Clifford Geertz  

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"This is a book about the "primary male-female differences in sexuality among humans," in which the following things are not discussed: guilt, wonder, loss, self-regard, death, metaphor, justice, purity, intentionality, cowardice, hope, judgment, ideology, humor, obligation, despair, trust, malice, ritual, madness, forgiveness, sublimation, pity, ecstasy, obsession, discourse, and sentimentality. It could be only one thing, and it is. Sociobiology."--"Sociosexology" is a review of The Evolution of Human Sexuality by Clifford Geertz published in The New York Review of Books, volume 26, Number 21 & 22 … January 24, 1980.

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Clifford James Geertz (August 23, 1926 – October 30, 2006) was an American anthropologist who is remembered mostly for his concept of thick description.

Main Ideas and Contributions

At the University of Chicago, Geertz became a champion of symbolic anthropology, a framework which gives prime attention to the role of symbols in constructing public meaning. In his seminal work The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), Geertz outlined culture as "a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life."

He was one of the earliest scholars to see that the insights provided by common language, philosophy and literary analysis could have major explanatory force in the social sciences.

Geertz aimed to provide the social sciences with an understanding and appreciation of “thick description.” Geertz applied thick description to anthropological studies (specifically his own 'interpretive anthropology') while producing theory that had implications for other social sciences. For example Geertz asserted that culture was essentially semiotic in nature and this theory has implications for comparative political sciences.

Geertz himself argues for a “semiotic” concept of culture: “Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun," he states “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 one in search of meaning. It is explication I am after, construing social expression on their surface enigmatical.”

Geertz states that we must proceed interpreting a culture’s web of symbols by isolating its elements, specifying the internal relationships among those elements and characterize the whole system in some general way—according to the core symbols around which it is organized, the underlying structures of which it is a surface expression, or the ideological principles upon which it is based. Culture is public because “meaning is,” and systems of meanings are what produce culture, they are the collective property of a particular people. We cannot discover the culture’s import or understand its systems of meaning when, as Wittgenstein noted, “We cannot find our feet with them.”

Geertz wants society to appreciate that social actions are larger than themselves; they speak to larger issues, and vice versa, because “they are made to.”

It is not against a body of uninterrupted data, radically thinned descriptions, that we must measure the cogency of our explications, but against the power of the scientific imagination to bring us into touch with the lives of strangers.”

In seeking to converse with subjects in foreign cultures and gain access to their conceptual world; this is the goal of the semiotic approach to culture. Cultural theory is not its own master; at the end of the day, we must appreciate that the generality “thick description” contrives to achieve grows out of the delicacy of its distinctions, not the sweep of its abstraction. The essential task of theory building here is not to codify abstract regularities but to make thick description possible, not to generalize across cases but to generalize within them.

His often cited essay "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight" is the classic example of thick description, a concept adopted from the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle. Thick description is an anthropological method of explaining with as much detail as possible the reason behind human actions. Many human actions can mean many different things, and the anthropologist needs to be aware of this. The work proved influential amongst historians, many of whom tried to use these ideas about the 'meaning' of cultural practice in the study of customs and traditions of the past.

During Geertz's long career, he worked through a variety of theoretical phases and schools of thought. In 1957, Geertz wrote that "The drive to make sense out of experience, to give it form and order, is evidently as real and pressing as the more familiar biological needs...", a statement which reflects an early leaning toward functionalism.

See also


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