- Series: Basic Books Classics
- Paperback: 480 pages
- Publisher: Basic Books; F First Edition edition (May 19, 1977)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0465087302
- ISBN-13: 978-0465097197
- ASIN: 0465097197
- Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.3 x 1.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 26 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #90,669 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Interpretation Of Cultures (Basic Books Classics) F First Edition Edition
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"Clifford Geertz...is one of the most original and stimulating anthropologists of his generations....Geertz writes of issues that touch us all: The meaning of life and death...The problems of coping with a social order, the need to make sense out of it all....[He] also writes with style, verve, learning, and intelligence." -- Elizabeth Colson, Contemporary Sociology
From the Back Cover
'One of the most articulate cultural anthropologists of this generation. Geertz has consistently attempted to clarify the meaning of 'culture' and to relate that concept to the actual behavior of individuals and groups.' -Elizabeth Colson, Contemporary Sociology
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excerpt from book
"Let us, therefore, reduce our paradigm to a definition, for, although it
is notorious that definitions establish nothing in themselves, they do, if
they are carefully enough constructed, provide a useful orientation, or
reorientation of thought, such that an extended unpacking of them can
be an effective way of developing and controlling a novel line of inquiry.
They have the useful virtue of cxplicitness: they commit themselves
in a way discursive prose does not (which in this field, especially, is always
liable to substitute rhetoric for argument). Without further ado,then, a
(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."
The idea that social sciences were an analogue of natural sciences foundered on the rocks of the complexity of human interaction, and attempts to revise various social sciences have in turn been dashed against the entrenched interests of the older generation of social science mandarins. It's a bit of a sticky wicket, I suppose, but in day-to-day existence it means that you can't count on ANY of the social sciences for ANY insight into human behavior.
It's a sad state of affairs, and I analogize the state of social sciences to the state of the music industry: Rendered largely irrelevant by updates in technology, and not sure what to do about it AND free falling into oblivion in the mean time.
One of the revolutionariness in the shift away from positivism into an arena of "relativism" was Clifford Geertz. Geertz was a trailblazer in the social science of Anthropology, introducing sophisticated ideas about human interaction that had been developed by European philosophers like Wittgenstein, sociologists like Max Scheler and linguists like Saussure into the contemporary american discipline of Anthropology.
Writing mostly in obscure specialty journals until his Interpretation of Cultures was published 1977, Interpretation of Cultures was itself a collection of the articles he had written up that point, interspersed with bridging chapters. I think it's fair to say that the implications of Geertz's arguments vis a vis anthropological theory are still being addressed in the realm of professional scholarship, but I don't think he's really been absorbed into the "general reading public" in the way that he should be.
Unfortunately, Interpretation of Cultures is far from being a good book in and of its own right, and in a sense it contains a symbolic relevance that mirrors Geertz's own discussion about the role of symbols in religion. (now a "sub-field" of Anthropology called "Symbolic Anthropology.") I actually ended up skipping his 100 page discussion of the idea of ideology and it's relationship to the newly emerging nations of the 3d world in the 1960s- but his "thick description" trailblazer "Notes from A Balinese Cock Fight" and his chapters describing the role of symbols in religion seem as fresh today as they were then.
Interpretation of Cultures also contains a spirited anti-relativist tirade against his own predecessors: Ruth Benedicts "Patterns of Cultures" comes in for harsh criticism for being too mushy-mushy about describing the relationships between cultures as well as her description of cultures themselves. Geertz champions the deep, fully descriptive essay at the expense of making universal judgement about the whole of human kind based on observations of one culture.
Maybe this is why these ideas haven't really penetrated into the genpop: They don't provide any facile or easy answers about explaining human behavior, just suggestions on a method for making observations about phrasing the questions.
When it was first written in 1973, it was not just "leading-edge," but utterly revolutionary. Today however, in the era of full-fledged "cultural and ethnographic relativity," and in the interim, where symbols have earned a more prominent if not wholly respected cross-disciplinary cachet and place in social science scholarship, many of Professor Geertz's seminal ideas now seem strangely "quaint," but have in any case become as much a part of the mainstream as they have become controversial.
For my money, I prefer to judge this brilliant scholarship, on its own merits as well as against the standards of the times in which it emerged. I have yet to read a first chapter in an English book that is as well constructed and as informatively exciting as that in this book. Geertz, in drawing a bright line between what is universal and constant about man -- versus what is local, ever changing, and merely parochial about him -- attempts to answer the question: Just how important are human differences, and especially differences between cultures?
To answer it, the author moves with seamless facility across, between and well beyond the ossified boundaries of "normal" Anthropology, into myriad related and not so related, fields: such as sociology, philosophy, and the philosophy of science, linguistics, psychology and evolutionary biology, among several others. From their intellectual intersection, Geertz builds up a beautiful theory that culture is a system of shared symbols that allows its members to give shape and meaning to their respective experiences. In 1973, making the full connection between the significance of man's ability to weave meaning from webs of symbols and symbolisms, was not fully appreciated by most social scientists, and certainly (and curiously) even less appreciated by most Anthropologists, who arguably were "pulling up the rear" in developing interpretative theories upon which to base their mostly ethnographic practices.
More than anything else, Professor Greetz "changed the game" and arguably brought the field of Anthropology out of the "theoretical backwaters" and "dark ages" into a more updated and respected place in the academic sun. With his philosophy of science and general philosophy bent, he gave the field of Anthropology a new more exciting cachet and a deeper more meaningful theoretical resonance, mandate and motive: If one was to fully understand culture, he had to first be able to unravel, and then decipher the web of intertwined meanings of symbolic actions and interactions: that is to say he had to be able to understand the full meaning of the whole panoply of culturally determined symbols, totems, events, customs, rituals, rites, politics, etc. Even so, there was only a limited amount that an "outsider" could expect to learn, as culture remains mostly an enigmatic "interior" enterprise. At root, studying culture is about trying to formulate a basis upon which groups imagine.
To Geertz, (and this book is full of vivid and penetrating examples), cultural analysis thus reduces to that of sorting out the structures of significance discovered in ethnographic observations. And to him ethnography was about "thick description." (A term he borrowed from Gilbert Rile, but then went on to make famous). "Thick description" is about the nested relationships of interpretations: It is about "the interpretation of interpretation, ... of interpretation," ... ad infinitum.
Most of his critics argued that there was nothing inherently new about this approach. However, the way Geertz proposed to go about it was indeed new: The Anthropologist could no longer remain aloof and stand detached "at a distance" as an innocent observer in the ethnographic experiment. He had to, as it were, "be on the inside looking out," rather than "on the outside looking in." He had to not just "stick his head under the tent," but get inside the "bone marrow" of the culture and become an integral and interactive part of its practices. Doing this, of course raised it's own risks and a host of ancillary problems, which ever since have been the subject of much criticism. The least of these was not suffering the debilitating backlash of what is referred to as the "Heisenberg effect of social measurements." This effect arises whenever one attempts to judge or gauge the meanings of cultural symbolisms by interacting with them. In doing so, one runs the risk of contaminating the very experiment he is attempting to study.
But these concerns aside, Geertz's main contribution was not just in changing the way Anthropology was done, and the effect he had on shaping its theoretical outlook, but he also changed the way cultural habits were viewed, as well as the way theoretical language and concepts were formulated and used to describe them. For once human behavior is seen as symbolic action, questions of whether it is then just patterns of conduct or frames of mind or some mixture of the two, ceases to make sense. One is no longer able to reify culture as for instance, power, or a set of sociological mechanisms, or something from which behavior can be inferred and attributed, but as a context in which "thick description" takes place.