The Interpretation of Cultures

by Clifford Geertz
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 779

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, but the individual uses that grammar to speak and interpret meaningful sentences. While a knowledge of grammar is essential, the most significant facts of a language and a culture do not reside in the grammar itself, but in how it is used by the people of that culture. The analogy between language and culture runs deeply throughout Geertz’s anthropology. Influenced by the philosopher of language Ludwig Wittgenstein, Geertz asserts that, while culture includes language, it nevertheless behaves like language. Cultural patterns take shape as “ordered clusters of significant symbols.”

In the course of his discussion, Geertz’s definition of symbol and the symbolic takes on a somewhat more specialized sense than that encountered in everyday use. Within his semiotic concept of culture, the systems or complexes of symbols are, like language, systems of “construable signs” which model both social and psychological reality. Geertz, however, is careful to make a crucial distinction in his discussion of cultural patterns. Cultural patterns model reality, but, for Geertz, the term “model” has two senses—an “of” sense and a “for” sense. As models of social and psychological reality, they allow a person to make sense of the events in his life. As models for reality, they provide a form of life in which one can act. The significant symbols of culture provide not only a means of describing and interpreting behavior but also a prescription for behavior. While culture does not determine behavior, it nevertheless exerts its influence. A Balinese lives and thinks like a Balinese because he orders his life using the “significant symbols” unique to Bali.

Geertz, in short, concentrates on the social conventions of human behavior. His approach is thoroughly inductive, focusing on the meaning that given acts acquire within particular social settings. In this regard, Ward H. Goodenough has criticized Geertz for seeing society “as a kind of collective mind.” Goodenough points out that, for a theory of culture, the anthropologist must ask “how ideal forms can come to be the property of a collectivity when, as products of human cognition, they are created by every individual out of his own sensations” and concludes that Geertz’s work offers much to our thinking about culture but does not quite provide a theory of culture. Yet others, such as Maxine Greene, have praised Geertz for providing a way of thinking and, more important, a way of writing about culture. As she points out, Geertz has set himself the task of “finding a common language for the social sciences.” At this level, most agree with Geertz’s success. In the end, because the cultural anthropologist “‘inscribes’ social discourse”; that is, he “simply writes it down,” thinking and talking about culture may be well enough. As Geertz puts it, his interpretive anthropology “is a science whose progress is marked less by a perfection of consensus than by a refinement of debate. What gets better is the precision with which we vex each other.”

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