Geertz, Clifford

views updated May 23 2018

Geertz, Clifford 1926-2006


The American cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz was known for contending that culture is the enacted and public creation of meaning and that therefore ethnographic inquiry requires interpretation. Drawing on extensive fieldwork in Indonesia and Morocco, Geertzs theory of interpretive anthropology was articulated in his 1973 collection, The Interpretation of Cultures, in which he stated, The concept of culture I espouse is essentially a semiotic one. Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning (p. 5).

This search, Geertz noted thirty years later, involved ferreting out the singularities of other peoples ways of life. (2000, p. xi). Geertz emphasized the particularistic nature of cultural experience, highlighting the explanatory priority of symbols and attending to local knowledge. While sharing the American anthropologist Franz Boass goal of viewing cultures within their specific contexts, Geertz specifically focused on the cultural creation of symbolic meaning.

Geertz pursued graduate studies in the 1950s in Harvard Universitys interdisciplinary Department of Social Relations and conducted ethnographic research in Java, receiving his Ph.D. in 1956. After a postdoctorate stint at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (1958-1959) and a year teaching at the University of California at Berkeley (1959-1960), Geertz joined the University of Chicago where he taught for a decade (1960-1970) and participated in the Committee for Comparative Studies of New Nations. In 1970 he joined the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, retiring as professor emeritus in 2000. A fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and other academic societies, Geertz penned Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author (1988) for which he was named the 1989 winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for literary criticism.

Geertzs writings chart a progressive concern with ethnographic interpretation that built on his fieldwork in Java (1952-1954, 1986), Bali (1957-1958), and Morocco (1965-1966, 19851986). His early monographs The Religion of Java (1960), Agricultural Involution: The Process of Ecological Change in Indonesia (1963), Peddlers and Princes: Social Change and Economic Modernization in an Indonesian Town (1963), and The Social History of an Indonesian Town (1965)variously considered the historical, political, religious, and environmental variables that shaped the cultural contours of an evolving Indonesia.

Geertzs thinking about interpretive ethnography was foreshadowed in the final chapter of The Social History of an Indonesian Town in which he outlined, following Harold Garfinkel, the document approach. In this approach, a specific ethnographic case is analyzed such that the ineradicable specificity of actual events and the elusive generality of meaningful form render one another intelligible (p. 154).

Having documented the event, it is the anthropologists task to decipher and expose its meanings: This requires interpretation. In The Interpretation of Cultures, Geertz argued that the ethographer must contrive to somehow first to grasp and then to render the multiple conceptual structures that account for the meanings of cultural acts (p. 10). An acted, public document culture is written not in conventionalized graphs of sound but in transient examples of shaped behavior (p. 10). The anthropologists goals are to sort through the structures of signification that make such behaviors meaning-full, to decipher those connections in an ethnographic text, and to thus enlarge the consultable record of human experience.

Several objections can be raised to Geertzs theory of interpretive anthropology. First, Geertzs position is idealist, contending that culturally mediated concepts shape human behavior rather than, for example, the material conditions of existence. Second, the interpretive approach leads to several problems of method and validation. For example, how is one to think about the structures of signification? Are some structures more central and durable than others, and in what contexts are they deployed? Explicitly focused on the microcosm, how can an interpretive approach address broader connections of history, economy, and power? Third, interpretive approaches are designed not to generalize across cases but to generalize within them (Geertz 1973, p. 26), thus precluding cross-cultural comparative studies. Finally, as Geertz acknowledged, interpretive accounts escape systematic modes of assessment; how can any interpretation be proven false? (p. 24).

Geertzs interpretive anthropology departed from the paradigm of anthropology as a science in search of lawlike generalizations about humanity. From the 1970s to the present, the unbridgeable differences between interpretive versus scientific theoretical positions have crystallized into deep divisions within American anthropology.

SEE ALSO Anthropology, U.S.; Weber, Max



Geertz, Clifford. 1960. The Religion of Java. New York: The Free Press.

Geertz, Clifford. 1963. Agricultural Involution: The Process of Ecological Change in Indonesia. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Geertz, Clifford. 1963. Peddlers and Princes: Social Change and Economic Modernization in Two Indonesian Towns. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Geertz, Clifford. 1965. The Social History of an Indonesian Town. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Geertz, Clifford. 1983. Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology. New York: Basic Books.

Geertz, Clifford. 1988. Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Geertz, Clifford. 1995. After the Fact: Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Geertz, Clifford. 2000. Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


Harris, Marvin. 1979. Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture. New York: Random House.

Harris, Marvin. 1999. Theories of Culture in Postmodern Times. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.

Wolf, Eric. 1999. Envisioning Power: Ideologies of Dominance and Crisis. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jerry D. Moore

Clifford Geertz

views updated Jun 27 2018

Clifford Geertz

The American cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz (born 1926) did ethnographic field work in Indonesia and Morocco, wrote influential essays on central theoretical issues in the social sciences, and advocated a distinctive "interpretive" approach to anthropology.

Clifford Geertz was born in San Francisco on August 23, 1926. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he received a B.A. from Antioch College in 1950 and a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1956. Having held a number of brief appointments early in his career, he took a position at the University of Chicago in 1960, where he was rapidly promoted to associate and then full professor. In 1970 he joined the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, as professor of social science, a position of rare distinction which he still occupied in 1995. Over the years Geertz received a considerable number of honors and awards, including honorary degrees from several institutions. In 1958 and 1959 he was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (Stanford) and in 1978-1979 he served as Eastman Professor at Oxford University. His books won major prizes, including the prestigious 1988 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism for Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author.

In 1952 Geertz first went to Indonesia with a team of investigators to study Modjokuto, a small town in east central Java, where he and his wife lived for more than a year. On the basis of his research there Geertz wrote his dissertation, later published in 1960 as The Religion of Java. A comprehensive analysis of Javanese religion in its social context, this book presents a picture of a highly religious culture composed of at least three main strands (related to different population groups). These include a traditional kind of animism, Islam (itself internally diverse), and a Hindu-influenced refined mysticism.

In later years Geertz returned to Java but also spent extensive periods in Tabanan, a small town in Bali. Initially treated with complete indifference by the Balinese, Geertz and his wife gained significant access to their community. He presented his interpretation of his time there in a classic essay on the Balinese cockfight. Both in the matching of the cocks and in the bets surrounding the fight, the Balinese dramatized their concern with maintaining a definite hierarchy of rivalries and groups in which everyone had his or her fixed place.

Geertz carried out field work in Sefrou, a town in north central Morocco, in the 1960s and early 1970s, enabling him to compare two "extremes" of Islamic civilization: homogeneous and morally severe in Morroco and blended with other traditions and less concerned with scriptural doctrine in Indonesia. In both countries he found traditional religion affected by the process of secularization; whereas people used to "be held" by taken-for-granted beliefs, in modern societies they increasingly have to "hold" their beliefs in a much more conscious (and anxious) fashion. Geertz published Islam Observed in 1968.

In his early work Geertz investigated why certain communities achieved greater economic growth and modernization than others. For example, he found that the "ego-focused" market peddlers of Modjokuto, who only looked out for their own and their families' gain, were in a less favorable position than the "group-focused" Tabanan aristocrats. The latter group could use their traditional prestige to mobilize communal resources for new investments, even though they had to temper their modern entrepreneurial drive with concern for the well-being of their community.

Geertz also authored a number of essays which elaborate on his theories, including The Interpretation of Cultures in 1973 and Local Knowledge in 1983.

In 1995, Geertz published After the Fact: Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist. In the book, he charted the transformation of cultural anthropology from a study of primitive people to a multidisciplinary investigation of a culture's symbolic systems and its interactions with the larger forces of history and modernization. Geertz used the greatest strength of anthropology (the ability to compare cultures). His periods of extended fieldwork in Indonesia and Morocco enabled him to view each through the lens of the other. He also used anecdotes in the book of nonwestern countries tackling the same social questions as Western countries: national identity, moral order, and competing values.

Throughout his career Geertz tried to make sense of the ways people live their lives by interpreting cultural symbols such as ceremonies, political gestures, and literary texts. Geertz was also interested in the role of thought (especially religious thought) in society. Analyzing this role properly, he argued, requires "thick description," a probing appraisal of the meanings people's actions have for them in their own circumstances—a method Geertz tried to demonstrate in his own work. Skeptical of attempts to develop abstract theories of human behavior but sensitive to issues of universal human concern, he emphasized that anthropologists should focus on the rich texture of the lives of real human beings. Yet he showed that in writing about others one necessarily transforms "their" world; the very style in which social scientists write conveys their distinctive interpretation. Geertz' own highly sophisticated, but dense and occasionally convoluted writing style exemplifies his influential "interpretive" approach to cultural anthropology.

Further Reading

The titles and publication dates of Geertz' main works clearly show the focus and evolution of his interests: The Religion of Java (1960), Agricultural Involution: The Process of Ecological Change in Indonesia (1963), which explains the colonial background of and economic constraints inherent in labor-intensive Japanese agriculture; Peddlers and Princes: Social Change and Economic Modernization in Two Indonesian Towns (1963), a readable comparative study; Person, Time, and Conduct in Bali: An Essay in Cultural Analysis (1966); Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia (1968), a small but elegantly written near-classic comparative analysis; The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), a well-crafted set of highly influential theoretical essays and illustrative case studies; Meaning and Order in Moroccan Society (1979), with L. Rosen and H. Geertz; Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali (1980); Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (1983); and Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author (1988), a subtle analysis of the works of four outstanding anthropologists.

For autobiographical resources see: Geertz, Clifford, After the Fact: Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist, Harvard University Press, 1995. For biographical resources see: Morgan, John H., Understanding Religion and Culture— Anthropological and Theological Perspectives, University Press of America, 1979 and Rice, Kenneth, Geertz and Culture, University of Michigan Press.

For periodical articles about Clifford Geertz see: Publishers Weekly, January 2, 1995; The New York Times Magazine, April 9, 1995; The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 5, 1995; and New Statesman and Society, June 2, 1995.

For on-line resources about Clifford Geertz see: and □

Geertz, Clifford

views updated Jun 11 2018

Geertz, Clifford (b. 1926). Influential American cultural anthropologist who advocates ‘examining culture as an assemblage of texts’. The role of religion in organizing experience, in particular in providing responses to those experiences which lack ‘interpretability’, is explored in a number of works, including The Religion of Java (1960) and Islam Observed (1968).