Clifford Geertz

Clifford Geertz
Born (1926-08-23)August 23, 1926
San Francisco, California
Died October 30, 2006(2006-10-30) (aged 80)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Nationality American
Fields Anthropology

University of Chicago

Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey
Alma mater Antioch College (B.A.)
Harvard University (Ph.D.)
Doctoral advisor Talcott Parsons
Doctoral students James Siegel, James Boon, Lawrence Rosen, Abdellah Hammoudi, Sherry Ortner, Paul Rabinow, David Szanton
Influences Talcott Parsons, Gilbert Ryle, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Max Weber, Paul Ricoeur, Alfred Schütz
Influenced Stephen Greenblatt, Quentin Skinner

Clifford James Geertz (i/ˈɡɜːrts/; 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."[1] He served until his death as professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton.

Early life

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. After graduating from Antioch he attended Harvard University from which he graduated in 1956, as a student in the Department of Social Relations. This interdisciplinary program was led by Talcott Parsons, and Geertz worked with both Parsons and Clyde Kluckhohn. Geertz was trained as an anthropologist, and conducted his first long-term fieldwork, together with his wife, Hildred, in Java, which was funded by the Ford Foundation and MIT. He studied the religious life of a small, upcountry town for 2.5 years, living with a railroad labourer's family.[2] After finishing his thesis, Geertz returned to Bali and Sumatra.[3] He earned his Ph.D. in 1956 with a dissertation entitled Religion in Modjukuto: A Study of Ritual Belief In A Complex Society.


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).

Later life

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, including Local Knowledge (1983), Available Light (2000) and Life Among The Anthros (published posthumously in 2010). He also produced the autobiographical After The Fact (1995) and Works and Lives (1988), a series of short essays on the stylistics of ethnography.

Geertz received Honorary Doctorate Degrees from some fifteen colleges and universities, including Harvard University, the University of Chicago and the University of Cambridge. He was married first to the anthropologist Hildred Geertz. After their divorce, he married Karen Blu, also an anthropologist. Clifford Geertz died of complications following heart surgery on October 30, 2006.[4]

Geertz conducted extensive ethnographical research in Southeast Asia and North Africa. This fieldwork was the basis of Geertz's famous analysis of the Balinese cockfight among others. He was the director of the multidisciplinary project Committee for the Comparative Studies of New Nations while he held a position in Chicago in the 1960s. He conducted fieldwork in Morocco as part of this project on "bazaars, mosques, olive growing and oral poetry".[3] The ethnographic data for the famous essay on Thick description was collected here. He 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. At the time of his death, Geertz was working on the general question of ethnic diversity and its implications in the modern world.

Main ideas and contributions

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."[5]

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.[6] Geertz aimed to provide the social sciences with an understanding and appreciation of “thick description.” Geertz applied thick description to anthropological studies (specifically his own 'interpretive anthropology'), while producing 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.[6]

Max Weber and his interpretative social science are strongly present in Geertz’s work. Geertz himself argues for a “semiotic” concept of culture: “Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun," he states “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.”[6]

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.[6] We cannot discover the culture’s import or understand its systems of meaning, when, as Wittgenstein noted, “We cannot find our feet with them.”[6] Geertz wants society to appreciate, that social actions are larger than themselves; they speak to larger issues, and vice versa, because “they are made to.”[6]

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.”[6]

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.[6] 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.[6]> 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.[6]

Cockfight in Bali

His often-cited essay "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight" is the classic example of thick description, a concept adopted from the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle. Thick description is an anthropological method of explaining with as much detail as possible the reason behind human actions.[7] 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.

During Geertz's long career he worked through a variety of theoretical phases and schools of thought. In 1957 Geertz wrote 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...", a statement which reflects an early leaning toward functionalism.

Philosophical influences

Despite his discontent with most academic philosophy of his time, Geertz was largely influenced by two philosophers: Gilbert Ryle and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Drawing on the tradition of ordinary language philosophy, he adopted the proposition of thick description from the British philosopher Ryle and imported the concept of family resemblances into anthropology from the post-analytic philosophy of Wittgenstein.

He also introduced Alfred Schütz's "...distinctions among predecessors, consociates, contemporaries and successors, distinctions that have become commonplace in anthropology"[8] in his wake. Geertz stressed how the links between "consociate-contemporary-predecessor-successor...[derive from] the umwelt-mitwelt-vorwelt-vogelwelt formulation"[9] of Schütz's phenomenology.


Geertz's research and ideas had a strong influence on 20th century academia. His findings reverberate within modern anthropology and communication studies. Aside from his influence on anthropology, Geertz' landmark contributions to social and cultural theory were also influential for geographers, ecologists, political scientists, scholars of religion, historians, and other humanists.[10] University of Miami Professor Daniel Pals wrote of Geertz in 1996, "His critics are few; his admirers legion."[11] Talal Asad attacked the dualism in Geertzian theory: the theory does not provide a bridge between external symbols and internal dispositions. He also pointed out the need for a more nuanced approach toward the historical background of certain concepts.[12] Criticizing Geertz's theory of religion in general he pointed out a gap between 'cultural system' and 'social reality' when attempting to define the concept of religion in universal terms.[12]


Major publications

Chronological list of works by Clifford Geertz

French Edition of Geertz' "Local Knowledge"

The four studies included in the book are:

  • "The World in a Text: How to Read Tristes Tropiques" (pp. 25–48).
  • "Slide Show: Evans-Pritchard's African Transparencies" (pp. 49–72).
  • "I-Witnessing: Malinowski's Children" (pp. 73–101).
  • "Us/not-Us: Benedict's Travels" (pp. 102–128).


See also


  1. Geertz, Clifford, Shweder, R. A., & Good, B. (2005). Clifford Geertz by his colleagues. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  2. Geertz, Clifford (2001). Available light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics. Princeton: Princeton University Press p. 8-9
  3. 1 2 Geertz, Clifford (2001). Available light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics. Princeton: Princeton University Press p. 10
  4. "Anthropologist Biographies - Geertz". 1926-08-23. Retrieved 2012-08-13.
  5. Geertz, Clifford (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures. Basic Books, p. 89
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Geertz, Clifford (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures. Basic Books
  7. Gilbert Ryle, "The Thinking of Thoughts: What is 'Le Penseur' Doing?" Reprinted from 'University Lectures', no.18, 1968, by permission of the University of Saskatchewan.
  8. Geertz, Shweder, Good, (2005) p. 68
  9. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (London 1993) p. 367n
  10. "Clifford Geertz 1926 - 2006". Princeton, New Jersey: Institute for Advanced Study Press. 2006.
  11. Frankenberry, Nancy K.; Hans H. Penner (1999). "Clifford Geertz's Long-Lasting Moods, Motivations, and Metaphysical Conceptions". 79. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: The University of Chicago Press: 617–640. ISBN 0-13-158591-6. JSTOR 1206117.
  12. 1 2 Asad, Talal (1983). Anthropological Concepts of Religion: Reflections on Geertz. Man (N.S.) 18:237-59.
  13. Association for Asian Studies (AAS), 1987 Award for Distinguished Contributions to Asian Studies; retrieved 2011-05-31

Further reading

External links

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