Clifford Geertz

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Clifford James Geertz (August 23, 1926 – October 30, 2006) was an American anthropologist and Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. He is known for his work in the field of symbolic anthropology.


  • We are not, or at least I am not, seeking either to become natives (a compromised word in any case) or to mimic them. Only romantics or spies would seem to find point in that. We are seeking, in the widened sense of the term in which it encompasses very much more than talk, to converse with them, a matter a great deal more difficult, and not only with strangers, than is commonly recognized. "If speaking for someone else seems to be a mysterious process," Stanley Cavell has remarked, "that may be because speaking to someone does not seem mysterious enough."

Looked at in this way, the aim of anthropology is the enlargement of the universe of human discourse."

    • Clifford Geertz. "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture," in The Interpretation of Culture. (1973) pp. 3-4.
  • In the country of the blind, who are not as unobservant as they look, the one-eyed is not king, he is spectator.
    • Clifford Geertz, Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (1983) Basic Books, 2000, p. 58.

The Interpretation of Cultures (1973)[edit]

  • In her book, Philosophy in a New Key, Susanne Langer remarks that certain ideas burst upon the intellectual landscape with a tremendous force. They resolve so many fundamental problems at once that they seem also to promise that they will resolve all fundamental problems, clarify all obscure issues. Everyone snaps them up as the open sesame of some new positive science, the conceptual center-point around which a comprehensive system of analysis can be built. The sudden vogue of such a grande ideé, crowding out almost everything else for a while, is due, she says, “to the fact that all sensitive and active minds turn at once to exploiting it. We try it in every connection, for every purpose, experiment with possible stretches of its strict meaning, with generalizations and derivatives.”
    • p. 3
  • After we have become familiar with the new idea, however, after it has become part of our general stock of theoretical concepts, our expectations are brought more into balance with its actual uses, and its excessive popularity is ended. A few zealots persist in the old key-to-the-universe view of it; but less driven thinkers settle down after a while to the problems the idea has really generated. They try to apply it and extend it where it applies and where it is capable of extension; and they desist where it does not apply or cannot be extended. It becomes, if it was, in truth, a seminal idea in the first place, a permanent and enduring part of our intellectual armory. But it no longer has the grandiose, all-promising scope, the infinite versatility of apparent application, it once had. The second law of thermodynamics, or the principle of natural selection, or the notion of unconscious motivation, or the organization of the means of production does not explain everything, not even everything human, but it still explains something; and our attention shifts to isolating just what that something is, to disentangling ourselves from a lot of pseudoscience to which, in the first flush of its celebrity, it has also given rise.
    • p. 3-4
  • Quoted raw, a note in a bottle, this passage conveys, as any similar one similarly presented would do, a fair sense of how much goes into ethnographic description of even the most elemental sort — how extraordinarily “thick” it is. In finished anthropological writings, including those collected here, this fact — that what we call our data are really our own constructions of other people’s constructions of what they and their compatriots are up to — is obscured because most of what we need to comprehend a particular event, ritual, custom, idea, or whatever is insinuated as background information before the thing itself is directly examined.
    • p. 9
  • It is not against a body of uninterpreted 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.
    • p. 16
  • There is an Indian story -- at least I heard it as an Indian story -- about an Englishman who, having been told that the world rested on a platform which rested on the back of an elephant which rested in turn on the back of a turtle, asked (perhaps he was an ethnographer; it is the way they behave), what did the turtle rest on? Another turtle. And that turtle? 'Ah, Sahib, after that it is turtles all the way down.'
    • p. 28-29
  • Cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete. And, worse than that, the more deeply it goes the less complete it is. It is a strange science whose most telling assertions are its most tremulously based, in which to get somewhere with the matter at hand is to intensify the suspicion, both your own and that of others, that you are not quite getting it right. But that, along with plaguing subtle people with obtuse questions, is what being an ethnographer is like.
    • p. 29
  • 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 de-emotionalized forms; it is to plunge into the midst of them. 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
  • Culture is best seen not as complexes of concrete behavior patterns — customs, usages, traditions, habit clusters — as has, by and large, been the case up to now, but as a set of control mechanisms — plans, recipes, rules, instructions (what computer engineers call “programs”) — for the governing of behavior.
    • p. 44
  • One of the most significant facts about us may finally be that we all begin with the natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of life but end in the end having lived only one.
    • p. 45
  • The "control mechanism" view of culture begins with the assumption that human thought is basically both social and public — that its natural habitat is the house yard, the market place, and the town square.
    • p. 45
  • A religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing those conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.
    • p. 90

"Clifford Geertz on Ethnography and Social Construction", 1991[edit]

Clifford Geertz in: Gary A. Olson. "Clifford Geertz on Ethnography and Social Construction," in: Journal of Advanced Composition 11.2 (1991)

  • I wanted to be a novelist and a newspaper man... I went to Antioch College and majored in English, at least in the beginning, with the intention of doing something like that.... Antioch had a co-op program so I went to work for the New York Post as a copyboy when I decided I didn't want to be a newspaper man; it was fun, but it wasn't practical. After a while I shifted into philosophy as a major, but I never had any undergraduate training at all in anthropology and, indeed, very little social science outside of economics. I had a lot of economics but nothing else. Anthropology wasn't even taught at Antioch then, although it is now. And except for a political science course or two and lots of economics, I didn't have any social sciences. So I was in literature for at least half the time I was there, the first couple of years, and then I shifted to philosophy, partly because of the influence of a terrific teacher and partly because in a small college you can run out of courses. 'Men I got interested in the same sort of thing I'm interested in now: values, ideas, and so on. Finally, one of my professors said, "Why don't you think about anthropology?" That was the first time I had thought seriously about being an anthropologist, and then I began to think about it and I went to Harvard and so on.
  • Some professors and especially younger anthropologists have the notion that anthropology is too diverse. The number of things done under the name of anthropology is just infinite; you can do anything and call it anthropology. (That's perhaps a little extreme.) In my field I have always argued for the pluralistic approach to things rather than solidification into some particular line (even my own line) of work. But there is a great deal of anxiety. I think it is true that scholars, both young and old, are overly anxious about pluralism, diversity, conflict-younger ones especially because when they're first getting into a field they want to know what it is they're supposed to know, but older ones, too, because they somehow yearn for a lost paradise when everyone knew what they were doing.

Quotes about Clifford Geertz[edit]

  • One way to understand women's consciousness is to make visible the cultures it creates. Culture may be defined as the ordered system of meanings in terms of which people define their world, express their feelings, and make their judgments. Cultural interpretation, as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz has suggested, is a process of "searching out and analyzing the symbolic forms-words, images, institutions, behaviors-in terms of which . people actually represent themselves to themselves and to one another."...To name women's consciousness is to identify its webs of significance and meaning, to make it intelligible on its own terms. This identification, according to Geertz, is a process of cultural interpretation: "the analysis... is not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning. Culture is not a power, something to which social events, behavior, institutions or processes can be causally attributed; it is a context, something within which they can be intelligibly-that is-thickly described."
    • Bettina Aptheker Tapestries of Life: Women's Work, Women's Consciousness, and the Meaning of Daily Experience (1989)
  • Clifford Geertz says it all in one crisp, succinct sentence: "I'm probably a closet rhetorician, although I'm coming out of the closet a bit." For over three decades, Geertz has been attempting to steer anthropological scholarship away from a rigidly scientific model and toward a humanistic, interpretive, hermeneutic model-apparently with great success. Perhaps it is Geertz's preoccupation with seeing science and scholarship as rhetorical, as socially constructed, that makes his work so eminently appealing to many of us in rhetoric and composition. Geertz sees rhetoric as central to his own life and work. From his college days as an English major at Antioch College and a copyboy at the New York Post to 1988 and his Works and Lives (where he "reads" the work of four major anthropologists as if he were a literary critic explicating canonical texts), Geertz has been consumed with questions of language, rhetoric, interpretation.

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