Works by title

Clifford Geertz

The interpretation of cultures

New York: Basic Books. 1973.

Table of Contents



On anthropological work

"The ethnographer 'inscribes' social discourse; he writes it down. In so doing, he turns it from a passing event, which exists only in its own moment of occurence, into an account, which exists in its inscriptions and can be reconsulted." (p. 19)

when is the "moment of occurence"? what is "social discourse"? does it matter if, as this is developed here:

what we inscribe ... is not raw social discourse, to which, because ... we are not actors, we do not have direct access, but only that small part of it which our informants can lead us into understanding (p. 20)

The locus of study is not the object of study.  Anthropologists don't study villages (tribes, towns, neighborhoods ...); they study in villages. (p. 22)

? so we are to rely on informants' accounts from which we will build our own accounts. But, is it the case that informants, even at the moment of occurence have access to the "raw social discourse" (can they, in the moment, distinguish a wink from a twitch?)?  If not, then the distinction informant/anthropologist does not hold: all our accounts, including those we improvise in the moment are more proposals for accounts, than completed acts. This leaves us with wondering how (proposals for) accounts at built in the various possible time frames--from the seconds after a statement to the months or years typical of other forms of accounts (ethnographies, novels, histories, etc.)

The concept of culture I espouse ... is essentially a semiotic one.  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 meanng.  It is explication I am after, construing social expressions on their surface enigmatical. (p. 5)

So there is more to anthropology than "including what others have said."  Anthropologists must explicate.  But what does the activity of 'explicating' consists of?  "Interpretation"? How does an "interpretation" looks like?  Geertz is not clear at all on this, though many have been sure as to what it would look like.  The same questions must be asked of what is meant, precisely by "significance" and "meaning."  Depending on whether one follows Weber, Malinowski, or Saussure, (not to mention Pearce), will take one in very different practical directions.

I, of course, follow Saussure, as developed by Garfinkel.  How do human beings spin webs?  What does one of these webs look like?

The “natural laboratory” notion has been equally pernicious, not only because the analogy is false —what kind of a laboratory is it where none of the parameters are manipulated?— but because it leads to a notion that the data derived from ethnographic studies are purer, or more fundamental, or more solid, or less conditioned (the most favored word is “elementary”) than those derived from other sorts of social inquiry. The great natural variation of cultural forms is, of course, not only anthropology’s great (and wasting) resource, but the ground of its deepest theoretical dilemma: how is such variation to be squared with the biological unity of the human species? But it is not, even metaphorically, experimental variation, because the context in which it occurs varies along with it, and it is not possible (though there are those who try) to isolate the y’s from x’s to write a proper function.

To continue this take on Geertz, using him, possibly against himself, check also his "From the native's point of view" (1976).

To look at the symbolic dimensions of social action—art, religion, ideology, science, law, morality, common sense—is not to turn away from the existential dilemmas of life for some empyrean realm of deemotionalized forms; it is to plunge into the midst of them.

Perhaps the most hypnotic statement about the "why?" of anthropology.  Taken literally, this would make of anthropology a purely museum, or library, activity.  And it would make anthropology unecessary when the sheperds are already producing a record to be filed away.  And yet anthropologists must visit other valleys, or even our own valleys, differently. They must make the answers consultable, and then they must get to work.

The essential vocation of interpretive anthropology is not to answer our deepest questions, but to make available to us answers that others, guarding other sheep in other valleys, have given, and thus to include them in the consultable record of what man has said. (p. 30)


October 22, 2021 [2004]