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The Anthropology of Messages and Communication


Language and ideas have a symbiotic relationship where one is dependent on the other. A language is used to convey ideas while the language relays messages. Examining the anthropogenic of ideas and language can impact the message sent out and how it is perceived and interpreted. It must be noted that language is used to represent an idea and the choice of words are just an approximation of an idea conceived in the communicator’s mind subject to their cultural experiences. Thus, the way individuals discuss an idea or an issue conveys as much information as the issue itself. This paper uses the anthropogenic lens on language and ideas in examining how two key papers, Douglas and Abu-Lughod, have addressed the variance between the way an issue is discussed and addressed across different anthropogenic dimensions and the issue itself.

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The two anthropologists have addressed different topics albeit there is a clear point of convergence. Cultural and language relativism is evident in how different people perceive and interpret various issues. The second chapter of Douglas’s book titled “secular defilement” acknowledges the differences in how religious rituals have been defiled by secular interpretation. How scholars have looked at some ‘primitive’ rituals removes them from context and may prompt anthropologists to question the scholar’s subjective perception of these rituals as an outsider as opposed to the issue itself. Similarly, Abu-Loughod questions the way that the western media has discussed the Muslim woman in the face of liberation wars in the Middle East. The two authors agree that cultural misunderstanding is rampant where individual elements of a given culture, far removed from their anthropogenic context, are used to reify culture.

Reification of culture is a danger that some modern scholars have conveniently ignored in their subjective extrapolation of culture. The question arises on whether an individual should be first identified based on a narrow cultural dimension as opposed to a broader human dimension. In “Righteous Dopefiend” Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg assert that the American population has adopted a contemptuous attitude reeking of bourgeoisie snobbery who view homeless people as just homeless and lesser human beings and literally as a different species (ix). The same notion is evident in the manner that the Muslim woman is portrayed. Similarly, the Muslim is portrayed as in need of liberation from the Burqa which the western scholars and media have labeled as a symbol of oppression against the fairer sex (Abu-Lughod 874). Thus, the Muslim woman is portrayed as simply similarly lacking freedom that drug addicts are simplified as just people without homes instead of digging deeper to understand them and their plight more broadly.

Most revealingly, the narrow approach to understanding culture and discussing societal problems reeks of self-aggrandizement that has become custom for modern society. While understanding one cultural element is critical in appreciating an issue and discussing it in a cultural context, it should not exclude other interpretations. A good example is provided by Abu-Lughod who cites the case of Laura Bush who, while addressing the plight of women in Afghanistan, ended up showing her imperialist mindset. The author cites the former first lady saying, “Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment….the fight against terrorism is also for the rights and dignity of women” (US Government 2002, cited in Abu-Lughod 784). Laura’s bush manages to create an impression that the anti-terror war was partly geared towards destabilizing the Afghan culture where stay-at-home wives are common. How she addressed the issue and her choice of words reveal that there were underlying beliefs that view the Muslim woman as a victim of Islam as a religion and the Islamic culture.

Ideally, the choice of such words from a high-profile American justifies the need to examine ideas and language anthropologically. As the case with the language used by Laura Bush, the message conveyed by the issue itself may be different from the language used (Abu-Lughod784). It may imply that the language borders on sarcasm in that it offers contrary meaning to the literal one. Thus, an anthropological approach examines all views based on a subjective position. Taking this approach allows for a deeper understanding of texts and speeches and reveals a larger number of possible interpretations based on the message recipients’ subjective worldviews. An anthropologist could ask, is it possible for the message to be misinterpreted? Does the message adhere to local cultural dynamics? Such questions could help avoid the generalization of people and cultures.

The generalization of a people from an understanding of one cultural element is immoral and unjust and seeks to cover other pertinent issues. In the case of the Muslim woman being veiled, the western notion of the Burqa and the Hijab lumps all different cultures unique to different regions in the Middle East and parts of Asia into one. The notion created that the anti-terror war will liberate women from wearing the Burqa misses the key point of the cultural identity of Afghan women and other cultures(Abu-Lughod 786). It is interesting to note that Afghans and the larger percentage of Muslim women wear the Burqa voluntarily out of respect to their culture and the need to maintain their moral standing. In some cases, revealing certain body parts such as arms may amount to secular defilement on their part. Douglas (29) uses the same notion of ‘defilement’ to label the western misunderstanding and misinterpretation of religious rituals.

One can certainly state also that the ‘defiling’ labels based on a narrow cultural element by some entities are used to justify certain societal organizations such as wars. Communicators can use anthropogenic to conceal or decipher certain ideas. In the case of the Afghan war, the western countries will use the alleged women’s rights abuse in the Middle East typified by the Burqa to justify the continued invasion of sovereign countries. The same problem is witnessed in the case of the homeless people who continue to suffer other injustices such as racial profiling as indicated by Bourgeois and Schonbergwith the mainstream society blaming the victims for their plight. Accordingly, the Muslim woman wearing the Burqa perpetuates the unfounded notion that all Muslim women are oppressed. The same narrow-minded approach is applied by donor countries to justify their presence in Africa and less-developed countries that continue to receive development aid that does not appear to achieve any goals (Ferguson, 13). Thus, the isolation of the “Muslim woman” and “lesser developed” countries among the rest typifies language that tells more of an issue through the choice of words same as, if not more than, the issue itself.

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All in all, an anthropological lens in examining language and ideas is critical in gaining the full understanding and implications of communications. Any critique or interpretation of text or speech demands a multi-faceted approach that considers all cultural dimensions that inform language and worldviews for a deeper understanding. With that said, it implies that the discipline of anthropology has a big role to play across all disciplines and generations of knowledge and information. Even more importantly, anthropology, when considered that it can examine the language of an idea and the idea itself, can play a big role in the international relations discourse.

Works Cited

  1. Abu-Lughod, Lila. “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others.” American Anthropologist, vol. 104, no. 3, 2002, pp. 783-790.
  2. Bourgois, Philippe, and Jeffrey Schonberg. Righteous Dopefiend. University of California Press, 2009.
  3. Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger. An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Routledge, 2013.
  4. Ferguson, James. The Anti-Politics Machine: ‘Development’, Depoliticization and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

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