Cultural Anthropology of Clifford Geertz

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Clifford Geertz’s (1926- 2006) work defined the field of interpretive social science, and he is regarded as one of the most influential and widely cited American cultural anthropologists of the second half of the twentieth century.  He has championed interpretative approaches to the study of cultures. His central, and surprisingly bold, claim is that anthropology concerns the description of the activities and events of small social groups. Yet description cannot be of mere physical behaviour. That, following the philosopher Gilbert Ryle, he terms ‘thin description’. Anthropology requires ‘thick description’, which is to say, the anthropologist strives to express his or her understanding of cultural activity as something meaningful (Geertz 1973, p. 6). He illustrates this distinction with the difference between a wink and a twitch. Physically the two may be identical (so that they would be indistinguishable in a photograph). Yet the wink is a meaningful and public act of communication. It is a ‘construable sign’ (which does entail that it can be misconstrued, and indeed, twitches can embarrassingly be mistaken for winks and vice versa). Geertz therefore defines ‘culture’ as ‘a context…within which [social events, behaviours, institutions, or processes] can be intelligibly… described’ (1973,p. 14); which is to say that a culture allows flecks of physical behaviour, such as the movements of an eyelid, to be turned into significant acts of communication. ‘Culture’ is summed up as being a ‘semiotic’ concept, although Geertz does not propose a systematic theory of signs, as found in the linguistics of Saussure or Jakobson. Rather, in developing their descriptions, anthropologists struggle to ‘find their feet’; coming to terms with the alien context that gives meaning to the initially chaotic and baffling events happening around them.

The task of the anthropologist is akin to that of the literary critic, in so far as cultural behaviour can be treated as a text that requires interpretation. This raises important questions about the accuracy (or objectivity) of any ethnographic description. Geertz suggests that these anthropological interpretations are ‘fictions’, but not in the sense that the events they describe did not happen. Rather, the interpretations are made or fashioned, and as such are second — or even third — order accounts based upon the first order communications of the ‘native’. As such they are never definitive, and can always be contested. Anthropology advances only as new studies plunge more deeply into the material opened up by their predecessors, bringing the reader into ever closer touch with the world of strangers.

This gives cultural theory a peculiarly delicate position within Geertz’s account. He rejects those approaches to anthropology that try to avoid or remove this incompleteness (or contestability), for example by ‘turning culture into folklore and collecting it, turning it into traits and counting it, turning it into institutions and classifying it, turning it into structures and toying with it’ (1973, p. 29). (The last transformation attacks the ‘alchemy’ of Levi-Strauss s structuralism: see Geertz 1973, pp. 345—359.) Cultural theory is not, then, for Geertz a systematic account of how culture as such works. Theory cannot be imposed upon ethnographic data. Rather theory consists of a vocabulary — integration, rationalisation, symbol, ideology, conflict, charisma, ritual, worldview and so on: (Geertz 1973, pp. 23, 28) — which facilitates the anthropologists’ articulation of the construable signs which they encounter. Renouncing grand sociological theories in favour of fine-grained interpretative explorations of the rich content of everyday life, Geertz seeks to explicate the ‘native’ actors’ understanding of their action, and what this understanding tells us about how that particular society works, and perhaps about social life in general.

Ultimately, the anthropologist must write (fashioning their fictions). Interpretations are inscribed (typically in essays, but also in photographs, diagrams, films and museum collections). In more recent writings Geertz has suggested that the power of the anthropologist to convince the reader of the accuracy of their ethnographic accounts comes not simply (or at all) from the rigor or plausibility of their findings, but rather from the rhetorical style within which that account is constructed, and of the personality of the author created in the texts. In this vein, Works and Lives explores in detail the way in which four key figures in the development of anthropology write.


Source: Cultural Theory The Key Thinkers by Andrew Edgar and Peter Sedgwick, Routledge

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