The Living and the Dead: A Study of the Symbolic Life of Americans

The Living and the Dead: A Study of the Symbolic Life of Americans

The Living and the Dead: A Study of the Symbolic Life of Americans

The Living and the Dead: A Study of the Symbolic Life of Americans

Excerpt

From the earliest beginnings of their inquiries into the nature of primitive and civilized collectivities social anthropologists and sociologists have studied the meanings and functions of man's symbolic life. Émile Durkheim's interpretation of the collective representations of Australian totemism, Sir James Frazer's treatment in The Golden Bough of the symbolic significance of the pagan religions that preceded Christianity, Malinowski's research on the meanings and functions of the Trobriand Islanders' economic rituals, and Sapir's work on the languages of the world are a few noteworthy examples.

Broadly speaking and for the present, symbols may be defined as "things which stand for or express something else." They are signs of meaning and include much of our cultural equipment, including the words and meanings of language; the pictures, sounds, and gestures of the arts; the creeds, beliefs, and rituals of religion; and most of what is communicated by word and act in our everyday existence. All signs and their meanings (words, for example) which conceptually or expressively refer to something beyond the sign itself are symbols. Symbols are substitutes for all known real and imaginary actions, things, and the relations among them. They stand for and express feelings and beliefs about men and what they do, about the world and what happens in it. What they stand for may or may not exist. What they stand for may or may not be true, for what they express may be no more than a feeling, an illusion, a myth, or a vague sensation falsely interpreted. On the other hand, that for which they stand may be as real and objectively verifiable as the Rock of Gibraltar. (In large part this and the following paragraph are repeated and developed in Chapter 15.) . . .

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