The Symbolic and the Real.

Dr. S. Hugh-Jones.    Given in the Lent term 2005

[A series of 8 filmed lectures on: Culture, Ritual, Time, Food, Animals, The House, The Body, Cognition and Culture.]

Anthropologists are culture-vultures, but not in the way this phrase is usually used.  For anthropologists 'culture' is not a matter of refinement of tastes or the intellectual side of civilisation; it is the commonly-held ideas, beliefs and practices of any society of any kind.

            The Symbolic and the Real deals with the fact that ideas, beliefs, and practices have two aspects.  On the one hand, most parts of culture have some practical import for people's lives; on the other hand, these same things are meaningful, expressive or symbolic.  Thus, food and meals, for example, are not just a matter of ingesting proteins and calories.  Conversely, a seemingly entirely symbolic practice such as sacrifice may be the only occasion when people X get to eat meat.

            The symbolic aspects of culture are often manifested in ritual; the course discusses what ritual is, why all cultures have ritual, and how it is organised.  Conversely, it is often in the ritualistic side of everyday objects and activities that culture most clearly manifests itself.

            The main body of the course discusses certain categories  - animals, food, the human body, houses, and the organisation of time - which are highly important in human life but often taken for granted.  The lectures show how analysis of the symbolic and real aspects of these taken-for-granted phenomena can enable us to see them in a new light.  Themes discussed include cultural classifications of beings and objects in the world, the reasons why certain things come to seem 'pure' or 'impure', the ways in which language constructs taboos, puns and obscenities, and the use dominant ideologies make of ritual and symbolism.

            One central issue is the extent to which cultures of different peoples are distinct and incommensurable with one another.  Do we have to take a relativist line about culture?  For example, are bodily gestures, expressions and postures genetically endowed and universal, or are they learned and culturally relative?  Are there some elements of culture which are more widespread, while others are culturally specific?  In this context, the course takes up the question of how people conceive of time; it uses examples from our own and other societies to show how changing labour practices, political structures and ideologies have altered ideas of time and given rise to the concepts we use today.

            The course provides a brief introduction to various theoretical approaches to the study of culture, including Durkheimian sociology, structuralism, post-modernism, and cultural history.

            An outline of each lecture is given below together with suggestions for reading (Xerox copies of items marked x can be found in the Haddon library).  There is no suitable general textbook for this course but students may find J. Peacock Consciousness and Change (Blackwell 1975) useful as background reading.  Also of more general interest are M. Sahlins’ Culture and Practical Reason (Chicago UP 1976) and Part II of T. Ingold ed. Companion Encyclopaedia of Anthropology (Routledge 1994).


Culture’ is a word of easy virtue  - often used but difficult to define.  After briefly outlining the course as a whole, this lecture explores some of the problems and ambiguities surrounding culture as a key concept in anthropological analysis.  How is culture related to society?  Is culture ‘out there’ in the characteristic objects, activities and patterns of behaviour that define particular human groups or is it ‘in here’ as a blueprint, a set of rules, conventions and norms that give rise to the patterns we observe?  To what extent do the individuals of a given culture actually share that culture or follow rules ?  Are cultures really as different as they seem and if so why ?

            The lecture ends with an exploration of the idea of culture in relation to ritual.  One theory of ritual sees it not as a special kind of behaviour but rather as the expressive aspect of all behaviour.  This ritualistic facet of objects and activities takes us back to the notion of culture itself.


Geertz, C. (1973) ‘Deep play: notes on the Balinese cockfight,’ in The Interpretation of Cultures (Basic Books).

Barnard, A. & Spencer, J. (1996) ‘Culture’, in A. Barnard and J. Spencer eds., Encyclopaedia of Social & Cultural Anthropology  (Routledge).


x Hannerz, U (1994) ‘When culture is everywhere’, Ethnos 1994: 95 - 111.

Also of interest:

Williams, R (1976) ‘Culture’ in Keywords: a Vocabulary of Culture and Society (Fontana).


Ritual serves as an arena for the symbolic elaboration of culture.  After a discussion of some different theories of ritual - ritual as expressive behaviour, ritual as sacred behaviour, ritual as magical behaviour - this lecture introduces rites of passage as a particular class of rituals and outlines some of their characteristic features.

            In the context of this lecture series, these rituals are of interest for two principle reasons.  On the one hand, animals, food, the body, space and time all figure prominently in rites of passage.  On the other hand, the analysis of liminality, a feature of these rites, has given rise to a general theory of taboo which has proved especially useful in understanding how cultural categories are organised and manipulated in ritual contexts.


Leach, E. (1966) ‘Ritualisation in man in relation to conceptual and social development’ in S. Hugh-Jones & J. Laidlaw eds. The Essential Edmund Leach (Yale), Vol I: 158-65. Also in J. Huxley ed. Ritualisation of Behaviour in Man and Animals. Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. London. ser. B 251: 403 - 8.


Leach, E. (1968) ‘Ritual’ in S. Hugh-Jones & J. Laidlaw eds. The Essential Edmund Leach (Yale),Vol I: 165-73. Also in D. Sills ed. International Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. (Macmillan)

 Van Gennep, A. (1960) The Rites of Passage (Routledge) - chs. 1 - 3.

Also of interest

Humphrey, C. & Laidlaw, J. (1994) The Archetypal Actions of Ritual (Clarendon) - chs. 3, 4.

3.  TIME

Rites of passage serve to mark individual and collective time.  It is not possible to draw a firm dividing line between modern and pre-modern societies with respect to concepts of time.  The invention of clocks facilitated certain important transformations in the productive base of industrial societies.  The lecture will discuss some ways in which broad historical changes - literacy, the decline of the church, industrialisation and globalisation - have affected our understandings of time.  But centuries later we also find that clocks and watches are actually used in limited contexts, and meanwhile social co-ordination continues to be served by an immense body of conventional and symbolic knowledge about time.  This is linked to the non-homogenous, processual activities of daily life.  Many time concepts we use ('at the drop of a hat',  'dinner-time',  'donkey's years',  'vintage' and so forth) are not so different from those used in a wide range of other societies.  


Adam, B. (1994)‘Perceptions of time’ in T. Ingold ed. Companion Encyclopaedia of Anthropology (Routledge).

Leach, E. (1961) 'Two essays concerning the symbolic representation of time,' S. Hugh-Jones & J. Laidlaw eds. The Essential Edmund Leach (Yale),Vol I: 174-86. Also in E. Leach Rethinking Anthropology (Athlone).

Evans-Pritchard, E (1940/56The Nuer(OUP). - ch. 3: ‘Time and Space’.

Malinowski, B (1955) ‘Baloma and the spirits of the dead’ in Magic, Science and Religion  - see ‘Milamala’.

Also of interest:

Thompson, E. P. (1967) 'Time, work-discipline and industrial capitalism,' Past and Present 38:56-97.

Gell, A. (1992) The Anthropology of Time, Part 1. (Clarendon).

Bloch, M. (1977) ‘The past and the present in the present,' Man 12: 278-92.. Also in M. Bloch Ritual, History and Power (Tavistock).

4.  FOOD

The temporal aspects of food - Christmas cakes, Easter buns and fixed meal-times - are but one indication of the fact that food is not only physical nourishment but is also used symbolically.  What is 'food', and why do people choose to eat some foods and reject others ?  This lecture will describe the ways in which food is patterned (e.g. the British concept of the 'meal') and how it is used by social groups to include and exclude.  It will discuss anthropological explanations of why certain foods come to have extraordinary symbolic power.  The example of the good old English wedding-cake will be used to discuss cultural tradition and innovation.


x Douglas, M. (1975) 'Deciphering a meal,' in Implicit Meanings (Routledge).


x Douglas, M. & Nicod, M. (1974) 'Taking the biscuit: the structure of British Meals,' New Society, 19.

Leach, E. (1964) 'Anthropological aspects of language: animal categories and verbal abuse' in S. Hugh-Jones & J. Laidlaw eds. The Essential Edmund Leach (Yale),Vol I: 322-43. Also in E. Lenneberg ed. New Directions in the study of Language and in W. Lessa and E. Vogt eds. Reader in Comparative Religion  4th edn. (Harper Row)

Fiddes, N. (1991) Meat: a Natural Symbol (Routledge).

Charsly, S. (1992) Wedding Cakes and Cultural History (Routledge).

Also of interest:

x Hugh-Jones, S. (1996) ‘Bonnes raisons ou mauvaise conscience ? De l’ambivalence de certains Amazoniens envers la consommation de viande’, Terrain 26: 123 -48. (Trans. in Haddon)

5. Animals

Alongside their use for food, clothing and labour, animals provide another rich source for thinking about the human world.  Their symbolic power lies in their being both similar to and different from human beings, a complementary dualism at the heart of all cosmologies.  Beginning with some classic anthropological examples of ‘totemism’ and ‘taboo’, this lecture then traces the changing status of animals with the rise of an industrial, urban lifestyle increasingly divorced from nature.  With modernism, the old duality between humans and animals is replaced by a new division between mind and body that relegates animals to the spheres of biology and commerce.  Simultaneously, animals acquire a new, sentimental status as furry friends, the objects of spectacle, display and popular imagery.  The post-modern concern with environmental issues lead to a challenge of old assumptions about the divide between humans and animals, a change reflected in a rethinking of our treatment of animals and in the anthropological treatment of animal symbolism.


Lévi-Strauss, C. (1962Totemism (Merlin) - ch. 4.

x Löfgren, O. (1985) ‘Our friends in nature’, Ethnos  2-3.

            Any two of:

Douglas, M. (1966) Purity and Danger  (Routledge) - ch. 3.

Douglas, M. (1975) 'Self evidence' in Implicit Meanings  (Routledge)

Stewart, M (1997) The Time of the Gypsies (Westview) - chs.9, 10.

Also of interest:

Leach, E. (1964) 'Anthropological aspects of language: animal categories and verbal abuse' in S. Hugh-Jones & J. Laidlaw eds. The Essential Edmund Leach (Yale) Vol I: 322-43. Also in E. Lenneberg ed. New Directions in the study of Language and in W. Lessa and E. Vogt eds. Reader in Comparative Religion  4th edn. (Harper Row)

Ritvo, H. (1987) The Animal Estate  (Harvard UP)
Serpel, J. (1986) In the Company of Animals (Blackwell)

x Hugh-Jones, S. (1996) ‘Bonnes raisons ou mauvaise conscience ? De l’ambivalence de certains Amazoniens envers la consommation de viande’, Terrain 26: 123 - 148. (Trans. in Haddon)

6. The House

The lived body and the inhabited house are basic to human existence.  In the absence of writing they provide ready-made tools for thought, screens on which social practices and cultural schema can be projected, symbolic devices whose prime significance persists in the modern world.  Metaphoric cross-referencing between house and body is found throughout the world.

            Houses provide shelter in given physical environments, but they do so as the constructions of particular cultures.  The Chinese and the Mongolians living in the region of the Gobi Desert choose to have quite different kinds of dwellings  - why should this be so?  This lecture discusses the imaginative organisation of space and built forms, and the ways in which dwellings can both delimit social groups (e.g. 'the women's quarters') and represent vast cosmological ideas in microcosm.


x Humphrey, C. (1974) 'Inside a Mongolian tent,'  New Society, October 1974.

x Hugh-Jones, S. (1985) ‘The maloca: the world in a house’ in E. Carmichael, S. Hugh-Jones, B. Moser & D. Tayler eds. The Hidden Peoples of the Amazon. (British Museum Publications).

Carsten, J (2004) ‘Houses of memory and kinship’, ch. 2 of After Kinship (Cambridge UP).

Holston, J (1989) The Modernist City: an Anthropological Critique of Brasilia (Chicago UP)

Also of interest:

Bourdieu, P. (1977) ‘The Kabyle house or the world reversed’, in The Logic of Practice  (Polity). Also in M. Douglas ed. Rules and Meanings  (Allen Lane).

Carsten, J. & Hugh-Jones, S. eds. (1995) About the House. (CUP). Introdn., chs. 3, 11.

xOliver, P. (1987) The House: Dwellings Across the World (Phaidon) - ch 8.

7. The Body

Eating, excreting and other bodily functions draw attention to the boundaries of the body and to the thin line between the natural and the cultural, the self and the other.  Strangely ignored by most sociologists until recently, the body has long occupied a prominent position in anthropological theory.  Why should this be so ?  Using the triple framework of embodiment, inscription and representation, this lecture explores some of the classic themes in the anthropology of the body: is there such a thing as the 'natural body' ?  Are bodily gestures, expressions and postures genetically endowed and universal or learned and culturally relative ?  What, if anything, can psycho-analytic theory tell us about ritual symbols ?  How is body image related to society ?  Are ‘naked savages’ a figment of Western imagination ?


Scheper-Hughes, N & Lock, M (1987) ‘The mindful body: a prolegomenon to future work in medical anthropology’, Medical Anthropology Quarterly (1): 6-48.

Benson, S (1997) ‘The body, health and eating disorders’ in L. Jaynes & K Woodward eds. Culture, Media and Identity (Open University)

Douglas, M. (1966) Purity and Danger (Routledge) - ch. 7.

x Leach, E. (19 58) ‘Magical hair’, in S. Hugh-Jones & J. Laidlaw eds. The Essential Edmund Leach (Yale),Vol II: 177-201. Also in Journ. Royal. Anth. Inst. 88 (2): 147-64.

Carsten, J (2004) ‘Gender, bodies and kinship’ ch. 3 of After Kinship (CUP).

One of:

Stewart, M (1997) The Time of the Gypsies (Westview) - ch. 12.

Okely, J. (19 83) The Traveller Gypsies (CUP) - ch. 6.

x Sutherland, A. (1977) ‘The body as a social symbol among the Rom’ in J. Blacking ed. The Anthropology of the Body  (Academic Press)

x Turner, T (1980) ‘The social skin’, in J. Cherfas ed.: Not Work Alone (Temple Smith).

Also of interest:

Broch-Due, V (1993) 'Making meaning out of matter: perceptions of sex, gender  and bodies among the Turkana' in V. Broch-Due, I. Rudie & T. Bleie eds. Carved Flesh - Cast Selves (Oxford, Berg)

Benson, S (2000) ‘Inscriptions of the self: reflections on tattooing and piercing in contemporary Euro-America’, in J. Caplan ed. Written on the Body (Reaktion)

Foucault, M (1977) Discipline and Punish (Penguin) – Introduction.

8.  Cognition and Culture

This final lecture returns to central questions about culture raised in the first lecture and discussed through examples in lectures 2 - 5.  How do people classify things in the world, and what is the role of culture in such classifications ?  This lecture provides an introduction to theories concerning the universality (or not) of concepts of time and space, and it will show how such theories enable us to think about symbolism and ideology.


Durkheim, E. & Mauss, M. ([1903]1963) Primitive Classification, ( Cohen & West). NB also the introduction by Needham.

Leach, E. (1976) Culture and Communication  (CUP) - chs. 3, 4, 5, 8, 11, 15, 16.

Berlin , B. & Kay, P. (1969)  Basic Colour Terms (California UP).

Bloch, M. (1977)‘The past and the present in the present,' Man 12.:278-92. Also in M. Bloch Ritual, History and Power  (Tavistock).

Also of interest:

Bloch, M. ([1985]1989) 'From cognition to ideology,' in M. Bloch Ritual, History and Power (Tavistock).