For the last 40 years, Clifford James Geertz has been the most influential and controversial anthropologist to capture the interest of both scholars and the general public. In contrast to the works of most anthropologists, Geertz’s books, now numbering 19 individually authored and edited volumes that have been translated into 21 languages, are widely debated by anthropologists, historians, literary critics, political scientists, and other scholars. Since 1967, he has been a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books. Not since Margaret Mead has there been another anthropologist to engender such scholarly debate and to be incorporated into popular culture.
Underlying Geertz’s symbolic approach to anthropology is his attention to philosophy. He was trained at Antioch with an BA degree in philosophy in 1950 and then was graduated with a PhD in anthropology from Harvard University in 1956. Drawing primarily on the humanities, he advocates using a variety of methodological and theoretically practices to study and understand culture in its own terms. His theory of culture as a system of symbols and meanings that are publicly exhibited in objects and actions and an interpretive strategy of regarding culture as text hold Source: Reprinted with permission from the Annual Review of Anthropology, 31, copyright © 2002 by Annual Reviews, www.annualreviews.org.
wide sway in contemporary anthropological analyses and literary criticism. According to him, the goal is to understand these texts within the same cultural context as the natives, in order to learn the local meaning. Ethnographies, like any other cultural expression, should be understood as texts to be read alongside the natives’ own texts. His detractors view this as moving anthropology from a scientific orientation to one that is based on metaphorical and literary techniques, in which science and scholarship, in general, are rhetorical. Some have claimed that he influenced anthropologists since the 1970s to write about other societies rather than collect and analyze data.
Although Geertz has influenced anthropological scholarship to include interpretive and hermeneutic models of analysis, he is a consummate ethnographic fieldworker. He has conducted ethnographic research in Java since 1952, Bali since 1957, and Morocco since 1963, periodically revisiting these locations of the past 50 years. Most of this research was conducted while a faculty member in the University of Chicago Anthropology department, from 1960 to 1970, and then as a faculty member of the School of Social Science Institute for Advanced Study until his retirement in 2000.
Geertz’s ethnographic research has mainly centered on religion, first publishing on the topic in 1960 with the monograph, The Religion of Java, and then later in 1968, with Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia. In 1963, he published Peddlers and Princes, which analyzes economic development and cultural change in Indonesia. Geertz’s most influential work, The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), is a collection of essays, which best exemplify his interpretive and humanistic approaches to anthropology. Subsequent collections of essays, Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (1983); After the Fact: Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist (1995); and Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics (2000) remain true to the rhetorical and philosophical approaches that Geertz employed to theoretically frame and interrogate his own ethnographic research and that of others in The Interpretation of Cultures. These works should not be seen as a rehashing of ideas, but as Geertz’s distinctive ruminations and critical perspectives on his own life, the use of theory, the practice of anthropology, and contemporary culture.
- Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays. New York: Basic Books.
- Geertz, C. (2000). Available light: Anthropological reflections on philosophical topics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Shweder, R. A., & Good, B. (Eds.). (2005). Clifford Geertz by his colleagues. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.