Evans-Pritchard (1973, p. lx) has stated that for him two of the finest essays ever written in the history of sociological thought are those by Robert Hertz, the one entitled ‘The Pre-eminence of the Right Hand’ (1909) and the other ‘The Representation of Death’ (1907). In these essays Hertz selected salient facts of nature and showed how these have been transformed by culture, how various societies have taken these biological facts as focal points in their collective systems of ideas and action which invest their everyday world with meaning. But Hertz went further than merely describing diverse customs and beliefs. Through his probing analyses he revealed underlying symbolic patterns of world-wide significance, such as the use of right and left as the physical basis on which many societies have calqued elaborate orders of dual classification (see Needham, 1973). In these systems of symbolic opposition Hertz noted how the male is most often related to the right or superior side and the female to the left or inferior side. Indeed, he showed remarkably modem insights for an essay written nearly seventy years ago.

Every social hierarchy claims to be founded on the nature of things, physei, ou nomō: it thus accords itself eternity, it escapes change and the attacks of innovators. Aristotle justified slavery by the ethnic superiority of the Greeks over barbarians; and today the man who is annoyed by feminist claims alleges that woman is naturally inferior (Hertz, in Needham, 1973, p. 3).

Hertz went on to make the then radical proposition that what appears to be ‘the testimony of nature’ may well be the results of social definitions.