One of the beautiful things about anthropology is that, by studying other cultures, we come to better understand our own. Last fall, I was doing a research project on the Chewa people of Malawi. The literature I read enlightened me to a worldview guided by a completely different frame of reference than my own. Objects and activities were inherently hot or cold, wet or dry, and as such could only be paired with complementary objects or activities; incorrect pairings were dangerous; people unconsciously abided to harmonious pairings. The categories pertained especially to sexuality, arguably the focal point of much human life. The authors’ arguments suggested that the divisions came out of the environment in which the people lived. The conception is not unique to the Chewa.
That started me wondering about whether my culture sprouted a similarly implicit world view—after some contemplation, I found that it did. It was the dichotomy between clean and dirty, especially as pertaining to sexuality and religion, but also in other realms. For example, prostitutes and other overtly sexual people (especially women) are considered “dirty”; so are other acts pertaining to sexuality. These messages come across in songs and other outputs of “popular culture.” Clean is also used in other contexts, for example, a “clean” cut, where nothing is actually clean or dirty at all. Similar imagery pervades the Christian tradition (baptism as purification, for example) and cleanliness is a key component of the principal monotheistic religions. It is possible, in each of these conceptions, for symbolic pollution to occur. I would posit that the differentiation becomes symbolic of people’s deliberate attempts to overcome and master nature—the nature vs. culture dichotomy. This is different from the apparent integration of the Chewa people with their environment.
This musing is grounded in the work of Levi-Strauss with his binary opposites, the resolution of which gives rise to potent symbols and, at risk of being too general, culture. Ortner narrows this polar structure to examine women’s proximity to nature as opposed to culture, which renders them inferior in the eyes of many communities. I would potentially like to draw on this to explain why women’s sexuality is especially dirty symbolically. There is also a body of literature about the concept of symbolic pollution, and the clean-dirty conception in general, that I would draw on.
The difficulty in the thesis will be narrowing the question to a particular group of study. I think what will serve me best is to analyze the symbolism surrounding a particular sexualized ritual at Middlebury—perhaps party culture or a more specific aspect of it. It might also warrant a comparison with the symbolism at, for example, a local church. Alternatively, I could set the Middlebury ritual against a more general backdrop of American youth culture as analyzed by media and literature observation. Other methodological strategies would be interviews and linguistic analysis. The problem, of course, becomes not assuming that my theory is true before I begin; the thesis will be more an investigation to discover whether it is true.
I therefore think that the best way to frame the research topic would be something like this: An investigation into the symbolic value of cleanliness in Middlebury: (college parties and the United Methodist Church). Of course, I would like to further refine and narrow my research to make it more manageable and specific as I acquire more background.
You must be logged in to post a comment.