Clifford Geertz – Interpretive Anthropology

Social Anthropology Essay. How would you summarize Clifford Geertz’s contribution to the field of anthropology? Clifford Geertz I have chosen this essay on Geertz, as the information I received in class I found interesting and wanted to elaborate on the knowledge I already had. In this essay, I will be discussing Geertz’s contributions to anthropology, and what I have interpreted these contributions as myself. When looking at Geertz’s ideas and theories in Anthropology, some of these ideas and theories will include his theories on the web of relations and symbolism.

Geertz also took the idea of theory and came up with new ideas to develop it further. What Geertz was trying to do by looking at symbolism was trying to break down the complexity of meanings within cultures. Clifford Geertz was a man who believed that Anthropology should not be recognised as a factual science but as an interpretive science. He did not believe that there was such thing as social facts, so therefore we will see that Anthropology he understood as a way of interpreting people, by looking at things such as symbolism.

He wanted to really understand what culture was all about and what it really meant, and when he had discovered this meaning he wanted to share it with the rest of the world. When looking at Geertz and his work, it cannot be done without discussing his idea of ‘thick description’. We will see how he studies ‘thick description’ as the underlying system of meanings of individuals and the local meanings of the person.

It was also important to take into account when researching this essay the important comparisons between Geertz and other anthropologists, such as Emile Durkheim and Gilbert Ryle. One of the final things that Geertz contributes to Anthropology is his idea of ethnographic research methods. In this essay I will discuss Geertz’s ideas and beliefs which have contributed greatly to the study of Social Anthropology, and I hope to analyse his beliefs to the level which a great thinker like Geertz deserves.

Clifford Geertz was born in 1926 in San Francisco. He attended Antioch College where he graduated with a BA in philosophy in 1950; this was after he spent time serving the US navy during World War 2. After receiving his degree, he went on to study for his PhD in Harvard University where he began his studies in Social Anthropology. Geertz’z early ideas of Anthropology as interpretation can be seen from ‘Form and Variation…’ his publications from the 1960s. These publications attained him some widely extended attention about his ideas.

In simple terms, Geertz implies that Anthropology is a means of interpretation. This process of interpretation includes analysing layers of meaning, he in particular in his study of interpretive anthropology speaks of ‘thick description’ that is very much a part of this interpretive science. He understands this as progress of recording human activity on a micro scale in regards to polysemic behaviour, details and data. These research methods are ones that other scientific methodologies may not use during the examining process.

Geertz stressed that we needed to understand anthropology on a micro level, this is where he becomes interested in symbolism and their meanings as part of this interpretive anthropology, how symbolism can motivate and how they are understood by the individuals of societies. … the enlargement of the universe of human discourse,… and is an aim to which a semiotic concept of culture is particularly well adapted. Culture is a context; something within which social events, behaviours and processes can be intelligibly – thickly – described (Geertz, The Interpretations of Culture, 1975 p. 4). ‘Thick description’ is a term that that Geertz borrowed from an earlier philosopher and developed it from there. There is differences in Ryles and Geertz’ understanding of the procedure. In an essay that many reader’s of Geertz would be familiar with, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory if Culture (1973a)”, we can see how he claims to understand that there are many different beliefs about the word culture, he himself believes in the concept of culture that is semiotic.

The term ‘semiotic’ refers to the idea of culture and the understanding of it, through the decoding of signs and symbols. “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 interpretive one in search of meaning. It is explication I am after, construing social expressions on their surface enigmatical. (Geertz 1973p. 5). ”

This concept of culture being semiotic, as Geertz believed, I interpret it as he maintained that symbolism brought meaning and order to people’s lives. Geertz draws on other disciplined sciences like history, philosophy, psychology and literary criticism in order to assess and decode the meanings behind things such as art, institutions, values and beliefs and other symbols as he believes them to be. The interpreting of these signs and symbols for the ethnographer must be based on ‘thick description’ or else all the possible meanings will not be clear.

We can also understand Geertz’s idea behind culture more within this as he believes that if the ethnographers can have a better understanding using thick description for these symbols, then different cultures will have an increased understanding of each other. Geertz was interested in making a distinction between thin and thick description. In doing this he draws upon the person in which he borrowed the term from, Ryle.

Ryle’s theory was described using the imagery of someone winking at another person, and I have understood it as being like, when a person winks at you the meaning is hidden behind the context in which they winked at you, for instance it could mean that the person likes you, or another example I can think of is if there was a third person brought into it and one is playing a joke on one of three and then winks at the third person to play along, i. e the wink meaning something different in this context. Geertz takes this explanation and believes that this can be applied to all different areas in human behaviors.

With this he makes a distinction between thin and thick description, the thin description being the behavioral sign itself, i. e the wink, and the thick description being the context that the wink is given to the other, the meaning behind the action. (The Interpretation of Cultures 1973 “Thick Description: Towards an Interpretive Theory of Culture”p9). “Culture is public because meaning is… The generalized attack on privacy theories of meaning is, since early Husserl and late Wittgenstein, so much a part of modern thought that it need not be developed once more here.

What is necessary is to see to it that the news of it reaches anthropology; and in particular that it is made clear that to say that culture consists of socially established structures of meaning in terms of which people do such things as signal conspiracies and join them or perceive insults and answer them, is no more to say that it is a psychological phenomenon, a characteristic of someone’s mind, personality, cognitive structure, or whatever than to say that Tantrism, genetics, the progressive form of the verb, the classification of wines, the Common Law, or the notion of ‘a conditional curse’… is. (1973:12-13) I mentioned Geertz’s concept of culture in analysing ‘thick description’, but I think at this point it is important to get right to the heart of his interesting theory. Geertz himself says that culture “denotes a historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, 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” (1973:89).

Geertz had dissimilarities to his predecessors about the concept of culture, they were interested in focusing on society in particular and the different ways of religious life, he believed that the item of study for an anthropologist was culture. Through this then is the study of religion best advanced. Geertz adapted an extended idea of culture from Emile Durkheim. Durkheim’s idea of the concept of society was that ‘at bottom, the concept of totality and society and that of divinity are very probably only different aspects of the same notion (1965:490)’.

This notion of society, that Durkheim had, as the all-grasping certainty has now been embraced by Geertz, in which he considers it, a wider understanding of culture. Geertz makes a contrast between culture and the idea of the social system by describing the what was as, ‘the former as an ordered system of meaning and of symbols, in terms of which social interaction takes place; and latter as the pattern of social interaction itself’ (Geertz 1973: 144).

Geertz is distinguished from Durkheim as Durkheim does not make a differentiation between the two, and Geertz shows a much clearer understanding of the concept of culture as it is hard to identify Durkheim’s concept of culture at all. Another sociologist I am interested in comparing to Geertz is Max Weber. Weber has spoken about many articulations of culture in all their diversities; however I believe that he was depriving of the more thorough account of culture that was laid out by Geertz. Weber’s identification of culture was understood through his theory of economics.

He believed that economics was elementary, and culture was just an imitative. Geertz, on the other hand, accepts ‘culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning’ (1973: 5) Geertz also suggests another approach to employ his idea of culture. This was a more artificial and imitating method. In this Geertz maintains on the essentials of culture for the comprehending of human life. He says that culture is seen as a ‘set of control mechanisms….

Most desperately dependant upon…. For the governing and ordering of behavior’ (1973:44) Culture meant to Geertz, a text that he anthropologists read over the shoulders of the natives. From studying culture there were many characteristics determined in Ethnography. It discovered that it was interpretive of permanence of social exposition, it is also microscopic. By the term microscopic, it did not mean that ethnography was of miniscule importance, it is referring to them as approaching matters in small matters.

However, Geertz also criticizes the microscopic approach to ethnography and also offers a solution which is essential when it comes to making a worthy criticism. His idea of a resolution was taking into consideration “social actions are comments on more than themselves; that where an interpretation comes from does not determine where it can be impelled to go. Small facts speak to large issues for example winks to epistemology, because they are made to. ” (The Interpretation of Cultures 1973 “Thick Description: Towards an Interpretive Theory of Culture”p23). I have therefore shown a detailed ccount of Geertz’s theories behind culture and also outlined other theorists ideas of culture in order to compare and see how Geertz’s theory differs or is more reliable and thorough. In all, Geertz saw culture as a ‘system of meanings embodied in symbols’. He considered culture as something that permitted individuals to comprehend the reality and create their behavioral patterns. Geertz devised the question to ask about cultural phenomena is not what they do, but what they mean. Geertz argued that a person could not classify the backbone of humanity across all cultures.

I have explained Geertz’s concept of thick description, but what did this hermeneutics process really mean for the ethnographer? This form of qualitative research, we can see that Geertz was going in the direction of a post modernist, involved for example, after around thirty minutes of observation, meant two hours of note taking, and there was no such thing as short cuts by summarizing and generalising. Many anthropologists are using this thick description method, and are taking into account as many perspectives as they can. The idea is to be honest and reflexive.

From all Geertz’s research he has come to a decision that we no longer live in a world where culture and nation are identical, and also that culture is not an imitation of consensus. The reason Geertz comes to this conclusion is because he suggests that individuals are inclined to tell you things about themselves and then their following actions do not correspond. I have also come across, in researching Geertz’s contributions to the field of Anthropology, some critics of his work. Most writers on Geertz really admired and understood his work, however some did find themselves lost and confused. In works and Lives, Geertz’s attempts to salvage and/or set the record right for anthropology are welcomed and needed, yet one had hoped for a more persuasive debate’. (Lina M. Fruzetti, 1998) I found an appealing quote about Geertz’s readers, and how they find his essays. This critic himself loves Geertz’z writings and they make perfect sense to him, however he does acknowledge the fact that some people don’t understand them as comprehensively and explains: ‘Readers of Clifford Geertz’s essays fall roughly into two camps, those who find him lucid and those who find him opaque’. Renato I, Resaldo Jr, 1997) In conclusion I would like to recap on what I discussed about Clifford Geertz’s contribution to the field of Anthropology. I think it is important to list his work and fieldwork over the years, in order to convey exactly how much research he has put into this area of sociology. Some of his main works which we are more familiar with and what I concentrated on in this essay include; Interpretations of Culture 1983 and Local Knowledge 1975. His other main works Include, Islam Observed (1968), After the Fact: Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist (1997); Available Light.

Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics (2000). Geertz gave us many useful concepts to the definition of culture. These are listed in Clyde Kluckhohn’s, “Mirror of Man”. Some of these ideas include, that culture is a way of life, a way of thinking, believing and feeling. It is, he believes, a behaviour that has been learned, and as how Anthropologists interpret it. He also claims culture is a ‘precipate of history’. (http://academic. csuohio. edu/as227/spring2003/geertz. htm. What is clear from this is that there is no final definition of culture accessible, but we were at least closer to an enhanced understanding.

In this essay I have shed some light for myself upon Geertz’s main contributions to Anthropology, I also wrote it with expectations of good clarity and clear points. I myself have gained a much better understanding of the beliefs and ideas which he brought to anthropology. He appears to me to be someone who is extremely concerned with doing anything work he takes on to a level of almost near perfection. His idea of ‘thick description’ seems to me to be about doing things as thoroughly as possible hence being concerned with the details at the micro level. Thick description’, I believe, is the methodology of a perfectionist and is what brought Geertz to his interesting theory of hermeneutics anthropology and semiotic culture. Bibliography o Geertz, C, The Interpretation of Cultures 1973(“Thick Description: Towards an Interpretive Theory of Culture”). – Geertz, Clifford: Available Light. Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics (2000). o http://www. nytimes. com/2006/11/01/obituaries/01geertz. o (http://academic. csuohio. edu/as227/spring2003/geertz. htm). www. jstor. org