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Clifford Geertz

Clifford Geertz was born August 23rd, 1926 in San Francisco.  His parents divorced when he was three and he was raised by a distant relative in rural California.  In 1943, at the age of seventeen, Geertz volunteered for the U.S. Navy, in which he served for two years (1943-1945).  After the end of World War Two, like many other servicemen, he went to college in 1946 with funding from the GI Bill.  At Antioch College, English was Geertz’s first major, as he wanted to become a writer.  However, he found English too “constraining” and became a philosophy major, where almost any class he took would count toward his major (Geertz 2000a:6).  Geertz graduated from Antioch in 1950 with an A.B. in Philosophy (Inglis 2000:3-6).

Subsequently, Geertz attended graduate school at Harvard University, earning his Ph.D. in anthropology from the Department of Social Relations in 1956.  Both his undergraduate education and graduate education emphasized the humanities.  The Department of Social Relations placed cultural anthropology next to psychology and sociology, not next to the traditional partners of cultural anthropology: archeology and physical anthropology.  The deep readings in the humanities influenced Geertz greatly.  It is to these influences this essay will turn to next.

Points of Reaction and Early Works

Geertz was especially influenced by two thinkers.  The first is Ludwig Wittgenstein. As Geertz wrote:

His (Wittgenstein’s) attack upon the idea of a private language, which brought thought out of its grotto in the head into the public square where one could look at it, and his proposal of “forms of life” as (to quote one commentator) the “complex of natural and cultural circumstances which are presupposed in . . . any particular understanding of the world,” seem almost custom designed to enable the sort of anthropological study I, and others of my ilk, do. (Geertz 2000b:xii)


One can see the goal of Geertz’s theory (understanding others’ understandings) and his methodology (examining public meanings, or symbols) in this single statement.

The second influence is Max Weber.  Geertz often credits Weber with the invention of an interpretative social science (e.g. Geertz 1973f:5) and clearly sees his own work as interpretative social science.  But Weber’s use of culture, religion and ideals to explain modernization was also strongly present in Geertz’s earliest anthropological work.  Weber’s influence can be seen in Agricultural Involution (1963a) and Peddlers and Princes (1963b).  As both use a Weberian framework to examine to examine modernization in Indonesia, I will only give details on the latter.

Peddlers and Princes (1963b) is an attempt to examine cultural factors of economic development through an examination of entrepreneurs in two Indonesian towns.  After a description of economic development in both towns, Geertz concludes that there are six (“tentative”) generalizations about economic development, including “1. Innovative economic leadership (entrepreneurship) occurs in a fairly well defined and socially homogenous group” (Geertz 1963b:147) and “4. On the ideological level the innovative group conceives of itself as the main vehicle of religious and moral excellence within a generally wayward, unenlightened or heedless community” (Geertz 1963b:150).  The insistence that most knowledge is local is also absent from this work – Geertz attempts to generalize the cultural factors that explain the conditions before rapid economic development.  This observation is made not to fault an old master for changing his mind, but to point out an evolution in Geertz’s thinking.

One of the paradigms Geertz was reacting to was British Functionalism.  Ritual and Social Change (1973e:142-169), one of Geertz’s first articles (originally published in 1959), is an argument against a static functionalist approach and for a dynamic approach that takes into account the symbolic cultural forms as well social structure.  In this article, Geertz examines how a funeral for a boy was unsuccessful because religious symbols and political symbols had become intertwined and did not match the social structure in the transitional period that Indonesia was going through.  Geertz convincingly argues that Indonesian culture was not a system in balance, nor was it “disintegrating”.  The social and cultural systems were changing, and Geertz analyzes this through an examination of symbolic meanings through time.

Geertz’s later emphasis on a semiotic approach to culture can also be seen as reaction against the structuralism of Levi-Strauss and others.  While Levi-Strauss, like Geertz was interested in symbolic analysis, Geertz differed with Levi-Strauss in how symbols should be examined.  Geertz was not interested in symbols for their own sake, but in how symbols could explain social processes.  This dissatisfaction can be seen in Geertz’s statement “Whatever, or wherever, symbol systems ‘in their own terms’ may be, we gain empirical access to them by inspecting events, not by arranging abstracted entities into unified patterns” (Geertz 1973f:17).  Symbols get their meaning not from their relationships with each other, but from the roles they play in people’s lives.

Later Theoretical Contributions

As the 1960s passed, Geertz developed an exclusive focus on culture, and its place as an anthropological object.  The following sections will examine Geertz’s notion of culture, ethnography and some important conclusions of his thinking on culture and meaning.


Geertz’s theoretical contributions start with his definitions and descriptions of culture.  For Geertz, culture is “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and their attitudes toward life” (Geertz 1973d:89).  In an alternative (and more quoted) formulation, Geertz states, “Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretative in search of meaning” (Geertz 1973f:5).

Geertz, following Wittgenstein’s stance on language, believes that culture is not something that occurs in the heads of humans; “Culture is public, because meaning is” (Geertz 1973f:12).  Cognition is largely the same throughout humanity (Geertz 1973f:13), while the symbols that people use to communicate are different.  Symbols are not to be studied to gain access to mental processes, but as formations of social phenomena.  It is the anthropologist’s job to unravel the webs of meaning and interpret them.

Culture is also not a force or causal agent in the world, but a context in which people live out their lives (Geertz 1973f:14).  This goes back to Geertz’s early distinction between social structure and culture.  Culture is only the pattern of meanings embedded in symbols.  Social structure is the “economic, political, and social relations among individuals and groups” (Geertz 1973c:362).  Geertz does not dismiss the study of social structure, but takes culture to be his object of study.


Geertz’s second contribution is an examination of what ethnography is and what it does.  To paraphrase another well-quoted passage of Geertz’s, ethnography is an elaborate exercise in thick description (Geertz 1973f:6).  Thick description is a phrase that Geertz borrowed from Gilbert Ryle; it is set apart from thin description by the former’s attention to the meaning of actions.  In the classic example, one boy’s eye involuntarily twitches, while another boy winks.  The physical phenomena are the same, but a wink is the stuff of culture, whereas a twitch is not.  In researching a culture, the ethnographer must record the winks, not the twitches.

Ethnographies are also interpretations (Geertz 1973f:14).  “We begin with our own interpretations of what our informants are up to, or think they are up to, and then systematize those” (Geertz 1973f:15).  Ethnographies are not

Scientifically tested and approved hypotheses.  They are interpretations, or misinterpretations, like any others, arrived at in the same way as any others, and the attempt to invest them with the authority of physical experimentation is but methodological sleight of hand.  Ethnographic descriptions are not privileged, just particular: another country heard from.” (Geertz 1973f:23)


However, viewing ethnographical knowledge as interpretation does not require an accompanying view that what an ethnographer is recording is false or unfactual.  Geertz merely stresses that “although culture exists in the trading post, the hill fort, or the sheep run, anthropology exists in the book, the article, the lecture, the museum display, or sometimes nowadays, the film” (Geertz 1973f:16).  A good ethnography is an interpretation that gets to the heart of another culture, or a part of another culture, at a particular time.

Culture as “Text”

In Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight (1973a), Geertz develops his idea of reading cultural practices as “texts.”  Examining the cockfight as text enables Geertz to bring out an aspect of it that might otherwise go unnoticed: “its use of emotion for cognitive ends” (Geertz 1973a:449).  Going to cockfights is an emotional education for Balinese – it teaches and reinforces the emotions and reactions of Balinese culture in an external text.  Eventually, Geertz makes his general statement: “The culture of a people is an ensemble of texts, themselves ensembles, which the anthropologist strains to read over the shoulders of those to whom they properly belong” (Geertz 1973a:452).

Cultural Relativism

In his distinguished lecture, “Anti-Anti-Relativism” (1984), Geertz writes an article that only he could (or only he could get away with) – a polemic against anti-relativism.  This double negative is necessary due to the fact that “whatever cultural relativism may be or originally have been, it serves these days largely as a specter to scare us away from certain ways of thinking and toward others” (Geertz 1984:263).  The type of thinking anti-relativism is meant to scare anthropologists away from is a wishy-washy world where anything goes; however, relativism scares us away from provincialism.  The end result is a “choice of worries” (Geertz 1984:265).  Geertz thinks that provincialism is the greater danger.  Moreover, unlike anti-relativist stances, cultural relativism is not the product of a grand unifying theory, but the result of anthropological data (Geertz 1984:264).  As Geertz says

One cannot read too long about Nayar matriliny, Aztec sacrifice, the Hopi verb, or the convolutions of the hominid transition and not begin at least to consider the possibility that, to quote Montaigne again, “each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice…for we have no other criterion of reason than the example of idea of the opinions and customs of the country we live in. (Geertz 1984 264-265)

To this end, Geertz wants to end the debate on relativism and reorient anthropology’s focus on local anthropological data, not homogenizing theory; however, advocating a focus on the local, even if one does not ignore the global, is a relativist stance.

Religion as a CulturalSystem

Geertz does not only talk about theory in broad terms – he also delves into particular theory, such as the anthropology of religion.  In accordance with his emphasis on symbols, Geertz defines religion as “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” (Geertz 1973d:90).  Geertz then breaks down his definition to examine exactly what the study of religion as a cultural system should be.

The important aspect of symbols in this definition is that symbols are models – and importantly, both models of and models for (Geertz 1973d:93).  Systems of symbols function similarly; that is, systems of symbols act as models of reality and models for reality.

Religion also must establish something.  What this “something” is differs from culture to culture, but in each culture this “something” must make sense of the lives people are leading.  In addition, this something must be perceived as “uniquely realistic”; i.e., this feeling should be the ground-level interpretation of a culture.  A man may not be religious, but when a man needs to find meaning at its deepest level, religion will be the system of symbols he uses.

Applications of Theory

This essay will now turn to some of Geertz’s applications of the above ideas, focusing on the works that typify his later period, in which he has a semiotic view of culture.

Islam Observed (1968) is an attempt to “lay out a general framework for the comparative analysis of religion and to apply it to a study of the development of a supposedly single creed, Islam, in two quite contrasting civilizations, The Indonesian and the Moroccan” (Geertz 1968:v).  In this short work, Geertz traces the development of Islam in Indonesia and Morocco through key figures and symbols that explain the evolution of Islam in the two countries.  For example, Sunan Kalidjaga represents the “classical” form of Islam in Indonesia.  Kalidjaga is born into the royal culture of a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom and spends his early life gambling, drinking, and whoring.  After meeting a Muslim holy man with great spiritual power, Kalidjaga meditates (on the instructions of the holy man) for years.  When the holy man returns, he tells Kalidjaga that as a result of the latter’s meditations, he now knows more than the holy man.  To use Geertz’s words

He (Kalidjaga) had become a Muslim without ever having seen the Koran, entered a mosque, or heard a prayer – through an inner change of heart brought on by the same sort of yoga-like psychic discipline that was the core religious act of the Indic tradition from which he came…His redemption…was a self-produced inner state, a willed mood.  And his Islam, if that is what it should be called, was but a public faith he was assigned” (Geertz 1968:29)


Geertz uses the symbol of Kalidjaga to characterize Javanese Islam.  Although there are (obviously) other symbols that Javanese use to explain the island’s conversion period and classical form of Islam, it is important to note that Geertz finds Javanese culture (and meaning) through a symbol, and communicates it to another culture through the same symbol.

               Negara: The Theatre-State in Nineteenth-Century Bali (1980) is Geertz’s examination of, as promised, the state in nineteenth-century Bali.  This work asserts that, during this time period, the state in Bali was not held together by military force, but instead was a theatre-state which governed through spectacle.  Geertz uses his “model-of/model-for” paradigm to show that the state was both “the public dramatization of the ruling obsessions of the Balinese culture: social inequality and social pride” and “paradigmatic, not merely reflective, of social order. What it is reflective of, the priests declare, is supernatural order, ‘the timeless Indian world of gods’, upon which men should, in strict proportion to their status, seek to pattern their lives” (Geertz 1980:13).  To use the latter concept as an example, a Balinese king is both a model of divinity and a model of behavior for his subjects.  Thus, the king must perform in the theatre-state to display his divinity and to set an example of behavior.  Given the differences between the theatre-state and the political formations more familiar to Western readers, Geertz is ultimately setting a path to study how the political process itself is culturally shaped.



Clifford Geertz is probably the best-known anthropologist alive today.  He is one of the few anthropologists who is frequently cited outside, as well as inside, the discipline.  For those who find inspiration in his texts, and for those who only find vexation, Geertz continues to provoke thought regarding the nature of culture and ethnography.  While this essay is necessarily (woefully) incomplete, those seeking to find further stimulation from Geertz are urged to peruse the list below.

Select Bibliography

Geertz is an exceptionally prolific writer – however, most of his important articles can be found in compilations (e.g., The Interpretation of Cultures, Local Knowledge, Available Light), so only books will be listed here.

  • ·        The Religion of Java, Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1960.
  • ·        Agricultural Involution, the Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia,Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963.
  • ·        Peddlers and Princes, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963.
  • ·        Person, Time and Conduct in Bali: An Essay in Cultural Analysis, Yale Southeast Asia Program Cultural Report Series, No. 14, 1966.
  • ·        Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968.
  • ·        The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, New York: Basic Books,1973, 2000.
  • ·        (Editor), Myth, Symbol and Culture, New York: Norton, 1974.
  • ·        (with Hildred Geertz), Kinship in Bali, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975.
  • ·        (with Hildred Geertz and Lawrence Rosen), Meaning and Order in Moroccan Society, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
  • ·        Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth Century Bali, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.
  • ·        Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology, New York: Basic Books, 1983, 2000.
  • ·        After the Fact: Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist, Harvard University Press, 1995.
  • ·        Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics, Princeton University Press, 2000.



Geertz, Clifford

1963a    Agricultural Involution: the Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia. Berkeley: University of California Press.

1963b    Peddlers and Princes: Social Change and Economic Modernization in Two Indonesian Towns. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

1968      Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

1973a    Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight. In The Interpretation of Cultures. Pp. 412-453. New York: Basic Books.

1973b    The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

1973c    Person, Time, and Conduct in Bali In The Interpretation of Cultures. Pp. 360-411. New York: Basic Books.

1973d    Religion As a Cultural System. In The Interpretation of Cultures. Pp. 87-125. New York: Basic Books.

1973e    Ritual and Social Change: A Javanese Example In The Interpretation of Cultures. Pp. 142-169. New York: Basic Books.

1973f     Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture. In The Interpretation of Cultures. Pp. 3-30. New York: Basic Books.

1980      Negara: The Theatre-State in Nineteenth Century Bali. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

1984      Distinguished Lecture: Anti Anti-Relativism. American Anthropologist 86:263-278.

2000a    A Life of Learning. In Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics. Pp. 3-20. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

2000b    Preface. In Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics. Pp. x-xiv. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Inglis, Fred

2000      Clifford Geertz: Culture, Custom and Ethics. Cambridge: Polity Press.