In interpretive analysis, the hermeneutic method is extended to the study of all kinds of texts, including jokes, sermons, songs, and even actions. Modern hermeneutics in social science, you’ll recall from chapter 1, is an outgrowth of the Western tradition of biblical exegesis. In that tradition, the books of the Bible were assumed to contain eternal truths, put there by an omnipotent creator through some emissaries—prophets, writers of the gospels, and the like. The object of interpretation is to understand the meaning of the original words, given all the conditions of the present.
In the late 19th century, Wilhelm Dilthey (1989 ) argued that this method of text interpretation was central to the human sciences. A century later, Paul Ricoeur (1979:73) argued that human behavior itself could be treated as an interpretable text. In anthropology, the person most associated with this tradition is Clifford Geertz (1972:26), who famously called culture ‘‘an assemblage of texts’’ that were available to be interpre- ted—that is, to be understood as those who acted them out understood them and to be related to larger social forces. Today, this interpretive method is widely practiced in anthropology. Here are two examples:
(1) Michael Herzfeld (1977) studied renditions of the khelidonisma, or swallow song, sung in modern Greece as part of the welcoming of spring. Herzfeld collected texts of the song from ancient, medieval, and modern historical sources and recorded texts of current-day renditions in several locations across Greece. His purpose was to show that inconsistencies in the texts come not from ‘‘some putative irrationality in the processes of oral tradition’’ but are, in fact, reflections of structural principles that underlie the rite of passage for welcoming spring in rural Greece. To make his point, Herzfeld looked for anomalies across renditions—like ‘‘March, my good March’’ in one song compared to ‘‘March, terrible March’’ in another. Herzfeld claims that the word ‘‘good’’ is used ironically in Greek where the referent is a source of anxiety.
Is March a subject of symbolic anxiety for Greek villagers? Yes, says, Herzfeld, it is, and we can tell that it is because of widely observed practices like avoidance of certain activities during the drimata (the first 3 days of March). Herzfeld supports his analysis by referring to the drimes, a word that denotes the first 3 days of August, which are associated with malevolent spirits. Since March is the transition from winter to summer and August is the transition from summer to winter, Herzfeld concludes that there is symbolic danger associated with these mediating months. He finds support for this analysis in the fact that February is never referred to with an unequivocally good epithet.
This is interpretive analysis—the search for meanings and their interconnection in the expression of culture. The method requires deep involvement with the culture, including an intimate familiarity with the language, so that the symbolic referents emerge during the study of those expressions. You can’t see the connections among symbols if you don’t know what the symbols are and what they are supposed to mean. Herzfeld used his intimate knowledge of Greek language and culture to make the connection between the khelidonisma poems and the structural principle of danger in months of transition.
(2) James Fernandez (1967) recorded and transcribed the sermons of two African cult leaders, Ekang Engono of Koungoulou, Kango, Gabon, and William Richmond of Sydenham, Durban, South Africa. Engono preached in Make (a dialect of Fang) and
Richmond preached in Zulu. The sermon by Richmond is 45 pages of text, but the one by Engono is quite short. Here it is in its entirely:
The Ngombi is Fang. The Ngombi is something to take great care of. The Ngombi is the fruit that is full of juice, it is something that can act badly, can feel badly, can cause irritation and trouble. It is better that it should be irritating, that it should burst open. The man who knows well the Fang Ngombi, he has his treasure in the land of the dead. Men must not steal iron because it comes from the forge, it is a man’s brother, it is the equivalent of man. The blood of the nursing mother is the food of the afterbirth. We don’t know the miracle of the spirit. The Ngombi leaves this on earth with us. We are unfortunate because man does not know the significance of eboka. We are the destroyers of the earth. Our destruction makes noise to God. The miracle is between our thighs. Listen to the words of the wind; listen to the words of the Fang Ngombi, listen to the words of the village. They are of great meaning to you. The widow can not cause trouble through her chatter unless she and another like her marry the same husband. The man without witchcraft is an Angel, he is a dove, hence the ancestors said the poor man is one of two things. He is either worn out or he is without witchcraft.
Fernandez interprets each of the esoteric images in the sermon—the Ngombi, the iron, the miracle between the thighs, the blood of the nursing mother, the chatter of the widow—showing how they are components of Engono’s general exhortation to his flock to protect marriage and pregnancy. The Ngombi, for example, is a sacred harp, the sound of which (for the members of this cult) is the voice of the goddess of fecundity, and gifts of iron were traditional for bride price.
But this is not just an exercise in interpretation of esoteric images. Fernandez notes that in 1960, when he recorded the sermon, the Fang had experienced a dramatic, 40- year decline in fertility, the consequence of an epidemic of venereal disease. In fact, the existence of the cult was in response to this decline.
This, too, is interpretive analysis. Fernandez used his intimate knowledge of Fang language and culture to show how the otherwise-esoteric contents of a brief sermon addressed societal problems. Fernandez translates the sermon into the language and world view of his reader, filling in the gaps and making explicit some linkages that are only implicit in the text (Further Reading: interpretive analysis).