On not understanding symbols: Toward an anthropology of incomprehension

Roger M. Keesing, Jordan Haug


Roger Keesing wrote the first drafts of On not understanding symbols in 1978. After several versions of the manuscript circulated among his colleagues, Keesing decided to revise his analysis extensively. He eventually included snippets of the paper’s ethnographic material in some of his later ethnography on Kwaio religion (1982). His final version of On not understanding symbols, half of which is found only in a hand written form, was never published but nonetheless is an important precursor for much of Keesing’s later critiques on the “anthropology of meaning," and work on Kwaio religion. Keesing’s final version of the manuscript, from which this paper is based, is found in Roger Keesing’s Papers (MSS 0427) in the Tuzin Archive for Melanesian Anthropology housed in the Mandeville Special Collections Library at the University of California, San Diego. Jordan Haug transcribed and edited the manuscript. Minor modifications to the text were made to point the reader to relevant supporting material. Citations for references published after 1978 have been added in the editing process to give a broader sense of where this particular paper lies in Keesing’s oeuvre and the broader ethnographic literature on the Kwaio. David Akin provided critical comments and inspiration in the editing process.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14318/hau2.2.023