Signaling theory, strategic interaction, and symbolic capital

Rebecca Bliege Bird, Eric Alden Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

618 Scopus citations


Signaling theory provides an opportunity to integrate an interactive theory of symbolic communication and social benefit with materialist theories of individual strategic action and adaptation. This article examines the potential explanatory value of signaling theory for a variety of anthropological topics, focusing on three social arenas in which signaling might plausibly be important: unconditional generosity, "wasteful" subsistence behavior, and artistic or craft traditions. In each case, it outlines the ways in which the phenomena correspond with the expectations of signaling theory by showing how a given pattern of action might signal particular hidden attributes, provide benefits to both signaler and observers, and meet the conditions for honest communication. The ethnographic evidence suggests that the fundamental conditions for reliable signaling of condition-dependent qualities may exist in many social domains. It appears that signaling theory has considerable promise for generating novel and powerful insights into the ethnographic realm.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)221-248
Number of pages28
JournalCurrent anthropology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2005

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Archaeology
  • Anthropology
  • Archaeology


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