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Cultural anthropologist could glean meaning from several symbols in law departments

Several essays in Historically Speaking, Vol. 8, March/April 2007 at 33, honor Clifford Geertz, a leading cultural anthropologist. Anthropology at its heart searches to understand the “systems” by which large groups of people operates. Symbols are clues. One essay mentions that Geertz “seizes on the multiple meanings transmitted through a symbol.” Inspired, what follows is a rank amateur trying out the notion of symbolic meaning in law departments.

Consider a law department’s physical offices. Their relative size, location, number of occupants, furnishings, placement on corridors tells symbolically about hierarchy, stability, economics, and the privileges of rank (See my posts of May 4, 2007 on architecture with references cited; and June 5, 2007 with further thoughts.).

Look next at dress codes as fertile grounds for a cultural anthropologist to engage in hermeneutics – the interpretation of meaning from symbols. Do women dress with a wider range of styles than men? Does the tie come out when senior executives arrive? Perhaps dress-down days never happen or happen all the time. Can paralegals wear blue jeans? How does everyone know that flip-flops just aren’t permitted and three-piece suits laughed at (See my post of Oct. 22, 2005 on dress-down choices.)?

How people decorate their desks, shelves and walls tells about the social system of a law department. Pictures of children predominate, but nobody puts up provocative pinups. The primacy of privacy is on display if you interpret these symbols correctly. Honors certificates from college and law school rarely appear, as they seem to be show-offish, but a lawyers admission to practice before the US Supreme Court is framed in gold. Dilbert cartoons are common or condemned..

A final anthropological symbol that comes to mind is the law department’s reception area. Utilitarian departments have a buzzer system; others have a genial person who greets you and directs you to the sofa and magazines while you wait. The security precautions convey another sense of the department.

Office layout, attire, personal displays, and initial contact all have symbolic significance that cultural anthropologists would relish; pardon the expression, but they would have a field day.