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ANTH 2700: Key debates in anthropology
Social Sciences Building 410 (A02)
Week of March 08, 2021 (Week 2)
Slides available at http://anthro.rschram.org/2700/2021/2
Main reading: Bashkow (2006)
Other reading: Hanks (1996)
Durkheim’s split subject:
Social facts are just ideas, but to an individual they appear to be things.
Society constructs (thinks) reality for people.
Language gives us a way to understand the split subject.
Language is a system of social facts in the minds of the people who speak it.
This has lead anthropologists to apply a linguistic analogy to culture: Possessing a cultural worldview is like being fluent in one’s first language.
Much like Durkheim redefined society, Ferdinand de Saussure redefined language:
In French one can talk about “language” with several different words, so Saussure defines his words precisely:
Parole is an individual fact, and is not interesting to Saussure.
Langue is a collective fact, and we should look to the collective to understand why people have a language that works for them.
To understand why people can use language to communicate, we must freeze time and look at all of the ideas and their relationships. We need a synchronic analysis of the linguistic system.
Language use is diachronic; it unfolds in time. Speakers speak as time passes. (And, over time, variations in parole lead to changes in a language as a whole, but at anyone moment these changes do not explain why communication works.)
Langue is a system of signs.
A sign is:
( “horse” | 🐎 )
( “cat” | 😹 )
( Sr | Sd )
When we see “horse” we think 🐎. If your first language is English, you cannot not think about 🐎.
And yet signs deceive us.
There is nothing in h, o, r, or s that has anything to do with 🐎. The relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary.
Why does “horse” mean 🐎?
Sr–Sd relationships are determined by Sr–Sr’ relationships.
The only difference between these signs is the difference between the sounds c and b.
Signs are also distinguished from each other based on where they occur in a linear chain.
In English there are two signs:
( “sheep” | 🐑 )
( “mutton” | 🍖 )
but in French there’s one:
( “mouton” | 🐑 🍖)
English and French speakers live in the same material world, but they see different things because they each have different systems of signs.
A sign is a sound-pattern that stands for an idea.
Signs can also stand for other signs.
An example courtesy of Roland Barthes (1972), based on Claude Levi-Strauss (1963).
( “rose” | 🌹 )
Here’s a diagram of a sign that is a signifier:
( ( “rose” | 🌹 ) | ___________ )
( “ejeba” | 🎈 )
( “boka” | 🧱 )
( ( “ejeba” | 🎈 ) | 🙎🏻♂️ 🚀 💵 )
( ( “boka” | 🧱 ) | 😀 )
Barthes, Roland. 1972. Mythologies: The Complete Edition, in a New Translation. Translated by Annette Lavers. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Bashkow, Ira. 2006. The Meaning of Whitemen: Race and Modernity in the Orokaiva Cultural World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hanks, William F. 1996. “The Language of Saussure.” In Language and Communicative Practices, 21–38. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press. https://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cdocument%7C1677290?account_id=14757&usage_group_id=95408.
Levi-Strauss, Claude. 1963. Totemism. Translated by Rodney Needham. Boston: Beacon Press.