Clifford Geertz - Interpretive Anthropology

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Social Anthropology Essay.

How would you summarize Clifford Geertz’s contribution to the field of anthropology?

Clifford Geertz

I have chosen this essay on Geertz, as the information I received in class I found interesting and wanted to elaborate on the knowledge I already had. In this essay, I will be discussing Geertz’s contributions to anthropology, and what I have interpreted these contributions as myself. When looking at Geertz’s ideas and theories in Anthropology, some of these ideas and theories will include his theories on the web of relations and symbolism. Geertz also took the idea of theory and came up with new ideas to develop it further. What Geertz was trying to do by looking at symbolism was trying to break down the complexity of meanings within cultures. Clifford Geertz was a man who believed that Anthropology should not be recognised as a factual science but as an interpretive science. He did not believe that there was such thing as social facts, so therefore we will see that Anthropology he understood as a way of interpreting people, by looking at things such as symbolism. He wanted to really understand what culture was all about and what it really meant, and when he had discovered this meaning he wanted to share it with the rest of the world. When looking at Geertz and his work, it cannot be done without discussing his idea of ‘thick description’. We will see how he studies ‘thick description’ as the underlying system of meanings of individuals and the local meanings of the person. It was also important to take into account when researching this essay the important comparisons between Geertz and other anthropologists, such as Emile Durkheim and Gilbert Ryle. One of the final things that Geertz contributes to Anthropology is his idea of ethnographic research methods. In this essay I will discuss Geertz’s ideas and beliefs which have contributed greatly to the study of Social Anthropology, and I hope to analyse his beliefs to the level which a great thinker like Geertz deserves.

Clifford Geertz was born in 1926 in San Francisco. He attended Antioch College where he graduated with a BA in philosophy in 1950; this was after he spent time serving the US navy during World War 2. After receiving his degree, he went on to study for his PhD in Harvard University where he began his studies in Social Anthropology. Geertz’z early ideas of Anthropology as interpretation can be seen from ‘Form and Variation…’ his publications from the 1960s. These publications attained him some widely extended attention about his ideas.

In simple terms, Geertz implies that Anthropology is a means of interpretation. This process of interpretation includes analysing layers of meaning, he in particular in his study of interpretive anthropology speaks of ‘thick description’ that is very much a part of this interpretive science. He understands this as progress of recording human activity on a micro scale in regards to polysemic behaviour, details and data. These research methods are ones that other scientific methodologies may not use during the examining process. Geertz stressed that we needed to understand anthropology on a micro level, this is where he becomes interested in symbolism and their meanings as part of this interpretive anthropology, how symbolism can motivate and how they are understood by the individuals of societies.

...the enlargement of the universe of human discourse,...and is an aim to which a semiotic concept of culture is particularly well adapted. Culture is a context; something within which social events, behaviours and processes can be intelligibly - thickly - described (Geertz, The Interpretations of Culture, 1975 p.14).

‘Thick description’ is a term that that Geertz borrowed from an earlier philosopher and developed it from there. There is differences in Ryles and Geertz’ understanding of the procedure. In an essay that many reader’s of Geertz would be familiar with, “Thick Description:...
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