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.”

What is Geertz’s view about the dominant tradition in anthropology until after World War II, the “functionalism” of Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski and their respective followers?

Functionalism was a methodological and theoretical view that emphasized not the origin or evolution of particular institutions—customs, rights, myths, political and social arrangements—but the role they play in the functioning of the “social system” as a whole. It was expressed in at least two influential formulations. Malinowski’s “psychological” version of functionalism roughly held that institutions should be analyzed and understood not only as interdependent or interrelated, but primarily through the contribution they made to the “satisfaction” or fulfillment of the biological and psychological needs of people in a society. Radcliffe-Brown’s “structural functionalism,” on the other hand, repudiated this psychological approach and sought to establish a “natural science” of society distinct from psychology. On this view, psychology cannot be the foundation of social anthropology, for social arrangements affect the psychology of the members of a society; rather, while Radcliffe-Brown did not entirely reject psychological causes and conditions of behavior, he held that society is something like an entity distinguishable from the individuals who compose it, with needs of its own, and capable of influencing those individuals through its institutions. Social anthropologists, he further held, should analyze “social structures,” defined as the relationships among the actions of individuals, and its task should be to arrive at a statement, if possible, of the laws according to which social structures survive or, more generally, “maintain” themselves over time or undergo change.

Geertz’s attitude is unclear. Certainly he has criticized the cruder forms of functionalism on the ground that they are too “static,” too concerned with how society maintains its “equilibrium” rather than with change of social structure, too ahistorical, too untestable, and of course too insensitive to the place of symbolic structures in culture, tending to view symbols as pale reflections of underlying psychological or social structural conditions. But in his earlier work, Geertz sought to develop a “dynamic functionalism” which saw the “meaningful” and symbolic features of culture and the “causal-functional” aspects of social structure not as “mere reflexes of one another” but as “interdependent” variables. “The driving forces in social change,” he wrote, “can be clearly formulated only by a more dynamic form of functionalist theory, one which takes into account the fact that man’s need to live in a world to which he can attribute some significance, whose essential import he feels he can grasp, often diverges from his concurrent need to maintain a functioning social organism.”

According to this “dynamic functionalism,” human behavior (as opposed to that of lower animals, whose behavior patterns are largely given to them with their physical structure) is “inherently extremely plastic.” Culture provides “controls” on our “general response capacities.” It is “a set of control mechanisms” for the governing of our behavior. Cultures are systems of symbols, and symbols are “extrapersonal mechanisms for the perception, understanding, judgment, and manipulation of the world,” or “extrinsic sources of information,” in that—“unlike genes, for example—they lie outside the boundaries of the individual organism as such in that intersubjective world of common understandings into which all human individuals are born, in which they pursue their separate careers, and which they leave persisting behind them after they die.” Symbol systems, he wrote, are “socially determined” (or “at once a product and a determinant of social interaction”).

Does Geertz still hold to the possibility of such a form of functionalism? He seems not to although he does not explicitly say so; but he clearly rejects the forms of structuralism that have enjoyed a vogue in intellectual life in recent years: the approach of Lévi-Strauss, for example, which seeks to discover invariants of the human mind beneath the diverse cultural codes of different peoples, he calls a “higher cryptology.”

But how, on Geertz’s view, should anthropologists go about grasping the native’s point of view? Can they acquire this understanding by the customary methods of field study, observation, and verbal interview, or must they engage in some other kind of participation in the native “world”? One celebrated answer to this question is that the fieldworker must immerse himself in the native world, acquire the “world view” of the native through empathy and sympathetic identification, and grasp the “meaning” of native actions by reference to what meaning he would attach to the act in similar circumstances. Geertz claims that this “myth of the chameleon fieldworker, perfectly self-tuned to his exotic surroundings, a walking miracle of empathy, tact, patience, and cosmopolitanism, was demolished by the man who had perhaps done most to create it,” namely Malinowski, who had officially spoken of grasping the “imponderabilia of actual life” through empathy, but who, as was revealed by the posthumous publication of his field diary, did not exhibit much of a capacity to think or feel like a native at all.

Geertz’s own view is that anthropologists do not need to possess any special capacity for empathy in order to understand the world of the native: “The trick,” he says, “is not to get yourself into some inner correspondence of spirit with your informants,” but rather “to figure out what the devil they think they are up to.” This does not consist in merely translating what natives tell us, for they might tell us such things as that they are birds or that a witch has pushed them out of a tree. Rather, the “translation” of cultures involves “the reshaping of categories… so that they can reach beyond the contexts in which they originally arose and took their meaning so as to locate affinities and mark differences.”

Geertz’s own ethnography, in such places as Bali and Morocco, he says largely consisted in “searching out and analyzing the symbolic forms—words, images, institutions, behavior—in terms of which, in each place, people actually represented themselves to themselves and to one another.” Although he acknowledges that the latter task is not, on the face of it, simpler than that of exercising empathy (or, we might add, really any less mysterious), he thinks that he can provide an informal description of something like a “method” for accomplishing it. This is a cultural version of what philologists and textual critics have called “hermeneutics,” a process of “tacking” or “hopping back and forth between the whole conceived through the parts that actualize it and the parts conceived through the whole that motivates them.” As practiced by Geertz, this “method” generally consists in his selecting some category (categories describing persons in Bali) or practice (the Balinese cockfight) or word (the Indic word dharma, or, roughly, “duty”) and attempting to connect it to “the general views of what reality really is” embodied within it; he then tries to clarify these general views further through their connection with other aspects of native life. For example, Geertz thinks that key words, or categories, when analyzed, can “light up a whole way of going at the world.” He writes,

All Balinese receive what might be called birth-order names. There are four of these, “first-born,” “second-born,” “third-born,” “fourth-born,” after which they recycle, so that the fifth-born child is called again “first-born,” the sixth “second-born,” and so on. Further, these names are bestowed independently of the fates of the children. Dead children, even stillborn ones, count, so that in fact, in this still high-birthrate, high-mortality society, the names do not really tell you anything very reliable about the birth-order relations of concrete individuals.

He continues:

The birth-order naming system does not identify individuals as individuals, nor is it intended to; what it does is to suggest that, for all procreating couples, births form a circular succession of “firsts,” “seconds,” “thirds,” and “fourths,” an endless four-stage replication of an imperishable form. Physically men appear and disappear as the ephemerae they are, but socially the acting figures remain eternally the same as new “firsts,” “seconds,” and so on emerge from the timeless world of the gods to replace those who, dying, dissolve once more into it.

Thus, Geertz thinks that the designation and title systems of the Balinese suggest that they hold certain metaphysical beliefs, that “they represent the most time-saturated aspects of the human condition as but ingredients in an eternal, footlight present.”

Why would they do so? Geertz would argue that it is, in part, because they see their lives as a kind of pageant or play, in which the roles, but not the actors, endure, in which each person is “the temporary occupant of a particular, quite untemporary, cultural locus.” This “play” is, he says, about hierarchy and status, and Geertz thinks that “the enactment of hierarchy” is a recurrent feature of Balinese life. In the nineteenth century, for example, Bali

was a theatre-state in which the king and princes were the impresarios, the priests the directors, and peasantry the supporting cast, stage crew, and audience. The stupendous cremations, teeth-filings, temple dedications, the pilgrimages and blood sacrifices, mobilizing hundreds, even thousands of people and great quantities of wealth, were not means to political ends, they were the ends themselves, they were what the state was for.

The ceremony was not mere decoration, or linked to displays of force, but the very substance of the state: “to govern was not so much to choose as to perform.”2 In Local Knowledge (and elsewhere) Geertz argues that this preoccupation with hierarchy and status is reflected not only in Balinese politics and its aesthetic rituals, with “eleven storey towers, flowered arrows shot into fabric snakes, purple and gold coffins shaped as lions, incense, metallophones, spices, flames,” but also in its darker aspects, in its sorcery (which is “filled with images of perversion and wild brutality”), its cock-fights, its funerals, with their “charred bones, entranced priests, somnambulant widows, affectless attendants, dissociate crowds, eerie in their picnic calm.”

By this “hermeneutic” tacking or “hopping back and forth,” Geertz thinks we might arrive at a “translation” of another culture. We might also, he thinks, thereby provide evidence for reflections on general topics such as the nature of the self, or of justice, or of ideology. In the essays in Local Knowledge he tries to do just this. One of them examines the idea of “charisma” and describes some of the symbolic forms that display the fact that a governing elite in a society is truly governing, using as evidence the progresses of Javanese, Balinese, and English sovereigns. The learned title essay on law as “local knowledge” is another “ethnographically informed” essay on a general topic. Geertz argues against the claim that law is a normative system super-imposed on a “neutral” or culture-independent body of “facts,” and against approaches to comparative law that treat it as an abstract structure of rules (as in some versions of legal positivism) or instruments for maintaining social equilibrium (as do functionalists who see law as “a clever device to keep people from tearing one another limb from limb, advance the interests of the dominant classes, defend the rights of the weak against the predations of the strong, or render social life a bit more predictable at its fuzzy edges”).

Instead, he urges comparative lawyers to investigate the merits of his “interpretive” methods. Investigating three different “varieties of legal sensibility”—the Islamic, the Indic, “and a so-called customary-law one found throughout the ‘Malayo’ part of Malayo-Polynesia”—Geertz maintains that “legal thought is constructive of social realities rather than merely reflective of them.” Legal “facts” are “socially constructed” and normative from the start. They express a “local” sense of justice and a “way of imagining the real.” Laws do not “just regulate behavior, they construe it”; and disputes over what sort of laws should govern a society are disputes over what sort of society is desired.

Geertz says that his concern with “how meaning in one system of expression is expressed in another” and with the “commensurability of conceptual structures” raises questions of “practical epistemology” and has led him “more complexly” into “relativism” than other investigators of culture. But this “relativism,” it is important to note, is not the kind of relativism that has been recently discussed by philosophers, and that holds that what investigators see, hear, and expect, is “theory-laden” (or otherwise heavily dependent upon their “background knowledge” or valuations or “conceptual schemes”). According to this notion of relativism, historians examining the assumptions of other periods, or proponents of different inclusive (and incompatible) scientific theories criticizing each other, or anthropologists trying to understand other cultures, occupy different “theoretical universes.” Thus, while they may discover truths, they cannot be “neutral” and are severely limited in their access to other such universes.

Nor does Geertz advocate the stronger version of relativism that regards the very application of our standards of rationality and truth to other cultures as “a category error,” so that in assessing, for example, whether witchcraft embodies truths or not, we must employ “local” standards of “truth” and “rationality.”3 One good reason Geertz does not espouse either of these relativistic positions is that if they were acceptable the work of “interpretive” (and other) anthropology would be blocked from the outset. He speaks of “relativism” (without further qualification) as “a bit of academic neurosis” and characteristically adds that in anthropology “those of us who attend with care to specific cases, usually peculiar, are constantly being told that we are undermining thereby the possibility of general knowledge and should take up instead something properly scientific like comparative sexology or cultural energetics.”

He thinks that we are neither prevented, on the basis of philosophical arguments about “meaning” and “conceptual schemes,” from understanding other cultures nor unable to appraise and judge these other cultures by our standards of rationality and cogency simply because there is no absolutely neutral or “privileged” standpoint for doing so. His point is simply that in order to acquire the kind of “understanding” he seeks of other cultures we must “determine what this people or that take to be the point of what they are doing,” search out and analyze their symbol systems, and not proceed as if the native point of view could be ignored if such “understanding” is our goal. Proceeding in this manner, he says, need not cast into doubt our standards of truth or rationality, or our morals.

If Geertz is not a “relativist” (as this term is sometimes defined), his pluralism, his appreciation of differences, contrasts, conflict, among cultures is refined to an unusual degree, so that at times he seems almost to be on the lookout for them. He prefers recognizing living differences to wishing them away in a “haze of forceless generalities and false comforts.” In an essay on common sense, he tells us that the East African tribe the Pokot look on hermaphrodites (or “intersexuals”) not with horror but as “errors,” rather like “botched pots,” whereas the Navajo, while they see hermaphrodites as abnormal, nevertheless regard them with “wonder and awe.” Most Americans, he notes, look on them with horror and try to disguise them as “hims” or “hers.” “So much for savages,” he says. He is amused that what is regarded as common sense or as patently true can differ so widely from one people to another, and recounts that when an old Javanese peasant woman told him about “the role of ‘the snake of the day’ in determining the wisdom of embarking on a journey, holding a feast, or contracting a marriage” and he asked her what this snake looked like, she told him, “Don’t be an idiot; you can’t see Tuesday, can you?”

Among the most acute and sensitive passages in Geertz’s writings concern the conflicts that accompany the contact of diverse patterns of life. In The Interpretation of Cultures, for example, he described the situation—evidently still with us—of newly independent “third world” countries, in which some reformers believed that the end of colonial rule would be followed by the spontaneous formation of nations that realized the ideals not only of political independence but also of popular rule, rapid economic growth, social equality, and cultural rebirth. But in fact, wrote Geertz, few of these ideals were realized, and in time, the inspiring leaders of the new nations, such as Gandhi or Nkrumah or Nasser, died and the forces of privilege and inequality reasserted themselves, as did divisive “nationalisms” within these nations.

Accompanying these developments, and partly causing them, were fierce and sustained conflicts among the citizens of these new states, and among the most important of these conflicts, Geertz wrote, was that between their desire to be “modern” (for example, to acquire a higher standard of living) and their need to remain themselves. As he described it, the conflict lay between the claims of “primordial attachments”—the claims of blood, race, region, tradition, religion, language, and all else that he called “psychologically immediate”—and the demands of nation-building in our century. Frequently, he said, the end result was a “twisting, spasmodic, unmethodical movement” which turned “as often toward repossessing the emotions of the past as disowning them,” a movement in which national leaders behaved like “naive artists,” trying now this style and now that—presidential autocracy, party oligarchy, military dictatorship, despotic monarchy—in an effort to “domesticate” or neutralize these “primordial attachments.”

Again, in his famous book Agricultural Involution: The Process of Ecological Change in Indonesia (1963), Geertz once more examined the effects of the superimposition of an alien civil and economic order on preexisting and “psychologically immediate” ways of life, this time the imposition by the Dutch of a capitalist export economy on the subsistence economy of the Javanese peasantry. Geertz noted that, as had been pointed out by Dutch economists before him, far from creating actual economic development in the peasant economy, the result was a “static expansion” of land use over wider areas, with any rise in production absorbed by a rise in population. He added that despite what he claimed was the existence of an ecological symbiosis between the subsistence crops (such as paddy) and the export crops (such as sugar cane), the peasant response to the alien economic order was not only an internal elaboration of traditional techniques of farming, but the enforcement of a peasant ethic of “shared poverty,” which in effect obstructed economic efficiency and intervened in the distribution of economic benefits from farming by dividing them into smaller and smaller portions so that all would benefit.4

The essay on law in Local Knowledge continues in the vein of these earlier works, commenting on the clash between primordial attachments and legal concepts grafted onto preexisting political and legal orders by reformers and rulers, and offers some extraordinary examples of “legal eclecticism,” such as Ethiopia, whose citizens, by the 1960s, were subject not only to tribal legal traditions, but also to “a Caesaro-Papist imperial code dating from the seventeenth century,” to “a Swiss penal code, French civil, mari-time, commercial, and criminal procedure codes, and an English civil procedure code, as well as parliamentary legislation administered by a civil High Court (staffed until 1957 by English judges) and royal decree administered by a Supreme Imperial Court (staffed, if that’s the word, until 1974, by the Lion of Judah).” Geertz claims that the grafting and transplantation of laws and procedures (and their rejection or accommodation by their host) is not likely to cease or to simplify: “the legal universe is not collapsing to a ball but expanding to a manifold.”

Geertz attacks the familiar social-science doctrine that

the world is growing more drearily modern—McDonald’s on the Champs Elysées, punk rock in China; that there is an intrinsic evolution from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, traditionalism to rationalism, mechanical solidarity to organic solidarity, status to contract; that post capitalist infrastructure in the form of multinational corporations and computer technology will soon shape the minds of Tongans and Yemenis to a common pattern.

Instead, he proposes his own “view that things look more like flying apart than they do like coming together (one I would apply to the direction of social change generally these days, not just to law).”

This raises, of course, the further question: If this crazy-quilt pattern of the world’s law, customs, practices is the norm and not a passing phenomenon, if “dissensus” is “the hardening condition of things,” how will communication (let alone firm action designed to introduce “progress” and “development”) take place in this cacophony? Apart from recommending once more the virtues of his style of “cultural translation,” Geertz thinks that we need to create “a novel system of discourse” in order to describe these “abnormal” situations (which, he adds, are not much clearer within other cultures than in ours). Although he does not describe this new discourse, he thinks it will provide an “expansion of established modes of discourse” so that it is possible to make “cogent remarks about matters normally foreign” to us.

Geertz accompanies this persistent stress on diversity and conflict in his work with a warning about the moral role that can be played by cultural anthropology. He acknowledges that anthropology can be morally “broadening” and that one of its functions is to “see ourselves amongst others, as a local example of the forms human life has locally taken.” As he wrote some years ago, “the essential vocation of interpretive anthropology is not to answer our deepest questions, but to make available to us answers that others…have given.” But he also says that

the image of the past (or the primitive, or the classic, or the exotic) as a source of remedial wisdom, a prosthetic corrective for a damaged spiritual life—an image that has governed a good deal of humanist thought and education—is mischievous because it leads us to expect that our uncertainties will be reduced by access to thought-worlds constructed along lines alternative to our own, when in fact they will be multiplied.

The results of cultural translation are more likely, in other words, to introduce an instability and uncertainty in our moral and epistemological lives and to contribute to what Geertz calls “the sense of believing too many things at once that seems to haunt us,” and to “our intense concern with whether we are in any position, or can somehow get ourselves into one, to judge other ways of life at all.” He does not wish us to be haunted by this possibility (or to succumb to “intellectual entropy and moral paralysis” because of it) or to surrender our values and standards simply because we have been made familiar with different ones, but rather to acquire a feeling (and even a sympathy) for diversity so that we may consult other answers to common problems and other vocabularies in which to express them.

Local Knowledge reinforces the impression one has from Geertz’s other work that he is penetrating when trying to convey the color and movement of native “worlds”—what he calls the “curve” and “distinctive tonalities” of native existence—or wittily breaking down the banal or pretentious generalizations he finds in social science and elsewhere. One’s disappointment with the book lies in its lack of clarity and its failure to develop its central position. In his first book of essays, Geertz was advancing his theory of culture to a less than sympathetic audience, but as he explains in this new book, to a considerable extent that battle has now been won, and many audiences are ready to entertain the idea of an “interpretive” anthropology. One would expect, therefore, a fuller, more rounded statement and defense of that general approach in this book. But the reverse is true: the older book gave a clearer view than this one.

Instead of developing that view (or repudiating elements of it) these “further essays in interpretive anthropology” consist mostly of general reflections on widely dissimilar topics and take for granted certain elements of his earlier view while apparently repudiating others (without saying so). No doubt this inconsecutive character of Local Knowledge owes something to the origin of many of its chapters in addresses to learned societies. It suffers from the difficulty, as he so well expresses it, of sustaining “a coherent line of thought through a flurry of wildly assorted invitations, to talk here, to contribute there, to honor someone’s memory or celebrate someone’s career, to advance the cause of this journal or that organization, or simply to repay similar favors one has oneself asked of others.” But it is exacerbated by Geertz’s prose, which, for all its irreverence and occasional brilliance, is too often digressive and clotted with metaphor, tending to a self-conscious virtuosity that is at first immensely attractive but in the end forced and almost oppressive. Drugged into a kind of exhilaration by his racing sentences, which frequently couch criticisms of opposing views in burlesque treatments when a fuller discussion is more appropriate, one sooner or later realizes that one has no clear idea of his view; if he has presented a view, one must reread many scattered passages in order to stitch it together.

Geertz’s central thesis, as we have seen, is that culture is a general system of symbolic forms, and that these forms must be understood in their actual practice. But we never really learn what Geertz thinks a symbol is, or how things acquire symbolic value, or vary in symbolic intensity, let alone how symbols (or symbol systems) change, or are linked to broader aspects of social existence. We look to his earlier work for clarification, and there we find that he defines a symbol as “any object, act, event, quality, or relation which serves as a vehicle for a conception,” which is, of course, a somewhat vague conception itself. But in Local Knowledge he nowhere tells us whether he still holds this definition, leaving it to us to guess his current views on the subject. He speaks of “symbol systems,” but although this expression has become fashionable among philosophers and others in recent years, it is not clear what it really means.

For example, when Geertz claims that the symbols in our or another culture form a “system,” does he mean to imply that they possess the kind of order found in some mathematical symbolic systems in which clearly defined rules of transformation enable one to derive the full symbolic apparatus of the system from some small basic group? It would appear that this sense of “system” would be altogether too restrictive for Geertz’s purposes. Again, it may be that Geertz is claiming that in order to form a “system,” symbols would have to interact regularly or be sufficiently interdependent to form some sort of unity or whole, so that a change in one would affect the others: if symbol elements or symbols could be altered without a change in the others, the collection of symbols would hardly merit the name of a “system” in this sense.

But once more I do not think that this is Geertz’s understanding of “symbol system,” for it seems to imply that the symbols themselves causally interact, whereas this is generally not so. The written notes of music, or the numerals of mathematics, are symbols, but they do not causally influence one another. The composer or mathematician manipulates them according to the system he follows. What, then, might Geertz mean? Unless I am mistaken, he means that if symbols form a system they do not only denote objects in regular ways but also embody some set of common attitudes and values, and that when they are used, they “express” these attitudes and values.

But what gives him confidence that we, or anyone else, are “trafficking” in “symbol systems” in this sense? What kind of evidence would support such a claim? In our ordinary lives, I think, we encounter a fluid and not wholly determinate collection of particular symbols used in various and not always consistent ways, which suggests that while symbols may be used systematically by some people (or by the members of some part of a culture) it may yet be that our culture as a whole has nothing like the cohesiveness of a “symbol system” in the sense that I have attributed to Geertz. The symbols we use are frequently ambiguous both in public use and personal association—as in color symbolism, in which black can symbolize evil as well as the “beauty” of “black liberation”; or dependent for their meaning on circumstances or on one’s role or one’s group membership (bread and wine may symbolize nothing to a Catholic in a restaurant). Moreover, the symbols we use often change (sometimes radically) over time. And sometimes symbols are confused with signs, or function as both (darkening skies generally do not symbolize anything, but rather portend the imminent presence of something else, namely rain).

All this suggests that the difficulty of identifying symbolism in our culture (apart from the issue of whether our symbols form a “system”) is great enough to render one suspicious of easy attributions of something so inert as “symbol systems” to our or other cultures; and one is surprised that Geertz seems to do so without further clarification or methodological qualification.

Although it would be unfair to hold him responsible for the work of other ethnographers, we may use his example of the Yoruba in order to illustrate some of the obscurities that attach to his view of symbols. The Yoruba, he tells us, “associate line with civilization.” But what is the line that symbolizes civilization—an abstract line or some concrete instance of a line? Is just any drawing of a line a “symbolic action” for the Yoruba? Is a line slashed in a cheek one symbol and a line scratched in the earth a second symbol, or are these one symbol “used” in different ways? Is a line in the face symbolic if acquired by accident? What is their “symbol system” a system of?

The moment one trains one’s attention on Geertz’s use of “symbol” and “symbol system” and “symbolic action,” one is prompted to ask a host of such questions. But so far as I was able to tell, all that we learn in Local Knowledge about how to answer them is something along the lines of Geertz’s claim that analyzing symbol use as “social action” is “an exceedingly difficult business at which everyone from Kenneth Burke, J.L. Austin, and Roland Barthes to Gregory Bateson, Jurgen Habermas, and Erving Goffman has had some sort of pass.” We are not told what views these very different thinkers have held or whether they have clarified “symbolic action.”5

The same lack of clarity is found in Geertz’s discussion of the thesis that gives his book so much of its stimulus: his “interpretive turn.” When he wrote some years ago that he takes the “analysis” of culture to be “not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning,” or when he now writes that the “defining” feature of ethnographic analysis is “the schematization of social action so that its meaning can be construed in cultural terms,” or suggests that anthropologists “turn from trying to explain social phenomena by weaving them into grand textures of cause and effect to trying to explain them by placing them in local frames of awareness” (to take but three statements among many of their kind) what exactly does he mean?

Presumably Geertz does not mean to imply that anthropological investigations of culture should be confined exclusively to “interpretation,” for that would result in a factitious closure of inquiry. It is a commonplace that the “meaning” of an action to the actor may not coincide with its significance when considered in the light of what we know about human behavior; and there are numerous examples of proposed explanations of actions that make no reference to the actor’s own understanding of his action (and that indeed might be rejected by him). Thus, for example, Durkheim’s explanation of the conditions under which people will commit suicide (which, for all its flaws, remains of interest to students of social pathology) makes no reference to how suicides or would-be suicides construe their acts: it explains their actions as undertaken by them when social ties or bonds do not provide them with sufficient sources of attachment or control and their moral health is correspondingly weakened.

Or, to take another example, it has been argued that the postpartum taboo observed in some parts of the world can be explained less satisfactorily by the rationale offered for it by those who practice it (who might say, for example, that it is “immoral” to have postpartum sexual relations) than by what we know to be its role in prolonging the infant’s nursing period and protecting it from nutritional-deficiency diseases, or in protecting the mother from infection.

Or again, it may be that our “understanding” of the periodic depredations of one tribe on another is augmented not only by learning that the tribe members themselves construe their behavior as placation of a war god, but also by taking into account considerations that they may not know of or acknowledge—say, those that have been stressed by cultural ecologists like Julian Steward, whatever one thinks of the ambitious programs of research of these thinkers. Such work might lead us to believe that the wars coincide with crop failures or with population pressures that stimulate competition for scarce resources and thus in turn bring into existence militarism and conquest.

Criticism of those (like Lévi-Strauss, although he officially says otherwise) who do not act as if they are obliged to learn the “native point of view” may be just; for when we describe actions as insults or religious ceremonies or suicides, we thereby attribute certain beliefs to the actors. If we fail to identify these beliefs we might miss altogether the significance of the actions. But it would be equally objectionable to jump to the other extreme. The understanding of culture proceeds not only by acquiring familiarity with the “world” of the native, but also from asking whether the native point of view is true or not, what its sources are, and what consequences its acceptance has upon the native society, matters with which the natives themselves may not be conversant. We wish, for example, to know why natives hold the “symbol system” they do, and why this symbolism alters over time. This latter inquiry (to which such anthropologists as Victor Turner, Mary Douglas, and Raymond Firth have contributed) involves situating their myths, rituals, cults against the configuration of knowledge we have acquired about the psychology, biology, and sociology of human beings generally.

Perhaps, then, Geertz wishes to claim (as his remarks suggest) that his “interpretive” methods are especially promising in the effort to understand culture and that other methods, while they need not be repudiated, may be set aside. In some places indeed, Geertz seems to claim just this, on the ground that other, better known, methods have not succeeded. He writes, for example, that his proposal that “cultural phenomena should be treated as significative systems posing expositive questions” has become less alarming to social scientists in recent years, in part because of “intellectual deprovincialization” and in part because of the “growing recognition that the established approach to treating such phenomena, laws-and-causes social physics, was not producing the triumphs of prediction, control, and testability that had for so long been promised in its name.”

But this argument seems to me to be mistaken. For one thing, as Geertz makes clear elsewhere in his book, it rests on a caricature of “laws-and-causes” method. He writes that “mainstream” social science, in seeking the laws of “social physics,” has held to such ideas as “the strict separation of theory and data, the ‘brute fact’ idea; the effort to create a formal vocabulary of analysis purged of all subjective reference, the ‘ideal language’ idea; and the claim to moral neutrality and the Olympian view, the ‘God’s truth’ idea.” But apart from what some social scientists infatuated with a “philosophical reconstruction” of social science method (such as crude behaviorism or reductionism) have said or written, which social scientists really ever adhered to such methodological restrictions in practice?

As Geertz himself might agree, adherence to these views is not revealed in the practice of many contemporary anthropologists. But was it revealed in the practice of older anthropologists like S. F. Nadel or Gregory Bateson or Max Gluckman, or even of still older ones like Franz Boas or A. L. Kroeber either? It seems to me that none of these anthropologists needs to be interpreted as manifesting in his practice a belief in “brute data” or “ideal languages” or “moral neutrality” (despite the emphasis some of them may have placed on “value-free” science, which is in fact a form of moral non-neutrality). Accordingly, it is not clear among whom the views Geertz describes were “established.”

Nor is it fair to link “laws-and-causes” methods with the search for the laws of “social physics” and then suggest that the failure to find such laws somehow supports the espousal of “interpretive” methods. “Laws-and-causes” methods seek to discover the conditions of dependence between events through controlled observation and inquiry. “Social physics” presumably seeks laws distinctive of society or culture (of the kind that Radcliffe-Brown or Malinowski or “culturologists” like Leslie White hoped to find). The two are not the same, and giving up the search for “general laws of culture” does not provide any substantial reasons for surrendering the search for regularities and laws in the sphere of human action and behavior (let alone endorsing “interpretive” methods). Franz Boas, who began his career with a firm belief that cultural laws existed, came in time to suspect that they did not; yet he did not give up “laws-and-causes” methods, or the search for laws of human behavior.

Indeed, as Geertz suggests, there may be no interesting general laws of culture, or of anthropology, to discover. But that in itself does not provide good grounds for espousing “interpretive” methods in cultural anthropology; for it may be that such knowledge as we discover about human behavior and action may still be pertinent to the explanation of cultural phenomena when placed at the service of anthropologists. There is, of course, no way in advance of inquiry to claim with confidence that any “method” is “promising” or “obstructive,” but Geertz has not shown that the interpretive methods he recommends are uniquely suited to contributing to our understanding of culture. Other methods (such as that of “laws-and-causes”) may usefully cooperate with those he espouses, and may perhaps contribute to our understanding of the “sense” of actions (as when, for example, we use controlled observation to find out whether or not one thing, a flag or a line or a bone, is regularly taken by members of a tribe to stand for another thing).

For these reasons and others, Geertz is best understood as holding that his interpretative methods constitute one way among others for acquiring one form of “understanding” among others. Anthropologists and social scientists might well acknowledge that this is an unexceptionable position, but there are difficulties in appraising the precise value of these methods because it is unclear what kind of results we might expect from them.

Consider Geertz’s celebrated “reading” of the Balinese cockfight as a “cultural document.” According to him, these fights are “at least as important a revelation of what being a Balinese ‘is really like’ ” as Balinese art or social organization or mythology. Usually held in a large square in the late afternoon, and lasting some three or four hours, the fights are made up of nine or ten matches between cocks, and are played in accordance with “extraordinarily elaborate and precisely detailed rules,” written down in palm-leaf manuscripts. The participants are always men—women are “totally and expressly excluded”—and usually are (at least in major fights) “solid citizenry around whom local life revolves.” For these men, says Geertz, the cocks are “symbolic expressions or magnifications of their owner’s self.” But they are also expressions of what the Balinese (who are “oblique, subdued, controlled, masters of indirection and dissimulation” and “shy to the point of obsessiveness of open conflict”) revile, namely animality.

Cockfight wagering is complex: “there is the single axial bet in the center between the principals, and there is the cloud of peripheral ones around the ring between members of the audience.” On the basis of an analysis of these central and peripheral bets, Geertz claims that cockfighting for the Balinese is not like roulette for many of us. It is rather often a form of “deep play,” play that seems on the surface irrational to engage in because the stakes are so high, but that is persisted in because, although “the amounts of money are great, much more is at stake than material gain: namely, esteem, honor, dignity, respect—in a word, though in Bali a profoundly freighted word, status.” In the cockfight owners and their backers “put their money where their status is.” The cock is the medium for placing their status on the line, and for those who are able to bet considerable sums, “what is really going on in a match is something rather closer to an affaire d’honneur…than to the stupid, mechanical crank of a slot machine.” For Geertz, then, the cockfight is “a mock war of symbolical selves” conducted through a “simulation of the social matrix” in which its devotees live, and the deep cockfight is “a dramatization of status concerns.”

Geertz’s “reading” of the cockfight is a composite pageant of erudition and insight, and is deservedly famous as an example of what skilled “interpretive anthropology” can be. But it displays not only the imaginative use of interpretation by Geertz but also some shortcomings of that method. For his thesis about the cockfight is not simply that the Balinese see the fight as “a mock war of symbolical selves” or as “a dramatization of status concerns.” His central claim is that it is a mock war that is “read” by the Balinese as “saying” something about their society in general. The fights, he says, are a “medium” through which the Balinese “reflect” on themselves and their society. “Every people, the proverb has it, loves its own form of violence,” he writes, and “the cockfight is the Balinese reflection on theirs: on its look, its uses, its force, its fascination.” The fight is a form of self-interpretation:

What sets the cockfight apart from the ordinary course of life, lifts it from the realm of the everyday practical affairs, and surrounds it with an aura of enlarged importance is…that it provides a metasocial commentary upon the whole matter of assorting human beings into fixed hierarchical ranks and then organizing the major part of collective existence around that assortment. Its function, if you want to call it that, is interpretive: it is a Balinese reading of Balinese experience, a story they tell themselves about themselves.

Geertz presents much evidence in favor of this view, and claims that the Balinese are themselves “quite aware” of this evidence: “fighting cocks, almost every Balinese I have ever discussed the subject with has said, is like playing with fire only not getting burned. You activate village and kingroup rivalries and hostilities, but in ‘play’ form, coming dangerously and entrancingly close to the expression of open and direct interpersonal and intergroup aggression…but not quite, because, after all, it is ‘only a cockfight.’ ”

But how far does this go toward establishing his view? We may agree that it shows that some Balinese view the fights as a means of “playing with fire,” of “activating” rivalries and hostilities without “getting burned”—something which is no doubt prized in a society “shy to the point of obsessiveness of open conflict.” But that the Balinese see the fights as an occasion for acting out such hostilities in “play” form is quite different from claiming that they “read” the fights as analyses or interpretations of their social order, or that the fights are “reflections” on violence or on “the whole matter of assorting human beings into fixed hierarchical ranks and then organizing the major part of collective existence around that assortment.”

It is one thing to claim that devotees of the cockfight attribute deep significance to it because it serves as an opportunity to express and dramatize their individual status conflicts and rivalries; it is another to describe the cockfight as a “commentary” by the Balinese on the social order and organization that makes these conflicts possible. The latter claim, which makes the Balinese seem to be attending the cockfight as social analysts, Geertz does not seem to have established. Thus, for all its suggestiveness, Geertz’s view of the cockfight as a “metasocial” story the Balinese tell themselves about themselves and their society is open to some doubt, and this doubt is based, not on whether his informants were reliable or representative members of Balinese society or not, but rather on the lack of clear and cogent evidence for his conjecture about the “native point of view” of the cockfight.

Such confusion need not lead of course to general skepticism toward “interpretive anthropology,” but it does raise the question of what kinds of critical restraints or regulations must be placed on the activity of “interpreting” cultural “texts” if we are to be able to distinguish clearly between what is “in” the “text” and what is supplied by the “reader,” and if we are to be able to have good reasons for believing that particular examples of such interpretations really do capture how other peoples “represent themselves to themselves.”

This incomplete and obscure aspect of “interpretive anthropology” deserves the attention of those who endorse Geertz’s “interpretive turn” (or his claim that “mainstream social science” methods are inadequate to the job of cultural “translation”). But it must also concern those who agree with him that the need to develop means of understanding other cultures is not merely a question of which school of social scientific method is correct, but one of imperative practical importance now and in the future, as different political, legal, and moral universes arise and multiply in unforeseen ways through contact with one another, instead of fusing or settling into some predictable pattern of development.

This Issue

March 15, 1984