The work of clifford geertz

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Man is an animal suspended in webs he himself has spun (1973).

The work of Clifford Geertz has proven to be influential in both 20th century anthropological thought and cultural analysis as well as in our understanding of the nature of religion. While his writings have spanned the spectrum of social life, one of his main influences can be seen in his insistence on 'interpretation' with regards to anthropological theory. With respect to religion, his writings have worked to question some of the dominant functionalist theories through the interpretive anthropological methods he employs. For Geertz, if one is interested in explaining a religion, it is first necessary to grasp the systems of meanings they convey. Separating his ideas from those of the other theories of religion we have examined, one can see the emphasis he places on the uniqueness of each particular culture and his aversion for general and universal theories as a telling contribution to our study.

Geertz employs Gilbert Ryle's notion of 'thick description' to explain the work of an ethnographer who is faced with "a multiplicity of complex conceptual structures, many of them superimposed upon or knotted into one another, which are at once strange, irregular, and inexplicit and which he must contrive somehow first to grasp and then to render" (1973). Critical to much of Geertz's discussion, then, is the role that meaning and significance plays in culture and how culture can be understood as a shared context of meaning. This meaning finds its articulation ultimately in social action, which is often difficult to fully grasp.[1] This difficulty stems in part from the notion that social actions stem from a cultural framework that often presents different and conflicting patterns of choices. As such, when considering cultural analysis the interpretive anthropologists must "(guess) at meanings, (assess) the guesses, and draw explanatory conclusions from the better guesses" (1973).

With regards to the question of why Geertz does not go further, and attempt to discover why people interpret their worlds in certain ways, he believes that it is futile because such subjective measures and values are unknowable. This speaks to a larger epistemological issue within the anthropology of culture, with Geertz clearly opposed to functionalist views.

When comparing natural sciences and the experimental method with anthropology and the study of cultures, Geertz stresses the importance of 'interpretation' over 'explanation' because human beings and societies are fundamentally different and a unique body of study. That is, culture should not be seen as "an experimental science in search of a law but an interpretive one in search of meaning" (1973). It is easy to see how this argument stirred debate, as it calls for a different path and focus for anthropology (and other social sciences). While some may attack such a proposition as taking away the scientific legitimacy of anthropological studies, Geertz notes that it is precisely the complex significance and circumstantiality of anthropological findings which give it relevance (1973). As such, Geertz argues:

It is with the kind of material produced by long-term, mainly (though not exclusively) qualitative, highly participative, and almost obsessively fine-comb field study in confined contexts that the mega-concepts with which contemporary social science is afflicted-legitimacy, modernization, integration, conflict, charisma, structure,...meaning-can be given the sort of sensible actuality that makes it possible to think not only realistically and concretely about them, but, what is more important, creatively and imaginatively with them (1973).

In regards to a particular phenomenon (such as religion), Geertz is fundamentally opposed to broad and generalized theories which attempt to account for its entire nature throughout the world. The ideas behind universal theories can be seen as almost completely antithetical to the interpretive framework Geertz employs in his studies. Individual religions, for example, should first be understood with regards to their complex system of meanings.

While both Geertz and Durkheim studied a particular religious culture in depth (although the latter was not engaged in actual ethnographic fieldwork while the former spent several years doing in depth studies of particular cultures), it is interesting to note the different conclusions they come to about the nature of defining religion. That is, while Durkheim used his studies of the Australian Aborigines to construct a universal definition of religion, Geertz uses his intensive ethnographic work to provide support for his 'interpretive anthropology' (and one that stresses the importance of the particularity of each specific religion and culture). This is not to say that either of these theorists are 'right' or 'wrong' with respect to an ultimate answer; both have added significant contributions to the ongoing debate into the nature of religion, with Durkheim stressing the important role of the social and Geertz noting the important connections and comparisons one can make through intensive study of particular religious cultures.

Geertz believes that religion is a distinct part of the cultural system, with culture being a "historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, 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" (1973). Thus, if one understands Geertz interpretative anthropology as a way of searching for those systems of meanings and values that help to explain the way people live their lives, it becomes clear why religion would be fundamental to his discussion of culture and his thought generally.

Central to Geertz understanding of religion is how it consists of a world view and an ethos that combine to reinforce each other. Cultural systems, for Geertz, both shape and are shaped by individual actions. What is important is that these symbols represent models, which are both models of and models for reality (1973). In this vein, Geertz sets out with a definition of religion:

(1)a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the (5) moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic(1973).

For one interested in understanding Geertz's meaning behind the term religion, it is helpful to unpack this definition. In regards to the 'system of symbols' Geertz is referring to, we can see them as those concrete things which convey an idea (such as the rituals behind the way a priest prepares the Eucharist, or the ways in which an individual genuflects, etc.). Central to Geertz understanding is that these symbols are not simply individualistic, but rather are understood communally and publicly. As mentioned above, since these systems of symbols can be seen as models of reality and models for reality, they work to both explain what is most real and important while, in turn, the 'moods and motivations' they evoke work to reinforce this reality (1973).

In regards to how religion 'establish(es) powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations' it can be seen as something that can deeply influence the way one acts and feels. For a Catholic, for instance, watching the 'stations of the cross' or a rendition of 'the passion' may evoke intense feelings (linkable to the communal effervescence of Durkheim). Further, religion can be seen as establishing something that works to make sense of the life one is leading through the "formulati(on) (of) conceptions of a general order of existence" (1973). The answers of religion (the methods of which differ in between cultures) attempt to provide the solution for the 'important' questions that deal with the eternal and ultimate. The system of symbols religion are associated with are grounded in such a way as to be perceived as 'uniquely realistic' and are connected with an 'aura of factuality' (1973). Being that religion attempts to answer these questions of ultimate significance, it becomes clear how it should be seen as in a different realm than other cultural systems.

When evaluating the role that Clifford Geertz has had on anthropology and on the study of religion, it becomes clear that his work on the notion of interpretation is central to an understanding of his influence. There is a stark difference between functionalist theorists (such as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, or Emilie Durkheim) and the methods proposed by Geertz. Central to an understanding of Geertz is the stress he places on the particular nature of individual cultures, and how they are shaped by the particular symbols and images of particular times and places. In typical Geertzian prose, he warns that if we "set forth symmetrical crystals of significance, purified of the material complexity in which they were located, and then attribute their existence to autogenous principles of order (or) universal properties of the human to pretend a science that does not exist and imagine a reality that cannot be found" (1973). This notion, and his overall argument, make a significant contribution to the overall debate and provide helpful insight into a proper understanding of the nature of religion.


Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Geertz, Clifford 1984 "Anti-Anti-Relativism" in American Anthropologist :86 (2) 263-278

[1] To explain how meanings are not solely individual, Geertz employs the 'winking' example of Ryle. This example works to show the complexity of shared meaning in that the identical physical eye movement of two boys (one has an involuntary eye twitch and the other winks deliberately) are shown to represent two vastly different things. That is, "(c)ulture is public because meaning is. You can't wink without knowing what counts as winking or how, physically, to contract your eyelids..." (1973).