From Symbols to Meaning The Role of Metaphors

From Symbols to Meaning
The Role of Metaphors
Definition of Metaphors
A figure of speech that compares 2 domains
of experience.
 No difference between metaphors and similes
in cultural anthropology; the most important
aspect is that 2 domains of experience are
compared, e.g. Brad is like a Lion, Emily is
like a Flower.
 Metaphoric thought is possible because
language is a symbolic system.
Metaphors are universal building blocks of
human thought
Our worldview is grounded in and expressed
through metaphoric thought, e.g. ‘time is (like)
money’, ‘argument is war’.
 Key metaphors are based on body
orientations, e.g. up/down, front/back,
left/right, inside/outside.
Example: Happiness is expressed as being ‘up’, high status is
also expressed as ‘up’, high income is ‘up’, productivity is ‘up’.
Therefore, ‘smart high income earners are productive and
happy’ appears to make sense, i. e. it has coherence. This is
because there is a coherence in its spatial metaphors, as all
these qualities are compared with ‘up.’
The coherence and apparent sense of key metaphors and
symbolic associations is due to the orientation of our bodies.
Metaphors and Binary
Some Anthropologists think that the human brain is
wired to think in binary, relational terms.
 In other words, we know what hot means because it is
contrasted to cold, we know maleness because it is
contrasted to femaleness, night because it is not day,
and so on.
 These binary differences can then become linked to
form metaphoric pairs, e.g. male is to female as cold
is to hot, etc.
 E.g. of Levi-Strauss on South American origin myths:
nature/culture as raw food/cooked food.
Dominant Symbols
A dominant symbol in a culture is one that is
associated with a range of important
meanings, e.g. the cross in North America.
 Example: the milk tree in Ndumbu society: it
stands for the matrilineage, for kinship, for
mother’s milk, for the knowledge gained in
initiation rites.
 When a symbol has multiple meanings, we
say it is multivocal.
Symbols in Medical Textbooks: The
Egg and the Sperm
Descriptions of conception are based on a
binary metaphoric opposition between eggs
and sperm and adult females and males.
 Egg=good woman=passive
 Sperm=good man=active
 Martin: this view influenced research. When
later research changed the view of human
conception, the description remained caught
in previous stereotypes.
 Menstruation in medical textbooks: failed