An Evaluation of Geertz' Interpretive Anthropology

Essay, 2013
7 Pages, Grade: 64%


Describe and evaluate Geertz's project for an interpretive anthropology.

As Geertz himself has recognised, “one cannot write a ‘General Theory of Cultural Interpretation’” (Geertz 1963a: Thick Description, 26 (in the following TD)). It might therefore be wrong right from the beginning to talk about his ‘project’. Accepting this notion for a moment, one has furthermore to acknowledge that Geertz has only picked up different traditions – namely those of Weber, Boas and Kluckhohn in the social sciences and Wittgenstein and Husserl in philosophy – and ‘melted’ them into a distinguishable whole (Ortner, 1984). If one also dismisses this historical analysis for a moment and takes Geertz project of an ‘interpretive anthropology’ as a given whole, a description develops around his notions of semiotic culture, thick description, small matters and native narratives. It is in those ideas that one finds both Geertz’ strengths and weaknesses as I argue below. Arguing both in abstract, theoretical terms and in relation to Geertz’ major ethnographies – Negara, Meaning and order in Moroccan society and Deep play – the significance of the interpretive project is undeniable but not without limitations: Does the interpretation of culture as a text make sense? How does Geertz link his focus on ‘small matters’ towards an analysis of culture? Is it possible to deny theory? Before we further approach those critical issues, let me firstly spell out his approach to anthropology in a coherent form.

Social sciences for Geertz are not an act of diagnosis but rather a continuous process of ‘guessing meanings’, of the interpretation of different symbols and gestures. This ‘interpretive manoeuvre’ is the most radical turn away from his structural-functionalist predecessor. Geertz (TD:20) expressed his leading idea in the following way:

"cultural analysis is guessing at meanings, assessing the guesses, and drawing explanatory conclusions from the better guesses not discovering the Continent of Meaning and mapping out its bodiless landscape"

Within a particular discourse, a refinement of the debate is the aim rather than the ‘discovery’ of universal laws. The idea of anthropology that Geertz promoted is very much based on his notion of ‘thick description’ borrowed from Gilbert Ryle. Thick in contrast to the simple description of a situation involves questions of motivations, reasons and effects. In a thick description, different layers of meaning are recognised and evaluated at a time. It is not enough to describe the simple gesture, but rather the cultural contexts that it is interwoven in; the physical gesture (contracting the right eye lids) might even be the exact same, but different meanings are invoked by it. The difference in meaning is to be found in what Geertz (TD: 9) calls ‘background information’. This background information is very much cultural – which takes us to Geertz crucial understanding of this term.

Geertz supports a semiotic concept of culture that is based on Weberian ideas:

"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 meaning" (TD: 5)

Culture is an "acted document" (TD:10) which invokes questions for the why and who of this text. It cannot be observed as a superorganic reality or a pattern of behavioural events, rather it consists of “socially established structures of meaning in terms of which people do such things as signal conspiracies" (TD:12/3). Culture is above all a context that is publicly built up as an "interworked systems of construable signs".

Methodologically, Geertz’ project furthermore presents two additional novelties: the focus on ‘small matters’ as well as the ‘indigenous narrative’. First, for Geertz, culture as well as meaning is not single-layered, but multi-facetted. To grasp it in its wholeness and complexity is thus impossible. When one follows this idea, the logical step is to break down the object of study. Geertz approach is hence based on an extended study of exceedingly small matters in order to find support for particular interpretations. Secondly, doing ethnography is first and foremost the ‘reading of a manuscript’ to stick with Geertz’ notion of culture as a text. This text, however, is written (and enacted) by native people. The ethnographer must be aware of this ‘ordering’ of narratives. His own account can only be based on the indigenous perspective and as such constitutes a second or even third order interpretation. What the ethnographer does is effectively an interpretation of the native’s interpretation. To acknowledge this ‘ordering’ and ‘filtering’ was for Geertz a crucial step towards a better understanding, a more nuanced interpretation of meanings. It allowed the scientist to go one step further and pursuit an ‘imaginative engagement with the life others’ that requires an empathetic connection at the same time as a distance between subject and abstract account.

The question now arises what Geertz’ approach brings to the social science In order to address this point, Geertz’ own works serve as well-suited examples: what is it that makes his analysis of the Moroccan suq special? Why is his piece on the Balinese cockfight important? On the other side, I will try to pin out major shortcomings of his approach: what about the author of the cultural text, theory and the ‘big picture’? Let me approach those issues in the following two paragraphs.


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An Evaluation of Geertz' Interpretive Anthropology
University of Cambridge
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Meaning, Culture, Geertz, Interpretation
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Johannes Lenhard (Author), 2013, An Evaluation of Geertz' Interpretive Anthropology, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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