Clifford Geertz: (19262006)
A. Mentors/training/intellectual tradition
Born in San Francisco in 1926, he was educated at both Antioch and Harvard.
He received his Ph.D. in 1956 (and an Honorary LL.D. added to it in 1974).
He studied with Talcott Parsons, during graduate school.
Stable job history: he went from assistant professor to full professor at the
University of Chicago from 1960 to 1970, then moved to the Institute for
Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where he remained.
He was one of the founding members of that Institute’s Department of Social
He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1973.
B. Principal geographical and historical concerns
C. Principal thematic concerns
Unlike Harris or Turner, Geertz is not associated with any single or focal set of
Geertz wants us to understand a culture in its own terms.
He rejects the view that culture can best be understood through grand theory.
Geertz’s is a search for meaning, for explication – indeed, literary explanation.
(On “thick description” of human behavior): Finding and explicating these
intentions is the role of the ethnographer, who in the process sharpens his major
tool, the concept of culture.
Geertz stresses the social character of thought and the idea that to understand how
people think, we need to study how they act during the course of ‘social events’.
D. Attitude toward modern culture
Intellectual stagnation within anthropology and the study of religion. [CG 88] II. Method/Mode of Operation
Mediation through symbols
model “of” culture
model “for” reality
(On understanding a culture): To do that, we must understand its complexities,
subtleties, and nuances.
Reading Geertz suggests archaeology: a culture is exposed and explicated layer
by layer until a mental image of it appears to the reader.
(On understanding a culture): He says that the best approach to further
development of the concept is by attacking specific problems. Such a method
refines, rejuvenates, and keeps the concept viable.
Interpretation is the name of the tool he uses to accomplish the goal of excavating
“Thick description” (a notion he borrowed from the philosopher Gilbert Ryle,
who also had a profound effect on British anthropology of the 1950’s). It takes
into account the fact that any aspect of human behavior has more than one
“The anthropological study of religion is therefore a twostage operation: first, an
analysis of the system of meanings embodied in the symbols which make up the
religion proper, and second, the relating of these systems to socialstructural and
psychological processes’. [H.M.Jr. 201] III. Theory/Presuppositions
A. Definition of “religion”
He believes, with Max Weber and Durkheim, that a human being is suspended in
a web of significances that he has himself created. [PB&MG 530]
(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 (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic. [H.M.Jr 19]
B. Understanding of human nature
Humans work through mediating between symbols and reality.
Symbols provide a basis for human cultural act