Clifford Geertz (1926-2006) American cultural anthropologist

Clifford Geertz (1926-2006) is a famous American cultural anthropologist. He was born in San Francisco. Geertz served in the Navy during World War II, and then studied for a BA at Antioch College on the ‘GI Bill’. This was followed by a Ph.D. at Harvard in 1956 with a dissertation entitled Religion in Modjokuto: A Study of Ritual Belief In A Complex Society, for which he did extensive fieldwork in Java (in Indonesia). Most of Geertz’s fieldwork was done in Indonesia, but he also spent a considerable period of time in Morocco.  Dr. Geertz was Professor Emeritus in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where he has served on the Faculty since 1970.

His works mainly focus on religion, especially Islam; bazaar trade; economic development; traditional political structures; and on village and family life. Some of his books include The Religion of Java (1960); Peddlers and Princes: Social Development and Economic Change in Two Indonesian Towns (1963), Agricultural Involution: the process of ecological change in Indonesia (1964); Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia (1968); The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (1973, 2000); Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth Century Bali (1980);  Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (1983), and The Politics of Culture, Asian Identities in a Splintered World (2002).

It was Geertz’s fifth book, The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), that brought him international attention, and more importantly, won him a large readership outside of professional anthropological circles. He proposed a new method of thinking about anthropological research, which he called ‘thick description’, borrowing the term from British analytic philosopher Gilbert Ryle. Describing culture as an ‘acted document’, Geertz argues that the object of anthropology, i.e. what it is anthropologists actually study, is a ‘thick description’ in itself, because it is a multi-coded ‘text’ that is simultaneously constructed and interpreted by the anthropologist. All human behavior is, he argues, symbolic action, so anthropological fieldwork consists in learning the various ways in which symbols are manipulated in culture, without at the same time falling into the trap of thinking these symbols are fixed or immutable. Anthropological interpretations are thus fictions, he argues, not in the sense of being false, but rather (as in the original meaning of the term) made up or constructed, and therefore cannot be schematized. He developed this thesis further in the subsequent work Local Knowledge (1983).

Geertz’s method chimed well with the shift toward relativism and pragmatism that postmodernism heralded and his work was enormously influential in a wide variety of fields, notably literary studies and Cultural Studies. Stephen Greenblatt has openly acknowledged a theoretical debt to Geertz. In the latter part of his career, Geertz’s work took a more biographical and ultimately autobiographical turn: first, he wrote a short book on the lives of four key anthropologists, Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author (1988), then a book about his own life in the field, After the Fact: Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist (1995).

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