Geertz also dead


November 1, 2006
Clifford Geertz, Cultural Anthropologist, Is Dead at 80

Correction Appended

Clifford Geertz, the eminent cultural anthropologist whose work focused on interpreting the symbols he believed give meaning and order to people’s lives, died on Monday in Philadelphia. He was 80 and lived in Princeton, N.J.

The cause was complications after heart surgery, according to an announcement by the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where he had been on the faculty since 1970.

Best known for his theories of culture and cultural interpretation, Mr. Geertz was considered a founder of interpretive, or symbolic, anthropology. But his influence extended far beyond anthropology to many of the social sciences, and his writing had a literary flair that distinguished him from most theorists and ethnographers.

He won a National Book Critics Circle Award for “Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author” (1988), which examined four of his discipline’s forebears: Bronislaw Malinowski, Ruth Benedict, E. E. Evans-Pritchard and Claude Lévi-Strauss.

Drawing on history, psychology, philosophy and literary criticism, Mr. Geertz analyzed and decoded the meanings of rituals, art, belief systems, institutions and other “symbols,” as he defined them.

“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 interpretive one in search of meaning,” he wrote in his 1973 book, “The Interpretation of Cultures” (Basic Books). The Times Literary Supplement called the book one of the 100 most important since World War II.

Mr. Geertz also wrote voluminously on his fieldwork in Indonesia and Morocco. In one of his most widely cited essays, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” included in “The Interpretation of Cultures,” he analyzed the kinship and social ties that are constructed, emphasized and maintained in this form of ritual “deep play” as if they were “an assemblage of texts.”

In his writings, Mr. Geertz drew a careful distinction between culture and social structure, differentiating himself from functionalists like Lévi-Strauss, who believed that rituals, institutions and other aspects of a culture could be best understood by the purposes they serve.

Whereas social structure embraces economic, political and social life and its institutional forms, Mr. Geertz said, culture is “a system of meanings embodied in symbols” that provide people with a frame of reference to understand reality and animate their behavior. Culture, he argued, fills the gap between those things that are biological givens for our species and those we need to function in a complex, interdependent and changing world.

In short, in the Geertz formulation, the question to ask about cultural phenomena is not what they do, but what they mean. Mr. Geertz also argued against the idea that one could define the essence of humanity across all cultures.

“The notion that the essence of what it means to be human is most clearly revealed in those features of human culture that are universal rather than in those that are distinctive to this people or that is a prejudice that we are not obliged to share,” he wrote in 1966. “It may be in the cultural particularities of people — in their oddities — that some of the most instructive revelations of what it is to be generically human are to be found.”

Mr. Geertz was also deeply concerned about the anthropologist’s role and the discipline’s methodology. Recognizing the colonialist and Western heritage of anthropology, he believed that it was difficult for anyone from one culture to represent another accurately and meaningfully. He noted that anthropologists were hardly passive, objective observers, but rather individual creators of narratives, with their own voice.

Arguing that ethnographic reality does not exist apart from anthropologists’ written versions of it, he said that cultures and peoples should speak for themselves, with anthropologists learning to “converse with them” and interpret them.

In his book “Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology” (Basic Books, 1983), Mr. Geertz also addressed the question of whether someone from one culture can objectively understand another.

For him, the anthropologist’s task is to use what he called thick description to interpret symbols by observing them in use. Therefore the anthropologist must be both empirically rigorous and a savvy interpreter, akin to a psychoanalyst. In 1972 he wrote that “cultural analysis is (or should be) guessing at meanings, assessing the guesses and drawing explanatory conclusions from the better guesses.”

Mr. Geertz’s elaborate theorizing and his later doubts about the limits of anthropological knowledge left some scholars nonplussed. As Jonathan Benthall, writing in The New Statesman in 1995, said: “He disappoints some colleagues because he comes up with no overarching theories.”

Clifford Geertz was born on Aug. 23, 1926, in San Francisco, the son of Clifford and Lois Geertz. During World War II, he served in the Navy.

He received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1950 from Antioch College, where a professor urged him to pursue his interests in values by studying anthropology. He went on to the social relations department at Harvard, where he studied with the anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn and the sociologist Talcott Parsons, receiving his Ph.D. in 1956.

Around this time, he did the first of a half dozen fieldwork stints in Indonesia, spending 1952 to 1954 in the central Javanese village of Pare. His early work on Indonesia combined aspects of more conventional ethnography and history with concerns about economic and political development in the wake of decolonization.

“The Religion of Java” (1960), his first major work, is an ethnographic description of Javanese religion. “Agricultural Involution” (1963) takes a big-picture view of modernization and economic development in the wake of Indonesian independence, while “Peddlers and Princes” (1963) focuses on development from the more microscopic level of the towns of Modjokuto in Java and Tabanan in Bali. A century of social development in Modjokuto is the subject of “The Social History of an Indonesian Town” (1965).

“Kinship in Bali” (1975), written with his first wife, the anthropologist Hildred Storey, posited “an underlying order in Balinese kinship practices” in the cultural realm of symbols, patterns and ideas, despite differences in practices, or social structure, in different parts of the island.

“Negara: The Theater State in 19th Century Bali” (1981) examined the nature of royal families in tiny pre-colonial south Balinese kingdoms, while challenging the “power-centered tradition of political theory from Machiavelli and Hobbes to Marx.

Mr. Geertz’s marriage to Ms. Storey, who accompanied him on some of his early fieldwork, ended in divorce in 1982. She is a professor emeritus in the department of anthropology at Princeton. He is survived by his wife, Karen Blu, an anthropologist whom he married in 1987; his children from his first marriage, Erika Reading of Princeton, and Benjamin, of Kirkland, Wash.; and two grandchildren.

After beginning his academic career as a research associate and instructor at Harvard, Mr. Geertz spent two years in California. From 1958 to 1959, he was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences in Palo Alto; he was later an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. From 1960 until 1970, Mr. Geertz taught at the University of Chicago, becoming a full professor in 1964. He joined the Institute for Advanced Study in 1970 as its first Professor of the Social Sciences and from 1978 to ’79 taught at Oxford University.

Because of political turmoil in Indonesia, Mr. Geertz later turned his attention to Morocco, where he began doing fieldwork in the ancient village of Sefrou in 1963, returning five more times over the course of his career.

Profoundly influenced by his fieldwork there, he honed his comparative and historical approach in “Islam Observed” (1968), which the anthropologist Edmund Leach praised as “a highly insightful comparison between Islam as interpreted by Indonesians and Islam interpreted by Moroccans.”

By the end of his career, Mr. Geertz had grown discouraged about the ability of social science to generalize or develop sweeping theories, concluding that circumstances are too different among cultures, across time, and within societies. At the same time, he was heartened by the what he called the deprovincialization of anthropology, as the profession came to embrace ever more Asian, Middle Eastern and other non-Western scholars.

In his 1995 memoir, “After the Fact: Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist,” Mr. Geertz eloquently meditated on his field work and academic career, concluding that anthropology is “an excellent way, interesting, dismaying, useful and amusing, to expend a life.”

Correction: Nov. 2, 2006

Because of an editing error, an obituary yesterday about the cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz referred incorrectly in some copies to the Institute for Advanced Study, where he was on the faculty. While it is in Princeton, N.J., it is not at Princeton University or part of it.

Clifford Geertz
Virtuoso cultural anthropologist
Published: 03 November 2006

Clifford Geertz, anthropologist: born San Francisco 23 August 1926; Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley 1958-60; Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of Chicago 1960-61, Associate Professor 1962-64, Professor 1964-70; Professor of Social Science, Institute for Advanced Study 1970-2000, Harold F. Linder Professor of Social Science 1982-2000 (Emeritus); married 1948 Hildred Storey (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1981), 1987 Karen Blu; died Philadelphia 30 October 2006.

Clifford Geertz was the foremost anthropologist of the past 40 years and perhaps the first of his trade to become world-famous. His copious works first supplemented, then superseded the mighty labours of the founding fathers of the discipline, Bronislaw Malinowski and, from England, A.R. Radcliffe-Brown and E.E. Evans-Pritchard. It was indeed a founding mother, Margaret Mead, who taught him and his first wife, Hildred, all she knew about Bali, thereby launching Geertz on to the tiny island which he turned into half of his world-historical subject-matter.

He was born in 1926 to parents who divorced when he was three, whereat he was promptly dispatched to the care of "Nana", a 60-year-old foster-mother living precariously through the Great Depression in the infertile hills of northern California. Geertz went off to a two-room, two-teacher village school, learning early, as he said, that his "brightness" was his only passport out. At 17, under-age but indisputably bright, he volunteered for the navy as an electronic technician and sailed for two years on the USS St Paul, saved in the nick of time from the certain-to-be-slaughterous invasion of Japan in August 1945 by the successful detonation of Little Boy.

Home to the magnificent GI Bill which paid for servicemen's education, Geertz, wanting to write, read literature at Antioch College, Ohio, memorised everything, and, by way of the one inspiring teacher we all so urgently need at 20 (in his case one George Geiger), discovered American pragmatism and Oxford philosophy. Taking both to heart alongside Shakespeare and William Faulkner, in 1950 Geertz took a bursary at Harvard's Department of Social Relations, dedicated to world improvement, liked Talcott Parsons, admired Clyde Kluckhohn, met Margaret Mead, learned Javanese at top speed, and in 1952, "malarial and diffident", began the first of the four books he wrote in and about Java.

The Religion of Java (1960) dominates the quartet - the others being Agricultural Involution (1963), Peddlers and Princes (1963), and The Social History of an Indonesian Town (1965). In The Religion of Java Geertz began to carve from the massive stones out of which the discipline of anthropology was accustomed to build kinship and customary structures the highly distinctive, far more wrought and slender figures with which he came to symbolise human effort and existence.

These were substantial volumes, and yet it has always seemed that Geertz was happiest in the room-sized accommodations of the essay, holding at poise the concision and pointedness of good journalism with the careful reading the literary critic can give his or her chosen poems in only 25 or so pages.

However this may be, Geertz went to Bali in 1957 and attended the Balinese cockfight; the result was the most famous single essay in anthropology, "Deep Play: notes on the Balinese cockfight", a great work of comic literature in its own right, and an irresistible example of how to understand highly peculiar but everyday life as "a constellation of enshrined ideas". Turning his celebrated slogan "thick description" to account, Geertz presented the cockfight, its rearing, clattering, blood-spattered protagonists, its demented gambling, its monomaniac, "cock-crazy" priestlings, its illegality and open secrecy as "a dramatic shape, a metaphoric content, a social context", a tale told by the Balinese to themselves about how they (mostly) do not want themselves to be.

This is Geertz's definition of culture: "stories we tell ourselves about ourselves". In his two classic collections, in print since they came out, The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) and Local Knowledge (1983), he promulgated the meaning of his aphorism. Never slow to admonish social science attempts to be like the natural sciences, objective, numerical, factual, positive, Geertz was intent upon a vision excellently funny, one which stands upon that queasy imbalance at which one knows at once the reassuring likeness to oneself and the unnerving unlikeness to anything one can recognise in Other Peoples.

To bring out this instability he ran together, as he said in one of his notorious lists, the small change of half-a-dozen cultures, incised (living) human skulls, frescoed church walls, regal processions in Elizabethan London and the Moroccan mountains, street poetry competitions in Algeria and - refusing the big T of Theory - sought always, in his noble phrase, "to locate in the tenor of their setting the sources of their spell'.

After Bali, intent upon comparativism, Geertz left in 1963 for Sefrou in Morocco, where in a dazzling display of virtuoso interpretation he sorted the complexities of the market (the souk), its genealogy, the church which regulated it, and its strictly unwritten system of exchange, borrowing, security and honour. Meaning and Order in Moroccan Society came out in 1979, by which time Geertz had long since become the first social scientist to be enthroned at the celestial American headquarters of maths and physics, the Institute for Advanced Study, on the edge of Princeton township.

He remained there from 1970 until his death. In 1980 Princeton published, so to say, Geertz's Leviathan, his last full-scale anthropological work, Negara: the theatre-state in nineteenth-century Bali. It is astounding how directly it speaks from its exotic locale to Washington, London, Beijing or Tehran.

Dismissing those halflings who suppose that they have rumbled power by finding it hiding under everything, Geertz shows that a polity always dramatises itself in the ways it quite literally acts and acts out "a politics taking place everywhere", a drama in which "the real is as imagined as the imaginary". This is the poetics of power.

He left that lesson to do its work and was much reproached by what he called the "moral hypochondriacs" of the day for not apologising for this or that anthropological or American offence. He went on writing copiously, settling accounts in his courteous way with the first generation of anthropologists in Works and Lives (1988), autobiographising his ways of thought in After the Fact (1995) - a characteristic pun. Later much in demand as a global sage of our times (no more than his deserts), he republished his prescient little 1968 fable Islam Observed, as well as a new collection, Available Light (2000).

The last essay in that volume is called "World in Pieces", and it is indicative that, however much in bits that world may be, he commends to us the truths that it is still our common home, its politics awful but "what there is", and that it is the duty of scholars and intellectuals to keep up good hope.

Clifford Geertz gave the human sciences in general a quite new idiom. He made them capable of speaking seriously about life and death without such big words having to be put in the care of world history. If you want to put it like that, he helped recover its lost good name his own country's tradition in the use made of those same sciences on behalf of human order and freedom.

Fred Inglis

また、Geertzの自伝的講演”A Life of Learning”*1を見つけたが、今読む暇はなし。