A Brief History of Navel Gazing in the West

The West has long had poor respect for what is sometimes jokingly called “navel gazing.” Western culture, by and large, hasn’t been terribly interested in self-knowledge and self-reflection until relatively recently. Only in recent years have we begun to “create” understandings of the world that look inward as much as outward.

The West and Self-Reflection

Bhante Vimalaramsi, founder of the american buddhist forest tradition
Understanding the “self” is not a new idea.

When we go out in search of the truth, we don’t go alone. We bring with us everything we’ve already learned, starting with what we were taught as part of the process of enculturation. Whether we rebel against the things we’ve been taught or build on them, it’s critical that we know where we’re coming from.

One of the basic tenets of the scientific method is that what we discover needs to be part of an “objective” reality. Science, in Western culture, holds the belief that a) there is an objective reality, and that b) we can access and understand that reality. Culturally, self-knowledge is often thought to be a waste of time — especially in the pursuit of a truth that is held to be external.

Importing Self-Awareness

The West didn’t create self-reflexive approaches out of whole cloth. The basis of these understandings came from other cultures.

Even where we didn’t attempt to import these approaches (which we did, through yoga, meditation, and the martial arts to name a few), we still were influenced by underlying ideas about the nature of self and perception. We all picked up a little bit of Eastern philosophy as it was absorbed into Western culture.

The importation of Eastern” thought has its own interesting history. By the end of the colonial era, the West had had developed a taste for all things “Eastern,” and these approaches gained a little attention in some circles.

It’s important to note that we didn’t just import foreign ideas to replace “Western” ones. The process was much more organic and tenuous. But our broadening world did force us to look more closely at ourselves. Our widening view of the world forced us to look farther afield.


Starting in the 19th century, the Spiritist and Spiritulalist movements had arisen on the fringes as Science struggled with the Church for cosmological supremacy. Though it was not their intention, they created a cultural space for the Theosophical Society (founded 1875).

Through their scholarly work, this small group of culturally fringe believers (Atlantis, the World Teacher, and Ascended Masters) gave the West a window on whole new ways to view the self. In fact, the whole of the New Age and Self-Help movements come at least partially out of this tradition — as does anyone who says “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” whether they know it or not.

It’s so easy to critique the Theosophical Society’s notions of a universal religion as misguided, colonialist, and racist that it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. However, the efforts of their scholars to make serious translations of many of the major religious texts of Asia had a profound impact on the West.

Nearly a hundred years after the founding of the Theosophical Society, these questions had found some acceptance and become more relevant, or at least more popular, in the West. While the scientific community didn’t devolve into meditation and spirituality, anthropology was the best bet for asking and answering in a scientific way the questions raised.

“How do we know what we know?” “What is the relationship between the self and society?” “What is the self?” These kinds of underlying questions leaked their way from popular culture into research topics. It was these deep, meaningful questions that helped give rise to such theoretical perspectives as postmodernism.

Yet the answers that developed came from the Western intellectual tradition. And the answers have been hard to swallow. It’s terrible to discover that we know much less about the world than we always thought. But hey, that’s science — we’re looking for some truth, not just a feel-good affirmation.

The “hard” scientists, who by their very topics of exploration have the ability to ignore the “self” in their research, have sometimes scoffed — or even claimed that anthropology isn’t a science — but science isn’t a popularity contest.

Anthropologists Aren’t Zen Masters

In seeking the “Truth,” the West has become more aware of the importance of self-knowledge in the past century and a half. While we can trace the Western tradition of self-understanding all the way back to Socrates’s “Know thyself,” it fell out of favor for a while. First, it was replaced by Christianity’s focus on knowledge of God and Jesus. Later it was replaced by scientific objectivity, which was required to hold the “self” as a constant to get any decent results.

Yet these pesky “new” questions, raised by those who looked (and look) more deeply into the nature of self, remained. As anthropology has looked at other cultures’ ways of understanding the world, these questions have grown in importance.

That doesn’t mean that all the anthropologists have gone on to study as Buddhist monks or the like, however. Because of its subject matter (people), anthropology has been forced to address some of these same questions about the nature of self. However, because the field comes out of the Western tradition of science, their methods of exploration are scientific and (relatively) objective.

So while some might dismissively call anthropology “navel gazing,” that’s not really the case. Instead, anthropologists are engaged in trying to answer these age-old questions about people without relying on religious constructions. The field works to answer these questions without wholly abandoning the Western value of objectivity.

Anthropology has been forced to address some of the questions (“What does it mean to be a person?” “What is a person’s relationship with society?” Even “How do we know what we know?”) that we can say were first popularized in the West by the Theosophical society and then by the New Age movement. But the truth is, these are questions that we need to address as a culture.

As travel and communication have become faster, cheaper, and easier, all of us see a lot more of the world. Anthropology is the West’s means of addressing these increasingly relevant questions through science.

To come back to Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Or, to put it a bit cheekily, admitting that navels exist isn’t “navel gazing.” It’s just understanding the ultimate tool of measurement needed for any anthropological exploration — the self.

Belief, Knowledge, and Culture

Carl Spitzweg's The Alchemist
Why are those who seek knowledge such romantic figures?

I’d like to return briefly to the topic of science, and explore further the difference between “science” as in “what researchers do” and Science (with a capital “S”) as in “what researchers have told us.” The first is a way that we learn, gather data, and test it. The second is the collective wisdom of a certain part of our culture.

What I’m saying is that science is two different things in culture. There’s “science is what scientists do” and “science is what scientists say.” The first category helps build a trove of knowledge that is like nothing the world has seen before. The second category is built from the first, but it has a level of cultural interpretation built into it.

An Example

Science, unlike some other forms of knowledge, isn’t designed to tell us how to guide our lives. For example, one might argue from a genetic perspective that the whole purpose of life is based around perpetuating one’s own genes effectively. That makes sense, right? It’s a useful tool of analysis.

However, living with genetics as the sole guiding principle of one’s life misses two things:

  1. everyone kinda knows this already — it’s why there’s so much sex on TV, and
  2. people are not rational, culture-less beings who live their lives according to decisions they make.

Remember, we’re primates, right? Anyone who truly and wholly tried to live by these genetic assumptions, while holding onto Western notions of culture, ethnicity, and the individual, would be setting themselves up to emulate racist, sex-obsessed sociopaths.

While science might analyze our actions based on genetic closeness between individuals, that doesn’t mean we should use such data proscriptively, to guide our decisions.

But Scientists Say…

Most people in Western culture are not scientists. According to InsideHigherEd, only 17% of college graduates earned their bachelor’s in STEM topics. And that’s only the percentage of the total group who attended college. For graduate degrees, the number drops to 13%.

And even if we look at the whole group of graduates as “scientists” (and, admittedly, if we only regard STEM topics as “science” — a debatable question right there), it’s hardly a majority of Americans. Most people are just getting by, not engaging in cosmological investigations at any level.

Even more, since scientists are usually specialists in one field or another, a whole lot of scientific knowledge is being propounded by people who have not done the research for themselves. Their belief rests on their acceptance of science’s authority. We don’t test gravity, we take their word for it.

Science: Rhetoric and Dialectic

In other words, most science is taught, used, and discussed outside of research circles; it’s not being shared by field research specialists. That transforms it from science — a way of learning new things and exploring the world — to Science — a way of viewing the world.

Is this a problem? Does that make the proponents of Science somehow wrong? The short answer to that question is “no.”

The longer answer isn’t “yes.” It’s closer to, “oh, now I can see the influence of Western culture on Science.”

Why? Because as soon as scientific knowledge moves from the realm of dialectic (discussion between scientists) to the realm of rhetoric (discussion between scientists and non-scientists), it lacks the surety that comes from the receiver being able to test the assumptions for themselves.

The rhetorical discussion of scientists with non-scientists is unlike the dialectical one between scientists. The point of rhetorical discussion is winning and strengthening social status, rather than synthesizing a more complete truth. Or to put it more simply:

Participants in a dialectical argument are, on a deeper level, working together. Whereas those engaged in rhetorical debate are much more likely to be working at cross purposes.

But to come back to the key point, the scientific method, and associated research activities — science with a small “s” — is (or should be) distinct from Science with a capital “S.”

The corpus of all the knowledge that humanity has learned, mixed in with a number of cultural beliefs that are accepted on Scientific authority, is what we call Science.When we add the big “S,” Science reflects our cultural values.

It is Science, not science, that argues there is no God, or that research will solve all the world’s ills, or that drinking eight glasses of water a day will protect you from harm.

Applying Anthropology

There are a number of fields of study that we can think of as “standard” in Western culture, from English to physics to history. People simply have a general knowledge of what these graduates do — and what their transferable skills are.

Physics major? Make them an analyst!

When students take physics, even as an undergraduate, we know that they can probably do math, extrapolate effectively from data sets, and think about problems in a relatively objective way. We know that they can manipulate numbers, think certain types of problems through, and understand complicated technical information.

English major? Make them an editor!

Students who major in English, on the other hand, have good vocabularies, can write, communicate, and improve other people’s communications. They know how words fit together for the “average” person, and can read effectively (a skill that we don’t think too much about, but which is actually both uncommon and useful).

History major? Make them a researcher!

When students have completed a history undergraduate degree, they will be well versed in plumbing written sources, analyzing sourcing flaws, and digging out some kind of truth — with the added ability to put together some kind of understanding of the reliability of the answers. These are the same skills that put everyone else’s google-fu to shame.

Anthropology major? Make them a…

But the cultural anthropology major? Anthropology, even more than sociology, is an esoteric topic. Anthropology has traditionally focused on whole areas of knowledge found outside of Western culture.

Where more traditional areas of study have focused on the core strengths of the West, from literature to science, anthropology has gone out and looked at the whole human experience, not just the “cool” stuff.
Anthropology looks at areas of knowledge that are difficult to even talk about in Western culture. They study the hard-to-study, from the religious beliefs of groups that don’t even have a word for religion to the nature of human interaction and the observer’s effect on it. These are areas that have often skated past the eyes of Western culture.

Transferable Skills

For the average anthropology major, even those who plan to go to graduate school and pursue a “life of the mind,” there will come a time when the wheel hits the road and it’s time to enter the job market. We know that the English majors can read (really read), the history majors can research, and the physics majors can perform (relatively) objective analysis.

How about the anthropologists? Well, as it turns out, there are a number of skills that a cultural anthropology major can do pretty well.

Read Technical Literature

Like I mentioned before, English majors are trained to read and analyze texts. Not only can the anthropology major do the same, but the text doesn’t even need a plot!

Research and Analyze

The topics that anthropology addresses almost always cross disciplines. An anthropology graduate can not only find out what people say, but also rate the sources of information (people, texts, or data) in terms of reliability.

Anthropologists have been trained to work from “what people say” to build frameworks that reflect whole ways of thinking. Further, they’ve been weaned from the two great fallacies of this kind of work: the belief that all people think alike, and the related mistake that “all people think like me.”

Combine Objective and Subjective Data

While the archetypal physics student above was trained in turning the physical world into numbers, his anthropology counterpart was trained in combining objective and subjective data. This is why some anthropologists are working in such varied areas as marketing and UX (user experience).

Collect Data that Was Being Missed

We’d like to think that a usual pattern for solving a problem is:

Analyze problem → Develop solution → Develop process → Apply process → Move on

While that model looks sharp, neat, and clean, it may not be terribly efficient in the long run. Anthropologists (those voracious technical readers) are be helpful in developing more complex processes: ones that have feedback loops, are self-correcting, and take advantage of the expertise of those actually performing the work.

An additional problem that anthropologists are trained to tackle (with the delicacy of an anthropologist) is that these “processes” may or may not address underlying challenges, hidden resistances, and “social” issues that don’t come to light immediately.

Analyze a problem → Develop a solution → Develop a process → Apply the process →
Test the results over time to increase efficiencies and determine how users have had to modify the process for “real world” application

The Takeaway

Anthropologists aren’t people who wear baggy, inexpensive clothes with lots of pockets and jewelry from around the world. We’re more than that. Our value added:

Anthropologists are risk takers who are trained to deal with complex and messy systems, real-world, non-static processes, and those pesky problems that always happen whenever primate reality meets carefully crafted abstract systems.

Science: Revolutionary, Heir, or Rebellious Child? (Part 3)

Punk with a Strongbow
Science, like Punk, was once about challenging the status quo.

Science was originally just a method for seeking knowledge. However, it has taken on an important role of authority in Western culture. Science hasn’t only driven innovation and increased our knowledge of the universe — all while improving countless lives on the way; it’s also changed the way the West sees both itself and the world. Science has become a place where many of us look for Truth.

Science’s role has been shaped not only by its own assumptions and discoveries, but also by the West’s much older relationship with knowledge, education, and public service. But sometimes there is a gap between the scientific community’s self-perception and the reality of the part it plays in Western culture.

The last two posts have addressed both the revolutionary aspects of science as it has affected the worldview of the West and the role of knowledge in shaping scientists’ elevated position in Western culture. But the gap between how science presents itself and its actual cultural role can create a certain amount of cognitive dissonance.

First, we need to distinguish between “science” as a method of research and “Science” as a symbol of cultural authority. In the laboratory (or any other research venue), a person uses science as a method for understanding the world. But once the knowledge leaves the scientific community, it becomes Science (with a capital “S”) — a tool of authority and rhetoric.

In the beginning, science was a challenge to old ways of knowing. It was the Punk movement of its day — a conscious revolutionary challenge to old ways of thinking and knowing. The attitude of “out with the old and in with the new” that sometimes seems to come with science — a preference for new ways of doing things in the face of tradition — is downright Punk. It’s a challenge to authority.

The authority of Science can be a very, very good thing. For example, knowing that we should wash our hands before we eat keeps us all healthier, and we don’t need to understand the details. We don’t need to understand germ theory, we just need to know that unwashed hands are “dangerous.” But doing things because Science says so isn’t “science.”

Science, the Rebellious Child?

The scientific community is a subculture of ideas and ideals. The members argue that to build a greater truth, they (and we) must create theories, test them, and share the results with one another. Knowledge that can be neither tested nor replicated is tossed in the wastebin of history.

However, as part of Western culture, the scientific community has gotten itself into an older game: the idea that there is one greater Truth — and that we can understand it. Science has long argued that in order to discover the Truth, we need to throw away the truths of the past. Under this schema, only objective, scientific truth becomes recognized as unchallengeable Truth.

Science’s response to other forms of cultural knowledge (based on non-scientific sources of authority) can sometimes come down to “I know what I’m doing” and “you can’t tell me what to do!” These aren’t scientific arguments, they’re rhetorical “appeal to authority” responses — albeit sometimes warranted ones.

How, then, does scientific truth interact with other sources of cultural truth? Oddly. But it does so through the same means as any other belief system: ideas are debated, or argued. Victory rests on the persuasiveness of an idea’s proponents.

The everyday understanding of the world that has developed from scientific research is encapsulated in every statement that starts “Science tells us…“. Under closer examination, such statements call on the cultural authority of “Science” rather than the weight of specific scientific research.

Science is great stuff. People, using the scientific method for research, have made fabulous gains in understanding the world and improving the lives of people. We might think of the iPod, but penicillin was much, much better.

Science seeks a more objective Truth. Their quest is stymied by two factors: science’s role as a cultural authority gets them involved in politics, and its dependence on funding controlled by vested interests makes people worry that their authority has been co-opted.

An examination of the way Science fulfills its role as an authority — as a purveyor of “the Truth” — is not a challenge to the scientific method. Science’s dependence on pleasing the people who hold the purse strings is. Anyone who tells you different is selling something.

Science: Revolutionary, Heir, or Rebellious Child? (Part 2)

Dergoumidas before the Grand Vizier - by Giovanni Antonio Guardi
“Dergoumidas before the Grand Vizier” — Knowledge is one of the currencies of power.

It’s very easy for us to think of Science as a discrete part of Western culture, yet somehow transcendent at the same time. Perhaps that’s true as far as it goes, but understanding Science means looking at more than just how it’s different from the previous times in Western history.

Seeing science clearly requires understanding that it is not only a new way of learning about the world, but also heir of a tradition that goes all the way back at least to Ancient Greek philosophers, and more likely to Ancient Egypt.

Science is more than a method of collecting and analyzing data; It’s also a part of Western culture. Science is not just a way of thinking that replaced Alchemy, but also is alchemy’s cultural heir. More, in some ways science is heir to the whole tradition of the Western educational system.

Science, the Heir

We’re very used to thinking of Science with its triumphal plot arc: led by men who broke from the past and created a new world of rationality and order. But to understand the cultural role of science, rather than just the method, we need to comprehend the part that knowledge has played in the West going all the way back to the beginning of Western civilization.

As described in my last post, Science (writ large) rose to cultural power in the times following the Black Plague in Europe. It was a time when the Church’s cultural and political power was, after a thousand years, sustaining serious questions to its credibility. But Science didn’t spring out of nowhere. More accurately, it was an outgrowth of the work of the scholars of the West.

The growth of Western knowledge of the world had long been limited in certain ways by the political and religious realities of the power of the Church. The rise of science came at a time when the hierarchy of power was being shaken.

Yet the institutions of Science did not develop in a vacuum. Instead Science built on preexisting infrastructure, such as the institutions of learning that had been associated with the Church. Such growth made them bedfellows with politicians and kings.

Like other teachers (Latin: Doctor) of knowledge, there was a responsibility to advise political leaders when called upon. We sometimes focus on research and the scientific method when we try to understand science, but it is just as important to understand its relationship to the rest of society.

Science, the Grand Vizier

Fiction is the new mythology, and it gives us a window into otherwise hidden aspects of culture. Have you ever noticed the way science is treated in Western fiction? For the most part, it’s not very science-y. Most treatments of science have little to do with the research role of the scientist, and everything to do with their social role.

Though books are more likely to take the time explaining it (and there are whole sub-genres of science fiction that treat scientific research and discoveries with some consideration), in most movies and television, Science is treated as a discipline of almost magical wonder.

In fiction, Science is the source of MacGuffins of wondrous power, the way characters turn “can’t” into “can,” and an almost miraculous heal-all. Even where fictional science is used to solve problems, it is presented in mythological terms. The way science is shown inverts the actual pattern of scientific research.

In the real world, science is used to explore the unknown. In fiction, by contrast, science serves to drive the plot forward. The “Scientist” archetype has less to do with Einstein, and more to do with Merlin. The fictional Scientist takes the role of the wise advisor who understands the nature of the world.

Science not only devotes itself to furthering human knowledge, but also serves society. It serves by advising leaders, using its superior knowledge of the world. This pattern places it firmly in the same tradition as a thousand stories of King’s Counselors and Grand Viziers. In the US, the National Academies fill this role.

By acting as learned advisors of kings (and presidents), the scientists have taken over the role that alchemists, astrologers, and other old scholars once held. This isn’t the scientist in the laboratory, but the scientist who stands behind the throne.

Yet the learned have often counseled the leaders of the world. In some ways, science ushered in a new era of knowledge, but in other ways, they have provided a new face to an old role: the wise advisors of beneficent leaders, helping them to make decisions that benefit all people.

Science: Revolutionary, Heir, or Rebellious Child? (Part 1)

Though it has earlier origins, modern science arose in the time following the Black Death in Europe. For 1,300 years, the Church had held the reins when it came to the Truth. The beliefs of the Church had carried binding power in nearly all aspects of life. Legitimacy had come from adherence to the orthodoxy of the time.

Detail Academy of Sciences - 1666
In the year 1666, Louis XIV founded the Paris Observatory.

Science, the Revolutionary

There had been more than a millennium of (partial) intellectual stagnation. The Faith had held not only religious power but also political recognition. Religious officials held offices that granted them legal status as authorities.

To understand the influence of the Medieval clergy, we need look no further than the Three Estates system in Medieval Europe. The Three Estates were the way Europe understood its own culture and authority.

The clergy were the First Estate, the nobility the Second estate, and the important (and bourgeois) commoners the Third Estate. Such divisions were explicit, not implicit. When bodies were set to advise kings, for instance, they were often developed along these lines. While the peasants were known as the Fourth Estate, no one cared much what they thought.

In representative bodies, and in general, the First and Second Estates tended to band together to maintain the status quo. Since there was a fair amount of interpenetration between the clergy and nobility, the division between the two was more often theoretical than real.

The Church Loses It

The Black Death
The Black Death killed 30-60% of the European population.

The Black Death (CE 1348 – 1350), as well as repeated plagues, ripped apart Europe up through the 19th century. In the wake of the death and destruction, the religious hierarchy started to lose its grip on authority. The clergy had promoted certain rules of cause and effect in the world — their authority was founded upon their understanding of the nature of the world as a place created by God, and misfortune as His punishment.

In the plagues, there was massive destruction that made few distinctions in class and wealth. As the Black Death killed the saint and sinner alike, it became harder and harder to believe that the saint was anything special.

The destruction of the plagues went on for centuries. As the Church began to lose credibility, there was an authority vacuum. Into that vacuum stepped Science, which told people (rightly) that these horrors were not personal, but mechanistic –not ineffable, but comprehensible.

Thus was born Science the Revolutionary. The new worldview told Western Culture to throw out all the old ways, so that we could start fresh.

These are still matters of some debate even today. The West has not wholly thrown away religion. But science did displace (or perhaps replace) religion. In the time since then, Science (writ large) has moved into a place of cultural authority.

Science Grows Up and Gets a Job

Hampstead Garden Suburb by Ben Brooksbank
Science got promoted, and moved to the suburbs.

Science went from being a (metaphorical) wild-eyed revolutionary — who wanted to burn down the old order and build something new and utopian — to a protector of a new status quo. I’ll be the first to argue that science does a lot of good in the world, and that it still has some of that revolutionary zeal. But in the past six or seven centuries, science has gotten established, respectable, and middle-aged.

Once, science depended on a bunch of guys tinkering in their sheds and workshops, writing to each other. They were always on the edge of either a great breakthrough or breakdown (ahem, Isaac Newton, ahem).

Now, scientific progress is expensive, incremental, institutionalized, and — above all — patented. Did science “sell out”? Did it “go bad” or “get lost”?

In a word, no. Science (if I can anthropomorphicize once more) won the battle for authority, and has a respectable job as an administrator. Science lives in the suburbs with two cats, three dogs, and a mortgage.

Science: Revolutionary, Heir, or Rebellious Child? (Part 2) will publish on September 15, 2013.

Money, the Miser, and the Power of Symbols

Hoard of ancient gold coins
A hoard of ancient gold coins

Anthropology, by focusing on the “other,” attempts to understand the full range of human experience in the world. Without anthropology, we focus far too easily on aspects of our own culture as if they are true.

By training people to look outside of our own cultures, anthropology allows us to differentiate between what is normative in our everyday lives and what is fundamental to all humans.

There are many things that we “believe” are true of all people, even though they are products of culture. For example, many people have a deep-seated belief that all of us want money, or need money, and that driving belief is core to who and what people are. But such a statement is based on a number of underlying assumptions, such as the belief that we’re individuals, and that money is somehow “real,” and that trading our time and effort for money is something that crosses all cultures.

The Kula Ring

Kula bracelet
In the Kula exchange system, all of the valuables are “non-use” items, often pieces of jewelry like the one pictured here.

We can step back from the idea that money is real and universal, and realize that we’re making certain assumptions. If we rewrite these ideas outside of culture, we come up with something more like, “people give away things they value less for things that they value more. The details of those exchanges depend on cultural values.”

Money isn’t a thing in and of itself. It’s just a metaphor for certain kinds of power and social status. As part of culture, money isn’t a thing so much as it’s a symbol — a shorthand for larger concepts. Money is a tool, and tools are part of culture rather than a priori of it.

If we go back and look at the research of the first anthropologist to do long term fieldwork, Bronislaw Malinowski (1884 – 1942), we’ll see that the Trobriand Islanders work to gain certain items for trade, and then give those items in trade to others, through the “Kula ring.” We discover that money is not the root of anything, but simply one means (albeit a powerful one in many cultures) as a medium of exchange and reciprocity.

By looking at the Kula ring we can realize, though sometimes with difficulty, that some “things” in culture aren’t really things at all. They are instead physical representations of relationships.

An Old Aesop

Aesop was probably born around 620 BCE.

This “truth” isn’t really anything new, even in Western culture. You might remember the famous fable of Aesop about the miser who kept his gold buried in his garden.

The miser would leave his house and dig up his gold to look at it. It made him feel good about himself to think “I am a rich man.” Then one day, the gold was gone, stolen. His neighbor took one look at the situation, and suggested that he bury a rock, and go look at that instead. Gold that wasn’t used wasn’t worth more than a rock.

The moral of the story was that wealth that is not used is of no use to anyone. Wealth is about relationships and exchange. The story’s a reminder of something that’s easy for us to forget when we’re caught up in everyday life: that our symbols are “only” symbols.

Anthropology goes further, though. It also reminds us that symbols can be incredibly powerful — not in some intellectual way, but as representations of the relationships between people.

It’s not even fair to refer to them as “only” symbols. Wealth, career, knowledge, and faith are all symbols, but they are also very real. They affect how we live, how we think, and how we relate with others. These symbols affect how we make decisions, how we talk, and whether we’re listened to.

In other words, symbols aren’t “only” anything. If the natural sciences have shown that physical laws are the most powerful force in the universe, then anthropology has show that culture comes a close second.