The Interpretation of Cultures Critical Essays

Clifford Geertz


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In The Interpretation of Cultures Geertz aims at a definition of culture and what it means to the practice of a cultural anthropologist. He explains that “culture is not a power, something to which social events, behaviors, institutions, or processes can be causally attributed.” Culture, in other words, does not determine human behavior. It cannot be reduced to laws, systematic rules, or paradigms of behavior, whether conscious or unconscious. Culture, on the contrary, “is a context, something within which [social events, behaviors, institutions, or processes] can be intelligibly—that is, thickly—described.” It gives meaning to individual acts, a yardstick against which they can be interpreted and judged. Therefore, the practice of cultural anthropology, the analysis of culture, is “not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.”

Geertz takes exception to those who would locate culture in the minds and hearts of men. While thinking takes place in the head and involves the whole of human psychology, Geertz nevertheless maintains that “human thought is consummately social: social in its origins, social in its functions, social in its forms, social in its applications.” Human thinking, as a subjective phenomenon, cannot be observed, but its forms and functions within the social arena can be minutely observed. Cultural anthropology, as Geertz practices it, begins inductively with the observation and description of social patterns.

Yet, as Geertz recognized, observation and description, in and of themselves, are insufficient to describe culture. As he points out, culture cannot be reduced to specific behavior patterns—customs, usages, traditions, habit clusters. On the contrary, culture is best seen as a set of rules that serve to govern behavior. To use a linguistic analogy, cultural patterns provide the grammar,...

(The entire section is 779 words.)