Communication and Symbolism Research Paper

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Communication and symbolism are the two cornerstones of cultural anthropology. Their analyses will continue to occupy a major portion of the field throughout the 21st century and, in fact, as long as there are humans and anthropologists. Humanity exists in continual processes of inter- and intracommunication as for all life forms, but for humans these processes are crucially important. The essential nature of our existence is created and maintained through the special means by which we communicate—language. Language enables humans to exist in a complex and seemingly limitless symbolic world that, while related in many interesting ways with the world of other life forms (growth and mortality, diurnal and seasonal cycling), is distinctively separate and unique to humans. Cultural anthropology is the attempt to study and describe human symbolic forms and their patterns, as well as the manner in which these function to facilitate human life. Symbols exist in shared usage, and so the study of symbols and the study of communication are but two sides of the same coin. A “symbol” that is not included (with some frequency) in the communicative activity of a community is not operable as part of its symbolic world and thus does not exist for that community. Communication itself has symbolic status; none of its many forms can be neutral—outside the world it creates. The communicative nature of symbols and the symbolism of communicative activity will continue to be robust areas of research and discovery.

Within the last decade of the 20th century and rapidly growing through the beginnings of the 21st, however, enhanced electronic media and advanced intelligent systems have introduced a significantly new dimension into human communicative abilities, which will be referred to here as cyberspace and the Internet. From continuous audio and video linkages with a limitless number of others around the globe to “entering” into virtual realms that enable persons to take part in another life in “cyberspace,” communicative exchanges and the symbolic systems these entail will likely be subjected to considerable modification.

20th-Century Studies of Communication

The past century has been an enormously productive one in regard to the analysis and description of human communication. Building on the ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure, early structuralists delineated the phonological and morphological building blocks of speech by refining and applying the concepts of the phoneme and the morpheme. In addition to the rigorous description of hundreds of indigenous languages, anthropological linguists using this body of data worked on the problem of language histories and the division of current languages into families of related languages with the concomitant contribution to cultural history. Another achievement was the demonstration that not only was language separate from physical type, but also it was of equivalent complexity regardless of cultural complexity; in Edward Sapir’s (1921) phrasing, “The lowliest South African Bushman speaks in the forms of a rich symbolic system that is in essence perfectly comparable to the speech of the cultivated Frenchman” (p. 22).

The second half of the 20th century was dominated by those who followed Noam Chomsky (1957) toward looking at the processes by which sentences are generated from an underlying assemblage of semantic, syntactic, and phrasal elements and their (re)arrangements through transformational cognitive processes. For both of these approaches—structural and generative—the symbolic role of communicative forms played little role. There was a concern with meaning, but it was really limited to its employment (1) as part of a method to uncover linguistic units (such as the use of the semantic difference necessary for identifying phonemic minimal pairs) or (2) as a lexical tagging element to prevent the generation (however correct in regard to the sequence of general syntactic classes) of semantically inappropriate sentences. A sentence such as “He ain’t heavy, he’s my sister” should not be generated due to the lack of semantic fit between the male pronouns and the term for a female sibling. But the interesting issue was not considered: how this expression could be used appropriately in regard to humor or sarcasm, for which the sentence might carry a distinctive symbolic weight in a particular discourse occurrence or strategy, or why it was in English if a possible choice of using, for example, Spanish, existed. This interest often was characterized under the name of pragmatics to distinguish it from the “true” or internal language systems of phonology, semantics, and grammar. Internal structure of language code, however absorbing as a research problem, is not by itself the salient element in human communication; it is the manner in which these code features are employed in human interaction within a cultural context.

The question of how speech was used in social expression and how it was evaluated by its users was raised in the last several decades of the 20th century under the banner of the sociology of language, or sociolinguistics, and the ethnography of language, or ethnolinguistics, and thus rapidly became the dominant orientation of linguistic anthropology. The research question was not so much how speech forms were constructed but what they signified as choices or alternatives in a complex field with several varieties of codes ranging from dialects, registers, and jargons within one “language” to different languages.

Joshua Fishman’s (1968) work on minority language maintenance in the United States formed the field of sociolinguistics: language choice as a social issue and the interplay between national politics and ethnic identity. This was certainly not a new issue in the 20th century, but this work applied a more sophisticated understanding of language structure and employed a greater methodological rigor in determining the social and cultural place of a language in the communicative life of a community. The linguistic implications of social behavior (and vice versa) were engaged as a valid research agenda. Numbers of speakers of each speech variety were tallied for different communities, language questionnaires were administered to identify how varieties were used across social space, frequencies of linguistic usage were measured, and diachronic studies were planned to determine how the allocation of speech forms was being maintained or shifted. In other words, speech behavior was considered to be a necessary concomitant to social behavior and their covariation a serious research objective.

Complementing the sociological approach was the more anthropological approach of Dell Hymes (1962) called the “ethnography of speaking.” Here, the focus was on the cultural models that guided the speech behavior of the members of a community. What was it that a speaker (and hearer) needed to know about (and know how to carry out) in order to behave in an acceptable manner as a speaker? Essentially, what was required to be a human member of a community of communicators? Knowledge was required about different genres of speech acts, beliefs about kinds of speech and their speakers, when to talk in turn or interrupt and when to remain silent, using profane or sacred utterances, whom to speak with or about, what places are associated with which kinds of topics, and how to allocate the different available speech varieties in order to be polite or dominating. The ethnography of speaking was an ambitious undertaking that dealt with a very large and complex array of communicative knowledge and was committed to doing it across cultures. A crucial element in much of these studies was the determination of the symbolic value of the different codes and speech varieties that humans employed in their daily social communions. As much as language consisted of an intricate system of the arrangements of sound, meaning, and syntactic elements, it was not simply an elaborate tool to be used or not based on the vagaries or whim of the moment. It was a part of human identity and heritage, our past and what we stood for; as a first language, it was all that the phrase “mother tongue” connoted in terms of a powerful personal and ethnic identity.

Consequently, a large and continuing number of studies deal with language as a symbolic marker of ethnicity. Using a language is a social condition of being a particular kind of human, not only in the Whorfian sense of affecting how the world is perceived but also in the social sense of valid communicative membership in a community of other users. Language becomes a symbol of a state that transcends the act of speaking, one that defines one’s place in the world and essential identity. In this vein, we shall examine three selected studies that may provide a base for looking into the 21st century: Jack Goody on writing, Ruth Finnegan on the nature of communicating, and Sol Worth on the growth and personal availability of visual representations of self.

Goody (1987), in The Interface Between the Written and the Oral, examined the potential changes that the advent of literacy had on humanity. Contesting the common assumption that the impact of literacy was one of improvement, in the sense of a progressive change toward much greater rationality and enhanced thought, Goody’s discussion deals with a much more complex intertwining of the effects of literacy (one should say “literacies”) on human cultures. Certainly, the ability to physically store the products of human communication, whether or not these are phonetic or lexical, has the result of permitting the retrieval of certain kinds of communication without relying on the presence (and willingness) of the person(s) who produced the original communicative event. It also enables more time for reflective consideration of the contents of the communication, as well as analytic operations that are based in having access to a large number of written materials. It also opens a new realm of symbolic discourse whose topics are specific to written materials: pagination, fonts, first editions, citation, and bibliographies. It also adds to the symbolic notion of precedence and truth; Commentary A may not be accepted as “true” in contrast to Commentary B if B is written while A is oral.

It would be a mistake, according to Goody (1987), if oral communication were thus relegated to an inferior or less capable rank. Orality can support rationality and logic, and literate productions can certainly be false, or judged as less binding than oral communication. Yet, as we shall see below, this idea that the new medium of writing radically transformed human thought and brought into existence an enhanced human capability is pertinent to the consideration of communication in cyberspace, in particular communicative participation in Web-based domains.

Ruth Finnegan (2002), in Communicating: The Multiple Modes of Human Communication, wrote of the holistic dimensions of human communication, especially the aspects beyond speech and writing. We (other than those with sensory impairments) are enculturated to communicate in a field of visual, scent, and touch signals as much as sound. Furthermore, each of these categories of signaling is itself an array of different kinds of signals. Sound, for example, is not only simply what is produced by the vocal tract (however complex) but also what is produced by part of the human environment of speech communication—the rustling of a brocade garment, a babbling infant, the crackle of a hearth and the bubbling of a kettle, as well as the large variety of metalinguistic claps, coughs, whistles, and sighs. All of these signals overlap and are mutually reinforcing. Human communication is thus a global activity, and while one or another of the multiple channels for communicative signaling may be selected, with the others excluded or ignored, whatever might be gained with the narrow focus on one signal type must be lost through the attenuation of others. Cyberspace communication at the beginning of the 21st century necessarily possesses the symbolic limitation of sounds without touch, visual graphs, or images without scent, and the proxemic dimensions of a (small) twodimensional screen (although three-dimensional simulation is often available). This dilemma will undoubtedly result in a number of avenues for further study, possibly the technical development of packaging together multiple signaling capabilities or even a nostalgic return to the symbolic value of face-to-face communication.

Finally, Sol Worth (1999), in “Toward an Anthropological Politics of Symbolic Forms,” has written a prescient article on the implications of a world in which individuals have open access to, and creative ownership of, visual productions (at a time when this capability was vested in videotape and hand-held photographic cameras, not the Web). The potential of individuals from all over the earth being able to produce and distribute their own symbolic representations of their world was predicted to be transformational, not only for anthropology in particular but also and essentially for humanity in general. This transformation would be vested in the creative, even idiosyncratic, elaboration of visual symbols. It would liberate humanity from a slavish reliance on what powerful publishers feel we should see to what everyone wants to show us. In its orientation, Worth’s piece is remarkably similar to Michael Wesch’s recent 2007 account of the inevitable tidal surge of Web-based productions on such sites as YouTube, which lists over 1 million hours of short visual programs every 6 months! That this capability will usher in a new era of human interconnection, information accessibility and transfer, and associated cultural forms is presented as a given. The issue is what will anthropology be able to do to incorporate this kind of world in its research agenda?

20th-Century Studies of Symbolism

Symbolism is coextensive with human life; we are “symboling” beings, and we exist in a symbolically constructed world. There are innumerable topical areas within cultural anthropology, but all of them, in one way or another, deal with our use of symbols in constructing meaning, in maintaining a sense of common bond with others, and in conceptualizing the structure of our world and how it operates. Rather than be limited to examining the content, or referential aspect, of symbols, linguistic anthropology has focused on relationships between this communicative content and the social forms with which they exist (praxis). Symbolic content is open-ended and productive, which provides symbols the power to be broadly adaptive and specifically useful in new contexts. Symbols are public in the sense that they are shared and continuously communicated, and they have emotional salience for those who employ them. Studies in the role of symbols, once the challenges of delineating their semantic and system properties are met, have looked at the contributions these have for human life. Victor Turner’s (1967) The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual, an examination of the use of symbols in the ritual process and how these are employed to resolve social conflict, is one example of this approach. Symbolic meaning that is able to unite disparate factions (at least temporarily) can be seen as a common human use of the emotional efficacy of symbols. However, this function depends on the presence of symbolic commonality among the members of a community, and this cannot be taken for granted. Many studies of how symbols are used have shown that there may be considerable variation within a single community about the interpretation of symbolic content and an ongoing negotiation of this interpretation. Throughout the past century, American anthropology considered the effect of culture change, especially acculturation, on the shared value of symbols. The openness of symbol content also means that their content is subject to change and, in the acculturative process, different segments of a community—perhaps generational—will likely change their understanding of, even adherence to, certain symbols. This process is tied to the introduction of different channels of communication during culture change. As discussed above, writing may come packaged with new and different symbols. Written texts may be symbolically associated with “truth” or “importance.” In a similar vein, many assume that the new communicative technology of the Web will introduce new symbolic content. Following Worth (discussed above), one might have a sense of “freedom” from the constraints of social context or political authority.

Another dimension to the study of symbolism is the question of whether or not it has certain immutable properties that are assumed to be tied to the cognitive structure of the human brain. Claude Lévi-Strauss (1967), in Structural Anthropology, proposed that symbolic systems were composed of an essential duality—manifested, for example, as cooked-raw, wild-domesticated. Whether or not these structures are genetic, in the brain as opposed to in the mind, a considerable amount of research has gone into studying symbolic systems. One result has been the objection that descriptions of these systems may represent a more coherent array of meanings than are present or used by the members of a community. This difference is not based on culture change but rather on the idea that symbolic activity by humans incorporates a constant amount of ambiguity and uncertainty, especially in the presence of mutually incompatible symbolic meanings. This property gives rise to the orientation that symbols can, and should, be employed creatively and that it is a human privilege to expand symbolic reference and manipulation to their fullest limits. The presence of computer-assisted advanced communication technologies, such as virtual reality MOOs (multi-user object oriented domains), clearly is consistent with this orientation.

Some Current Studies of Communication and the Web

It is clear that anthropology will necessarily incorporate electronic forms of communication as part of its research agenda into human behavior and cognition. This should not be surprising, as it has already dealt with the presence of literacy, radio and mass media, and e-mail. In fact, this kind of study is already in place and is growing, although now without certain methodological obstacles. Here we will examine three selected studies of Web-based activity and what their objectives and methods have been.

David Hakken (1999), in Cyborgs@Cyberspace? An Ethnographer Looks to the Future, presented the approach that advanced information technology (AIT), of which the Web is a prime example, should be examined as a (new) part of the human technological tool kit. His approach is based on the conclusion that humans have been “cyborgs”— part natural human, part technology-based device—for much of our species’ evolutionary development. Although there exist polar approaches that view AIT as either a benefit to our cyborgic nature or as a detriment to our natural need for socially vested information, Hakken steers between these in order to examine how various human groups actually make use of the Web and electronic communication (EC) systems. This practical, ethnographic approach is grounded in the anthropological axiom of firsthand observation. He starts with descriptions of particular groupings (e.g., a local government agency in Sheffield, England) and what their purposes are in embarking on the deliberate use of AIT. His analysis details what platforms are purchased, how access to these are set up, and who uses them and with what objectives. Planning strategies by user groups are observed as are the disputes that arise over such matters as costs, allocation of budget resources, and planning time lines.

One interesting conclusion that Hakken (1999) reached is that “computers” have often been assigned a symbolic efficacy beyond their capabilities. An economic challenge for a region should be solved by having “computers.” He sees many of the attempts to use AIT as “mixed” to the degree that some benefits were achieved while others were missed. A question of control was also raised. The symbolic promise of AIT is the freedom to access an unlimited amount of relevant information. However, in some cases, governments imposed strictures on this access. Software restrictions resulted in some kinds of access being more difficult than others, while in others, access to potentially useful databases were not open. In other words, computerassisted practice was vested in the same kinds of social matrix as other kinds of social development projects with some due to technical issues and some even due to personal pettiness. The conclusion is that AIT does not significantly depart from existing human cultural and symbolic parameters. Hakken uses the term culture-centered computing to emphasize this point. Ethnographic methodology is quite suitable for this kind of study since the researcher is participating in the activities of a social group and can observe what they are doing in regard to this technological development. People can be asked about their activities, especially about the meanings they place on aspects of their activities and the devices they are using. The ethnographer is able to make useful inferences concerning the operable symbolic system and check these against further behavior. New symbolic forms and rearrangements of the symbolic system will appear, especially in regard to “information” and “occupation,” but this is not a radical departure from the kinds of symbolic adaptation to new technology that has occurred throughout the human past.

Daniel Miller and Don Slater (2000), in The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach, contributed a somewhat different but related view of the impact of EC technology. Focusing on one locality, Trinidad, they investigate the particular manner in which Trinidadians have taken to the Internet. In this case, there is a celebration of the perceived capabilities of the Internet as an eminently appropriate vehicle for the symbolically valued character of being Trinidadian, or possessing “Trini-ness.” On one level, the Internet simply provides an effective and inexpensive means of staying in contact with friends and relatives who are scattered over the world; but on another level, this particular channel is symbolized as being designed for Trinis since it permits a varyingly creative, even consciously flamboyant, means of expression. It is certainly not symbolized as a threat or as impersonal technology but rather as a satisfying stylistic choice. This perception may well develop in other cultures; in the United States, for example, an e-mail note of appreciation for a gift or favor probably is displacing a handwritten letter although likely not for the same symbolic justification. Here, it is probably perceived as convenient and maybe efficient but not necessarily satisfyingly “American.” In Trinidad, businesses, schools, and even churches have eagerly adopted Internet and Web presences.

Miller and Slater (2000) described the involvement with the Internet as transformational, an “expansive potential” to create and expand a successful Trini identity. However, the question that must be raised is, What will be the efficacy of this attempt to create a vibrant Trini identity using the Internet? It is not a matter of whether or not the effort is possible but rather if it is feasible. As Hakken (1999) has shown, not all development projects using Web technology may be successful. Moreover, creations that are in cyberspace may only be “there,” satisfying, no doubt, but with little other impact. However attractive and exciting these creations may be, unless they have a salient impact on the real world, they have the quality of chimera. This is not to suggest that Trinidad’s ongoing fascination with the Internet is in the category of a symbolic illusion similar to a millenarian cult but rather to point out that other than for the human activity of play, cyberspace or Internet creations should yield practical outcomes.

The final study illustrates this last point above—the “reality” of Web-based activities. Tom Boellstorff (2008) in Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human took the position that the “unreality” or “virtuality” of Web-based domains is precisely their great and transformational contribution to human experience. Second Life is a private, fee-based server that provides the software platform to enable people, once they are logged in, to create a persona (avatar) that is displayed on a computer screen along with other environmental features within the limits of the server. Other avatars with (or without) clothing and accessories, structures, furniture, hills, lakes, trees, and animal life are presented in an active mode that depicts a model of a human setting. As the name of this interactive system implies, what is depicted is akin to “life.” It is decidedly not a human simulation since what can take place online includes such unhuman capabilities as flying or being immediately transported from one site to another, appearing and disappearing from an online event (i.e., going on- or off-line), and appearing as a nonhuman avatar. Furthermore, avatars do not have to eat, eliminate, sweat, grow old, reproduce, or die. Still, Boellstorff presents this realm as an appropriate, even advantageous, manner of human existence. His ethnographic study is fully online within the confines of Second Life. The avatars he interacts with, observes, and talks with (even administers questionnaires to) are presented in the same manner as if he were studying a community. There are clearly methodological questions when identity is not known and the strictures of life are absent, but it is the symbolic dimension that is of interest here. The symbolic values of creativity, spontaneity, freedom, and play are dominant. These symbolic attributes are present in real human interaction, but in a virtual realm there are no limits other than those of nondisclosure and abusiveness for which a member might be censured and even banned. The virtual realm is valued as an improved human condition. The technological ability to construct and maintain this kind of activity creates a new set of symbols or at least a new dimension to the symbols of human life. Presenting oneself as an animal avatar may be no different from performing as a mummer in an animal costume, yet according to Boellstorff, in Second Life there is a seriousness and commitment to the guises that appears to be a potential rejection of one’s real visage.

Internet Creations and New Symbols

The existence and rapid development of Web devices, along with their extensive communicative power, has certainly created the need for new symbolic forms. However, the challenging issue is not really the new lexicon and meanings of devices and operating systems (such as cell phone and blog) but the rapidity by which these appear and are cast aside for new ones (such as Blackberry and WiKi).

Of greater significance is the lack of boundedness of the social groups involved in change. Millions of users from around the globe interact and are potentially involved (as creators or judges) in the creation of new terms, new meanings, and new programs. Anthropologists accepted that “rapid” culture change had to be accepted as an essential part of the reality of contemporary cultures, and therefore has been studied beginning in the early 20th century under the umbrella term of acculturation. But rapid then meant within a generation; what can anthropology do when it occurs in hours and is instigated out of an amorphous, unknowable assemblage of users? This very speed has become symbolic of a new age of human interaction, one in which Zipf’s law (that speech becomes more efficient over time by shortening words) is somewhat prophetic. David Crystal’s 2001 work, Language and the Internet, illustrates the many abbreviated graphical forms that appear in text messaging from acronym-like forms using the first letters of a phrase (lol for “laughing out loud”) to inventive pictorial forms using sundry letters and punctuation marks, such as “;-)” for a wink or a joking reference and “emoticons.”


The absence of apparent or definite personal identification is not new with EC. Printed material could be the writings of anyone either listed as anonymous or with a pseudonym, the product of a group such as a government agency, or simply not given any specific authorship. There is also the production of print materials that are purported to possess definite authorship but that are, in fact, the products of other authors. In other words, print materials contain an opportunity for lying, an opportunity less available in speech. Of course, spoken lies occur (as well as modifications of an objective truth, such as exaggeration, satire, rationalization, etc.), but some person must utter the lie, and there is some connection to the identity and social membership of that person along with the ramifications of having produced the false message. Print removes any direct or face-to-face connection between sender and receiver. Yet even print has some restrictions. The very mechanism of preparing, producing, and distributing the materials provides some identification—but only after the fact, not during the communicative process. The sender is writing in the absence of the receiver or receivers, and the receiver is reading in the absence of the sender.

Indeed, this separation has been offered as one of the important advantages of print and one of the reasons why it occupied a significant role as authoritative messaging. The sender, not distracted by the vagaries of interpersonal interaction, could construct (and importantly, refine) a message focused on the requirements of reason and order, and the receiver, again not having to consider the sender’s personal characteristics, could carefully consider those elements of reason and order discerned in a reading (and importantly, rereading) of the printed material. As Goody has shown, printing revolutionized the communication of meaning. Reason, logic, proof, and analysis, although certainly not absent from oral discourse, were especially enabled by writing. The symbolic value of a superordinate authority, especially science, dogma, and scripture, could be achieved. In particular, this was the case when printed materials were laboriously constructed by intensive personal labor, but even going into this century, a printed version carries greater weight than what has been only spoken.

Still, the characteristic of anonymity is not inherent in writing, simply a possibility. Whether directly, through explicitly and authentic authorship, or indirectly, by a discovery process that determines authorship, print materials are typically considered to be authored in the sense of there being a person responsible. This identification becomes much more problematic in Web-based communication.

On the Web, there is no necessary condition of a real, or authentic, social identity. Other than the specification of the Internet address (e.g.,Yahoo, Aol, or Hotmail) the identification that is prefixed to the sender’s production is usually a matter of personal creativity. Or at least, even if the list of alphanumeric characters in the prefix may have some one-to-one connection with identity, such as first initials and birth date (abc778@—), this does not provide specific or usable social information.

Even educational addresses may only give a first initial and part of a surname. Even this is not done in a standard sequence (e.g., it may be obvious that smithk@—represents a person whose first name starts with K and whose last name is Smith, but this allocation breaks down with bardon@—or with woidat@—). More to the point, while some e-mail addresses are explicit (Mary_Smith@—), this is not a requirement for the vast number of senders. Moreover, the personal identification is not readily, or ever, available, if the Internet service provider maintains secrecy as to its users (other than perhaps through a court order). Anonymity is, thus, easily ensured.

To what extent will this condition affect the nature of messages and their symbolic characteristics? This will be a challenge that a 21st-century ethnography of Web communication will necessarily have to confront. One might suggest that anonymity has created a sort of liminal arena of discourse. Aside from the possibility that a sender’s actual identity may, in fact, be able to be disclosed, while online and in electronic discourse, the sender is not John Smith, residing at 123 Fourth Street, whose parents are Mary and James Smith, but As toosmart23, he can submit messages that may be socially unacceptable were John Smith to say these in a conversation. And this very freedom from the norms of social discourse is celebrated as a particular advantage of EC. Unlike the contribution that reason and logic gave to written materials, which can be considered an added responsibility for writers, anonymity strips away social repercussion other than what may issue forth from other senders, equally anonymous. This can be proffered as liberating and creative, since one can submit whatever one wishes (within the limits that some EC providers may establish as guidelines) without any concern with an evaluation by one’s community of kin, friends, business associates, and others.

Symbolism is inherently a social construct, as discussed above. Symbolic forms derive their significance not only from their relative positioning within a semantic system but also, and more important, from their usage within the praxis of a social group or community. One of the achievements of 20th-century symbolic anthropology is that symbols do not have inherent or universal meanings or significance. Rather, their referent properties/attributes are vested, or negotiated, in their continuing application in the life of a community. And in cyberspace, there does not seem to be a community.

The absence of a real community does not make studying this form of communicative behavior unimportant. An electronic realm of discourse and interaction is derived from real persons, operating from real settings, and performing real behavior (on keyboard and/or mouse) but in a not-real realm. Certainly, there are absorbing research questions about what humans do in this kind of realm, and especially, the linkages between their real and nonreal worlds. However, a more intriguing question is what the symbolic characteristics of this nonreal realm will develop to be— even whether there will be a “development” in the sense of a progression toward some sort of cultural/symbolic charter generally accepted by those in the virtual realm (or their avatars), or whether there will be continually changing symbolic representations according to which persons (and their avatars) are present and likely tied to the apparently limitless permutations of creative virtual activities and relationships. It may very well be that people use their avatars to take their real-world symbols in limited and predictable directions. Many descriptions describe the virtual worlds they enter as not being too different, in essential attributes, from their real world. One enters, meets others, selects those who are interesting, jointly engages in interactive activities (such as playing a game or conversing or going to a party), and then departs. This is very much like an active party scene in a hip urban neighborhood—regardless of what the virtual form and behavioral capabilities may exhibit (animals, giants, or dwarves and flying, teleporting, or shape changing). Social symbols, such as prestige, sophistication, admiration, exclusion, cooperation, commitment, et cetera, are transferred and remain operable in the nonreal realm. In somewhat the same way as examining what humans do when they believe themselves to be alone and not observed, virtual worlds may provide an opportunity for persons to behave in ways derived from their anonymity.Yet there may be some inability for human operators to shed their real-life social personage and treat the nonreal interactions as free of any repercussions to their social selves. In other words, we may not be able to be completely virtual, independent of any derivative orientations from our real social condition. Web communication may thus only provide another environment in which to extend our already culturally delineated selves rather than becoming the transformational portal into a new order of being.


The ability to fly, to become any form of your choosing, and to construct objects literally by simply thinking about them—these are attributes of a virtual realm. This is not, of course, new or new because of the Web. Storytellers have taken their listeners into similar realms, with concomitant morphing abilities undoubtedly from the first appearance of our capacity to symbolize. Dramatically compelling accounts of beings that could fly, change their shape, and bring worlds into creation by willing them to exist are widespread among human cultures. Indeed, it may be the case that the creative achievements of a gifted storyteller have yet to be equaled (if they ever will be) by the platform capabilities of a virtual realm, including the variegated input design products by its inhabitant avatars. Such is the power of human symbolic generation with our open and productive language system that an oral (or even written) performance of a creation myth cycle is able to create mental images of realms and actions perhaps not yet present in any virtual realm.

Yet descriptive accounts of cyberspace realms, such as Second Life or World of Warcraft, demonstrate that being an “inworlder” (player) provides a dizzying array of choices absent from the real world. Moreover, within some limits, these choices are individually realized, or idiosyncratic (other than those avatars that are run by more than one person in real life). In fact, this is supposedly the lure of virtuality—one can be truly free of real-life social controls and instead express one’s creative individuality.

This opportunity to operate as a virtual individual (even if the virtual platform offers, or even encourages, access to group or community interaction) raises some interesting questions regarding the function of symbols in the virtual world. While symbols can be studied in isolation from human social reality as systems of relationships among universal motifs or qualities (theft of fire from gods, nature versus culture, and so on.), during the 20th century, anthropology has preferred to examine how symbols served the societies who employed them. This functional approach (e.g., that of Victor Turner) would base a symbolic anthropology on ethnography. Even the semiotic approach of earlier linguistic anthropology (as with Sapir) would base the study of symbols on the language structure and the use of language by a community. Symbols were not “free-floating” essences whose significance derived from a primordial or panhuman meaning. Symbols had work to do in the operation of meaningful human life.

This pragmatic approach to the meaning of symbols will have to undergo considerable reworking in order to be applied in a virtual realm. Certainly, many areas of human life will necessarily be absent in a virtual world. Certain life cycle landmarks could not occur, such as reproduction, birth, puberty, senescence, and death, and therefore could have no (or only attenuated) symbolic form. Perhaps reproduction might be argued to have a similar symbolic nature in a virtual world since sexual activity is certainly present in the interactions among avatars. Consequently, avatars can be guided through a variety of sexual encounters, and these may be viewed as resulting in pleasurable (or not) outcomes. However, the symbolic content of reproduction is much more extensive than sex (however much the act itself may constitute a powerful component of reproductive symbolization) and intertwined throughout much of a society’s cultural system due to the physical concomitants of community existence. Awareness of connections to each partner’s past, even the sensation of descent and the transmission of a life force; a place, not just for the sex act, but as a home with the presence of kin, children, in-laws, and neighbors whose activity can be sensed as well as the sounds and smells of sexual activity; the carnality of perspiration and effluvia; and especially, the likely biological result of pregnancy—all of these and more are necessarily absent. And shorn of its physical senses, this would not be the same kind of human world (e.g., Finnegan’s emphasis on the importance of taking into consideration the other dimensions of communication).


Cyberspace is not likely to disappear from human experience. Anthropology will necessarily have to take an active interest in this experience and attempt to achieve a useful analytic understanding of its parameters. Studying it as an adjunct to human affairs, as a device and set of skills, and as what communities do with it (such as in Hakken, 1999) should not pose too many challenges to a rigorous ethnography of communication activity. Even the creation of new symbols and symbolic arrangements based on the probable development of new uses and applications should be achievable through participant observation.

The real challenges will come with having to deal with activity in a not-real realm of interaction with an involvement of very large numbers of anonymous users existing in a mode that encourages deception of artifice (if only for playful purposes). Boellstorff (2008) claimed to have begun and even partially achieved this kind of ethnography of this new world and its symbols. It will remain to be seen if there is even a possibility of replication and restudy, as there should be (whether or not actually done), in real-life ethnography. If symbols can be created and discarded literally at will and this is largely an idiosyncratic act of personal play, it should be extremely challenging to study cyberspace symbolic systems as exhibiting outcomes. Turner’s work on liminalty located the conditions of this realm within a symbolic system that provided parameters for the separateness of a particular liminal space and time. But when the realm itself—a virtual reality—is itself essentially luminal, it will be difficult to work out its symbolic properties. However, as growing numbers of people engage in this kind of activity, anthropology will have little choice but to follow the kind of work done by cyberspace ethnographers, such as Boellstorff, and attempt to be observant participants in Web worlds.


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