Clifford Geertz Essay

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Clifford Geertz is widely considered to be one of the most important cultural theorists of the latter part of the twentieth century. Working in the field of anthropology, Geertz conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Morocco and Indonesia. Yet he is best known not for his empirical contributions, but rather for the essays collected under the title The Interpretation of Cultures (1973). These provided a hugely influential manifesto for a hermeneutic approach to social inquiry, one that has had a reach across the human sciences and that has made Geertz himself an iconic figure.

In The Interpretation of Cultures, Geertz argued against structuralism, functionalism, Marxism and in fact any effort towards a general theory. These were seen as too arrogant and as too insensitive to the play of situated, local meanings. He insisted that human action took place in rich symbolic environments and that it was primarily expressive and communicative. A good social science would be attuned to such complexities, taking social life as being somewhat like a text that needed to be interpreted. What was required was a method that would allow us to capture all the subtlety and ambiguity of the meaningful environments of action. For example, we needed to be able to decipher which of many possible meanings any particular wink might be conveying (conspiracy, ironic distance, or involuntary action). Drawing on literary theory and on ordinary language philosophy Geertz developed the influential idea of thick description.” This demanded that anthropologists and other interpreters offer detailed, nuanced and textured accounts of social life on the page. In a hugely influential essay on the Balinese cockfight Geertz offers some indication of what a thick description might look like. He refutes narrow and more utilitarian understandings of the cockfight as an activity aimed primarily at status competition or gambling. In a stylistic tour de force he insists that it is more than just a sport too. Rather it is a profound drama in which various symbol systems, contradictions and dilemmas of the Balinese culture collide: Masculinity, rage, death, and so forth.

Geertz’s work has been pivotal for the cultural turn, but it has also been subject to critique. Many have been frustrated by Geertz’s turn away from theory, his insistence that actions can be explained in terms of the logic of their local settings, and his emphasis on representation through writing. They see this as the first step towards relativism. Others, particularly in post-structural anthropology, see Geertz as inattentive to the tie of writing and interpretation to power. A related argument has suggested that Geertz did not practice what he preached. By the standards of contemporary ethnography his interpretations are not really accountable thick descriptions” where we hear people speaking for themselves. Rather they are magisterial but somewhat idiosyncratic readings by a master writer, one who re-describes and trumps multiple indigenous realities and worldviews using bits and pieces of western theory. For all this, at the end of the day Geertz remains today the leading advocate for the close interpretation of symbolic actions and webs of meaning.


  • Geertz,    (1973)   The  Interpretation   of Cultures. Basic Books, New York.

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