Creating a Lens | Srishti Malhotra

        Conducting fieldwork is the most important part of being an anthropologist. If anthropologists didn’t conduct fieldwork and immerse themselves completely in the culture, then they wouldn’t be able to understand the underlying concepts in a culture. My fieldwork is currently being conducted at the Washington Street Center located in Covington, Georgia. This is a center where students who are underprivileged, such as coming from low income families and coming from troubled homes, come after school and do all of their homework that way they don’t have to do it at home, and it isn’t added stress on the parents. One aspect of this center that caught my eye, which is not only present in this center, but present in other contexts as well, is the underlying symbolism and rituals that are present everywhere. For example, why do desks face the front in a classroom setting? What do desks in the classroom mean? Symbolism, ranging from simple symbols, to interaction rituals, to complex symbols, creates unity amongst a group of people because they are influenced by the habitus that are embedded in the social skills of individuals of society.

        In her journal, Socialization and the Symbolic Order of the School, anthropologist Judith L. Kapferer discusses the importance of the greater symbolism that occurs in an educational setting, like a school or an after school program like the one at Washington Street. Her focus in the journal, as she states is to describe “the role of ceremonial practice and symbols in forwarding the socialization project” (Kapferer 1981: 261).  Kapferer defines a symbol as “forms of representations, both verbal and nonverbal, that carry a meaning-load of representative of ideas other than those directly represented in the symbolic form itself” (Kapferer 1981: 264). According to Kapferer, symbolic modes of representation elicit a “unity” among the students, and this concept can also be applied to society that is separate from education (Kapferer 1981: 264). Symbols can bring unity within our society, but only if they elicit the same response. For example, in regards to school settings, a desk in a classroom doesn’t symbolize anything for all of the students if the desk doesn’t represent a form of respect and a symbol for learning. A desk will be a unified symbol, though, if all the students know the meaning of a desk. Every symbol or any ritual that takes place in a school setting will contribute to the socialization of these students. But not only can this concept be applied to only a school, but this concept can be taken out of the educational setting and applied to society, which I will address later on.

        Rituals are made up of “complex symbolic arrangements,” which combines actions and ideas into an order that is relevant in everyday practices, but it “stands above and apart from these practices” (Kapferer, 1981: 264). For example, according to Kapferer a ritual would be a Thanksgiving dinner. The concept of Thanksgiving dinner is full of many symbols, and it is relevant to our everyday lives because it’s having a dinner which is nothing out of the norms, but it stands apart from a normal dinner because of it’s complex symbolic meaning. Kapferer warns the audience that not every occasion can be defined as a ritual—it may have ritual like qualities, but it won’t be a ritual itself. Kapferer explains the difference between an interaction ritual and a normal ritual. An interaction ritual is what Kaperfer considers to be “ritualistic” rather than an actual ritual (Kapferer 1981: 264). Interaction rituals “receive their significance in the organization of everyday interaction settings,” so for example, an interaction ritual would be everyday greetings or routine actions such as saying Morning Prayer. They are dominated by “modes of action and discourse in the paramount reality of everyday life and does not constitute a finite province of meaning set apart from this reality” (Kapferer 1981: 264). Kapferer explains how some schools are so symbolically organized through many symbols and rituals that “they facilitate the commitment of their clientele to their socialization goals” (Kapferer 1981: 261). Her interpretation on this topic will be vital when I will discuss how symbols and rituals contribute to our socialization skills and habitus, although we are unaware of it because they become almost invisible, like they have in a school setting with the students.

        Kapferer’s most prevalent idea is the belief that symbols and ritual and ceremonial practices “serve to unify and commit members” (Kapferer 1981: 265). By applying this concept across other cultures, we can create a lens that helps us view the greater effects of ritual and ceremonial practices that occur in our culture. Usually rituals occur in context with shared “aims and objectives,” meaning that all of the people participating in the rituals are similar and share similar beliefs. Rituals, interaction rituals, and symbols are “engaged actively in the socialization work” (Kapferer 1981: 272). Through rituals and the symbols, everyone and everything involved become “united in a common endeavor.”  (Kapferer 1981: 267). The unity is found in the expression of similar “accepted ideas” according to Kaperfer (Kapferer 1981: 270). Turner defines a ritual as a “prescribed formal behavior” that contains “symbols as the smallest units” (McGee and Warms 2012: 450). This definition parallels to the definition that Kaperfer presented in her journal—“complex symbolic arrangements” (Kapferer 1981: 264). Since symbols do have different meanings that vary across cultures, the symbolic ideas and ideas from rituals can unite a specific group of people, but how do people come up with these similar ideas? I do not disagree with Kapferer’s idea because I believe it to be true—symbols and rituals work together to create unity through the similar ideas they elicit, but what Kapferer fails to mention, is how symbols and ritual practices create this unity. To be more specific, Kapferer does state that “private and individual understandings can become collective and mutually shared understandings” which does explain that symbols and rituals elicit unity, but she fails to explicitly state how private and individual understandings become collective and shared, which is vital to knowing how unity is created (Kapferer 1981: 262). Kapferer should have extended her point to include how a symbol and ritual gradually become part of one’s habitus, and the similar habitus among people is also what creates the unity. According to sociologist, Bourdieu, a habitus is “the system of durable and transposable dispositions through which we perceive, judge, and act in the world” (McGee and Warms 2012: 494). Furthermore, a habitus is “encoded into the physical body and mental structures of an individual,” and it “interacts with the physical and social structures of the world external to the individual” (McGee and Warms 2012: 494). It is also important to note that a habitus does not occur individually, it occurs through social context, which is why different cultures have a different habitus. A habitus governs how individuals act in the world and how they react to certain situation, and since a habitus becomes so grown on an individual, it becomes an “automatic action” (McGee and Warms 2012: 495). In fact, it’s something so automatic that a habitus occurs most of the time, if not all the time, subconscious, and it’s something that we would regard as common sense. For example, a habitus that I know is fairly common among my culture is clapping at the end of performances as a sign of respect and acknowledgment. Even if the performance wasn’t the best, most, if not all, people will still clap after someone has just given a speech, sang a song, or carried out another performance. Usually people will clap without even having to think about it because they are just so used to doing it, so it just comes to them naturally. A symbol creates unity among people because these symbols and rituals are ideas have become encompassed in our habitus. We may think that these symbols and rituals may have slowly disappeared or are nonexistent in our habitus, since many of our responses to symbols and rituals are done subconsciously, but these symbols are still in the underlying portion of our habitus and still make up a great portion of our habitus that contributes to socialization in society. Symbols and rituals gradually become a part of our habitus, which is why people of the same culture tend to have a similar response to a particular symbol or ritual. The individual thoughts that we have on a symbol or ritual become collective and shared through our similar habitus which elicits these meanings and responses that we attach to symbols and rituals. For example, when I was in elementary school, there was the daily activity of performing the pledge of allegiance. In Kapferer’s terms, this would be defined as an interaction ritual because it was an everyday interaction that we had with the flag, and it didn’t occur drastically outside of the school setting. The flag, as we learned, is a shared symbol of nationalism and patriotism to my classmates, explaining why all of us automatically put our right hands over our hearts, as soon as it was announced.  We all collectively learned this through performing the pledge of allegiance everyday. The action of putting our hands over our hearts and stating the pledge were symbols of respect to our country and acknowledgement to our patriotism and nationalism. This symbol and type of ritual that was performed became part of our habitus, and with this symbol and ritual embedded in our habitus, we all knew what to do when the flag was raised everyday. The similar habitus created the unification, and this unification was created subconsciously. If someone were to ask me today if a flag meant something in my habitus, I would say no, but the flag, along with other symbols and rituals have gradually become invisible in my habitus because the responses that it elicits occur subconsciously to me. This is how a symbol unifies a group of people—by creating a similar habitus among people, it elicits the same response and meaning.

        Symbols and rituals form part of the habitus of individuals that elicits unity, is the lens that I have created for which to look at my fieldwork from. This lens will help me analyze the symbols and rituals that occur in the center, and it will also help me analyze the habitus of the different kids. This lens will also help me understand the similar responses and unity that occur between the students when a certain interaction ritual is performed or symbol is present. For example, through this lens I can analyze the symbolism of a teacher that is in the habitus of the students. To extend my lens, I can look at students who are the outliers and who aren’t with the unified. I can try to understand what is different about their habitus that causes them to respond different and have a different idea about the particular symbol or ritual. For example, if a particular student isn’t sitting in his desk, I can look through his habitus to understand this problem.  I could also further extend my lens to include how a habitus influences the language of these students, as well. The problem I do see with this particular lens is that this lens could be too specific, including only the symbols, when I may need to broaden it to include language, as well. The lens that I have created will be useful to me when applying these concepts to my fieldwork, and it will help me look at symbols and rituals conducted in the center from a more anthropological perspective.




Kapferer, Judith

  1981  Socialization and the Symbolic Order of the School. Anthropology and Education Quarterly 12(4): 258–274.

McGee, R. Jon
 and Warms, L. Richard

   2012  Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History. 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.


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