Tuesday, October 28, 2008

I think I'm "fallling in love" all over again . . .

. . . with the study of cultural anthropology.

It's been years. Over 30 years, actually.

I never took a regular course in college in the subject.

I was introduced to anthropology through my involvement with the Summer Institute of International Studies (SIIS) held at Wheaton College in the summer of '76. SIIS was the (far more academically rigorous--worth 10 college credits!) precursor to what is known today as the Perspectives on the World Christian Movement course.

Back when I took the course, there was a bunch of cultural anthropology in it. We read books like Marv Mayers' Christianity Confronts Culture and Eugene Nida's Customs and Cultures.

I was absolutely fascinated by the astonishingly diverse ways people from different cultural backgrounds will interpret the exact same phenomenon.

And so, last night, at dinner, while Sarita is off visiting her mother, I read a portion of Paul Hiebert's Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change.

The old joy welled up within me as I read Hiebert's analysis of different types of symbols--arbitrary, iconic, and performative. (If Hiebert's language seems too difficult, skip to the next example; it is more accessible. For me, despite the difficult language, I enjoy being challenged to think about things in ways I have never thought about them before. The surprising insights are worth the slight mental pain.)
The relationships between external realities and internal images [what we think of in our minds] mediated by signs [symbols: words or images] vary greatly.

In some, the link [between reality, symbol and mental image] is arbitrary. . . . Most words used in everyday discursive speech are essentially arbitrary. In English we look at a tree and say "tree." We could have said "chettu" or "preta." There is no essential ideographic link between the word "tree" and the objects we call trees. Once we have agreed in our community to call this object a tree, however, the link becomes one of social and historical, not private, definition. It is passed down from generation to generation and is no longer arbitrary. I may try to change it, but my efforts are meaningless if I cannot get the community to accept the changes.

Discursive language is the basis of most verbal communication. We use it to talk about the ordinary things of life--things we can see and experience directly. We change it easily as new words are coined to represent new realities we observe or create and concepts we need to express.

In some signs, the link between the external and the internal world is not arbitrary. For example, iconic symbols link the two by means of visual and aural similarities. On a computer, the images of printers, arrows, files, and magnifying glasses let the user know what function each button has. Similarly, many street signs and lane lines communicate without words. In many ways icons are easier to use in multilingual settings because they communicate by images, not by letters and words.

There are a few signs in which the sign and the reality are one. For example, when a minister or justice of the peace says, "I now pronounce you husband and wife," he is not just communicating information. His words are performative. They change the legal status of the bride and groom. A moment earlier, either can call the marriage off with no legal consequences. After the pronouncements, the couple has to go through a legal divorce to undo the marriage.

Understanding these three types of signs is particularly important in dealing with religious matters, such as prayers and rituals. Protestants tend to see the Lord's Supper as helping believers to remember and reflect on the death of Christ. Some Orthodox churches see it as more iconic in nature. The bread and wine do not literally become the body and blood of Christ, but they are much more than arbitrary symbols. Other churches regard the Eucharist as transformative. The bread and wine become, in fact, the literal body and blood of Christ.

At the worldview level, it is important to remember that different cultures use different types of signs in different ways, and often our misunderstanding of their practices, such as magic and witchcraft, has as much to do with their and our understanding of the nature of the signs involved as with the beliefs behind them.

--pp. 38-39

I can imagine that what I have just quoted will fail to rock your world. But the following might do a better job. I could hardly contain myself as I read Hiebert's description of "relational" or "concrete functional" logic--a kind of logic we in the West, I'm afraid, can barely imagine:
In much of the world, people define reality at the deepest level in relational terms. This man is the husband of Lois, father of Mary and John, and grandfather of Susan and Mark. As the oldest male, he is head of his clan and an elder in the village council. Relational categories lead to concrete, functional logic. . . .

A. R. Luriia illustrates this in his study of the Kirghiz of Central Asia (1976).

He showed people a picture of three adults and one child [imagine that in your mind, or draw stick figures on a piece of paper: three adults (two men, one woman) and one child; two adults on one side of the child, one on the other--JAH] and asked them which of these does not belong to the others.

Most [Western] people say the "child," because the child is not an "adult." The Kirghiz said that the first person is the father, the second is the mother, and they need children, so the child is part of the family. The third adults must be an uncle, and he can be eliminated from the set.

When shown a picture of a hatchet, a log, a hammer, and a saw [again, please place that image in your mind: a hatchet, a log, a hammer, a saw--JAH], [Western] people eliminate the log because it is not a "tool." The Kirghiz, however, argued that with the log they could make a fire if they had a hatchet or a saw. One young man said, "The saw will saw the log and the hatchet will chop it into small pieces. If one of these things has to go, I'd throw out the saw. It doesn't do as good a job as a hatchet."

When Luriia suggested that the hammer, saw, and hatchet were tools and so belonged together, another Kirghiz said, "Yes, but even if we have tools, we still need wood--otherwise we can't build anything." Moreover, the hammer is useless because there are no nails.
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