Clifford James Geertz (gurtz) is recognized as one of the most significant elaborators of American, and indeed international, anthropological theory. Certainly one of his primary contributions to anthropology was his concern for a more meaningful definition of human culture than had existed over several previous generations of scholarship in the field. In the words of the prominent social scientist Leslie White, writing in 1954, “Since [Edward] Tyler’s day [the late nineteenth century] . . . conceptions of culture have . . . become so diverse as to present a picture of confusion, not to say chaos.” Those who continued to follow Tyler’s general definition of culture referred to “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” Many, however, including Geertz (a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Harvard University at the time White wrote), believed that more precise theoretical approaches to the question of culture needed to be devised. Geertz’s own choice in 1973 of the term “theoretical diffusion” to criticize the use of very general definitions of culture to cover many different aspects of human activity attests the centrality of his concern in his work as an anthropologist.
Very early in his scholarly career, just before he assumed an assistant professor’s appointment at the University of California at Berkeley, Geertz expressed uneasiness about the prevailing functionalist school of social science theory. Functionalists assumed that all cultural institutions (here Geertz’s initial concern was for religion) were ultimately to be understood in terms of their contribution either to the maintenance of social harmony or to the fulfillment of psychological needs. Geertz was concerned that such thinking bound functionalists to a static framework: Change under such a theoretical system could...
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