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  Symbols are signs that are generally regarded as representing something else. They were once assumed to have a definite and unambiguous relationship with the ideas they stood for, in the same way that words were thought to have an intrinsic meaning associated with the objects or ideas they represented. Later the influence of the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure on anthropology demonstrated that the relationship of words to what they stood for was totally arbitrary, and was instead defined by systematic relationships between the words themselves.

The symbolist Victor Turner challenged the notion that symbols unambiguously stood for the ‘real’ world, because symbols can possess different interpretations in the same way that words can have multiple meanings. There is no one correct interpretation; it is their inherent ambiguity which lends them to multiple interpretation. An example is the way in which the the mudyi tree, which oozes milky sap when cut, stands for a nexus of ideas among the Ndembu of Zambia. Whether its use refers to breast milk, purity, dependency, or matrilineal descent depends on the specific context in which it is used, and the level of interpretation the individual wishes to make.

The interpretative anthropologist Clifford Geertz argued that there are two sorts of relations between symbols and reality: they provide an explanatory model of reality, as well as a prescriptive model. However, this approach has been criticized for being over-reliant on linguistic parallels.

Dan Sperber argued against making too much of native explanations over other ways of relating symbols, because of the limitations of using semantic explanations for a conceptual system that is not located in the realm of words. Symbols are symbolic precisely because they are inexplicable through normal modes of explanation. He argues that symbols cannot simply be made to stand for something else. They have different meanings for different individuals. By rejecting Western assumptions of symbols standing for something else in a straightforward manner, anthropology can explore the various and complex ways meanings within a social discourse are conveyed. CL

See also interpretative anthropology; language; rationality; taboo; totemism.Further reading Mary Douglas, Natural Symbols; , Edmund Leach, Culture and Communication; , Dan Sperber, Rethinking Symbolism; , V. Turner, The Forest of Symbols.



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