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…

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