Anthropologists be social animals, and being ‘biologically programmed

Anthropologists
are interested in human cultures, societies and changing social situations
within the world. Psychology can be found amongst the varying social situations
which anthropologists study; furthermore, what is of particular interest to
various anthropologists is the study of psychoanalysis in relation to a variety
of cultures. Psychoanalysis is one of the major paradigms within psychology,
which was founded by Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) in Vienna. This is of interest
to anthropologists worldwide as some question whether Freud’s theories are
truly universal, taking into consideration cultures other than those found in
Western Europe.

Anthropologists
such as Roger M. Keesing, have been particularly interested with the
psychodynamics of personality within an evolutionary perspective. The question
of whether ‘psychoanalytic theories of the unconscious could illuminate custom,
belief, and behaviour in non-Western societies’ is of key interest (Keesing,
1997). Moreover, anthropologists have been interested in broadening the theory
of psychoanalysis to the point where it was no longer culture-bound, due to
many anthropologists being sceptical of Freud’s theories due to the limited
experience he had, taking into account only the Viennese patients he was
exposed to. Some question whether this led him to create an overly simplistic
model of the unconscious, and whether his theories such as the Oedipus Complex,
can really be considered universal. Anthropologists were particularly
interested in Freud’s theories of the unconscious drives of sex, aggression and
hunger; they analyse this theory further by trying to apply Freud’s reference
to sublimating and repressing these basic urges into symbols, to cultural
creations of art and religion. However, this aspect of his theory is seen as
being partially wrong due to animals being believed to be social animals, and
being ‘biologically programmed not simply to satisfy individual urges, but to
live in groups’ (Keesing, 1997). There are various anthropologists who see the conscious
and unconscious divisions of Freud’s theory as an ‘extreme over simplification
of a vastly complex system’ (Keesing, 1997). Anthropologists were also
interested in psychological development and social relationships as seen
through the Oedipus and Electra Complex being applied to certain tribes in Africa.

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The Tallensi of
Ghana were studied by anthropologists in relation to the Oedipus Complex, as
findings state that these people symbolise the Oedipus Complex in a unique and
socially acceptable way. Amongst the Tallensi there is a ritualization and
dramatization of the tension between the parents and their children who will
replace them. Within this cultural context the birth of the firstborn son, as
well as the firstborn daughter represent the end of ‘the uphill path of a
person’s life and the beginning of the downhill path leading to senility and
death’ (Keesing, 1997). From the young age of around 5 years old, which is the
age at which Freud says the Oedipus Complex begins to form, the firstborn son
is not allowed; to eat from the same dish as his father, wear his father’s cap
or tunic, carry his quiver, or use his bow, above all this he is also forbidden
from looking into his father’s granary. This progresses throughout the
development of the child, eventually reaching a stage where father and son
cannot meet in the entrance to the house compound once the son reaches adolescence.
A parallelism can be seen between the firstborn daughter and the mother, as the
daughter is not allowed to touch the mother’s storage pot. Once the parents
die, there is a ritual of the firstborn children to replace their deceased
parents. The children are expected to take the lead in mortuary rites, where
the son is able to put on his dead father’s cap and tunic. The firstborn son is
also led inside his late father’s granary by an elder carrying the dead man’s
bow. This symbolism that the Tallensi have created could be seen as controlling
the sexual tension Freud describes in the Oedipus and Electra Complexes, this
seems to suggest that rather than repressing the tension, they accept and
control it in a culturally acceptable way.  

The Ndembu of
Zambia have many ritual symbols, such as the ‘mudyi’ tree sap which is used in
a variety of rituals and symbolises multiple ideas. ‘These multiple levels of
meaning relate what is abstract and social with the “gut feelings” and emotions
of individuals related to their primary experience’ (Keesing, 1997). This idea
of symbolism may trace back to Freud’s understanding of the unconscious
suppressing socially unaccepted behaviour and sublimating said behaviour in
socially acceptable constructs. This may suggest that the multiple ritual
symbols used by the Ndembu of Zambia, are representative of the earlier people’s
unconscious sublimation of certain taboos.

Cultural Ontology
refers to a society’s system of notions about what kinds of things and people
exist in the world. As cultural ontology refers to a society’s particular set
of ideas, then it is not hard to understand that with different societies one
might find different ontologies. This idea of variation depending on the
society is very important, especially when dealing with the systems of
sexuality and gender which fall under the spectrum of a society’s cultural
ontology. This helps to explain why there are an array of genders and
sexualities, as these differ from one society to another, depending on their
general philosophies which developed from their set of experiences and culture.
Sexual dimorphism, which is the existence of two distinct body forms based on
sex, is seen to be a natural and universal feature of human existence, this
notion is particularly enforced in American and Western Culture. However, there
are exceptions to this theory of sexual dimorphism as has been found by
anthropologists who studied other cultures. Not all cultures believe in two
kinds of humans, or even two physical kinds of humans, and not all cultures
believe that sex is determined at birth, moreover, not all cultures apply the same
tasks and values amongst the same sex-line divisions. This is where the idea of
ontology comes into play, where one begins to see the various notions of sex
and gender amongst a multitude of cultures. Eller lists an array of different
societies with different practices, such as the Navajo with their fluid gender
cosmos, where men may wear women’s clothing and participate in activities
usually associated with women, including having sexual relations with other
men. Other examples are listed, but particularly Eller has found that ‘a
society may identify two sexes or gender based on physical traits, identify two
sexes or genders based on other than physical traits, or identify three or more
sexes or genders based on physical or other than physical traits’ (Eller,
2016). This means that individuals are born with distinct physical features,
but how a society chooses to interpret and value those physical traits is relative.

Freud’s idea that
sexual desire is the basic meaning of symbols and symbolic behaviour does seem
to be supported by Eller’s idea of cultural ontology to some degree. I see the
theory of cultural ontology as supporting the idea that most symbols and
symbolic behaviour are based on sexual desire, however I would not go as far as
Freud in saying that all symbolic behaviour is based on sexual desire. Whilst a
large number of symbols and symbolic behaviour can be seen as revolving around
the notion of sexuality and sexual desire, as seen in the various examples
Eller gives within his research, I do not believe that all symbolism, seen in
all cultures of the world, revolve around this one notion of sex.