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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 207

The Interpretation of Cultures is Clifford Geertz's attempt to lay out the epistemological goal of the field of cultural anthropology; that is, what cultural anthropology should seek to know and do. Geertz first defines culture itself as a fully semiotic term, meaning that culture's meaning is unique and ever-changing for every person who conceives of it. Proceeding from this definition, he argues that anthropological analysis is necessarily an interpretive science, rather than one that can hope to uncover core axioms or laws. This places it in contrast to other sciences such as mathematics, physics, and analytic philosophy.

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To explain what he means by anthropology being an interpretive science, Geertz compares the anthropologist's method to the analysis a scholar of literature does when he or she breaks down a text. Like the literary scholar, the anthropologist roots out "structures of signification" in human tradition and contemporary behavior that function as tools for the production of meaning. To do this well, it is urgent to drop one's instinct to refer to new or existing formal metaphors, and instead to rely on how human behaviors function symbolically and rely on context, just as the individual words in a sentence make no sense without attention to surrounding symbolic and grammatical features.

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