ourselves and to others; it plays a major role in giving us a sense of the universe & ourselves Metaphor- A figure of speech in which linguistic expressions are taken from one area of experience and applied to another.  Symbolic actions play a role in organizing and making concrete a particular view of the world Symbolic actions- The activities—including ritual myth, art, dance, and music-that dramatically depict the meanings shared by a specific body of people  We need to explore how people learn to view the world as they do and how they defend their beliefs against skeptics  Our beliefs must in some way be a product of our social, economic, and political lives QUESTION 3.1: HOW DOES THE USE OF METAPHOR AFFECT THE MEANINGS PEOPLE ASSIGN TO EXPERIENCE? Borrowing Meaning With Metaphors  Same words that can be used to describe one area of experience can be used to describe another, primarily this occurs through metaphors  Metaphors can take language from one domain of experience, such as the domain of the body or the domain of animals, and apply it to another domain, such as landscape features or persons Domain of Experience- An area of human experience (e.g., business, war, science, family life) from which people borrow meaning to apply to other areas.  Ex. “shoulder of the road” (metaphoric extension of a body part used to refer to landscape)  “Jeff is a dog” (represents an extension from the animal world to the human world)  People try to make sense of their experiences by drawing from shared cultural assumptions about how the world works  These shared cultural assumptions create an encompassing picture of reality called a world view World view- An encompassing picture of reality based on shared cultural assumptions about how the world works.  Metaphors are valuable tools for constructing world views  By directing attention to certain aspects of experience, and ignoring others, metaphors can reinforce people’s beliefs, as well as their understandings of reality, which come to be taken for granted as correct and true  When language is extended from one domain to another, meaning is also extended  Metaphor not only involves speaking of one experience in terms of another but also understanding one experience in terms of another  Ex. When saying “She attacked my argument, and I had to defend my position,” we speak of argument in terms of conflict, taking the language from the domain of war and applying it to the domain of conversation  Not only have we transferred words but also meaning, we actually win and lose arguments not only talk about them in terms of war  We tend to borrow from the domain of war a lot and apply it to other areas of speech  Ex. AIDS virus weakens the “immune system attack force,’ and that “killer cells”…  English speaking North Americans also borrow from the domain of economic exchange  In English time is spoken of also as a specific type of thing o Ex. Time is money OR You’re wasting my time  Metaphors, then, are not simply verbal devices but they can are also like theories that may help us understand one domain of experience in terms of another  When we use language from one domain of experience to describe another, whole domains of meaning are transferred  The fact that North American English speakers borrow so heavily from the domains of war and economic exchange for metaphors suggests another way to understand how language operates to influence people’s views of the world  Most societies seem to have one or more domains from which they seem to borrow a lot  These domains become key metaphors that give to each culture a style or cast that makes the culture distinctive Key Metaphors-A term to identify metaphors that dominate the meanings that people in a specific culture attribute to their experience.  When a culture’s members think and speak of many domains in the experience and terms of a particular domain that culture’s meanings achieve a certain coherence, and a coherence of belief is thereby achieved as well Kwakwaka’wakw Metaphors of Hunger  One of the most spectacular expressions of the elaboration of both a key metaphor and the human imagination is found among the Kwakwaka’wakw of B.C.  Much of our knowledge of the Kwakwaka’wakw is owed to Franz Boas, one of the founders of American anthropology, his Kwakwaka’wakw assistant, George Hunt, and filmmaker and photographer Edward Curtis  Stanley Walens says the act of eating is a key metaphor for the Kwakwaka’wakw  A fundamental meaning they find is the world is a place where some beings must die so other beings can eat them and live  Eating gives life in two ways: It provides nutrition, and it frees souls  They believe a person dies, soul enters a salmon, the soul is not freed till the physical body is destroyed, when the salmon is caught an eaten the soul is again freed and enters the body of a new born child  So they place their dead on scaffolds where the body is eaten by ravens and other birds  Act of eating for them becomes a metaphor thru which their lives are understood & described  The importance of eating as a metaphor that orders experience is evident in the dominance of mouths in Kwakwaka’wakw art, ritual and myth Myth- a story or narrative that portrays the meanings people give to their experience  In their myths, wild women with protruding lips live in the woods waiting to rip apart travelers  Eating metaphor is used to give meaning to a wide range of experiences  Hunger is associated with greed, greed causes people to accumulate far more wealth than needed & hunger is also associated with immorality, they believe human desires create conflict and destruction that can quickly get out of hand  They place great emphasis on gift giving and generosity  The full impact of a metaphor lies in the fact that people are trying to impose order on their lives by describing the world according to a particular domain of experience  They believe that greed, conflict, and child rearing can be solved by controlling hunger  So the domain of experience—eating—is elaborated by them to give their world meaning The Metaphors of Contemporary Witchcraft and Magic  A metaphor is a theory, a system of interpretation  Once a metaphor is understood in the context of one domain of experience it can be transferred to others, they may be embedded in myth, history and everyday experience  Mutually sustaining metaphors work to reinforce belief systems and world views ex. Witchcraft & magic  Modern magic is based on the assumption that mind and thought can affect matter without the intervention of the thinker’s actions, it assumes that thought and matter are one  One manual describes magic as the world view that sees things not as fixed objects but swirls of energy  For the follower of good witchcraft/magic the universe is divided into a complex collection of entities and beings, each of which exists on different “planes,” “astral planes,” or “levels,” of which the everyday plane of material life is but the lowest  After death the soul goes to exist on another plane, some remain in contact with the material world  Other magical forces exist on other levels, but they too can be harnessed by human beings to influence events on the everyday plane of existence  Human mind (one that is properly trained) can simply by imagining it create forms on the “astral plane” that may in turn affect things in the material world  Lurmann says becoming a magician requires the acquisition of specialized and esoteric knowledge; consequently, magicians read bookth arrange and attend rituals, go to meetings, and learn the tarot, astrology, mythology, and 17 -century Gaelic cures  Tarot deck has 78 cards that comprise an elaborate and complex system of metaphoric associations linking various domains of everyday experience that range from an understanding of the planets and other celestial objects (sun, moon, etc.), to colours, material elements (eg., mercury, iron, gold), emotions, personal qualities, and mythological beings  Each of the tarot cards is said to have some meaning that is determined by its association with a specific planet, an element, an emotion or human quality, and so forth  Luhrmann says, the cards provide people with a symbolic map with which to interpret and understand themselves as they transfer the meaning of the cards to their own lives and experiences  In examining the power of metaphor to define our realities and reinforce our beliefs, we must remember that there is no necessary connection between the domains from which people draw metaphors and the domains to which they apply them  There is no natural connection between commodities and time, war and health, eating and immorality, the tarot’s Empress and someone’s personality  These borrowings are the products of human imagination  Many different metaphors can be applied to a specific experience, and one domain can never be the exact replica of the other QUESTION 3.2: HOW DOES SYMBOLIC ACTION REINFORCE A PARTICULAR VIEW OF THE WORLD?  Metaphors not the only way we mediate between our senses & the meanings we assign to experience  We participate in activities that express a view of the world & reinforce beliefs about how the world works  Symbolic actions (ritual, myth, art) especially important o They carry meaning that represent public displays of a culture o Are interpretations and portrayals of the meanings shared by specific people o They render beliefs and world views in a way that makes them seem correct o Ex. Kwakwaka’wakw provide good examples of how ritual portrays, reinforces, and provides evidence for a particular world view o Vampire stories have meanings that are intertwined with a certain world view  Meanings that characterize a culture are repeated in other symbolic actions, particularly ritual The Kwakwaka’wakw Hamatsa Dance  Important ritual: Cannibal Dance o 4-day spectacle, a highlight of the Winter Ceremonial (a period of celebration & ritual observance in which all worldly activities cease) o Occurs when the spiritual world of the Kwakwaka’wakw intersects with the real world o Dance varies from group to group o The focal point of a youth’s initiation into Cannibal society  Cannibal society responsible for performing certain rituals  Initiate plays role of the cannibal dancer (hamatsa)  Members of Cannibal society & others gather in a ceremonial house to call back the cannibal to the human world from his sojourn in the realm of the man eater  Man eater one of the most important supernatural beings in the pantheon of spirits  Beginning of ceremony: hamatsa in the woods searching for human flesh to devour o Ethnographic accounts report he would eat human mummified remains  Cannibal society gathers around fire in the ceremonial house to sing/recite prayers o This is done to entice the hamatsa back into the house o Prayers and calls attract the hamatsa o Hamatsa arrives dressed in branches of the hemlock tree o Jumps through the roof down among others, this symbolizes descent from the above world to the world of the living  Hamatsa runs around the fire and into an adjacent room  During the ceremony, celebrants try to entice him back and tame him and to accept normal food instead of craving human flesh, in one part a member of the society is sent as bait to attract him, hamatsa bites his am and runs into a secret room and vomits (this act is repeated)  During pauses, members of audience exchange gifts  Appears naked later, given clothes, flees again and later a co-initiate female appears naked carrying mummified remains to entice hamatsa & fails  bathing him in the smoke of cedar bark soaked in menstrual blood they succeed in subduing him  After the public part of the cannibal dance, initiate and a few members go to another house & eat a normal meal, finally symbolizing that the hamatsa has been tamed  Ritual can be viewed as a symbolic representation of reality  In another sense ritual presents participants with solutions to real problems  The same way that symbolic representations suggest real solutions  Participants in the ritual by symbolically taming the hunger of the hamatsa are asserting their moral responsibility to control greed and conflict  The ritual is the acting out of the group’s successful efforts to overcome forces that threaten their society  Cannibal dance contains a powerful message about socialization: o Like the hamatsa children come from the spirit world into the living world naked o Like the hamatsa they have a female assistant who must feed & socialize them o They come into the world hungry threatening to devour the wealth of their parents o According to the Kwakwaka’wakw all humans are cannibals who must be tamed o Through ritual fasting, swaddling, denial of food, and other parents transform their children from cannibals into moral humans The Ritual of Contemporary Witchcraft and Magic  Rituals for example like the Hamatsa dance, or those enacted in thousands of religious places are special occasions that not only involve the enactment of key metaphors but also serve as special events set aside from everyday existence that draw participants into an emotional involvement with the metaphors  Rituals do carry special feelings  People are carried away with the symbolism, music & the social communion with others, & it is easy to believe that the forces or powers that the ritual summons/embraces causes the feelings  In contemporary witchcraft & magic great emphasis placed on visualization & meditation as part of the ritual  Ex. A high priestess may relate a story and ask participants to imagine themselves in it  Post ritual people report actually experiencing the physical aspects of the ritual o Ex. Salt spraying on their face  Ritual not only depicts a metaphor but also teaches participants how to experience the world as if the forces, gods, and spirits were real  Not unusual for people to claim to having had a “mystical experience” in the ritual  Ritual thus also teaches us how to feel within the universe we create Zombies Are “Good to Think With”  When anthropologists refer to myth they are not referring to stories that are untrue  Myths are accounts that explain the past from a particular point of view  Luhrmann said many of the magicians she knew were first attracted to their beliefs upon reading Lord of the Rings, Earthsea Trilogy, or Mists of Avalon  Themes of many of these books, and of contemporary witchcraft and magic are contained in North American popilar culture  These books & movies contain key scenarios, stories, or myths that, like ritual, portray certain values and beliefs Key scenarios- dominant stories or myths that portray the values and beliefs of a specific society  In the same way people act out and communicate their world view in ritual, they can be said to act out the scenarios contained in their myths and histories  Claude Levi-Strauss, a key scholar of myth and meaning, coined the phrase “good to think with” to refer to the way that humans use aspects of the material world as a reservoir of metaphorical and symbolic meanings o Zombies may not be part of the material world, but zombie stories & myths are good to think with o Proliferation of zombie books, movies in the 2010s in North America suggests that the “zombie apocalypse” genre contains key scenarios that embody how we think about our world today  Anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff suggest that contemporary zombie stories have much to do with “the implosion of the neoliberal capitalism at the end of the 20 century  Stories of a zombie apocalypse seem to tap into our fears about what they call “millennial capitalism”: zombies, like North Americans, consume relentlessly (ex. shopping malls in holidays); they “work” without ceasing and for little reward (ideal offshore workers under global capitalism); a zombic pandemic (avian flu/SARS/H1N1)  Zombie stories are a metaphorical exploration of our fears & desires in our global, capitalist economy QUESTION 3.3: HOW DOES THE WAY WE LIVE AFFECT OUR BELIEFS AND RITUALS?  Marshall Sahlins points out: it is too easy to say that people create gods in their own image or, as Emile Durkhein suggested, that “God is another name for society”  Clearly the way we live, the organization of our social, economic, and political lives must influence what we believe, and how we act those beliefs out  We need to understand how our beliefs, and how we act them out serve to maintain certain patterns of social, political, and economic relations, and how these beliefs and acts serve to reproduce these relations  For the Dene Tha in northern Alberta, learning comes only through direct experience  Jean Guy Goulet…in the Chateh, the community in which he lived while a student of the Dene Tha, he said an adult cannot teach a child to hunt, or cook through verbal instructions  All Dene Tha must learn by observing, doing, imitating what they see when watching others  In the Dene Tha the only true knowledge is personal knowledge  Richard Preston found that the Cree in Quebec “define certain truth value on the basis of what a man can see with his own eyes”  While Dene Tha stories can contain knowledge, the narrator is careful to avoid making claims about the truthfulness of the story if it is not part of his or her own personal experience  Every Dene Tha has the right of personal autonomy, and to respect the autonomy of others  You are infringing on the right of the other to gain proper knowledge if you interfere with another’s direct experience o Ex. For Dene Tha telling children what to do (ex. Bedtime) is an irresponsible parent blocking the child’s access to knowledge and personal autonomy  When Dene Tha speak of power they think of the power in plants, animals, or other substances which can knowingly or unknowingly affect human beings  They must be very respectful of all forms of life  Waswanipi Cree in northern Quebec don’t believe animals to be different from humans  Hunting is an important part of Cree life  Cree have a special word that encompasses their beliefs about humans, animals, and hunting  Cree word nitao means “to see or to look at something; to go to get or to fetch something; to need something; to want something; and to grow or continue to grow”  They believe animals are shy, and to GET an animal the animal must agree to give itself to the Cree hunter, the hunter must agree to reciprocate with gifts to other Cree and to spirits  Hunters never waste the animals they are given and must kill the animal cleanly  Sometimes our land interacts directly with the other land o Ex. A man’s violent death producing an angry storm that was said to be a result of his feelings  Dene Tha communicate with the other world through dreams and gain important knowledge about healing using plants & animal parts  However like the Waswanipi Cree, one must always show respect by giving gifts or healing will not take place  Animals are very important because of their ability to share power with humans this goes back to a time when animals and humans were not as separated as they are now (when they married, spoke the same language, and lived together)  Dene Tha still view animals as superior to humans and believe that animals give to humans only the powers they no longer need  Cree don’t see humans as completely separate from other phenomena of the world (ex. wind)  Cree world filled with all kinds of spirits that interact with people, and the whole Cree environment is thought of as a “society of persons,” all of whom are dependent on one another  God and spirits may communicate with humans through dreams  Humans may communicate with spirits through rituals  Dreaming is how Dene Tha gain powerful knowledge  Also can see the future through dreams and take steps to avoid misfortune  Even if one’s body dies their mind can choose to return to “this land” and become reborn  Human bodies are temporary, human minds are permanent  Dene Tha view dreaming as a journey in which the soul leaves the body and travels to other places in this land or spends time with relatives in the other land  However if the soul stays away too long, the body may become ill and the healer may have to bring the soul back  If the soul doesn’t return the body dies  Some Dene Tha choose to come back to Earth once they die  Reincarnation in Chateh- a process where the spirit of a relative enters a woman’s body to be reborn  When a female is reborn a male or vice versa family members may call the boy by female kinship terms such as “my sister/daughter” once the former identity of the child is decided by the community  First Nations worldview: they see thems
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