Clifford Geertz

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 789

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 come only through an actual overthrow or, at best, a “progressive disintegration” of the social, or psychological, status quo.

As he carried out his first fieldwork in the Javan area of Indonesia, Geertz emphasized the analytical necessity of separating cultural and social aspects of human life, which were to be seen as independently variable but mutually interdependent. Thus the main thrust of Geertz’s research would be devoted to demonstrating the dynamic process of interaction between these two domains—showing in the process how, through integrative adjustments (affecting, in the cultural sphere, what Geertz called “levels of meaning”), change occurs without necessarily demanding rejection or overthrow of the status quo. The empirical and theoretical development of Geertz’s approach to cultural anthropology moved through several stages, beginning with a first application in his study The Religion of Java and extending into the domain of material culture, in Peddlers and Princes.

A significantly expanded theoretical framework for testing his concept of the symbolic relativity of culture came in 1967, when Geertz set out in his Terry Foundation Lectures on Religion and Science at Yale University to do a comparative study of what he labeled a “supposedly single creed,” Islam, as it operated in two quite distinct social and historical environments: Indonesia and Morocco. Despite the very interesting comparative framework offered by this work, published in 1968 as Islam Observed, Geertz’s empirical contribution, at least to Moroccan studies, remained rather limited.

By the mid-1970’s, Geertz, now widely recognized and highly respected, had become the first professor of the social sciences at Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study. The time seemed right for publishing a comprehensive statement of the theoretical significance both of his fieldwork and of many essays he had contributed to the professional anthropological literature. This comprehensive statement took the form of a major work entitled The Interpretation of Cultures. Another major empirical application of Geertzian cultural anthropological theory focused on Indonesia: In 1975, Geertz published Kinship in Bali, which he wrote jointly with his wife, Hildred Geertz.

The Interpretation of Cultures and a subsequent collection of essays, Local Knowledge, brought Geertz’s work to the attention of readers outside the field of anthropology. Indeed, by the mid-1980’s Geertz was frequently cited in literary criticism, philosophy, and other areas in the humanities. Geertz himself combined literary criticism and anthropology in Works and Lives, a study of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Edward Evans-Pritchard, Bronislaw Malinowski, and Ruth Benedict. This analysis of “the anthropologist as author,” which received the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, is an accessible starting point for a reader new to Geertz’s work, making clear the basis of his broad, interdisciplinary appeal. After the Fact: Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist combines personal history and historical retrospective. In Available Light, a collection of personal essays, Geertz discusses some of the issues facing intellectuals, such as moral relativism, the relationship between cultural and psychological differences, diversity and tension among activist faiths, and “ethnic conflict” in politics.

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