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Critically evaluate the claim that culture is best understood as a system of symbolic classification Essay


              This essay will focus on evaluating the claim that culture is perfectly understood as a symbolic classification system. Culture can be defined as cumulative deposit of beliefs, attitudes, knowledge, values, experience, roles, meanings, spatial relations, hierarchies, notions of time, possessions and material objects obtained by a group of individuals in the course of the generations through group and individual thriving. Culture involves patterns implicit and explicit, for and of behavior obtained and conveyed through symbols, representing the unique achievement of the human groups, comprising of their personifications in artifacts; the fundamental core of culture include the traditional ideas and particularly their emotionally involved values; culture systems on the other hand may be deemed as products of action. A symbol refers to any object, usually material, meant to stand for another, even though there is no significant relationship. Typically culture is founded on a shared set of meanings and symbols. Symbolic culture allows human communication and therefore must be taught. The symbolic culture is more adaptable and malleable than biological evolution. Humans subconsciously and consciously, strive always in making logic of their surrounding world. Some symbols like objects, words, gestures and signs assist individuals in understanding the world. Usually symbols offer clues in understanding the experiences. They usually express familiar meanings which are shared by the societies. Uniform and badge held by police officers represent symbols of law or authority enforcement. When an officer is seen wearing a uniform or in a squad car enhances reassurance in man citizens, and anger, fear, or annoyance among others (Browne et al, 1990, p38-p42).

The world has countless symbols. Company logos, traffic signs and sports uniforms are some of the symbols. A gold sign in some cultures symbolizes marriage. There are some symbols which are very functional; for example, stop signs offers valuable instruction. They belong to the material culture since they are physical objects, however they function like symbols, in addition they pass on nonmaterial cultural meanings. Some of the symbols are only helpful in what they signify. Gold medals, trophies and blue ribbons, for instance, provide no other function other than representing the accomplishments. However numerous objects have both nonmaterial and material symbolic value. Symbols are usually taken for granted easily. Few individuals challenge or even consider sticking the figure signs on the public bathrooms’ doors. However those figures signs are more than being mere symbols which informs women and men which bathrooms they are supposed to use. Also they uphold the value, in USA, that restrooms ought to be gender exclusive. Even if stalls are comparatively private, most places do not offer bathrooms that are unisex (Hoijer, 1954, p. 14).

Symbols frequently get recognized when used out of context. Symbols express strong messages and are used unconventionally. Even destruction of symbols is perceived to be symbolic. Effigies signifying public figures are beaten so as to express anger at particular leaders. Crowds in 1989 tore down Berlin wall a symbols which decades-old of the division between West and East, capitalism and communism. While diverse cultures have different systems of symbols however language is common to all. Language refers to a symbolic system by which individuals’ converse and through which the culture is spread. Various languages include a system of symbols utilized for written communication, whereas others rely on nonverbal actions and spoken communication. Societies regularly share one language, and a lot of languages have the same fundamental components. An alphabet refers to a written system which is made of symbolic shapes which refer to sound which is spoken. These symbols taken together, express definite meanings. English alphabet employs a mixture of 26 letters in order to create words; where these 26 letters create over 600,000 English words which are recognized (Smith, 2001, p. 46).

Case study 1

              Additionally, through using language, individuals’ converse without using words. The communication which is nonverbal is symbolic, and, similar to the case of language, a lot of it is learned by the individual’s culture. Various signals are almost universal: crying regularly represents sadness and smiles frequently signify joy. Additional nonverbal symbols differ across the cultural backgrounds in their meaning. For instance, a thumbs-up symbol in the United States shows positive support, while in Australia and Russia, it signifies an offensive curse. Various gestures differ in meaning depending with the individual and the situation. A symbol of waving the hand can represent numerous things, considering for whom it is done and how it’s done. It may signify “no thank you,” “hello,” or “I’m royalty,” or “goodbye.” Winks express a range of messages, comprising of “I’m only kidding,” or “I’m attracted to you,” Or “We have a secret.” From a distance, an individual can comprehend the emotional idea of two individuals in conversation just through examining their facial expressions and body language. Folded arms and Furrowed brows signify a serious topic, perhaps a disagreement. Smiles, with arms open and heads lifted, imply a cheerful, friendly conversation (Durkheim, 2003, p. 41).

Case study two

              Even though language is possibly the most apparent system of symbols that used in communication, numerous things we do express a symbolic meaning. For instance, of the way individuals dress and what it signifies to other individuals. The manner in which a person dress symbolically communicates to other people if that individual care about academics or if he or she is a fan of their school’s football group, or it might converse that the individual is a fan of punk music or has adopted an anarchist philosophy. In various urban settings, the symbolic meaning of individual’s clothes can signify gang connection. Other gang associates use these symbolic sartorial signs to identify allies or enemies. Anthropologists argues that, through their evolution course, individuals evolved a universal individual capacity to categorize experiences, as well as encoding and communicating them symbolically, like with language which is written. Due to the fact that symbolic systems were learned as well as being taught, they started developing independently of the biological evolution. Since this capacity for social learning and symbolic thinking is a human evolution product confuses older arguments regarding nurture versus nature. This view of culture shows that individuals who live away from each other begin develops distinct cultures. Basics of different cultures, but, can spread easily from one group of individuals to another. Belief that culture is coded symbolically and can, consequently, can be taught from one individual to another, meaning that cultures can change even if they are bounded. Culture is dynamic can be learned and taught, which makes it a rapid adaption form potentially to variations in the physical conditions. Anthropologists usually view culture both as supplement and product of the biological evolution; culture can be perceived as the core means of human version to the world which is natural (Middleton, 2002, p.16).

The above view of culture as symbolic system with the adaptive functions varying from one place to another, made the anthropologists to conceive of various cultures as described through different structures or patterns of continuing conventional meaning sets. These meanings took solid form in diversity of artifacts like rituals and myths, tools, well as the planning of villages and the design of housing. Anthropologists differentiate between symbolic culture and material culture, not only since each signifies distinct types of human activity, however also because they comprise of different forms of data that necessitate dissimilar methodologies to study. The culture sociology relates to culture since it is evident in the society: the ways of acting, the ways of thinking and the material objects that collectively shape the individual’s way of life. In regard to Max Weber, the symbols are very essential features of culture: individuals employ symbols to convey their spirituality as well as the spiritual side of actual events, and perfect interests are obtained from the symbols (Smith, 2001, p.21-24). In accordance with the sociologists, symbols composes one of the five essential basics of culture, the others being norms, values, language and beliefs. Symbolic anthropology perceives culture as independent system of meaning decoded through interpreting the key rituals and symbols (Werness, 2000, p.37).

In conclusion, it is evident that culture is as set of symbolic classifications, referred to as a group of symbols which can prearranged into a paradigmatic set, frequently hierarchical. These systems of classifications show a world view or tribal order. Languages are constituted of the systems of classifications like grammars. Grammars classify number, person and time. Cultures consist of unconscious classifications which include relatives, plants, colors and animals.


Browne, R. B., Fishwick, M. W., & Browne, K. O. (1990). Dominant symbols in popular culture. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.

Durkheim, E. (2003). Emile Durkheim sociologist of modernity. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub..Hoijer, H. (1954). Language in culture: conference on the interrelations of language and other aspects of culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Middleton, J. (2002). Culture. Oxford, U.K.: Capstone Pub..Smith, P. (2001). Cultural theory: cn introduction. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell :.

Werness, H. B. (2000). The Continuum encyclopedia of native art: worldview, symbolism, and culture in Africa, Oceania, and native North America. New York: Continuum.

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