Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session


Human beings are symbol-making as well as tool-making animals. We understand our world and shape our lives in large part by assigning meanings to objects, beings, and persons; by connecting things together in symbolic patterns; and by creating elaborate forms of symbolic action and narrative. In this introductory subject we consider how symbols are created and structured; how they draw on and give meaning to different domains of the human world; how they are woven into politics, family life, and the life cycle; and how we can interpret them.

The semester will be devoted to a number of topics in symbolism.

  1. Metaphor and Other Figurative Language
  2. The Raw Materials of Symbolism, especially animals and The Human Body
  3. Cosmology and Complex Symbolic Systems
  4. Ritual, including Symbolic Curing and Magic
  5. Narrative and Life
  6. Mythology

The course will focus primarily on symbolic forms and their analysis, rather than on intellectual history or the place of symbolic studies in social theory. Theorists, schools of thought, and intellectual history will be discussed for the most part in the context of the six topics listed above, and technical vocabulary will be kept to a minimum. Readings will consist primarily of articles and chapters, most of them by anthropologists, covering a wide variety of cases from traditional and modern societies. Students, in addition to keeping up with the readings and participating in class discussions, will be expected to write a series of short essays and field studies over the course of the semester.

There is one required text, Illness as Metaphor / AIDS and its Metaphors, (by Susan Sontag 1978, 1989, Doubleday). Otherwise, course readings consist of articles and chapters on different aspects of symbolism, which will be discussed in class.

Classes will consist of a mixture of lecture and discussion. Each class is keyed to a set of readings, and it is crucial that students keep up with the readings and be prepared to discuss them in class. Class participation — in terms of both regular attendance and participation in discussion — will count strongly towards the final grade. In the first weeks of the semester attendance will be taken.

There is no prerequisite: this subject is open to any student.

Written work will consist of a series of short papers, divided between essays and field reports. There is no final exam.