Signs, Symbols, and Processes

From Saussure to Bourdieu


When looking at human beings from the point of view of what they do together in the midst of their history, that is, from the point of view of their transformation of the ecological resources at their disposal, one will have to confront what is often referred to as the "arbitrariness" of the observable forms. Over the past century, those who have been concerned with culture have explored sense of arbitrariness in various contexts. In the process they have specified in greater detail some of the properties of what human beings do to themselves and to each other even as they make their world.

This presentation proceeds in three parts:

  1. Saussure's discussion of the "arbitrariness of signs" (with an emphasis on the discontinuity between perception and labelling)next
  2. Lévi-Strauss on symbolic associations across sensory domains, totems and castes (with an emphasis on the classification of human beings and what they may do to each other after they have been differentiated into a new world of kinds of human beings). next
  3. Foucault on the discursive elaboration of classifications; Bourdieu on the cultural arbitrary in social processes (starting with education transformed into bureaucratized schooling); Varenne and McDermott on "culture as disability." next