|Died||October 30, 2006 (aged 80)|
|Alma mater||Antioch College (B.A.)|
Harvard University (Ph.D.)
|Known for||Thick description|
|Institutions||University of Chicago Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey|
|Doctoral advisor||Talcott Parsons|
|Doctoral students||Lawrence Rosen, Sherry Ortner, Paul Rabinow|
|Influences||Talcott Parsons, Gilbert Ryle, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Max Weber, Paul Ricoeur, Alfred Schütz, Susanne Langer|
|Influenced||Stephen Greenblatt, Quentin Skinner|
Clifford James Geertz (; August 23, 1926 - October 30, 2006) was an American anthropologist who is remembered mostly for his strong support for and influence on the practice of symbolic anthropology, and who was considered "for three decades...the single most influential cultural anthropologist in the United States." He served until his death as professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton.
Geertz was born in San Francisco on August 23, 1926. After service in the US Navy in World War II (1943-45), Geertz received his B.A. in philosophy from Antioch College in 1950. He then attended Harvard University, graduating in 1956 as a student in the Department of Social Relations, an interdisciplinary program led by Talcott Parsons. Geertz worked with Parsons, as well as Clyde Kluckhohn, training as an anthropologist.
Geertz conducted his first long-term fieldwork together with his wife, Hildred, in Java, Indonesia, a project funded by the Ford Foundation and MIT. He also 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 Indonesia, in Bali and Sumatra, after which he would receive his Ph.D. in 1956 with a dissertation entitled Religion in Modjokuto: A Study of Ritual Belief In A Complex Society.
Throughout his life, Geertz received honorary doctorate degrees from around fifteen colleges and universities, including Harvard, Cambridge, and the University of Chicago; as well as awards such as the Association for Asian Studies' (AAS) 1987 Award for Distinguished Contributions to Asian Studies. Following his divorce from anthropologist Hildred Geertz, his first wife, he married Karen Blu, another anthropologist.
He taught or held fellowships at a number of schools before joining the faculty of the anthropology department at the University of Chicago in 1960. In this period Geertz expanded his focus on Indonesia to include both Java and Bali and produced three books, including Religion of Java (1960), Agricultural Involution (1963), and Peddlers and Princes (also 1963). In the mid-1960s, he shifted course and began a new research project in Morocco that resulted in several publications, including Islam Observed (1968), which compared Indonesia and Morocco.
In 1970, Geertz left Chicago to become professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey from 1970 to 2000, then as emeritus professor. In 1973, he published The Interpretation of Cultures, which collected essays Geertz had published throughout the 1960s. That became Geertz's best-known book and established him not just as an Indonesianist but also as an anthropological theorist. In 1974, he edited the anthology Myth, Symbol, Culture that contained papers by many important anthropologists on symbolic anthropology. Geertz produced ethnographic pieces in this period, such as Kinship in Bali (1975), Meaning and Order in Moroccan Society (1978; written collaboratively with Hildred Geertz and Lawrence Rosen) and Negara (1981).
From the 1980s to his death, Geertz wrote more theoretical and essayistic pieces, including book reviews for the New York Review of Books. As a result, most of his books of the period are collections of essays--books including Local Knowledge (1983), Available Light (2000), and Life Among The Anthros (2010), which was published posthumously. He also produced a series of short essays on the stylistics of ethnography in Works and Lives (1988), while other works include the autobiographical After The Fact (1995).
Geertz conducted extensive ethnographic research in Southeast Asia and North Africa. This fieldwork was the basis of Geertz's famous analysis of the Balinese cockfight among others. While holding a position in Chicago in the 1960s, he directed a multidisciplinary project titled Committee for the Comparative Studies of New Nations. As part of the project, Geertz conducted fieldwork in Morocco on "bazaars, mosques, olive growing and oral poetry," collecting ethnographic data that would be used for his famous essay on thick description.
Geertz contributed to social and cultural theory and is still influential in turning anthropology toward a concern with the frames of meaning within which various peoples live their lives. He reflected on the basic core notions of anthropology, such as culture and ethnography. He eventually died of complications following heart surgery on October 30, 2006. At the time of his death, Geertz was working on the general question of ethnic diversity and its implications in the modern world.
Geertz's often-cited essay "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight" is a classic example of thick description, a concept adopted from the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle which comes from ordinary language philosophy. Thick description is an anthropological method of explaining with as much detail as possible the reason behind human actions. Many 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.
Another of Geertz's philosophical influences is that of Ludwig Wittgenstein's post-analytic philosophy, from which Geertz incorporates the concept of family resemblances into anthropology. Geertz would also introduce anthropology to the "umwelt-mitwelt-vorwelt-folgewelt" formulation of Alfred Schütz's phenomenology, stressing that the links between the "consociate," "contemporary," "predecessor," and "successor" that are commonplace in anthropology derive from this very formulation.
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 his seminal work 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." Geertz applied thick description to anthropological studies, particularly to 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. He produced theory that had implications for other social sciences; for example, Geertz asserted that culture was essentially semiotic in nature, and this theory has implications for comparative political sciences.
Believing...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, construing social expression on their surface enigmatical. (p.5)
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," 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:
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."[page needed]
In seeking to converse with subjects in foreign cultures and gain access to their conceptual world, this is the goal of the semiotic approach to culture. Cultural theory is not its own master; at the end of the day we must appreciate, that the generality "thick description" contrives to achieve, grows out of the delicacy of its distinctions, not the sweep of its abstraction. The essential task of theory-building here is not to codify abstract regularities, but to make thick description possible; not to generalize across cases, but to generalize within them.
During Geertz's long career he worked through a variety of theoretical phases and schools of thought. He would reflect an early leaning toward functionalism in his essay "Ethos, Worldview and the Analysis of Sacred Symbols", writing that "the drive to make sense out of experience, to give it form and order, is evidently as real and pressing as the more familiar biological needs."
Geertz's research and ideas have had a strong influence on 20th-century academia, including modern anthropology and communication studies, as well as for geographers, ecologists, political scientists, scholars of religion, historians, and other humanists.
University of Miami Professor Daniel Pals (1996) wrote of Geertz that "his critics are few; his admirers legion." Talal Asad attacked the dualism in Geertzian theory: the theory does not provide a bridge between external symbols and internal dispositions. Asad also pointed out the need for a more nuanced approach toward the historical background of certain concepts. Criticizing Geertz's theory of religion in general, Asad pointed out a gap between 'cultural system' and 'social reality' when attempting to define the concept of religion in universal terms. He would also criticize Geertz for ascribing an authorizing discourse around conversations of comparative religion that, Asad argues, doesn't really exist. Furthermore, Asad criticized Geertz for operating according to a eurocentric view of religion that places import on signs and symbols that may or may not carry through in non-Christian religious cultures.