Symbolic anthropology studies the way people understand their surroundings, as well as the actions and utterances of the other members of their society. These interpretations form a shared cultural system of meaning. i.e., understandings shared, to varying degrees, among members of the same society. Symbolic anthropology studies symbols and the processes,such as myth and ritual, by which humans assign meanings to these symbols to address fundamental questions about human social life. According to Geertz, man is in need of symbolic “sources of illumination” to orient himself with respect to the system of meaning that is any particular culture. Turner states that symbols initiate social action and are “determinable influences inclining persons and groups to action”. Geertz’s position illustrates the interpretive approach to symbolic anthropology, while Turner’s illustrates the symbolic approach.
Symbolic anthropology views culture as an independent system of meaning deciphered by interpreting key symbols and rituals. There are two major premises governing symbolic anthropology. The first is that “beliefs, however unintelligible, become comprehensible when understood as part of a cultural system of meaning”. Geertz’s position illustrates the interpretive approach to symbolic anthropology, while Turner’s illustrates the symbolic approach. The second major premise is that actions are guided by interpretation, allowing symbolism to aid in interpreting ideal as well as material activities. Traditionally, symbolic anthropology has focused on religion, cosmology, ritual activity, and expressive customs such as mythology and the performing arts. Symbolic anthropologists have also study other forms of social organization such as kinship and political organization. Studying these types of social forms allows researchers to study the role of symbols in the everyday life of a group of people.
Symbolic anthropology can be divided into two major approaches. One is associated with Clifford Geertz and the University of Chicago and the other with Victor W. Turner at Cornell. David Schneider was also a major figure in the development of symbolic anthropology, however he does not fall entirely within either of the above schools of thought. Interestingly, however,Turner, Geertz, and Schneider were all at the University of Chicago briefly in the 1970s).
The major difference between the two schools lies in their respective influences. Geertz was influenced largely by the sociologist Max Weber, and was concerned with the operations of “culture” rather than the ways in which symbols operate in the social process. Turner, influenced by Emile Durkheim, was concerned with the operations of “society” and the ways in which symbols operate within it. see also Handler 1991). Turner, reflecting his English roots, was much more interested in investigating whether symbols actually functioned within the social process the way symbolic anthropologists believed they did. Geertz focused much more on the ways in which symbols operate within culture, like how individuals “see, feel, and think about the world”
Schneider defined culture as a system of symbols and meanings. Schneider’s system can be broken into categories, however there are no rules for the categories. According to Schneider, regularity in behavior is not necessarily “culture,” nor can culture be inferred from a regular pattern of behavior. A category can be made for an observable act, or can be created through inference. Therefore, things that cannot be seen, such as spirits, can embody a cultural category. Schneider was interested in the connections between the cultural symbols and observable events and strove to identify the symbols and meanings that governed the rules of a society. Schneider differed from Geertz by detaching culture from everyday life. He defined a cultural system as “a series of symbols” where a symbol is “something which stands for something else. This contrasted with the elaborate definitions favored by Geertz and Turner.(source:books)