Symbolic Classification Essay

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Symbolic classification – literally, complex arrangements of symbols into wholes – refers to the process of classifying and ordering by means of which individuals are able to make sense of the natural and social world. They do so by means of models of categorization that are culturally and socially determined as well as the outcome of a complex interplay between personal experience, socio-cultural context and linguistic forms. Such categories are cast in concrete images that we may call symbols, which are, by definition, polysemic and relativistic.

Durkheim and Mauss were among the first social scientists to reflect on the ways human beings conceive of time, space, causality, unity, plurality, and so on. Their ideas are elaborated in an article published in L’Annee sociologique (1903) and later translated in English as Primitive Classification (1963). The importance of this publication lies in the fact that some of the issues illustrated here were eventually discussed in structuralist social theories several decades later; moreover, it may be regarded as an early contribution to the sociology of knowledge and to sociological epistemology. The central argument of their essay is that there exists a connection between the classification of natural phenomena and the social order. The act of classifying does not occur through the effect of a ”spontaneous” attitude of the mind, based for example upon the principles of contiguity, similarity, and opposition among objects or among living beings, but originates within the organization of social life.

They oppose both the idea that categories exist before experience (built-in or a priori categories) and that categories are the product of experience (empiricism) and assert that ideas and worldviews are constructed on a model that reproduces the society from which they have emerged. Durkheim would later take this up in Les Formes elementaires de la vie religieuse: le systeme totemique en Australie (1912).

The work of Levi-Strauss and Mary Douglas is also grounded in the Durkheim and Mauss paradigm. Levi-Strauss analyzes symbolic classification at a much deeper, i.e., unconscious, level. Native categories of thought are the output of universal mental processes (e.g., binary or dual oppositions), which manifest themselves in different ways. Both the cosmologies of ”primitive” societies and the scientific thought of industrial societies are founded upon the same bases – the unconscious but structured regularities of human thought. The British anthropologist Mary Douglas departs from the epistemology of Durkheim and Mauss’ notion of symbolic classification and refines their sociology of knowledge. She avoids their evolutionary typology, i.e., the distinction between primitive and modern symbolic schemata, and insists on the importance of classificatory impurities. To understand the environment, individuals introduce order out of the chaos by means of classification. Yet in this process individuals discover that a few objects, living beings, actions, or ideas appear to be anomalous – matter out of place – which may pollute the entire classificatory system. What does not fit must be dealt with ideologically to keep the anomaly under control, both in the natural and in the social world. Recent undertakings in symbolic anthropology have moved away from structural problems and focused rather toward issues of practice. This is evident, for example, in recent studies on social justice dealing with how welfare policy systems classify potential recipients (Thevenot 2007); or on ethnicity which deconstruct the ethnic anomalies stressed by a hegemonic system of classification in multi-ethnic societies.


  1. Douglas, M. (1966) Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Penguin, Harmondsworth.
  2. Levi-Strauss, C. (1966) [1962] The Savage Mind. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
  3. Thevenot, L. (2007) The plurality of cognitive formats and engagements: moving between the familiar and the public. European Journal of Social Theory 10 (3): 409-23.

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