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On Key Symbols'
SHERRY B. ORTNER
Sarah Lawrence College
This paper reviews the use of the notion of "key symbol" in anthropological analysis. It analyzes phenomena which have been or might be accorded the status of key symbol in cultural analyses, categorizing them according to their primary modes of operating on thought and action.
IT IS by no means a novel idea that each culture has certain key elements which, in an ill-defined way, are crucial to its distinctive organization. Since the publication of Benedict's Patterns of Culture in 1934, the
notion of such key elements has persistedin American anthropology under a variety of rubrics: "themes" (e.g., Opler 1945; Cohen 1948), "focal values" (Albert 1956), "dominant values" (DuBois 1955), "integrative concepts" (DuBois 1936), "dominant orientations" (F. Kluckhohn 1950), and so forth. We can also find this idea sneaking namelessly into British social anthropologicalwriting;the best example of this is Lienhardt's(1961) discussionof cattle in Dinka culture (and I say culture rather than society advisedly). Even EvansPritchardhas said, as every experienced field-workerknows, the most difficult task in social anthropological field work is to determine the meanings of a few key words, upon an understandingof which the success of the whole investigation depends [1962:80].
Recently, as the focus in the study of meaningsystems has shifted to the symbolic units which formulate meaning, the interest in these key elements of cultureshas become specified as the interest in key symbols. Schneider (1968) calls them "core symbols" in his study of American kinship; Turner method is Benedict's The Chrysanthemum (1967) calls them "dominant symbols" in and the Sword (1967). The sword and the chrysanthemum were chosen by Benedict from the repertoire of Japanesesymbols as Accepted for publication August 2, 1972 1338
his study of Ndembu ritual; I called them "key symbols" in my study of Sherpasocial relations(Ortner1970). The primary question of course is what do we mean by "key"? But I will postpone considering this problem until I have discussed the various usages of the notion of key symbols in the literature of symbolic analysis. Two methodological approachesto establishing certain symbols as "core" or "key" to a cultural system have been employed. The first approach, less commonly used, involves analyzing the system (or domains thereof) for its underlying elementscognitive distinctions, value orientations, etc.-then looking about in the culture for some figure or image which seems to formulate, in relatively pure form, the underlying orientations exposed in the analysis. The best example of this approach in the current literatureis DavidSchneider's (1968) analysis of American kinship; Schneider first analyzes the kinship system for its basic components-nature and lawand then decides that conjugalsexual intercourse is the form which, given its meaning in the culture, expresses this...