Today is the birthday (1926) of Clifford Geertz, a US anthropologist who is remembered mostly for his strong support for and influence on the practice of symbolic anthropology. His Interpretation of Cultures was one of the pillars of my doctoral training in the 1970s, and he was certainly of monumental importance in pushing anthropology away from reductionist analyses. Both “Thick Description” and “Balinese Cock Fight” were instrumental in guiding cultural anthropology towards interpretive approaches to field data. His training in philosophy as an undergraduate led him to incorporate key directions in analytic philosophy into his anthropological studies. In this regard I am both sympathetic to and critical of his work.
Geertz was born in San Francisco. After service in the US Navy in World War II (1943–45), he received his B.A. in philosophy from Antioch College in 1950. After graduating from Antioch he attended Harvard University from which he graduated in 1956, as a student in the Department of Social Relations. This interdisciplinary program was led by Talcott Parsons, and Geertz worked with both Parsons and Clyde Kluckhohn. Geertz was trained as an anthropologist, and conducted his first long-term fieldwork, together with his wife, Hildred, in Java. He studied the religious life of a small, upcountry town for two-and-a-half years, living with a railroad laborer’s family. After finishing his thesis, Geertz returned to Bali and Sumatra. He earned his Ph.D. in 1956.
At the University of Chicago, Geertz became a champion of symbolic anthropology, a framework which gives prime attention to the role of symbols in constructing public meaning. In The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), Geertz outlined culture as “a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life.” He was one of the earliest scholars to see that the insights provided by common language, philosophy and literary analysis could have major explanatory force in the social sciences. Geertz aimed to provide the social sciences with an understanding and appreciation of “thick description,” an idea he took from the philosopher Gilbert Ryle. Geertz applied thick description to anthropological studies (specifically his own ‘interpretive anthropology’), urging anthropologists to consider the limitations placed upon them by their own cultural cosmologies when attempting to offer insight into the cultures of other people.
Max Weber’s interpretative social science was also a strong influence on Geertz’s work. Geertz himself argues for a “semiotic” concept of culture: “Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun,” he states, “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, construing social expression on their surface enigmatical.”
Geertz argues that to interpret a culture’s web of symbols, scholars must first isolate its elements, specifying the internal relationships among those elements and characterize the whole system in some general way according to the core symbols around which it is organized, the underlying structures of which it is a surface expression, or the ideological principles upon which it is based. It was his view that culture is public, because meaning is public, and systems of meanings are what produce culture, because they are the collective property of a particular people. We cannot discover the culture’s import or understand its systems of meaning, when, as Wittgenstein noted, “we cannot find our feet with them.” Geertz wants society to appreciate that social actions are larger than themselves; they speak to larger issues, and vice versa, because “they are made to.”
It is not against a body of uninterrupted data, radically thinned descriptions, that we must measure the cogency of our explications, but against the power of the scientific imagination to bring us into touch with the lives of strangers.
The goal of the semiotic approach to culture is to converse with subjects in foreign cultures and gain access to their conceptual world.
His often-cited essay “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” is the classic example of thick description. Thick description is an anthropological method of explaining with as much detail as possible the reason behind human actions. Individual human actions can mean many different things, and Geertz insisted that the anthropologist needs to be aware of this. The work proved influential amongst historians, many of whom tried to use these ideas about the ‘meaning’ of cultural practice in the study of customs and traditions of the past.
Geertz himself was aware of the critical weakness of interpretive anthropology, namely, there is no yardstick to measure its validity by. You have to judge the success of an interpretive study by its believability, but, as he points out, a con man is believable. I would add the question, “To what extent are his thick descriptions legitimate analyses by local standards?” When he argues that such-and-such action in Bali has these seven meanings locally, to what degree would locals agree with him?
In any case, the Balinese cockfight gives us an avenue into today’s recipe: Balinese shredded chicken.