A myth is a story that has a parallel structure linking the past to the present and suggesting directions for the future. A myth may be a cautionary tale, as in the urban myths that teenagers tell about the dangers inherent in parking on dark side roads. A myth may also be a moral tale, as in morality plays and bed time stories. Myths also may be about idealized behavioral standards, as in hero myths. As a sociological term, however, the primary use of the word myth has been rather casual. Sociological writers are likely to refer to the “myth” of masculinity (Pleck 1981), the “myth” of self esteem (Hewitt 1998) or the “myth” of the mommy role (Douglas & Michaels 2006). This use of the term imputes a less than factual status to the topic of reference and calls into question the veracity of others’ accounts and theories. However, sociology currently lacks a clear concept of myth such as is found in anthropology or cultural studies.
Comparative evolutionary anthropology, of which Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890) is perhaps the most recognized example, links contemporary myths to primitive rituals in the search for meaning through mystical experiences. This set of comparative principles was developed by T. S. Eliot in both his poetic work and in his 1923 article Ulysses, Order, and Myth.” Later, in 1966, Vickery suggested that an interdisciplinary examination of the larger patterns of myth making was more effective than analyses of single texts. This myth criticism” enjoyed great academic and popular success, propelled in part by Campbell’s 1949 work, Hero with a Thousand Faces.
A more modern structural approach to the anthropology of myth derives primarily from the work of Levi Strauss (1995), in which he reexamines the dismissive attitude of western cultures toward the myths (cultural narratives) of non industrial societies and suggests the valuable purpose of myth in human culture and history. Myth, according to Levi Strauss, allows anthropology to understand the under lying structure of a culture by examining linguistic elements and their relations to one another. Levi Strauss locates the modern use of the term myth in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with the development of science as a category of logical endeavor separate from the messy everyday world of the making of common sense from our perceptions of reality. He also suggests that science will progressively broaden its purview to incorporate many problems previously considered outside its territory, such as myths, which appear the world over, yet in different forms in each culture.
Myth is a form of meaning making that seems ideal for sociologists, yet few have risen to the challenge of studying its processes. Durkheim (2001) begins to develop a sociological concept of myth. However, its energetic pursuit by anthropologists may have resulted in its being abandoned as a boundary setting maneuver by sociologists. One direction for contemporary sociologists seeking to investigate a sociological construct of myth might be the work of Barthes (1972), in which he uses the narrative of myth making to explain sense making of everyday lives and experiences. Also, although they do not employ the term myth, Holstein and Gubrium (2000) describe a narrative self that relies on its reflexive yet socially embedded story for temporal structure and continuity. Readers seeking an empirical use of the term myth might seek out the literature on rape myths reviewed by Lonsway (1995).
- Barthes, (1972) Mythologies. Hill & Wang, New York.
- Campbell, J. (1993 ) The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Harper Collins, New York.
- Clifford, J. & Marcus, G. E. (Eds.) (1986) Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. University of California Press, Berkeley.
- Douglas, S. J. & Michaels, M. W. (2006) The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women. Journal of Marriage and Family 68(1): 255 6.
- Durkheim, E. (2001 ) The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- Hewitt, J. (1998) The Myth of Self Esteem. Martin’s Press, New York.
- Holstein, J. A. & Gubrium, J. F. (2000) The Self We Live By: Narrative Identity in a Postmodern World. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- Levi-Strauss, C. (1995) Myth and Meaning: Cracking the Code of Culture. Shocken, New York.
- Lonsway, K. A. (1995) Attitudinal Antecedents of Rape Myth Acceptance: A Theoretical and Empirical Reexamination. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 68(4): 704 11.
- Manganaro, M. (1992) Myth, Rhetoric, and the Voice of Authority: A Critique of Frazer, Eliot, Frye, and Campbell. Yale University Press, New Haven.
- Marcus, G. & Fischer, M. M. J. (1999) Anthropologyas Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences, 2nd edn. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
- Pleck, J. (1981) The Myth of Masculinity. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
- Vickery, J. (Ed.) (1966) Myth and Literature: Con temporary Theory and Practice. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.
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