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Interpreting the Interpreter

Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology

by Clifford Geertz
Basic Books, 244 pp., $18.50

According to Clifford Geertz, anthropology—“long one of the most homespun of disciplines, hostile to anything smacking of intellectual pretension and unnaturally proud of an outdoorsman image”—has, together with much else in social science, been changing in recent years. He says that its golden age, when there was widespread agreement on the general aim of the social sciences—“to find out the dynamics of collective life and alter them in desired directions”—is over. Today, he says, “calls for ‘a general theory’ of just about anything social sound increasingly hollow, and claims to have one megalomaniac.” Social scientists no longer feel the need to mimic the methods of physicists and other natural scientists. Social thought is being “refigured,” and the exploration of new metaphors for understanding social and cultural life drawn from the humanities has produced new and unfamiliar “blurred genres”—scientific speculations resembling belles-lettres, histories resembling mathematics, and, as we shall see, anthropology resembling literary criticism.

A learned anthropologist who has written books on Bali, Java, and Morocco, and essays on many other issues, including economic development, religion, and “third world” politics, Geertz has for many years been articulating and promoting a theory of culture and a method for understanding it, most effectively in his collection of essays, The Interpretation of Cultures (1973). Cultural anthropologists, we know, investigate and try to grasp the workings of the religions, myths, rituals, kinship systems, of other cultures (or of our own). But what is a “culture”? And in what does such “understanding” consist? How should cultural anthropologists see their task? And what methods promise to assist them in accomplishing it? The essays that make up Local Knowledge extend and refine the answers to these questions used in Geertz’s earlier work on the theory of culture and discuss not only subjects that he has dealt with before but also some new ones—the nature of art and of law, the “symbology” of power and domination, even academic career patterns in the United States.

In a review of the work of Lévi-Strauss published some years ago, Geertz wrote that the anthropologist’s

personal relationship to his object of study is, perhaps more than for any other scientist, inevitably problematic. Know what he thinks a savage is and you have the key to his work. You know what he thinks he himself is and, knowing what he thinks he himself is, you know in general what sort of thing he is going to say about whatever tribe he happens to be studying. All ethnography is part philosophy, and a good deal of the rest is confession.1

For Geertz, human beings are not finished products of biological evolution, but “symbolizing, conceptualizing, meaning-seeking” animals, who wish to “make sense out of experience, to give it form and order.” Not only is this desire “evidently as real and as pressing as the more familiar biological needs,” it has causally affected them. Geertz’s view of human nature contrasts sharply with the claim that human culture is an offshoot of biology, a spark thrown off by some underlying physical or biological process and possessing no causal powers of its own. He thinks that evidence about the evolution of man from the hominoids suggests that “culture, rather than being added on, so to speak, to a finished or virtually finished animal, was ingredient, and centrally ingredient, in the production of that animal itself.” Especially important in this evolution, Geertz wrote, was “the increasing reliance upon systems of significant symbols (language, art, myth, ritual) for orientation, communication, and self-control.”

In Local Knowledge Geertz again emphasizes the importance of these “systems of significant symbols” in the explanation of culture and argues that some celebrated accounts of culture paid too little attention to them and too much to “primitive psychology.” E. B. Tylor and J. G. Frazer, the founders of modern anthropology, believed that “primitives” have primitive minds, minds on a lower rung of the evolutionary ladder than ours; these “primitives,” they claimed, attempted to do what we do in our science, to explain and order the universe and acquire control of it, but did it miserably because of the limitations of their mental apparatus. They consequently moved about, as Geertz puts the view, in “a hodgepodge of concrete images, mystical participations, and immediate passions.” This overly intellectualistic view tended to ignore that much of what not only “primitives” but we ourselves do is not a matter of belief or attempted explanation at all. Puberty initiations, rain dances, cargo cults may be actions expressing values that are cherished or thought worthy of reaffirmation; they may not be proto-scientific judgments—any more than an American who sings “That Old Black Magic” is exhibiting his belief that there is such a thing as magic and that it is old and black.

The Tylor-Frazer view, which Geertz says “persists in certain sorts of developmental psychology, certain styles of comparative history, and certain circles of the diplomatic service,” has in addition been undermined by the claims of such diverse thinkers as Freud and Skinner and Chomsky that the cognitive processes of human beings are roughly the same everywhere. What differs from people to people, these claims suggest, is not psychological processes but vehicles of thought—conceptual “structures,” “grids” arranging categories, classifications of space and time, plants, animals, colors, sexes—so that “what formerly was seen as a question of the comparability of psychological processes from one people to the next is now seen…as a question of the commensurability of conceptual structures from one discourse community to the next.”

Geertz’s own view of culture underscores the importance of these “conceptual structures” and regards them neither as biological epiphenomena nor as the reflections of a mentality nor as patterns of behavior, but rather as a “system of symbols.” What he means by this claim is not entirely clear, however, for he also suggests that culture should be understood not as consisting of the symbols themselves, taken abstractly, but as consisting of symbols as they are used to convey meaning in distinct social situations. He seems to suggest that such systems of symbols (most notably, language) are inherent in cultures and that without them there would be no cultural phenomena to describe, for our language and other symbols do not simply describe the “world” we live in: they contribute in some fundamental sense to that “world” being what it is, and may be said, in part, to create it.

Furthermore, these “symbolic forms” are for Geertz not “gauzy mental forms” and not “private” (or in anyone’s “head”): they are public “inscriptions” of a “communal sensibility.” And he does not mean by “symbol” merely an affective or emotive symbol. For him thinking, for example, is a “manipulation” of symbolic forms; a poem can be “a symbolic model of the emotional impact of premature death”; and “the central rituals of religion—a mass, a pilgrimage, a corroboree—are symbolic models (here more in the form of activities than of words) of a particular sense of the divine, a certain sort of devotional mood, which their continual re-enactment tends to produce in their participants.”

What he means by “symbol systems” in use may perhaps be illustrated by his “ethnographically informed” reflections on art in Local Knowledge. According to Geertz, art cannot be understood by an approach that locates “aesthetic power” in “formal relations among sounds, images, volumes, themes, or gestures.” To study an art form is to study “a collective formation” that makes concrete “a way of experiencing” and brings “a particular cast of mind out into the world of objects, where men can look at it.” Further more, “it is out of participation in the general system of symbolic forms we call culture that participation in the particular we call art, which is in fact but a sector of it, is possible.” To understand art works we must “place” them among the products of other modes of social activity, incorporate them into

the texture of a particular pattern of life. And such placing, the giving to art objects a cultural significance, is always a local matter; what art is in classical China or classical Islam, what it is in the Pueblo southwest or highland New Guinea, is just not the same thing, no matter how universal the intrinsic qualities that actualize its emotional power (and I have no desire to deny them) may be.

He draws on Robert Faris Thompson’s account of the meaning of line among the Yoruba tribe to give an example:

It is not just their statues, pots, and so on that Yoruba incise with lines: they do the same with their faces. Line, of varying depth, direction, and length, sliced into their cheeks and left to scar over, serves as a means of lineage identification, personal allure, and status expression; and the terminology of the sculptor and of the cicatrix specialist—“cuts” distinguished from “slashes,” and “digs,” or “claws” from “splittings open”—parallel one another in exact precision. But there is more to it than this. The Yoruba associate line with civilization: “This country has become civilized,” literally means, in Yoruba, “this earth has lines upon its face.”

…[The Yoruba concern for line] grows out of a distinctive sensibility the whole of life participates in forming—one in which the meanings of things are the scars that men leave on them.

If culture is a set of symbolic forms (as they are actually used), then the task of an anthropologist studying a culture should be to identify its symbol systems. As Geertz conceives it, this task involves trying to grasp the “native’s point of view,” to “determine what this people or that take to be the point of what they are doing.” And he believes this also involves a change in method, a turning away from “laws-and-causes social physics,” from “a laws and instances ideal of explanation towards a cases and interpretation one.” What is sought, he says, is “interpretive explanation,” explanation which “trains its attention on what institutions, actions, images, utterances, events, customs, all the usual objects of social-scientific interest, mean to those whose institutions, actions, customs, and so on they are.” Such explanations do not issue in laws but in “unpackings of the conceptual world” in which the native lives.

His recommendation that anthropologists seek explanations of culture “connecting action to its sense rather than behavior to its determinants” sets Geertz against those large general theoretical approaches—“diffusionism,” “evolutionism,” “biological determinism,” “sociobiology” (he calls it a “curious combination of common sense and common nonsense”)—that have sought to discover general “laws” of the development or evolution of culture (or at least “patterns” or “regularities” among “culture traits”) by cross-cultural studies, or that too confidently have promised to explain such diverse cultural items as marriage rules, folklore motifs, trade patterns, farming techniques, political organization, diet, dress, etiquette, by the influence of “dominant” or “primary” factors like technology, or ecology, or population expansion, or by the invocation of psychological, biological, geographical, or climatological “laws.” Far from producing general laws of culture or cultural development, Geertz has remarked, these approaches have provided little more than vague and evasive generalizations about the “unity of man” and his “basic needs” and their “multiple modes of fulfillment.”

  1. 1

    Interpretation of Cultures, pp. 345-346.

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