Clifford Geertz Research Paper

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The American cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz was known for contending that culture is the enacted and public creation of meaning and that therefore ethnographic inquiry requires interpretation. Drawing on extensive fieldwork in Indonesia and Morocco, Geertz’s theory of “interpretive anthropology” was articulated in his 1973 collection, The Interpretation of Cultures, in which he stated, “The concept of culture I espouse … is essentially a semiotic one. 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” (p. 5).

This search, Geertz noted thirty years later, involved “ferreting out the singularities of other peoples’ ways of life.…” (2000, p. xi). Geertz emphasized the particularistic nature of cultural experience, highlighting the explanatory priority of symbols and attending to “local knowledge.” While sharing the American anthropologist Franz Boas’s goal of viewing cultures within their specific contexts, Geertz specifically focused on the cultural creation of symbolic meaning.

Geertz pursued graduate studies in the 1950s in Harvard University’s interdisciplinary Department of Social Relations and conducted ethnographic research in Java, receiving his Ph.D. in 1956. After a postdoctorate stint at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (1958–1959) and a year teaching at the University of California at Berkeley (1959–1960), Geertz joined the University of Chicago where he taught for a decade (1960–1970) and participated in the Committee for Comparative Studies of New Nations. In 1970 he joined the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, retiring as professor emeritus in 2000. A fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and other academic societies, Geertz penned Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author (1988) for which he was named the 1989 winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for literary criticism.

Geertz’s writings chart a progressive concern with ethnographic interpretation that built on his fieldwork in Java (1952–1954, 1986), Bali (1957–1958), and Morocco (1965–1966, 1985–1986). His early monographs—The Religion of Java (1960), Agricultural Involution: The Process of Ecological Change in Indonesia (1963), Peddlers and Princes: Social Change and Economic Modernization in an Indonesian Town (1963), and The Social History of an Indonesian Town (1965)—variously considered the historical, political, religious, and environmental variables that shaped the cultural contours of an evolving Indonesia.

Geertz’s thinking about interpretive ethnography was foreshadowed in the final chapter of The Social History of an Indonesian Town in which he outlined, following Harold Garfinkel, “the document approach.” In this approach, a specific ethnographic case is analyzed such that “the ineradicable specificity of actual events and the elusive generality of meaningful form render one another intelligible” (p. 154).

Having documented the event, it is the anthropologist’s task to decipher and expose its meanings: This requires interpretation. In The Interpretation of Cultures, Geertz argued that the ethographer “must contrive to somehow first to grasp and then to render” the multiple conceptual structures that account for the meanings of cultural acts (p. 10). “An acted, public document” culture is “written not in conventionalized graphs of sound but in transient examples of shaped behavior” (p. 10). The anthropologist’s goals are to sort through “the structures of signification” that make such behaviors meaning-full, to decipher those connections in an ethnographic text, and to thus enlarge the consultable record of human experience.

Several objections can be raised to Geertz’s theory of interpretive anthropology. First, Geertz’s position is idealist, contending that culturally mediated concepts shape human behavior rather than, for example, the material conditions of existence. Second, the interpretive approach leads to several problems of method and validation. For example, how is one to think about the “structures of signification”? Are some structures more central and durable than others, and in what contexts are they deployed? Explicitly focused on the microcosm, how can an interpretive approach address broader connections of history, economy, and power? Third, interpretive approaches are designed “not to generalize across cases but to generalize within them” (Geertz 1973, p. 26), thus precluding crosscultural comparative studies. Finally, as Geertz acknowledged, interpretive accounts “escape systematic modes of assessment”; how can any interpretation be proven false? (p. 24).

Geertz’s interpretive anthropology departed from the paradigm of anthropology as a science in search of lawlike generalizations about humanity. From the 1970s to the present, the unbridgeable differences between interpretive versus scientific theoretical positions have crystallized into deep divisions within American anthropology.



  1. Geertz, Clifford. 1960. The Religion of Java. New York: The Free Press.
  2. Geertz, Clifford. 1963. Agricultural Involution: The Process of Ecological Change in Indonesia. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  3. Geertz, Clifford. 1963. Peddlers and Princes: Social Change and Economic Modernization in Two Indonesian Towns. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  4. Geertz, Clifford. 1965. The Social History of an Indonesian Town. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  5. Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.
  6. Geertz, Clifford. 1983. Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology. New York: Basic Books.
  7. Geertz, Clifford. 1988. Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  8. Geertz, Clifford. 1995. After the Fact: Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  9. Geertz, Clifford. 2000. Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


  1. Harris, Marvin. 1979. Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture. New York: Random House.
  2. Harris, Marvin. 1999. Theories of Culture in Postmodern Times. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.
  3. Wolf, Eric. 1999. Envisioning Power: Ideologies of Dominance and Crisis. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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