01 November 2006

Clifford Geertz (1926-2006)

Clifford Geertz died Monday. He was 80. You can read the obituary from the Institute for Advanced Study, where Geertz was Professor Emeritus, here. I regularly tell graduate students that, along with Thomas Schelling's The Strategy of Conflict (Harvard UP, 1960), Geertz's The Interpretation of Cultures (Basic Books, 1973) is one of the two best books of American social science written since WWII. They usually roll their eyes. I also tell them that the two books are about the same thing, namely how humans unavoidably rely on symbolic resources to coordinate their ongoing interactions. They don't believe that either.

Unfortunately, neither the game theorists indebted to Schelling nor the anthropoligsts indebted to Geertz have ever quite figured this out, preferring instead to bicker about their suppposed methodological differences. Political Scientists typically tend not to actually read either book, resting content to repeat stock phrases like "focal point" or "thick description" rather than wrestle with the conceptual problems Schelling and Geertz address. In any case, although I never actually met Geertz, his writings have been extremely important to the way I think about politics and society.

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5 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jim,
I promise "the interpretation of cultures" will be my reading for the winter break, along with a game theory book.

03 November, 2006 23:35  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

I appreciate your resolve but the difficulty is that this reading should not be relegated to extra-term time, it should be read by political scientists as part of their actual training. And, reading a game theory text si a bit much .... I'd suggest reading Schelling and then Kreps' Game Theory & Economic Modelling. You can use the textbook in a methods course.

06 November, 2006 17:24  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read Geertz's After the Fact some years back, and found that very inspiring. I have his book Local Culture waiting on the shelf. Will move it up front.

In the Indonesianist literature Geertz does appear to have a bit of a troubled position. At least his description of 'shared poverty' among Javanese villagers has received a fair bit of critique.

06 November, 2006 20:05  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Thansk for the comment. LK is a good book too.

I actually think Geertz's contribution is more conceptual than empirical; I suspect that his ethnographies are loaded with claims and observations and interpretations that might be constested in various ways; his basic contribution was, I think, to reconceptualize "culture" as public (as embodied in symbols and symbolic actions - tradition, ritual and so forth) and hence observable rather than as private (beliefs that we somehow carry around in our heads) and hence difficult if not impossible to observe. The whole thing is theoretically more complicated than that, but there you have it in a nutshell.

06 November, 2006 22:16  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Local KNOWLEDGE", of course, that is the title - I was away from my shelf...

Thanks for putting Geertz's view in a nutshell.

I tend to associate him with the view that 'culture' is in some sense equally shared by all, as when for instance all members of a community associate the same meaning with a particular ritual, event or institution. The completely opposite view, that all meaning associated with a ritual is private, is not very useful, but I have found Fredrik Barth’s discussion and critique of Geertz (in Balinese Worlds, especially ch. 10) compelling. His main point is that if we focus on the most stable elements in a culture (standards of ritual, calendrical systems, naming customs and so on) we more easily overlook changes that do take place, and we lack an account or model of how that change takes place and for what reasons. But maybe for comparative reasons, the focus on systems rather than process is more useful.
Anyway, I will do Geertz more justice by reading Local Knowledge.

07 November, 2006 16:06  

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