Color Classification And Symbolism Research Paper

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‘Color classification’ is an ambiguous concept. It may refer to ‘classification of colors,’ or ‘classification by colors’. Most research on color classification has opted for the first approach, which is concerned with the variation of linguistic categorization of colors in different cultures. This kind of research has been undertaken by linguists, psychologists, and cognitive anthropologists. By contrast, the few anthropologists who have opted for the second approach have been concerned rather with symbolic anthropology, or have worked in a structuralist tradition of sociocultural anthropology. Research into color classification has a long history, dating back to the 1870s (Allen 1879, Gladstone 1877, Magnus 1877). However, it was not until Berlin and Kay published their seminal book on basic color terms (1969) that research in this field virtually exploded, especially within cognitive and linguistic anthropology. Over the last 25 years, a wealth of data on color categories has been meticulously collected in different parts of the world, mainly with the help of the ‘Munsell color chips.’ As a general rule, randomly chosen informants have been asked to define the colors on these chips, and to ‘map’ them. The findings have then been tested as ‘hard data,’ often using quantitative methods (e.g. MacLaury 1986, Kay et al. 1991). This ‘hard-wire’ approach to color classification research has been further strengthened by the general assumption that color perception is a matter of neurobiology, universality, and evolution.

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Although the evolutionary paradigm had featured in research on color classification for almost 100 years, Berlin and Kay were the first scholars to present substantial evidence for a theory concerning the universality and evolution of basic color terms. In the original formulation of their theory, they defined a particular sequence of developmental ‘stages’ of basic color terms, and suggested that these stages would correspond to the stages of technological evolution. The few cultures in which only two basic color terms were used would represent Stage I on the evolutionary ladder, while the prevalence of three color terms would place a particular culture one step higher up (Stage II). Four basic color terms would imply Stage III, five terms Stage IV, and so on. Societies with the maximum number of color terms (11) would represent the highest level of technological evolution.

Although Berlin and Kay have modified the original formulation of their theory (Kay et al. 1991), the main features of the paradigm have been generally accepted by scholars in their own and related fields. Part of the reason for this is that Berlin and Kay backed up their theory with a wide range of cross-cultural linguistic data, which showed a remarkable regularity with respect to the sequence of basic color terms: if only two terms were found in a particular culture, they were invariably white and black. If three terms were recognized, these were always white, black, and red. The fourth basic color term to be introduced was either yellow or green, the fifth either green or yellow, the sixth blue, and so on. In spite of some revisions and later developments of the theory (see Hardin and Maffi 1997, MacLaury 1999), there is still a general consensus among anthropologists about the sequence of basic color terms—even though the hypothesis about a corresponding technological evolution has yet to be proved. It would, for example, be difficult to maintain the theory about technological evolution, given that many hunting gathering societies recognize more basic color terms than agriculturalists. In Africa, even the most sophisticated Bantu-speaking agriculturalist and agropastoral societies have only three basic color terms, whereas their hunting and gathering neighbors may have five or more.

However, strictly cognitive and linguistic research on color classification has met with criticism on several other accounts. The main criticism has been leveled at the ‘hard-wire’ methods employed in this kind of work, and at the lack of ‘emic’ approaches to the issue of color classification. It has been argued that the ‘meanings’ of color terms cannot be evaluated adequately when the data have been collected under conditions reminiscent of a laboratory situation (Saunders 1999; cf. Tornay 1978), and that ‘affective features of meaning’ may contribute to Berlin and Kay’s evolutionary sequence of color terms (Osgood et al. 1975, Taft 1997). The problem of ‘meaning’ is perhaps the most controversial issue associated with the concept of color classification. Though a few representatives of the ‘hard-wire’ approach have attempted to account for the ‘meanings’ of individual color terms (Kay and McDaniel 1978, MacLaury 1992), the focus has still been on the implications of the informants’ task of ‘mapping’ color chips (Lucy 1997, p. 327). By way of contrast, Lucy directs attention to Conklin’s pioneering work on color categories in the 1950s (Conklin 1955). Applying a structural approach, Conklin discovered that the four-color categories recognized by the Hanunoo corresponded to an underlying four-way classification of other visual stimuli as well.

Conklin’s findings correspond to the ideas proposed by the Swiss-French school of semiology, as represented by Saussure and Derrida. According to them, the meanings of signs depend on their positions in a larger system of signs (Layton 1997). Meanings are thus anchored in the syntagmatic relations among signs, but if we also take into consideration the meanings which Barthes (1967) has referred to by the concept of ‘the symbolic relation between the sign and the signified,’ it may be possible to identify congruities of symbolic meanings when ‘parallel’ syntagmatic sequences of signs are compared. Such a ‘parallel’ structure of signifying, syntagmatic sequences of signs may be referred to as a paradigmatic structure of meaningful categories.

To identify such paradigmatic structures in cultural symbolism is the core of anthropological research on symbolic classification. This approach has characterized symbolic anthropology since the late 1960s. When colors have been included in this kind of symbolic analysis, the research has thus been concerned with classification by colors, rather than of colors. However, at the same time as this structurally oriented research developed, there was also a growing awareness among some anthropologists of the importance of contextualization in the study of symbolic meanings.

The pioneering research in the domain of symbolic classification by colors was carried out by Victor Turner, who in 1966 wrote an article on the symbolic meanings of white, black, and red among the matrilineal Ndembu of Zambia (Turner 1966). Not only did Turner attempt to trace the basic symbolic meanings of the three colors, he also analyzed their variable references in different ritual and social contexts, and thus became one of the first anthropologists to put contextual analysis of cultural symbols on the agenda.

Turner’s article stirred up an enthusiastic interest in color classification, especially among anthropologists working in the structuralist tradition. No matter whether the anthropologists found two, three, or four colors to be key symbols in a particular culture, they usually attempted to identify a dualistic system of symbolic classification, of which the colors formed a part. Thus, for instance, most of the contributions to Needham’s book on dual classification included references to colors as ‘parallel’ devices of classification, alongside the right left division that was the main topic of the book. While the concept of ‘paradigmatic structures of signs’ was not mentioned, there was an insistence on the congruity between different levels of symbolic classification. In many articles referring to different areas of the world, colors were regarded as part of this dual classification.

Needham’s book was cast in the kind of structuralist tradition that marked the 1970s, and which was inspired by Levi-Strauss (1963). The basic assumption was that human beings everywhere tend to classify their world into binary oppositions. However, even if a dualistic approach could account for the choice of two opposing categories of classification in certain specific situations in any society, it cannot solve the enigma of triadic classification, which is typical of the ritual use of colors in many parts of the world.

In most African cultures south of the Sahara, triadic classification by colors appears to permeate the ritual practice of healers and diviners (Baumann 1935, Straube 1960, White 1961, Ngubane 1977, Jacobson-Widding 1979, Kirby 1999). This applies particularly to the Bantu-speaking societies, where only three basic color terms are recognized, namely white, black, and red. In a systematic investigation of the symbolic references of the three colors in the matrilineal belt of Central Africa, Jacobson-Widding (1979) found that the only situations in which all three colors were visually represented were in connection with certain rituals, when the ritual specialist manipulated the colors as symbols with particular, contextually de- pendent references. In profane contexts in which the official ideology of social and moral order was referred to as a matter of principle, on the other hand, white and black were the only colors demonstrated (cf. Jacobson-Widding 1991). In Central Africa, there is even a formal prohibition against showing the color red in such contexts, for instance in connection with lawsuits. This implies that white and black are contrasted as binary oppositions only in certain contexts, like those in which the dominant structure of order is supposed to be manifested, and in which the rationality of a logic based on two opposite values is to be applied. In contrast, red is represented in situations where indeterminate values are dealt with, and where a simplistic two-value logic would fail to account for the truth.

The concrete references of the color red may vary according to the context. However, whatever tangible phenomenon it may refer to in any particular situation, most ritual experts in central and southern parts of Africa will employ this color when they wish to represent ambiguity. In particular, red is used to represent phenomena that seem to defy classification into any of the ‘officially’ recognized categories of determinate values that are represented by white and black. Such phenomena, or states of affairs, may consist of bewildering emotions, anomalies, or mysterious spirits. Or they may be ‘twilight’ situations like dusk and dawn, birth and death, or any state of ‘betwixt and between’—such as the state of initiands in a bush camp, or the state of adolescent girls, whose bodies are painted red during a period of seclusion. In essence, the color red can be viewed as a symbol of the kind of ambiguity that may result from conceptual boundary crossings. That is, when a particular phenomenon, or state of affairs, is considered to blur the boundaries of the concepts on which a ‘rational’ order is based, it is depicted as ‘red.’ This implies that the color red is associated with irrational feelings, and with the unknown.

Considering the ways in which ritual experts in Africa tend to interpret and manipulate colors, we may regard the color triad as a device for philosophical categorizations. At the most general level of meanings, the color triad appears to classify different kinds of phenomena according to three basic values of truth and morality. Whereas the combination of white and black is supposed to represent clear-cut values as logical opposites (i.e. ‘good’ vs. ‘bad,’ ‘true’ vs. ‘false,’ ‘us’ vs. ‘them,’ ‘sky’ vs. ‘earth,’ and so on), red will be introduced when the logical boundary distinguishing A from B is impossible to define. The color red will thus represent a third, indeterminate value, which can be classed neither as A, nor as B (nor as non-A), but rather as C (cf. Leach 1975).

This implies that the two-value logic of the Aristotelian philosophy of knowledge is supplemented with a third term, which in the case of African ritual practice is regarded as an a priori neutral value, in relation to the determinate values of truth and morality. How-ever, this ‘three-value logic’ is assumed to be valid only in ritual thought and praxis, and not in contexts where profane, ‘rational’ reasoning is supposed to be applied.

Since red is used to symbolize an unknown factor, which by definition is initially value-neutral, this color will be associated with unknown potentialities and acquire a dynamic quality. Accordingly, it is some-times associated with powerful emotions, sometimes with ‘magic’ power—a magic power that many people may regard as dangerous, polluting, or taboo, whereas others may associate it with miracles and miraculous healing. It is this ‘magic’ power that is exploited by the ritual expert in Africa, whenever he or she manipulates the color red in any of the many possible combinations or oppositions with white or black. As a general rule, the ritual expert will begin any ‘sacred,’ ritual seance with a visual demonstration of all three colors, as if to show the cards he or she intends to play with.

If we understand the concept of ‘magic power’ in a broad sense, some of the African associations of the color red may also be discerned in sacred rituals outside Africa, even within the Christian church in Europe. When red is combined with white, it usually points to connotations of the ‘sacred,’ or the ‘holy.’ Correspondingly, we often find that the combination of white and black is resorted to in situations where the order of society, or its moral dogma, is supposed to be demonstrated—not only in Africa, but in Europe and other parts of the world as well. However, whether used to represent ‘sacred’ values in the church or ‘profane’ values in the courtroom, any combination of colors from the triadic set of symbols constituted by white, black, and red may have different concrete references in different situations, in both Europe and Africa. The ‘meanings’ of these colors as culturally instituted symbols are thus to be found on different levels of interpretation. Colors may be used as concrete signifiers with context-dependent meanings and, at the same time, as representations of more general values of ‘truth’ and ‘power.’


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