The nature of definitions (was: Swyer's questions on Power)

Fri, 15 Mar 1996 14:55:52 -0500

In a message dated 96-03-15 11:01:03 EST, junger@PDJ2-RA.F-REMOTE.CWRU.EDU
(Peter D. Junger) writes:

> A ``patriarchy'' is a
>society dominated by patriarchs, a very few old men who are the heads
>of families or tribes with many members of both sexes.

As a graduating senior (BA Anthro) with plans to pursue a doctorate, my
memory of Anthro 101 remains quite clear. One of the concepts that comes
screaming back to me is the idea that "definitions are not etched in stone,"
expressed as recently as last week by one of my Professors. They are (for
the purpose of the midterm, anyway) arbitrary and symbolic. One word often
has several meanings (homonymy) which may or may not be related to one
another. The same word often means two different things to two different
people: say "bias" to a judge and she may insist she has none, but say it to
an audio engineer and she may tell you that the tape machine has been
properly aligned. Examples of words being used to mean completely different
things in different contexts abound. Hammered home again and again in Anthro
101 was the difference between "Culture" (capital "C") and "culture" (lower
case "c"). The fact that one definition may predate another, or may have an
origin easier to trace does not afford that definition pre-eminence. Usage,
it seems to me, is critical. Language is always changing, especially with
regard to usage. Many words we use today once meant something else.
Professor Rohrlich's usage of the term "patriarchy" is consistent with
current definitions -- note the plural. While the definition she ascribes to
it may not yet have made the Oxford English dictionary, it certainly is
commonly held. Trying to pin down a single definition does not make sense in
view of the fact that language is constantly evolving. Part of the fun of
Anthropology is in creating definitions. How many definitions are floating
around out there for "culture," "folklore," or even "Anthropology?" Why
exclude "patriarchy?"

Lauren W. Hasten