[Sophonisba Gathman] Clifford Geertz

This text was produced by Sophonisba Gathman while the person was a student at Macalester. It was distributed for in-class review. Any use of this text necessitates you to contact the person directly for copyright purposes.

From: Sophonisba Gathman
Sent: Friday, November 12, 2004 12:13 AM
Subject: Geertz crib sheet
Hey guys. Here’s the crib sheet for Clifford Geertz.

Clifford Geertz (1926—)

Clifford Geertz has been called the “principle architect of symbolic anthropology.” Disagreeing with both ethnoscience and cognitive anthropology, Geertz influenced many who went on to found the post-modernism movement. He is also well known for his self-relevatory style of ethnographic writing, such as “The Raid,” the narrative describing his and his wife’s escape from police officers at a Balinese cockfight; Geertz received his bachelors’ degree in English, and uses some of these techniques in his anthropological work.

Geertz was influenced by Freud, Lévi Strauss, and Max Weber. Freud’s influence is shown in Geertz’s description of cocks in Bali as symbolizing male status and genitalia. Geertz borrows Lévi-Strauss’s idea of binary constructions when he describes dichotomies such as man-beast, good-evil, and construction-destruction. Geertz uses Weber’s concept of man as an “animal suspended in webs of significance he has spun” to describe his own concept of culture.

Geertz’s Concept of Culture

Geertz identifies culture as a shared code of meaning which members of a community act out through public symbols and actions. This public quality of culture means it cannot exist apart from individuals, and that it does not exist solely in the mind, contrary to the tenets of cognitive anthropology; according to Geertz, culture is necessarily public because meaning is. Geertz uses the Balinese cockfight to demonstrate this public symbolism, saying that the cockfight imitates the interactions of social groups in a community. In a cockfight, Balinese men act out their social roles as participants and bettors in the public arena.

Geertz opposes the idea of culture as a waterproof, flawless whole, instead asserting that culture is full of contradictions and competing interests, a view later adopted by post-modernists.

Geertz believes culture should be read as a collection of texts, the ethnographer analyzing the text and trying to understand the lives of the characters. Geertz’s influence led to later anthropologists using literary tools of textual analysis in ethnography.

Geertz’s goals in ethnography

Ethnoscientists analyzed culture scientifically, searching for common laws; Geertz views culture as Weber’s “webs of significance” spun by man and analyzes it interpretively in a search for meaning. Geertz used his semiotic approach to culture to determine concepts and symbols in a community in order to truly converse with its members.

Geertz believes the object of ethnography is the “stratified hierarchy of meaningful structures in terms of which twitches, winks, fake-winks, parodies, and rehearsals of parodies are produced, perceived, and interpreted, and without which they would not exist” (Geertz 1973). In other words, one must try to uncover all the layers of meaning surrounding symbols and actions, including their intentions and the perceptions. Geertz calls this uncovering “thick description,” a term he borrowed from Gilbert Ryle. The thicker description one uses, the harder to understand it is, but Geertz believes this is actually a good thing. For Geertz, the goal of ethnography is to elicit thick description.


Geertz has been criticized for being too intuitive in his analyses. Where do we see this intuitiveness in “Thick Description” and “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight”? What might the negative effects of too much intuition in analysis?

How does Geertz’s analysis of the Balinese cockfight differ from a functionalist’s? What might a functionalist have said of the cockfight?



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