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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 289

  • The concept of culture I espouse . . . is essentially a semiotic one. Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretative one in search of meaning. It is explication I am after . . .

In this quote, Geertz frames the analysis of culture, also called cultural anthropology, as the act of pulling out the unique behavioral symbols that different cultures use to create meaning. Because all cultures are different and have different ways of expressing meaning, anthropology is unlike formal sciences like math, which usually tries to find axioms at the heart of phenomena, and proceeds from axioms to formalize more complex theorems.

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  • "Once human behavior is seen as . . . symbolic action—action which, like phonation in speech, pigment in painting, line in writing, or sonance in music, signifies—the question as to whether culture is patterned conduct or a frame of mind, or even the two somehow mixed together, loses sense. The thing to ask [of actions] is what their import is."

Here, Geertz compares human behavior to verbal language, arguing that it is impossible to understand outside of context. Cultural significance emerges only out of behavior that acknowledges and engages with other behavior, just as literary meaning requires linguistic context—for example, a grammar and a universe of other words called a vocabulary—to make any sense.

  • [Culture is] public because meaning is.

Here, Geertz rejects the notion of culture being an inaccessible discipline. All people enact culture in their everyday behavior, because no person can move through the world without consciously or unconsciously generating significations.

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