One Does Not Simply…Write About Anthropology

My Time as a Graduate Student

Thesis Update – Literature Review

This past week we had to write a preliminary literary review for our thesis topics. It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be other than the confusion of what to include in it. I was always under the impression that a literary review was just scholarly or academic work that helps with defining and backs up major themes within personal research, there is little to no personal theory.

I decided for my literary review to break down the structure in major themes: mythic thought, liminality, dual sovereignty, and exchange that includes Levi-Strauss, Leach, Needham, Van Genep, Guenon, Mauss, Weiner, Sahlins, Ginzburg, and Weber. As I wrote this I forgot to write a few other key works, but this is just a draft. But here is a preview of the first draft of my literary view.

Structures of Mythic Thought

Myth is a narrative told through a repetition of a series of events, described through collective symbolic imagery that conveys events of the past and present and can possibly predict the future. Myths are more than just a collection of symbols, it carries meaning within the meaning itself. The purpose of the myth is to create order and make sense of the disorder of the world and transfer the meaning. In Structural Anthropology and Myth and Meaning, Claude Levi-Strauss defines “myth as a language,” from which it can be implied that myth is constructed by the same rule as language: a communication of the ambiguous signifier with the collective signified in which it must be told to exist (Leach 1976; Levi-Strauss 1963). Myth-making is the relationship and interaction between the signified and the signifier and is then the reinterpretation of the narrative back to the signifier. The myth-making process must be repetitive in order to be a part of the cultural structure (Levi-Strauss 1963).

In Myth and Meaning, Levi-Strauss argues that although we may see mythology and history as oppositions to one another, as history being real and mythology as unreal, they are structurally constructed in the same way (Levi-Strauss 1979). Levi-Strauss states that history is a continuation of myth that fulfills the same function, to relay past experiences through a constructed narrative to be passed down through time. In the same text, he argues that music can also be treated as a myth. Whether classical or modern, music has always reflected the culture in which it has originated and always consists of a story that can be told with or without words.  Both myth and music have a beginning, middle, and end and must be constructed to captivate an audience. He states that music and myth must be read vertically and horizontally to be understood in its totality or as a whole, to have just one piece of it makes the entire work incomplete; myth or music (Levi-Strauss 1979). Levi-Strauss is trying to convey a message that every culture has music, history, and myth and although they all may be uniquely different in each culture, they have similar structures.

In Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities, Marshall Sahlins argues there is not a difference between Hawaiian myths and the historical reality of the first encounter with Europeans and Captain Cook. Cook’s arrival and subsequent events that were told by the English were considerably different from the Hawaiian tale of the events. History, in western context, is a metaphor for belief and reality as determined based off relevant myths. Sahlins uses this analysis to explain the events that took place during Cook’s presence at the islands, and as well as the transformations in Hawaiian culture (Sahlins 1981). Structure is the existing method to the chaos of life that defines the ways individuals respond to different situations that can determine reactions and decisions of individuals. Events focus on the overlapping and interconnecting pieces of the structures while reenergizing and charging the existing structure, allowing structures to continue or be replaced with new structures (Sahlins 1981).

The purpose of a myth is to gain a collective acceptance that allows it to exist through time. If a myth was not popular, it would not exist. Carlos Ginzburg in Ecstasies researches the European history of witchcraft and the origins of witchcraft that have been associated with two things: marginalized persons and death (Ginzburg 1991). Over time, Ginzburg connects various local traditions of the witches’ Sabbath, a journey to the realm of the dead and back, to other concepts like were-wolves that have transcended through historical documents and into popular media (Ginzburg 1991). Ginzburg also illustrates the necessity of heroes, using Greek myths like Oedipus, being liminal characters in juxtaposition to witches that transverse the world of the living and the dead (Ginzburg 1991). Ginzburg portrays the universal messages of fear, acceptance, life, and death that are woven into the tapestry of human understanding and every culture.


In various events throughout the fictional narrative, characters often experience an in between time of various states: life and death, adolescents, rites of passages. In his work: Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites of Passage, Victor Turner regards the marginal, liminality, as “interstructural situation within the structure of positions of society;” as a time and place of withdraw from the norms of society. All liminality will eventually dissolve because of its intensity if it does not have some sort of structure to stabilize it (Turner 1967). Therefore an individual will return to the norms of the surrounding social structure or liminal individuals will create their own internal social structure, normative communitas. Liminality is a period in time that an individual is suspended until the ritual is complete or an individual returns to the social constructs of the norm.

Liminality is a term used by Arnold van Gennep and later taken up by Victor Turner that describes a period in which an individual is ambiguous between time and states. It is commonly used in rituals when an individual must pass through one phase of life to another, rites of passages: childhood to adulthood: life to death. To talk about liminitality we must associate it with rites of passages. Van Gennep describes liminaltiy in his work Rites of Passages, as a change in an individuals’ status within a society and a transitions in the passages of time through a three-fold sequential structure: preliminal rites, liminal rites, and postliminal rites, in which an individual must transcend through symbolic markers of social time (Gennep 1960).

Much like van Gennep, Victor Turner and Edmund Leach believe that rites of passages, or transition, are found in every society in which rites indicate the transition, or transformation, between states (states regarding as fixed or stable conditions of an individual or group) through a triad phases of Separation, Marginality, and Aggregation. The actor of the ritual will pass through each of these phases to achieve the ritual goal beginning with separation, the symbolic behavior signifying the detachment from a fixed point in the social structure; becoming marginal where the individual as ambiguous “betwixt and between” time; and ending at the aggregation where the individual is consummated, the ritual ends and the transformation is complete (Turner 1967). Rites of passes are “interval markers of progression of social time” (Turner 1967).

In Culture and Communication, Leach describes it as a liminal zone where it is scared and performed by ritual leaders who are themselves liminal beings or the individual who is transcending through the process from one state to another. Liminal beings can be those individuals who are in direct communication with the Other World like shamans or priests, who are given abnormal rights than those of normal men because they can transcend from one world to the next either by mediation or spiritually. Liminality is defined by its cultural construct, the symbolic meaning of transformation or transcending through time and space (Leach 1976).

Exchange and Inalienable Possessions

Marcel Mauss in The Gift argues the ubiquitous gift that he deemed it as a “total social phenomenon” wherein “all kinds of institutions are given expression at one and the same time” (Mauss 1950).  According to him, with giving come three obligations: the obligation to give, to receive, and to reciprocate (Mauss 1950).  To refuse to give, is to refuse any social relationships; likewise, to refuse the gift or refuse to reciprocate, is to refuse the giver (Mauss 1950).  Taking it further, an unreciprocated gift makes the receiver socially inferior to the giver. To give back less than was received, makes the reciprocator inferior to the initial giver (Mauss 1950). To Mauss, the gift is only a means of creating social relations and bringing groups, or individuals, closer together.

Annette Weiner in Inalienable Possessions argues that the socially constructed value of things and people is related directly to the lack of exchange surrounding inalienable possessions.  These inalienable possessions are “certain things [that] assume a subjective value that place them above exchange value” and possession of one such thing “confirms difference rather than equivalence” (Weiner 1992).  “The possession not only authenticates the authority of its owner, but affects all other transactions even if it is not being exchanged” (Weiner 1992).  In this way, exchange and control of exchange accords and deprives authority and power, creating resentment and social distance, not bonds (Weiner 1992). According to Weiner, it’s not reciprocating that makes exchange, but the important inalienable possessions kept out of it or “keeping while giving” (Weiner 1992).  In conclusion, “the social identities of the participants, what they have that makes them different from each other, color the styles, actions, and meanings that create the exchange” (Weiner 1992).

Exchange is much more than the transfer of tangible things from one person or group to another (Mauss 1950).  Exchange is systems of meaning that communicate cultural constructions.  Giving a gift defines an individual to the giver and the giver to the recipient. What is maintained is that gifts, tangible or intangible, do not only create social relationships, but maintain social distance. In every exchange is an underlying message of not only social relations, but the legitimacy of those relationships.

Dual Sovereignty: Power and Authority

            Throughout the narratives, there is a constant struggle for the seat of authority over a body of people or area of the world. These struggles of authority clash with the want and need to have power. Rene Guenon states in Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power that authority is associated with spiritual means of specific knowledge that is manifested with authority and power is temporal, in which the relationship between the two is unequal and power is inferior to the superior authority (Guenon 2001). Guenon describes power as being action and disorder that must be reestablished over time, and authority as the knowledge that maintains the order of a society.

In Max Weber’s work, The Types of Legitimate Domination, on legitimate forms of authority, he describes three types of legitimate authority – legal, traditional, and charismatic (Weber 1925). Legal is the first type in which the authority of an individual is obedient to the system. Whereas traditional, the authority of the individual is obedient to the position.  Weber discusses the third type of authority, charismatic authority as energetic and irregularity that the legal and traditional authorities lack. Charismatic relies on the obedience to a person who garners superhuman qualities “not accessible to the ordinary person, but [are] regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary” (Weber 1925). The individual is designated as a leader by their followers, but is validated as a leader by the masses that trail the charismatic leader (Weber 1925). The basis of legitimacy is based on “the conception that it is the duty of those subject to charismatic authority to recognize its genuineness and to act accordingly” (Weber 1925), not based on fixed traditions.

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