On Key Symbols Author(s): Sherry B. Ortner
Source: American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 75, No. 5 (Oct. , 1973), pp. 1338-1346
Published by: Wiley-Blackwell on behalf of the American Anthropological Association Stable
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SHERRY B. ORTNER
Sarah Lawrence College This paper reviews the use of the notion of “key symbol” in anthropological analysis. It analyzes phenomena which have been or might be accorded the status of key symbol in cultural analyses, categorizing them according to their primary modes of operating on thought and action. IT IS by no means a novel idea that each culture has certain key elements which, in an ill-defined way, are crucial to its distinctive organization. Since the publication of Benedict’s Patterns of Culture in 1934, the otion of such key elements has persistedin American anthropology under a variety of rubrics: “themes” (e. g. , Opler 1945; Cohen 1948), “focal values” (Albert 1956), “dominant values” (DuBois 1955), “integrative concepts” (DuBois 1936), “dominant orientations” (F. Kluckhohn 1950), and so forth. We can also find this idea sneaking namelessly into British social anthropologicalwriting;the best example of this is Lienhardt’s(1961) discussionof cattle in Dinka culture (and I say culture rather than society advisedly).
Even EvansPritchardhas said, as every experienced field-workerknows, the most difficult task in social anthropological field work is to determine the meanings of a few key words, upon an understandingof which the success of the whole investigation depends [1962:80]. Recently, as the focus in the study of meaningsystems has shifted to the symbolic units which formulate meaning, the interest in these key elements of cultureshas become specified as the interest in key symbols.
Schneider (1968) calls them “core symbols” in his study of American kinship; Turner method is Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum (1967) calls them “dominant symbols” in and the Sword (1967). The sword and the chrysanthemum were chosen by Benedict from the repertoire of Japanesesymbols as Accepted for publication August 2, 1972 1338 his study of Ndembu ritual; I called them “key symbols” in my study of Sherpasocial relations(Ortner1970). The primary question of course is what do we mean by “key”? But I will postpone considering this problem until I have discussed the various usages of the notion of key symbols in the literature of symbolic analysis.
Two methodological approachesto establishing certain symbols as “core” or “key” to a cultural system have been employed. The first approach, less commonly used, involves analyzing the system (or domains thereof) for its underlying elementscognitive distinctions, value orientations, etc. -then looking about in the culture for some figure or image which seems to formulate, in relatively pure form, the underlying orientations exposed in the analysis. The best example of this approach in the current literatureis
DavidSchneider’s (1968) analysis of American kinship; Schneider first analyzes the kinship system for its basic components-nature and lawand then decides that conjugalsexual intercourse is the form which, given its meaning in the culture, expresses this opposition most succinctly and meaningfully. Schneider expresseshis debt to Ruth Benedict, and this debt turns out to be quite specific, since the other major work which embodies this Ortner ] ON KEY SYMBOLS 1339 most succinctly, or perhapsmost poetically, representing the tension in the Japanese value system which she postulated.
She did not arriveat this tension throughan analysis of the meanings of chrysanthemums and swords in the culture; she first established the tension in Japanese culture through analysis of various symbolic systems, then chose these two items from the repertoireof Japanesesymbols to sum up the opposition. In the second, more commonly employed approach, the investigator observes something which seems to be an object of cultural interest, and analyzes it for its meanings. The observationthat some symbol is a focus of cultural interest need not be very mysterious or intuitive.
I offer here five reasonably reliable indicators of cultural interest, and there are probably more. Most key symbols, I venture to suggest, will be signaled by more than one of these indicators: (1) The natives tell us that X is culturally important. (2) The natives seem positively or negatively aroused about X, rather than indifferent. (3) X comes up in many different contexts. These contexts may be behavioral or systemic: X comes up in many different kinds of action situation or conversation,or X comes up in many different symbolic domains (myth, ritual, art, formal rhetoric, etc. ). 4) There is greater cultural elaboration surroundingX, e. g. , elaboration of vocabulary, or elaboration of details of X’s nature, compared with similar phenomena in the culture. (5) There are greatercultural restrictions surrounding X, either in sheer number of rules, or severity of sanctions regardingits misuse.
As I said, there may be more indicators even than these of the key status of a symbol in a culture, but any of these should be eqough to point even the most insensitive fieldworker in the right direction. I should also add that I am not assumingthat there is only one key symbol to every culture; ultures are of course a product of the interplay of many basic orientations, some quite conflicting. But all of them will be expressed somewhere in the public system, because the public symbol system is ultimately the only source from which the natives themselves discover, rediscover, and transformtheir own culture,generationafter generation. It remains for us now to sort out the bewildering array of phenomena to which various investigatorshave been led to assign implicitly or explicitly the status of key culturalsymbol. Anything by definition can be a symbol, i. . , a vehicle for cultural meaning, and it seems from a survey of the literature that almost anything can be key. Omittingthe symbols establishedby the first approachcited above, which have a different epistemologicalstatus, we can cite from the anthropological literature such things as cattle among the Dinkaand Nuer, the Naven ritual of the latmul, the Australianchuringa, the slametanof the Javanese,the potlatch of the northwest coast, the forked stick of Ndembu rituals, and from my own research, the wheel-image in Tibet and food among the Sherpas.
We could also add such intuitive examples as the cross of Christianity, the Americanflag, the motorcycle for the Hell’s Angels, “work” in the Protestant ethic, and so on. The list is a jumble-things and abstractions, nouns and verbs, single items and whole events. I should like to propose a way of subdividingand orderingthe set, in terms of the ways in which the symbols operate in relationto culturalthought and action. The first major breakdown among the various types of symbols is along a continuum whose two ends I call “sumI marizing”vs. “elaborating. stress that it is a continuum, but I work with the ideal types at the two ends. Summarizing symbols, first, are those symbols which are seen as summing up, expressing, representingfor the participants in an emotionally powerful and relatively undifferentiated way, what the system means to them. This category is essentially 1340
AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST[75,1973] the category of sacred symbols in the broadest sense, and includes all those items which are objects of reverence and/or catalysts of emotion-the flag, the cross, the churinga, the forked stick, the motorcycle, etc.
The American flag, for example, for certain Americans, stands for something called “the Americanway,” a conglomerate of ideas and feelings including(theoretically) democracy, free enterprise,hardwork, competition, progress,national superiority,freedom, etc. And it stands for them all at once. It does not encourage reflection on the logical relations among these ideas, nor on the logical consequences of them as they are played out in social actuality, over time and history. On the contrary,the flag encourages a sort of all-or-nothing allegiance to the whole package, best summed up on a billboardI saw recently: “Ourflag, love it or leave. And this is the point about summarizingsymbols in general-they operate to compound and synthesize a complex system of ideas, to “summarize” them under a unitary form which, in an old-fashioned way, “standsfor” the system as a whole. Elaboratingsymbols, on the other hand, work in the opposite direction, providing vehicles for sorting out complex and undifferentiated feelings and ideas, making them comprehensibleto oneself, communicableto others, and translatableinto orderly action. Elaborating symbols are accorded central status in the culture on the basis of their capacity to order experience; they are essentiallyanalytic.
Rarely are these symbols sacred in the conventional sense of being objects of respect or foci of emotion; their key status is indicated primarily by their recurrence in cultural behavior or cultural symbolic systems. Symbols can be seen as havingelaborating power in two modes. They may have primarilyconceptualelaboratingpower, that is, they are valued as a source of categories for conceptualizing the order of the world. action elaborating Orthey may haveprimarily power; that is, they are valued as implying mechanisms for successful social action. These two modes reflect what I see s the two basic and of course interrelatedfunctions of culture in general:to providefor its members “orientations,” i. e. , cognitive and affective categories; and “strategies,” i. e. , programsfor orderlysocial action in relation to culturallydefined goals. Symbols with great conceptual elaborating power are what Stephen Pepper (1942) has called “root metaphors,” and indeed in this realm the basic mechanismis the metaphor. It is felt in the culture that many aspects of experience can be likened to, and illuminatedby the comparisonwith, the symbol itself.
In Pepper’s terms, the symbol provides a set of categories for conceptualizingother aspects of experience, or, if this point is stated too uni-directionally for some tastes, we may say that the root metaphor formulates the unity of cultural orientationunderlyingmany aspects of experience, by virtue of the fact that those many aspects of experience can be likened to it. One of the best examples of a cultural root metaphor in the anthropologicalliterature is found in Godfrey Lienhardt’s discussion of the role of cattle in Dinka thought.
Cows provide for the Dinka an almost endless set of categories for conceptualizingand respondingto the subtleties of experience. For example: The Dinkas’ very perception of colour, light, and shade in the world aroundthem is… inextricably connected with their recognition of colour-configurations in their cattle. If their cattle-colourvocabulary were taken away, they would have scarcely any way of describing visual experience in terms of colour, light and darkness[1961:13]. More important for Lienhardt’sthesis is the Dinka conceptualization of the structureof their own society on analogy with the physical structureof the bull. ‘The people are put together, as a bull is put together,’ said a Dinka chief on one occasion” (Ibid. : 23), and indeed the formally prescribed division of the meat of a sacrificedbull is a most graphic representationof the statuses, functions, and interrelationships of the major social categories of Dinka society, as Ortner ] ON KEY SYMBOLS 1341 the Dinka themselvesrepresentthe situation. In fact, as Mary Douglas points out, the living organism in one form or another functions as a root metaphor in many cultures, as a source of categories for conceptualizingsocial phenomena(1966).
In mechanizedsociety, on the other hand, one root metaphor for the social process is the machine, and in recent times the computer represents a crucial modification upon this root metaphor. But the social is not the only aspect of experience which root-metaphor type symbols are used to illuminate; for example, much of greater Indo-Tibetan cosmology-the forms and processes of life, space, and time-is developed on analogy with the quite simple image of the wheel (Ortner1966). A root metaphor, then, is one type of key symbol in the elaborating mode, i. . , a symbol which operates to sort out experience, to place it in culturalcategories,and to help us think about how it all hangs together. They are symbols which are “good to think,” not exactly in the Levi-Straussian sense, but in that one can conceptualizethe interrelationships among phenomena by analogyto the interrelationsamong the parts of the root metaphor. 2 The other major type of elaborating symbol is valued primarilybecauseit implies clear-cut modes of action appropriate to correct and successful living in the culture.
Every culture, of course, embodies some vision of success, or the good life, but the cultural variation occurs in how success is defined, and, given that, what are considered the best ways of achieving it. “Key scenarios,” as I call the type of key symbol in this category, are culturallyvalued in that they formulate the culture’s basic meansends relationshipsin actable forms. An example of a key scenario from American culture would be the Horatio Alger myth. The scenario runs: poor boy of low status, but with total faith in the American system, works very hard and ultimately becomes rich and powerful.
The myth formulates both the Americanconception of success-wealth and power-and suggeststhat there is a simple (but not easy) way of achieving them-singleminded hard work. This scenario may be contrastedwith ones from other cultures which present other actions as the most effective meansof achieving wealth and power, or which formulate wealth and power as appropriate goals only for certain segments of the society, or, of course, those which do not define cultural success in terms of wealth and power at all.
In any case, the point is that every culture has a numberof such key scenarios which both formulate appropriate goals and suggest effective action for achieving them; which formulate, in other words, key culturalstrategies. This category of key symbols may also include rituals; Singer seems to be making the point of rituals as scenarios when he writes of “culturalperformances” (1958), in which both valued end states and effective means for achievingthem are dramatizedfor all to see.
Thus this category would include naven, the slametan, the potlatch, and others. The category could also include individualelements of rituals-objects, roles, action sequences-insofar as they refer to or epitomize the ritualas a whole, which is why one can have actions, objects, and whole events in the same category. Further, scenarios as key symbols may include not only formal, usually named events, but also all those cultural sequences of action which we can observeenacted and reenacted according to unarticulated formulae in the normal course of daily life.
An example of such a scenario from Sherpa culture would be the hospitalityscenario,in which any individual in the role of host feeds a guest and thereby renders him oneself. The voluntarilycooperativevis-A-vis scenario formulates both the ideally valued (though infrequently attained) mode of social relations in the culture-voluntary cooperation-and, given certain cultural assumptions about the effects of food on people, the most effective way of establishing those kinds of relations. Once againthen, the scenariois culturallyvalued-indicated in this case by the fact that it is played and 342 AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST [75,1973 replayed in the most diverse sorts of social contexts-because it suggests a clear-cut strategy for arriving at culturally defined success. I have been discussingthe category of key symbols which I called “elaborating”symbols, symbols valued for their contribution to the sorting out of experience. This class includes both root metaphorswhich provide categories for the ordering of conceptual experience, and key scenarioswhich provide strategies for organizing action experience.
While for purposes of this discussionI have been led by the data to separate thought from action, I must hasten to put the pieces back together again. For my view is that ultimately both kinds of symbols have both types of referents. Root metaphors, by establishing a certain view of the world, implicitly suggest certain valid and effective ways of acting upon it; key scenarios, by prescribing certain culturally effective courses of action, embody and rest upon certain assumptions about the nature of reality.
Even summarizing symbols, while primarily functioning to compound rather than sort out experience, are seen as both and implying, formulatingbasic ‘orientations much less systematically than though scenarios,certainmodes of action. One question which might be raised at this point is how we are to understandthe logical relationshipsamong the types of key symbols I have distinguished. As the scheme stands now, it has the following unbalanced structure: summarizing vs. elaborating key scenario root metaphor
I would argue that this asymmetry follows from the content of the types: the meaningcontent of summarizingor sacredsymbols is by definition clustered,condensed,relatively undifferentiated, “thick,” while the meaning-content of elaborating symbols is by definition relatively clear, orderly, differentiated, articulate. Thus it is possible to make distinctionsamong the different order- ing functions of elaboratingsymbols, while the denseness of meaning of summarizing symbols renders them relatively resistant to subdivisionand orderingby types.
Nonetheless, in the interest of systematic analysis,we may raise the question of whether such subdivisions are possible, and in particular whether the thought/action distinction which subdivides elaboratingsymbols (into root metaphors and key scenarios) also crosscuts and subdivides summarizing symbols. The important mode of operation of summarizingsymbols, it will be recalled, is its focusing power, its drawing-together, intensifying, catalyzing impact upon the respondent.
Thus we must ask whether some summarizing symbols primarily operate to catalyze thought or in any case internal states of the actor, while others primarilyoperate to catalyze overt action on the part of the actor. Now it does seem possible, for example, to see the cross or some other religious symbol as primarily focusing and intensifying inner attitude, with no particular implied public action, while the flag or some other political symbol is primarily geared to focusing and catalyzing overt action in the public world.
Yet, intuitively at least, this distinction seems relatively weak and unconvincingcompared to the easily formulatedand graspeddistinction between the two types of elaborating symbols: static formal images serving metaphor functions for thought (root metaphors), and dramatic, phased action sequences serving scenario functions for action (key scenarios). Of course, as I said, root metaphorsmay imply particular modes of, or at least a restricted set of possible modes of, action; and key scenarios presuppose certain orderly assumptions of thought.
But the distinction-the former geared primarily to thought, the latter to action-remains sharp. Summarizingsymbols, on the other hand, speak primarilyto attitudes, to a crystallization of commitment. And, in the mode of commitment, the thought/action distinction is not particularly relevant. There may Ortner] ON KEY SYMBOLS 1343 certainly be consequences for thought and action as a result of a crystallizedcommitment, but commitment itself is neither thought nor action.
The point perhaps illuminates the generally sacred status of summarizingsymbols, for they are speaking to a more diffuse mode of orientationin the actor, a broader context of attitude within which particular modes of thinking and acting are formulated. 3 This is not to say that nothing analytic may be said about summarizing symbols beyond the fact that they catalyze feeling; there are a number of possible ways of subdividingthe catalog of sacred symbols in the world, some no doubt more useful or illuminated than others.
My point is merely that the particularfactor which subdivides elaboratingsymbols–the thought/action distinction-does not serve very powerfully to subdivide the category of summarizing symbols, since the summarizingsymbol is speakingto a different level of response,the level of attitude and commitment. We are now in a position to returnto the question of “key” or centralstatus. Why are we justified in calling a particular symbol “key”?
The indicatorsprovidedearlierfor at least provisionallyregardingcertain symbols as key to a particularculture were all based on the assumption that keyness has public (though not necessarily conscious) manifestation in the cultureitself, availableto the observer in the field, or at least available when one reflects upon one’s observations. But the fact of public cultural concern or focus of interest is not why a symbol is key; it is only a signal that the symbol is playing some key role in relation to other elements of the cultural system of thought.
The issue of keyness, in short, has to do with the internal organization of the system of cultural meaning, as that system functions for actors leading their lives in the culture. Broadly speaking, the two types of key symbols distinguished above, defined in terms of how they act upon or are manipulated by cultural actors, also indicate the two broad modes of “keyness” from a systemic point of view, defined in terms of the role such symbols are playing in the symbol system; that is, a given summarizing is “key” to the system insofar as the meaningswhich it formulatesare logically or affectively prior to other meanings of the system.
By “logically or affectively prior”I mean simply that many other cultural ideas and attitudes presuppose, and make sense only in the context of, those meanings formulated by the symbol. The key role of an elaboratingsymbol, by contrast, derives not so much from the status of its particular substantivemeanings,but from its formalor organizationalrole in relationto the system; that is, we say such a symbol is “key” to the system insofar as it extensively and sysformulates relationships-tematically parallels, isomorphisms, complementarities, and so forth-between a wide range of diverseculturalelements.
This contrast between the two modes of “keyness” may be summed up in various ways, all of which oversimplify to some extent, but which nonetheless give perspective on the point. (1) “Content versus form”: The keyness of a summarizing symbol derives from its particularsubstantive meanings (content) and their logical priority in relationto other meaningsof the system. The keyness of an elaborating symbol derives from its formal properties, and their culturally postulated power to formulatewidely applicablemodes of organizing cultural phenomena. 2) “Quality versus quantity”: The keyness of a summarizing symbol derives from the relative fundamentality (or ultimacy) of the meanings which it formulates, relative to other meanings of the system. The keyness of an elaboratingsymbol derives from the broadness of its scope, the extent to which it systematicallydraws relationshipsbetween a wide range of diversecultural elements. (3) “Vertical versus lateral”: The keyness of a summarizingsymbol derivesfrom its ability to relate lower-order meanings to higherorder assumptions, or to “ground” more surface-levelmeaningsto their deeper bases. (The issue here is degree of generality of meaning.
Whethermore generalmeaningsare 1344 AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST [75,1973 termed “higher”or “deeper,” “ultimate”or “fundamental,” by a particular cultural analyst seems a matter of personal preference. ) The keyness of an elaboratingsymbol by contrast derives from its ability to interconnect disparateelements at essentially the same level, by virtue of its ability to manifest (or bring into relief) their formal similarities. All of these terminological contrastsform/content, quantity/quality, lateral/ vertical-are really perspectives upon the same basic contrast, for which we have no more general erm; that is, when we say a symbol is “key” to the system, summarizing we mean that its substantivemeaningshave certain kinds of priority relative to other meanings of the system. When we say an elaboratingsymbol is key to the system, we refer to the power of its formalor organizational role in relationto the system. But at this point we must stop short of reifying the distinctions, for, in practice,the contrastbetween the two broadtypes of key symbols and the two modes of “keyness” may break down.
It seems empiricallyto be the case that an elaboratingsymbol which is accorded wide-rangingapplicability in the culture-played in many contexts, or applied to many different sorts of forms-is generally not only formally apt but also substantively referential to high level values, ideas, cognitive assertions, and so forth. Indeed, insofar as such high level formulations are made, a key elaboratingsymbol of a culture may move into the sacredmode and operate in much the same way as does a summarizing symbol.
And, on the other hand, some summarizing symbols may play important ordering functions, as when they relate the respondent not merely to a cluster of high level assumptions and values, but to a particularscenariowhich may be replayedin ongoing life. (One may think, for example, of the Christiancross evoking, among other things, not only a general sense of God’s purpose and support, but also the particular scenarioof Christ’smartyrdom. ) Thus we are brought to an important not point, namely, that we are distinguishing only types of symbols, but types of symbolic functions.
These functions may be performedby any given symbol-at different times, or in different contexts, or even simultaneously by different “levels” of its meaning. While there are many examples of summarizing and elaborating symbols in their relatively pure forms, the kinds of functions or operations these symbols perform may also be seen as aspects of any given symbols. To summarizethe originalscheme briefly, key symbols may be discoveredby virtueof a number of reliable indicatorswhich point to culturalfocus of interest. They are of two broad types-summarizing and elaborating.
Summarizingsymbols are primarilyobjects of attention and cultural respect; they synthesize or “collapse” complex experience, and relate the respondent to the grounds of the system as a whole. They include most importantlysacred symbols in the traditional sense. Elaborating symbols, on the other hand, are symbols valued for their contribution to the ordering or “sorting out” of experience. Withinthis are symbols valued primarilyfor the orderingof conceptual experience, i. e. , for providing cultural “orientations,” and those valued primarilyfor the orderingof action, i. e. for providing cultural “strategies. “The former includes what Pepper calls “root metaphors,” the latter includes key scenarios,or elements of scenarios which are crucial to the means-endrelationshippostulatedin the complete scenario. 4 This scheme also suggests,at least by the choices of terms, the modes of symbolic analysis relevant to the different types of key symbols. The first type (summarizing symbols) suggests a range of questions pertaining to the cultural conversion of complex ideas into variouskinds of relatively undifferentiatedcommitment-patriotism, for example, or faith.
The second type (root metaphors) suggests questions applicableto the analysis of metaphor in the broadest sense-questions of how thought proceeds and organizes itself through analogies, models, images, and so forth. And the third Ortner] ON KEY SYMBOLS 1345 type (key scenarios) suggests dramatistic modes of analysis, in which one raises questions concerning the restructuring of attitudes and relationships as a result of enacting particular culturally provided sequences of stylized actions. This article has been frankly programmatic; I am in the process of implementing some of its ideas in a monograph on Sherpa social and religious relations.
Here I have simply been concerned to show that, although a method of cultural analysis via key symbols has been for the most part unarticulated, there is at least incipiently method in such analysis. It is worth our while to try to systematize this method, for it may be our most powerful entree to the distinctiveness and variability of human cultures. NOTES is a revised version of a paper presented at the symposium “Method in Symbolic Analysis,” 70th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, New York, November, 1971. While I am not using the phrase “good to think” precisely in the way in which I•vi-Strauss uses it, there is obviously some parallel between my discussion of root metaphors and Levi-Strauss’ discussion of “the science of the concrete” (1966). 3Cf. Geertz’s discussion of “moods and motivations” in his “Religion as a Cultural System” (1966), which is dealing with similar issues. 4There are a number of schemes in the literature of semiotics to which this scheme may be compared, although none are isomorphic with it.
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