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Sherpas Through Their Rituals

A book by Sherry B. Ortner, 1978

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Understanding culture through ritual meaning

  • Jul 3, 2010
This book is a revision of Ortner’s doctoral thesis, which creates an interesting combination of extensive, descriptive ethnographic examples and deeply thought out theoretical perspectives and analyses. The perspective that Ortner takes is that societies create metaphorical systems of dealing with important and conflicting aspects of their social structures. Before we contemplate the functions of certain cultural systems, first we must understand what they really mean to the people. To do this, one needs to interpret meaning from the symbols used. This needs to be done in the context of the culture, with a thorough understanding of the culture’s history, neighboring relations, environmental constraints and opportunities, patterns of marriage and inheritance, and the like. Symbols are metaphors of deeper meaning (food, for instance, may symbolize the body).
In this case, Ortner analyzes four practices of the Sherpas, who are one of the many ethnic groups that live in the highlands of Nepal. They have a Tibetan ancestry and practice a form of Buddhism. They are agriculturalists and pastoralists with increasingly diversifying economies as land becomes more limited. The practices analyzed are Nyungne (atonement), exorcisms, ritual offerings to the gods, and hospitality. Ortner goes through each case, deconstructs the activities through the sequences of events, interprets their meanings based on an understanding of the Sherpa culture, and concludes that these activities are a way of mediating the individualistic and social ideas that permeate Sherpa culture. These rites are meant to reaffirm the individual when faced with abandonment, or to reproduce the status quo, or to dispel feelings of social inequity, or to bring the spiritual realm to a human level, or to maintain a compulsory exchange of reciprocity in a community.
Ortner utilized many paradigms in this work, including a great deal of structuralism and functionalism. This work reflects Levi-Strauss in the method of breaking down elements and interpreting them through mental structures (though not as abstractly as Levi-Strauss did). She even uses a triangle to depict the transcendence or the spiritual over the physical and demonic in the system of the self (p 104). She follows this with a functionalist interpretation of how these symbolic practices maintain the cultural structure. “Ritual, then, is a sort of two-way transformer, shaping consciousness in conformity with culture, but at the same time shaping culture in conformity with the more immediate social-action and social-structural determinants of consciousness in everyday life” (p 5). This, actually, almost mirrors the concept of Malinowski, who believed that individual needs drove culture while culture shaped the consciousness of individuals. The difference is that Ortner analyzes more at the level of psychological needs (except some aspects of hospitality and the need for social cohesion), and she is not as explicit in identifying the individual. She deals with the tensions between individualism and sociality, and I am certain that within her examples the individual is implicitly the agent being acted upon.

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Ranked #1226
      A graduate student of biological anthropology. My favorite writers are Peter Straub, Alice Hoffmann, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, and E.O. Wilson … more
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