Anthropologistsare interested in human cultures, societies and changing social situationswithin the world. Psychology can be found amongst the varying social situationswhich anthropologists study; furthermore, what is of particular interest tovarious anthropologists is the study of psychoanalysis in relation to a varietyof cultures. Psychoanalysis is one of the major paradigms within psychology,which was founded by Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) in Vienna. This is of interestto anthropologists worldwide as some question whether Freud’s theories aretruly universal, taking into consideration cultures other than those found inWestern Europe.Anthropologistssuch as Roger M. Keesing, have been particularly interested with thepsychodynamics of personality within an evolutionary perspective. The questionof 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 theoryof psychoanalysis to the point where it was no longer culture-bound, due tomany anthropologists being sceptical of Freud’s theories due to the limitedexperience he had, taking into account only the Viennese patients he wasexposed to.
Some question whether this led him to create an overly simplisticmodel of the unconscious, and whether his theories such as the Oedipus Complex,can really be considered universal. Anthropologists were particularlyinterested in Freud’s theories of the unconscious drives of sex, aggression andhunger; they analyse this theory further by trying to apply Freud’s referenceto sublimating and repressing these basic urges into symbols, to culturalcreations of art and religion. However, this aspect of his theory is seen asbeing partially wrong due to animals being believed to be social animals, andbeing ‘biologically programmed not simply to satisfy individual urges, but tolive in groups’ (Keesing, 1997). There are various anthropologists who see the consciousand unconscious divisions of Freud’s theory as an ‘extreme over simplificationof a vastly complex system’ (Keesing, 1997). Anthropologists were alsointerested in psychological development and social relationships as seenthrough the Oedipus and Electra Complex being applied to certain tribes in Africa.The Tallensi ofGhana were studied by anthropologists in relation to the Oedipus Complex, asfindings state that these people symbolise the Oedipus Complex in a unique andsocially acceptable way.
Amongst the Tallensi there is a ritualization anddramatization of the tension between the parents and their children who willreplace them. Within this cultural context the birth of the firstborn son, aswell as the firstborn daughter represent the end of ‘the uphill path of aperson’s life and the beginning of the downhill path leading to senility anddeath’ (Keesing, 1997). From the young age of around 5 years old, which is theage at which Freud says the Oedipus Complex begins to form, the firstborn sonis not allowed; to eat from the same dish as his father, wear his father’s capor tunic, carry his quiver, or use his bow, above all this he is also forbiddenfrom looking into his father’s granary. This progresses throughout thedevelopment of the child, eventually reaching a stage where father and soncannot 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 thedaughter is not allowed to touch the mother’s storage pot. Once the parentsdie, there is a ritual of the firstborn children to replace their deceasedparents. The children are expected to take the lead in mortuary rites, wherethe son is able to put on his dead father’s cap and tunic. The firstborn son isalso led inside his late father’s granary by an elder carrying the dead man’sbow. This symbolism that the Tallensi have created could be seen as controllingthe sexual tension Freud describes in the Oedipus and Electra Complexes, thisseems to suggest that rather than repressing the tension, they accept andcontrol it in a culturally acceptable way. The Ndembu ofZambia have many ritual symbols, such as the ‘mudyi’ tree sap which is used ina variety of rituals and symbolises multiple ideas.
‘These multiple levels ofmeaning relate what is abstract and social with the “gut feelings” and emotionsof individuals related to their primary experience’ (Keesing, 1997). This ideaof symbolism may trace back to Freud’s understanding of the unconscioussuppressing socially unaccepted behaviour and sublimating said behaviour insocially acceptable constructs. This may suggest that the multiple ritualsymbols used by the Ndembu of Zambia, are representative of the earlier people’sunconscious sublimation of certain taboos.Cultural Ontologyrefers to a society’s system of notions about what kinds of things and peopleexist in the world. As cultural ontology refers to a society’s particular setof ideas, then it is not hard to understand that with different societies onemight find different ontologies. This idea of variation depending on thesociety is very important, especially when dealing with the systems ofsexuality and gender which fall under the spectrum of a society’s culturalontology. This helps to explain why there are an array of genders andsexualities, as these differ from one society to another, depending on theirgeneral philosophies which developed from their set of experiences and culture.Sexual dimorphism, which is the existence of two distinct body forms based onsex, is seen to be a natural and universal feature of human existence, thisnotion is particularly enforced in American and Western Culture.
However, thereare exceptions to this theory of sexual dimorphism as has been found byanthropologists who studied other cultures. Not all cultures believe in twokinds of humans, or even two physical kinds of humans, and not all culturesbelieve that sex is determined at birth, moreover, not all cultures apply the sametasks and values amongst the same sex-line divisions. This is where the idea ofontology comes into play, where one begins to see the various notions of sexand gender amongst a multitude of cultures. Eller lists an array of differentsocieties with different practices, such as the Navajo with their fluid gendercosmos, where men may wear women’s clothing and participate in activitiesusually associated with women, including having sexual relations with othermen. Other examples are listed, but particularly Eller has found that ‘asociety may identify two sexes or gender based on physical traits, identify twosexes or genders based on other than physical traits, or identify three or moresexes 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 thatsexual desire is the basic meaning of symbols and symbolic behaviour does seemto be supported by Eller’s idea of cultural ontology to some degree. I see thetheory of cultural ontology as supporting the idea that most symbols andsymbolic behaviour are based on sexual desire, however I would not go as far asFreud in saying that all symbolic behaviour is based on sexual desire. Whilst alarge number of symbols and symbolic behaviour can be seen as revolving aroundthe notion of sexuality and sexual desire, as seen in the various examplesEller gives within his research, I do not believe that all symbolism, seen inall cultures of the world, revolve around this one notion of sex.