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Lecture 6

SOC483Y1 Lecture Notes - Lecture 6: Historical Materialism, Verstehen, Reductionism

Course Code
Vanina Leschziner

of 4
SOC483Y1- October 19, 2011
Geertz similar to Weber’s approach – Weber saw the human as an animal suspended in webs of own
construction. Geertz saw the threads in the web as having meaning and tried to define- tried to search for
meaning- ultimate purpose of culture- Geertz was specific about sociology and sought the method of
sociology and found ethnography or “thick-note” taking – extensively descriptive- note-taking write
down what is going on as if it is a novel, diary, defined by intellectual effort in thick description
- Geertz looks at Gilbert Ryle- “the winking boy” – twitch or gesture, it is deliberate to impart
message based on socially established code, parody Point: the thin description would not be
able to describe hierarchal levels of abstraction, “simply be boy twitching eye in front of mirror”
Geertz’s own example of thick description, spent time in Morocco, does not describe Morocco from
outset long presentation that does not make sense at first meanings within symbolic action symbolic
significant within thick description make arguments whether culture is subjective or objective argument
made irrelevant- thus we need to know what is being signified by particular acts in the given situation.
Culture is not causal, but rather the context in which things can be intelligently described, we want to
develop initial tones and concepts by looking within particular context, or culture interprets concepts…
Anthropologist is apparently an active agent… we want meaning based in a specific context
Geertz wants to find “minding” no universal applications
Anthropologists tried to take micro and turn into macro which causes macro experimental problems
thus he provides things to be aware of…
Ex: protest- as natural social experiment is flawed because you cannot control a riot cannot say you
identified specific variables
Similarity with Geertz? They are both looking for meaning, speaking to importance of meaning on
social structure
Sahlins challenges materialist approach to capitalism
- He would challenge a material world concept
- He challenges the historical materialist argument, and believes they made an essential mistake-
that they can separate into material aspects and social need to get along
- Historical materialist analysis ignore unity of culture, ignorant of reason imposed in society
believe nature is a deterministic force and society based on personal interests but this separation
ignores culture as itself having symbolic meaning (According to Sahlins) which could potentially
define personal interest
- Nature : realm of possibilities
- Culture: actualization of possibilities, where meaning comes in, once actualized it takes on a life
of its own, takes on a form, meaning = thus society can react against it culture responds based
on earlier instances taken from realm of possibilities…
- Discounts Western culture as unique so what makes it unique? What makes it distinct from
other cultures?
- What is the dominant site of symbolic production?! this is key to understanding
- Geertz and others claimed each culture is different it is hard to understand another cultures
gesture if we are not part of it or do not know it but it is still possible he took the viewpoint of
those Native to the culture
- Geertz and Durkheim sit in different worlds- perhaps associate with Marx, surely Weber
Geertz- good humour, not a grand theorist, recognizes inconsistencies, knows cultural interpretation
cannot produce universal theory, we will always remain close to the ground, and we generalize within a
When we deal with culture, you will never really find origin- you can never really find the answer, instead
look at what we can learn this is because questions of origin are difficult. Culture changes slowly, we
come into a society with already symbolic meanings, it is hard to figure out where it all started…
If Sahlins is stressing so much the nature of cultural symbolic meanings in capitalism, it is a reaction to
Marxism. He would not really disagree with Marx, there is choice constrained by material conditions,
In Anthropology, Marxism was present, not much in sociology here
Two big trends in Anthropology
1. Marxism- Sahlins argues against them
2. Functionalism- Geertz argues against them
Anthropologists made conclusions on primitive and Western cultures Western cultures first
argued better, but then argued no different Sahlins argues against the other end of pendulum
and argument there is no difference between the cultures.
According to Sahlins, Western society and symbolic meanings does not always have the context of
economy, sometimes it could be site of production or kinship
Sahlins- the economy in capitalism became very important but that does not mean there is pure rationality
and instrumentality at realm of economy it just means our symbolic meanings come from that rather than
kinship thus meanings come from different places!
Ex: why men wear pants and women skirts- 1950s workforce women wear pants due to work thus
depends on symbolic meanings coming from the site of production
The sites most important for a social organization*
- Ex. Small town- what matters? = kinship, social connections, family as Durkheim saw, from
those social relations we get meaning
- Now meanings come from the way the economy is organized, thus different from when kinship
was the source-the way we guide our actions comes from the organizations. Thus it is not
materialist based
- Sahlins is not very clear nor straight forward
- Sahlins agrees with Marx to a large extend even though he says he does not, he argues against
those reductionist Marxist’s he had to deal with at the time he wrote… He agrees with Marx in
sense materialist conditions limit our choices, our choices are founded on culture and not just
material conditions
o Ex. Horse not food in this culture… compared to cow
o Sahlins- it is about how we see things, possibilities given by nature but we also decide
what is possible vs. what is not
- Sahlins building on Weber… does Weber really debunk Marx, he agrees with many things but
also argues for material conditions
Sahlins says we cannot separate the material from the symbolic, to say the material or symbolic comes
first because they are both so interconnected and constitute one another in a way (one of Sahlins lessons)
- In a way Geertz says this too, he fights less against materialism than Sahlins but also makes a
similar statement, “is culture a set of practices or set of ideas, what is on the mind or is it a
gesture…” If something has meaning it holds meaning they are both fighting against forms of
Geertz and Sahlins- Known as creators of Interpretive Anthropology or Cultural Anthropology
- For both what matters is meaning, that is what we do when we do interpretive anthropology, try
to interpret meaning via looking at the culture…
- “verstehen” – Geertz mentions this word meaning “to understand” - method used by Weber, we
credit Weber with interpreting actions people do given their beliefs (Protestant Ethic)
- Geertz is saying the same, that is what we need to do, how we do it… is by looking at the context
- CONTEXT- this is culture according to Geertz, thus against ideas of culture as independent or
dependent variable- thus it is the context with set of meanings organized thus we need to
understand the culture
- Geertz writes more about methods how to go about doing this…
THE DEFINITION OF CULTURE- today is the first day we encounter readings about culture, central for
us… Geertz definition of culture is foundational. People will argue against it etc.
Pg. 5 Geertz’s definition of culture: not scientific, not a law, we interpret
- Cultural theory has 2 specificities:
1. Can’t go far from its data: can’t generalize and make a theory that applies to all cultures; can’t
create a universal theory of culture because culture is located within a particular context
- There is only so much that you can generalize
- Cultural theory cannot be too separated from the social environment “not its own master”