Clifford Geertz: Work and Legacy

Early in his career, Geertz critiqued the scientific models widely used in the social sciences. He rejected the causal determinism that so often passed for explanation and instead embraced hermeneutics. He argued that culture is made up of the meanings people find to make sense of their lives and to guide their actions. Interpretive social science is an attempt to engage those meanings.

Unlike other anthropological scholars, Geertz did not focus on so-called primitive groups. Rather, he studied complex, syncretic societies in Indonesia (Java, Bali, Celebes, Sumatra) and in Morocco. One of Geertz’s best-known essays, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” which appeared in his 1973 book, The Interpretation of Cultures, was a wide-ranging interpretation of how the people of Bali saw themselves in relation to violence, social status, morality, and belief (Schudel, 2006).

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, anthropology was torn apart by questions about its colonial past and the possibility of objective knowledge in the human sciences. “For the next fifteen years or so,” Geertz wrote, “proposals for new directions in anthropological theory and method appeared almost by the month, the one more clamorous than the next. I contributed to the merriment with ‘interpretive anthropology,’ an extension of my concern with the systems of meaning, beliefs, values, world views, forms of feeling, styles of thought, in terms of which particular peoples construct their existence.”

Geertz’s work of the late 1960s and 70s addressed the great failure of universal theories to account for human behavior. Instead he sought alternative approaches. To do this, he proposed that the social sciences be pursued more like an ongoing seminar: the point would be to improve everyone’s mutual understanding. “I think in general there is a belief that the social sciences are a machine that produces answers for politicians to listen to,” says sociologist Wolf Lepenies, former director of the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin. “Instead, they should be seen as a process. Cliff was a pathbreaker in that regard” (Berreby, 1995).

Geertz’s many books include: The Religion of Java (Free Press, 1960); Peddlers and Princes: Social Development and Economic Change in Two Indonesian Towns (University of Chicago Press, 1963); Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia (Yale University Press, 1968); Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia (University of California Press, 1963); The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (Basic Books, 1973); Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth Century Bali (Princeton University Press, 1980); Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (Basic Books, 1983); Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author (Stanford University Press, 1988); After the Fact: Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist (Harvard University Press, 1995); and Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics (Princeton University Press, 2000). At the time of his death, Geertz was returning to the general question of ethnic diversity and its implications in the modern world.

Geertz’s deeply reflective and expressive writings provided profound and cogent insights on the scope of culture, the nature of anthropology and on the understanding of the social sciences in general. Noting that human beings are “symbolizing, conceptualizing, meaning-seeking animals,” Geertz acknowledged and explored the innate need of humanity to “make sense out of experience, to give it form and order.” In Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author (1988), Geertz stated, “The next necessary thing…is neither the construction of a universal Esperanto-like culture…nor the invention of some vast technology of human management. It is to enlarge the possibility of intelligible discourse between people quite different from one another in interest, outlook, wealth, and power, and yet contained in a world where tumbled as they are into endless connection, it is increasingly difficult to get out of each other’s way.”

In an article called “Blurred Genres,” Geertz set forth his vision. “Interpretive explanation—and it is a form of explanation, not just exalted glossography—trains its attention on what institutions, actions, images, utterances, events, customs, all the usual objects of social-scientific interest, mean to those whose institutions, actions, customs, and so on they are. As a result, it issues not in laws like Boyle’s, or forces like Volta’s, or mechanisms like Darwin’s, but in constructions like Burckhardt’s, Weber’s, or Freud’s: systematic unpackings of the conceptual world in which condottiere, Calvinists, or paranoids live.” (“Blurred Genres: The Refiguration of Social Thought,” in his Local Knowledge, 1983).

In May 2000, Geertz was honored for his work at “Cultures, Sociétiés, et Territoires: Hommage à Clifford Geertz,” a conference held in Sefrou, Morocco, where he began field research in 1963 that continued into the late 1980s. It was particularly gratifying, commented Geertz at the time, because “Anthropologists are not always welcomed back to the site of their field studies” (Geertz, “Cultures, Sociétés, et Territoires: Hommage à Clifford Geertz,” 2000).

Geertz’s influence is summed up by anthropologist Sherry Ortner, in the introduction to The Fate of ‘Culture’: Geertz and Beyond: “Clifford Geertz is one of the foremost figures in the reconfiguration of the boundary between the social sciences and the humanities for the second half of the twentieth century. Drawing on his own background in philosophy and literary studies, Geertz both revived and transformed the anthropological concept of culture in such a way as to make evident its relevance to a range of humanistic disciplines. At the same time, in insisting that human social life is a matter of meaningful activity only very imperfectly studied through the objectifying methods of (certain kinds of) science, he constructed an important alternative to the then-ascendant scientism of the social sciences, an alternative that continues to grow in influence in virtually every social science discipline to this day. As a result of all this—making visible the shared ways of thinking between anthropology and the humanities, on the one hand, and offering the social sciences a powerful alternative to the seemingly irresistible juggernaut of (certain kinds of) science on the other—Geertz’s work in turn had the effect of radically repositioning the field of anthropology itself, moving it from a rather exotic and specialized corner of intellectual life to a much more central location.”

Through appointments of faculty whose work embodied the interpretive turn and through formal seminars and informal exchanges among Members, critical work in the social sciences (including history) spread across the disciplines and across the globe. The publications of faculty in the School and of former Members established alternative approaches to prevailing positivist orthodoxies in the disciplines. The work of the Institute’s School of Social Science became known for its originality and critique.

Under Geertz’s leadership, the School of Social Science became a place where scholars could study contentious social problems. Peter Goddard, Professor in the School of Natural Sciences and former Director of the Institute remarked, “Clifford Geertz was one of the major intellectual figures of the twentieth century whose presence at the Institute played a crucial role in its development and in determining its present shape. He remained a vital force, contributing to the life of the Institute right up to his death.”

“Cliff was the founder of the School of Social Science and its continuing inspiration,” stated Joan Wallach Scott, Harold F. Linder Professor in the School of Social Science at the Institute. “His influence on generations of scholars was powerful and lasting. He changed the direction of thinking in many fields by pointing to the importance and complexity of culture and the need for its interpretation.”

In his 1995 memoir, After the Fact: Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist, Geertz meditated on his field work and academic career, concluding that the quest for understanding amid such various people, over such a diversity of times is “an excellent way, interesting, dismaying, useful and amusing, to expend a life.”