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Anthropology Interpretive Anthropology
by
Neni Panourgiá

Introduction

“Interpretive anthropology” refers to the specific approach to ethnographic writing and practice interrelated to (but distinct from) other perspectives that developed within sociocultural anthropology during the Cold War, the decolonization movement, and the war in Vietnam. It is a perspective that was developed by Clifford Geertz as a response to the established objectivized ethnographic stance prevalent in anthropology at the time, and that calls for an epistemology (“culture as text”) and a writing methodology (“thick description”) that will allow an anthropologist to interpret a culture by understanding how the people within that culture are interpreting themselves and their own experiences. Geertz, following Paul Ricoeur, suggested that “a” culture—any culture—is a complex assemblage of texts that constitutes a web of meanings. These meanings are understood by actors themselves (the “natives”) and are subsequently interpreted by anthropologists in the way in which parts of a text are understood by literary critics—by incorporating into the analysis the attendant contexts that make meaning possible for everyone involved in the act of interpretation. Geertz wrote against the prevalent ethnographic practice of observation as if from afar, and advocated instead for the active incorporation of the anthropologist in the ethnographic account. In this way interpretive anthropology called into question Malinowski’s claim of objective and detached observation that had become the modus operandi of anthropology until the 1960s, and in an interesting twist returned ethnographic practice back to the German epistemological genealogy recognized by Franz Boas. Hence, in opposition to Malinowski’s position exemplified in his description of the sexual act among the “savages,” Geertz proposed a Boasian deep participation in the cultural act (e.g., being raided by the police during a Balinese cockfight). Although intellectually neighboring the anthropology of experience proposed by Victor Turner, the cognitive anthropology developed by Steven Tyler, and David Schneider’s symbolic anthropology, interpretive anthropology brought under consideration the intellectual developments outside of the sphere of anthropology (primarily in linguistics, philosophy, and literature) that participated in the figurations by which local systems of meaning were placed under anthropological analysis.

Introductory Works

Interpretive anthropology is “very practice oriented,” considering human acts as nonwritten texts, “texts [which] are performed” (Panourgiá and Kavouras 2008). Geertz saw the task of interpretive anthropology as being “fundamentally about getting some idea of how people conceptualize, understand their world, what they are doing, how they are going about doing it, to get an idea of their world” (Panourgiá and Kavouras 2008). The book that announced “interpretive anthropology” as a new way of engaging with ethnographic material and producing anthropological knowledge was Geertz 1973, in which Geertz set interpretive anthropology against the structuralist anthropology of Lévi-Strauss 1963, a volume that Geertz criticized heavily for having created “an infernal culture machine . . . [that] annuls history, reduces sentiment to a shadow of the intellect, and replaces the particular minds of particular savages in particular jungles with the Savage Mind immanent in us all.” Boon 1972, reading Lévi-Strauss through Geertz, shows that the two share some of the same genealogy, especially that of philosophy and literature. In Geertz 1983, Geertz engaged in an assessment of what had transpired in anthropology since the introduction of the interpretive perspective, paying particular attention to what he termed “local knowledge” as a field of perception separate from local experience. Parker 1985 identifies Wilhelm Dilthey and Hans-Georg Gadamer as part of Geertz’s genealogy. Bruner 1986 positions the anthropology of experience within the genealogy that has produced interpretive anthropology, and which includes Dilthey.

  • Boon, James A. 1972. From symbolism to structuralism: Lévi-Strauss in a literary tradition. New York: Harper & Row.

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    One of the first attempts to explain the connectivities between structuralism and symbolism in the work of Lévi-Strauss, particularly outside of the context of anthropology. Boon shows that the epistemological differences between Geertz and Lévi-Strauss are fundamentally political, meaning that they concern the position of the anthropologist as a participant in the society being studied.

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  • Bruner, Edward M. 1986. Experience and its expressions. In The anthropology of experience. Edited by Victor W. Turner and Edward M. Bruner, 3–33. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

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    In this essay Brunner traces Dilthey’s influence on Geertz’s conceptualization of knowledge.

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  • Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays. New York: Basic Books.

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    Geertz presents interpretive anthropology as a possible response to the positivism of anthropology. In this volume Geertz proposes the term “thick description” and presents the essay on the Balinese cockfight. The book comprises a critical essay on structural anthropology, one on “meaning” as a concept and category determined by questions of power, and other essays on how interpretive anthropology can produce ethnographic accounts and anthropological theory that connect analysis and local knowledge.

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  • Geertz, Clifford. 1983. Local knowledge: Further essays in interpretive anthropology. New York: Basic Books.

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    A collection of essays meant as an assessment of what could be done and had been done since The Interpretation of Cultures (Geertz 1973). In these essays Geertz laid a claim for interpretative anthropology as one form of science, not restricting it to the narrow scientific premises of causality but expanding scientific understanding to include history, sentiment, affect, and meaning.

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  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1963. Structural anthropology. New York: Basic Books.

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    This is the book that prompted Geertz to claim that Lévi-Strauss had created for himself “an infernal culture machine.” It contains Lévi-Strauss’s theory of structuralism.

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  • Panourgiá, Neni, and Pavlos Kavouras. 2008. Interview with Clifford Geertz. In Ethnographica moralia: Experiments in interpretive anthropology. Edited by Neni Panourgiá and George Marcus, 15–28. New York: Fordham Univ. Press.

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    An overview of Geertz’s trajectory in anthropology that touches upon the genealogy of interpretive anthropology, the beginnings of Geertz’s concerns with the anthropological method, his intellectual history, the fundamental operating concepts of the discipline, the position of interpretive anthropology within anthropology in general, and the future of interpretive anthropology.

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  • Parker, Richard. 1985. From symbolism to interpretation: Reflections on the work of Clifford Geertz. Anthropology and Humanism Quarterly 10.3: 62–67.

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    Parker assesses Geertz’s application of interpretive anthropology by using Geertz’s own formulations of its objectives. Parker concludes that Geertz stopped short of fulfilling his own goals.

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Origins

Geertz saw the theoretical beginnings of interpretive anthropology as being “heavily Weberian” (quoted in Panourgiá and Kavouras 2008, cited under Introductory Works), stating that they were given a way of practical existence as part of the Comparative Study of Values, or Ramah Project, that had originated under Clyde Kluckhohn at Harvard University. The Ramah Project (later Rimrock Project) was a multidisciplinary (moral philosophers, historians, rural sociologists, American Indianists, and child psychologists participated in it), long-term (over a period of twenty years), and large-scale project that sought to describe the value systems of five Southwest communities in northwestern Arizona—Navajo, Zuni, Spanish American, Mormon, and Anglo. Although Geertz did not participate actively in the field research, he worked on the notes that had been submitted, classified, taxonomized, and filed according to the guidelines of the Human Relations Research Files at the Peabody Museum of Anthropology at Harvard University. Geertz stated that the experience of working on the Ramah files was the template of the research that he continued to do for the rest of his life, namely “comparative, collaborative, and addressed to questions of meaning and significance” (Geertz 2002).

Basic Concepts

Interpretive anthropology has introduced the concept of “thick description” (Geertz 1973, cited in Introductory Works, and Greenblatt 1999), and an expanded understanding of “meaning” (Ortner 1999) into the lexicon of social sciences and the humanities. “Thick description” is the writing method proposed by Geertz that transcends the simple description of the “mute act” present in the act of “thin description” to give the act being described “its place in a network of framing intentions and cultural meanings” (Greenblatt 1999). Geertz himself never quite gave an explanation of how he actually defined “meaning,” but in interpretive anthropology it can be explained as “a set of culturally constructed and historically specific guides, frames, or models of and for human feeling, intention, and action. Meaning is what both defines life and gives it its purpose” (Ortner 1999). Although Geertz never gave a specific definition of his terms, he did provide an iteration of the interpretive anthropologist as “a born fox (there is a gene for it, along with restlessness, elusiveness, and a passionate dislike for hedgehogs) [is] the natural habitat of the cultural . . . social . . . symbolic . . . interpretive anthropologist” (Geertz 2002, cited in Origins). This iteration of the interpretive anthropologist contains that of the anthropologist as a “reflexive, situated narrator” (quoted in Panourgiá and Kavouras 2008, cited in Introductory Works), a narrator who is also a situated observer “versus people who try to claim that they are looking at things from the sky.” Even though engaged in tentative theory, Geertz was very clear about something intrinsic in the nature of interpretive anthropology that “makes consensus impossible” (quoted in Panourgiá and Kavouras 2008, cited in Introductory Works). William Sewell considered the essays on the Balinese cockfight and on thick description as “two of the most referenced anthropological essays both inside and outside of the field” (Ortner 1999, pp. 35–55).

  • Greenblatt, Stephen. 1999. The touch of the real. In The fate of “culture”: Geertz and beyond. Edited by Sherry B. Ortner, 14–30. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    An article that assesses Geertz’s influence on and importance for literary criticism by analyzing, among other things, Geertz’s own manner of writing.

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  • Ortner, Sherry B. 1999. Introduction. In The fate of “culture”: Geertz and beyond. Edited by Sherry B. Ortner, 1–13. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    In the introductory essay of this edited volume, Ortner gives an account of Geertz’s basic concepts, such as his definition of “culture” and “meaning,” and makes corrective gestures toward the critique that has been brought to bear upon interpretive anthropology by his main critics.

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Influence Within Anthropology

Interpretive anthropology has had an influence both within anthropology and far and wide outside of the discipline. James Boon has noted “Geertz’s style” and melded it with his own style, which is multireferential, philosophical, and playful, and gives great attention to the details of writing (Boon 1999). Ethnographies that have been influenced by interpretive anthropology do not always announce it, but it is evident in the perspective that they employ and the attentiveness to writing that they show: Boon 1999 posits the question of an ethically uncomplicated ethnography; Rosaldo 1980 uses “thick description” in his methodology; Panourgiá 1995 attends to questions of “local knowledge”; Schein 2008 explicitly addresses the debate on “culture” between Geertz and Lila Abu-Lughod; Wafer 1991 embarks on an ethnography of meaning; Tedlock 1983 applies a Geertzean perspective on questions of performance; Papagaroufali 2008 explores the possibility of a shift from concepts to dispositions as an analytic tool in anthropology; and Weston 2008 examines the possibilities of a “native” anthropology through the Geertzean critique of what constitutes “real” anthropology.

  • Boon, James A. 1999. Verging on extra-vagance: Anthropology, history, religion, literature, arts . . . showbiz. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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    In this book, which is saturated with Geertz’s understanding of the impossibility of an ethically easy ethnography, Boon explicitly connects his work to Geertz’s “sense of systems of suasion” and, while acknowledging the heuristic value of structuralism, stands clearly against any ethnographic project that is implicated in an act of quantification. Boon opts instead for Geertz’s “interpretive turns across anthropology and sister pursuits.”

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  • Panourgiá, Neni. 1995. Fragments of death, fables of identity: An Athenian anthropography. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

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    An interpretivist ethnography of modern Athens, paying particular attention to ethnographic writing and the epistemological aporias opened by Geertz’s critique of structuralism, seeking to break the distinction between “native” and “subject.”

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  • Papagaroufali, Eleni. 2008. Carnal hermeneutics: From “concepts” and “circles” to “dispositions” and “suspense.” In Ethnographica moralia: Experiments in interpretive anthropology. Edited by Neni Panourgiá and George Marcus, 113–125. New York: Fordham Univ. Press.

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    Papagaroufali examines basic concepts present in interpretive anthropology within the context of organ donation in modern Greece. She draws directly from The Interpretation of Cultures (Geertz 1973, cited under Introductory Works) in an attempt to interrogate the process of somatization of experience, and proposes a shift from concepts to dispositions.

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  • Rosaldo, Renato. 1980. Ilongot headhunting, 1883–1974: A study in society and history. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

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    This ethnography is as concerned with history and anthropology as it is with the act of writing, the “how” of ethnographic writing as well as the “what” in it. Indebted to interpretive anthropology, Rosaldo engages thick description in order to avoid a sensationalist account of headhunters in the Philippines, and explains the intricacies and subtleties of the practice.

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  • Schein, Louisa. 2008. Text and transnational subjectification: Media’s challenge to anthropology. In Ethnographica moralia: Experiments in interpretive anthropology. Edited by Neni Panourgiá and George Marcus, 188–212. New York: Fordham Univ. Press.

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    In this article, Schein looks at home video production among the Hmong and engages with both Geertz’s conceptualization of and insistence on “culture” and Abu-Lughod’s problematization of the concept. Schein further problematizes location and textuality as determinants of media analysis.

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  • Tedlock, Dennis. 1983. The spoken word and the work of interpretation. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

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    Tedlock presents here new methods for transcribing, translating, and interpreting oral performance. Well within the interpretivist frame of reference, he shows that the categories and concepts of poetics and hermeneutics based in Western literary traditions cannot be carried over intact to the analysis of spoken arts of other cultures.

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  • Wafer, James. 1991. The taste of blood: Spirit possession in Brazilian Candomblé. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

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    An interpretivist ethnography of candomblé in thick description and deep play, and placing the ethnographer directly into the ethnography, accounting for participant observation as thickly as for representation of local actors. This is one of the most consistent Geertzean ethnographies produced.

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  • Weston, Kath. 2008. “Real anthropologies” and other nostalgias. In Ethnographica moralia: Experiments in interpretive anthropology. Edited by Neni Panourgiá and George Marcus, 126–137. New York: Fordham Univ. Press.

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    Weston takes up the challenges posed by Geertz’s interpretive anthropology, and through it examines the premise of “real” anthropology and the “nostalgia” for it that has arisen as a reaction to the current turn to “autoethnographic” writing.

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Influence Outside of Anthropology

Neighboring disciplines have been cross-fertilized by interpretive anthropology. The basic methodological concept that they have found useful is that of “thick description,” which they find saturated with much more theory than what is afforded to the “close reading” practiced in literary criticism. These disciplines also receive and incorporate Geertz’s critique of the unquestioned positionality of the researcher, submitting prior readings to the epistemological and methodological interrogations that they detect in Geertz’s critique. Pratt 1992 is a “thick description” of travel writing, exploring the positionality of the writers themselves; Zemon Davis 1999 is a text on the usefulness of the interpretive perspective for historical studies; and Martin 1989 has read the Iliad as a speech performance through interpretive anthropology. In addition, in Ortner 1999 (cited in Collected Volumes), William Sewell provides an assessment of Geertz’s influence outside of the realm of anthropology. He notes that interpretive anthropology has had an influence in disciplines far away from the disciplinary neighborhood, in areas such as agriculture, nursing, environmental studies, business, social work, information science, gerontology, and public relations.

  • Martin, Richard. 1989. The language of heroes: Speech and performance in the Iliad. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

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    A monograph on speech performance in the Iliad that acknowledges an indebtedness to interpretive anthropology.

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  • Pratt, Mary Louise. 1992. Imperial eyes: Travel writing and transculturation. New York: Routledge.

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    Pratt’s monograph, although not explicitly indebted to interpretive anthropology, is nevertheless part of the genealogy that interpretive anthropology has engendered as it engages in thick description of texts of travel writing and builds upon Pratt’s earlier work (“Fieldwork in Common Places,” in Writing Culture; The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, edited by James Clifford and George Marcus, 27-50 [Berkeley: University of California Press,1986]) on the complicity between anthropology and colonialism that she sees having been teased out by Geertz’s reading of Raymond Firth’s and E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s writings.

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  • Zemon Davis, Natalie. 1999. Religion and capitalism once again? Jewish merchant culture in the seventeenth century. In The Fate of “Culture”: Geertz and Beyond. Edited by Sherry B. Ortner, 56–85. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    Traces the importance of “thick description” for historical studies and underscores the importance of cultural interpretation by looking at two different microhistorical sites of the 17th century: the autobiography of a Jewish woman merchant and the biography of a rabbi.

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Collected Volumes

Shweder and Good 2005 examines Geertz’s contributions to the development of social theory and anthropological knowledge, and Ortner 1999 considers Geertz’s contribution to the development of a foundational concept such as “culture.” Daugherty and Kurke 1993 assesses Geertz’s contribution and the relevance of interpretive anthropology as a perspective on a discipline other than anthropology. Turner and Bruner 1986 explores connections between different variants of hermeneutic anthropology. Panourgiá and Marcus 2008 explores the forms of interpretive anthropology in current anthropological literature and practice.

  • Dougherty, Carol, and Leslie Kurke, eds. 1993. Cultural poetics in archaic Greece: Cult, performance, politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    This volume addresses Geertz’s importance to classical studies and features essays on the multiplicity of cultures, hybridity, competing stories, and the obligation of the gift. It considers the polis as a distinct cultural space and assesses the performance of culture in music (Martin and Wilson) and funerary practices (Hagemajer Allen). Postscript by Ober on “thin coherence”.

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  • Ortner, Sherry B., ed. 1999. The fate of “culture”: Geertz and beyond. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    Ortner edited this volume of essays by literary critic Stephen Greenblatt, historians Natalie Zemon Davis and William Sewell, and anthropologists Lila Abu-Lughod, George Marcus, Renato Rosaldo, and Sherry B. Ortner. The contributors address what has happened to Geertz’s notion of “culture” since the publication of The Interpretation of Cultures (Geertz 1973, cited in Introductory Works) and the appearance of interpretive anthropology. Includes an introduction by Ortner.

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  • Panourgiá, Neni, and George Marcus, eds. 2008. Ethnographica moralia: Experiments in interpretive anthropology. New York: Fordham Univ. Press.

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    These essays exemplify how interpretive anthropology appears now, and what its cross-fertilizations with neighboring disciplines have produced since the publication of The Interpretation of Cultures (Geertz 1973, cited in Introductory Works). Presents anthropologists (Abélès, Athanasiou, Boon, Marcus, Papagaroufali, Panourgiá, Schein, Navaro-Yashin, Weston) in a dialogue with classicist Richard Martin, historian Antonis Liakos, and media theorist Maria Kakavoulia. Includes an introduction by Panourgiá and Marcus, and an interview with Geertz by Panourgiá and Kavouras.

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  • Shweder, Richard A., and Byron Good, eds. 2005. Clifford Geertz by his colleagues. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    Collected volume on Geertz’s contributions to anthropology since the publication of The Interpretation of Cultures (Geertz 1973, cited in Introductory Works). Essays on moral philosophy (Boon, Rosen, Shweder), interpretivism (Jerome Bruner), history (Zemon Davis, Peacock, Oksenberg Rorty), the symbolic interface between interpretive and psychological anthropology (Le Vine), and general questions about Geertz’s interpretive anthropology (Michael Fischer, Eickerman, Hannerz, Good and DelVecchio Good) Introduction by Shweder and Good, commentary by Geertz.

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  • Turner, Victor W., and Edward M. Bruner, eds. 1986. The anthropology of experience. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

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    A collection of fourteen essays, each commenting on the crucial role that interpretation plays in ethnography. Drawing upon examples from literature, history, philosophy, and their own fieldwork, the authors discuss how culture is a living text, a performance constructed from the ways in which people interpret the actions of others and the world around them.

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Critiques

Criticisms of interpretive anthropology in general, and of Geertz in particular, have come from many directions; included here are Positivist Critiques and Post-Structuralist Critiques.

Positivist Critiques

Rosaldo 1999 assesses the types of critique that have been articulated against interpretive anthropology and Geertz, drawing fine distinctions between critiques that have originated from “intolerant positivist polemicists” (see Shankman 1984, which suggests that Geertz’s approach has no usefulness in producing measurable and reliable conclusions) and Marxist materialists (see Roseberry 1982, which accuses Geertz of not attending to questions of power; Reyna 2002, which concludes that interpretive anthropology does not pay attention to the actualities of fieldwork; and Austin-Broos 1987, which accuses Geertz of aestheticization). Delaney 1991 critiques interpretive anthropology’s decentering of religion as constitutive of human expression, and its repositioning as one of many cultural expressions.

  • Austin-Broos, Diane J. 1987. Clifford Geertz: Culture, sociology, and historicism. In Creating culture: Profiles in the study of culture. Edited by Diane J. Austin-Broos. Sydney and Boston: Allen & Unwin.

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    In this article, Austin-Broos looks at Geertz’s early work in Java and its position on culture as indeterminate and ambiguous, and states that in his later work on Bali and Morocco, Geertz aestheticizes life and represents it as a still aesthetic object. Geertz responded to this critique in Panourgiá and Kavouras 2008 (cited under Introductory Works).

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  • Delaney, Carol Lowery. 1991. The seed and the soil: Gender and cosmology in Turkish village society. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    Delaney engages specifically in a critique of Geertz’s theory of religion, and takes issue with interpretive anthropology’s approach to religion as “one human expression among many.”

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  • Reyna, Stephen P. 2002. Connections: Brain, mind, and culture in social anthropology. London: Routledge.

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    Reyna devotes a section of the second chapter of his book to a critique of interpretive anthropology (hermeneutist Geertz and his followers), and what he perceives to be willfully ignoring actual on-the-ground data in favor of an analysis based primarily on free-floating, unmoored, and drifting theories.

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  • Rosaldo, Renato I., Jr. 1999. A note on Geertz as a cultural essayist. In The fate of “culture”: Geertz and beyond. Edited by Sherry B. Ortner, 30–34. Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press.

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    Rosaldo responds to critics of Geertz who find his writing impenetrable and difficult. “There is nothing difficult about Geertz’s style” or about interpretive writing in general, Rosaldo says, if we are willing to read interpretive ethnographies through the prism of the essay as a writing style.

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  • Roseberry, William. 1982. Balinese cockfights and the seduction of anthropology. Social Research 49.4: 1013–1028.

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    Roseberry centers his critique of interpretive anthropology as inattentive to questions of power and domination on an analysis of Geertz’s Balinese cockfight.

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  • Shankman, Paul. 1984. The thick and the thin: On the interpretive theoretical paradigm of Clifford Geertz. Cultural Anthropology 25.3: 261–279.

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    This is the most systematic positivist critique of interpretive anthropology and Clifford Geertz’s writing.

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Post-Structuralist Critiques

The most interesting critique of Geertz has come from the Foucauldean post-structuralists (or postmodernists, as assessed by the materialists discussed in Positivist Critiques), who have criticized Geertz for not taking his own methodology and epistemology as far as his theory could have taken him, and interpretive anthropology for not paying enough attention to questions of power. Asad 1983 engages in a critique of Geertz’s theory of religion, though the approach here is somewhat different from that of Delaney 1991 (under Positivist Critiques): Asad accused Geertz of universalizing religion as a concept. Crapanzano 1986 criticizes Geertz for not distancing his own perspective from that of his Balinese subjects. Clifford 1983 raises the danger of interpretive anthropology lapsing into unchecked relativism. Watson 1989 and Watson 1991 reject interpretive anthropology altogether, suggesting instead that what Geertz has offered through it already existed as ethnomethodology. Marcus 1999 looks at Geertz’s argument regarding the complicity of the anthropologist in the representation of his ethnographic object. Geertz has responded to these critiques (see Panourgiá and Kavouras 2008, under Introductory Works). Abu-Lughod 1991 criticizes Geertz’s insistence on the concept of culture, arguing that the concept becomes a totalizing analytical category, and Watson 1991 critiques the concept of relativism introduced by Geertz as an apolitical capitulation to powerful hierarchies. Ortner 1999 (see Collected Volumes) refines Abu-Lughod’s critique by pointing out the subtleties present in Geertz’s position on culture that have carried over to interpretive anthropology in general. Silverstein and Urban 1996 critique the centrality of textuality in Geertz’s approach as too static and not rigorous enough, and they argue that what is needed is not to make “culture” analogous to a text but to engage textuality in the analysis of a culture as a continuous process.

  • Abu-Lughod, Lila. 1991. Writing against culture. In Recapturing anthropology: Working in the present. Edited by Richard Fox, 137–162. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

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    Abu-Lughod argues against the usefulness of the concept of “culture” for modern-day anthropology. She argues, furthermore, that the concept is a politically suspect one as it seeks to fix an entity (meaning the ethnographic object) in place and time, ascribing to it a constructed, hegemonic temporo-spatial immobility. Geertz has responded to this critique (in Panourgiá and Kavouras 2008, under Introductory Works) and so has Ortner (1999, under Basic Concepts).

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  • Asad, Talal. 1983. Anthropological conceptions of religion: Reflections on Geertz. Man 18.2: 237–259.

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    Asad here critiques what he sees as Geertz’s universalist formulation of religion, especially Geertz’s attempt to arrive at an encyclopedic definition of religion as a cultural system. Asad draws wider conclusions about interpretive anthropology and its basic lexical formulations. This is a critique not unlike that of Delaney 1991 (see Positivist Critiques).

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  • Clifford, James. 1983. On ethnographic authority. Representations 2:118–146.

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    Clifford’s critique of interpretive anthropology is centered around the fact that although it pays attention to and demystifies the ways in which the ethnographic subject is being constructed, through an analysis of the tropes of writing, it is pregnant with the danger of lapsing into an unexamined relativism.

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  • Crapanzano, Vincent. 1986. Hermes’ dilemma: The masking of subversion in ethnographic description. In Writing culture: The poetics and politics of ethnography. Edited by James Clifford and George E. Marcus, 51–76. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    Crapanzano’s essay deals with the epistemological problems hidden behind Geertz’s masterful writing, especially (what Crapanzano sees as) the melding of the representation of the ethnographers’ subjectivity (“the Geertzes”) to that of the Balinese villagers.

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  • Marcus, George E. 1999. The uses of complicity in the changing mis-en-scène of anthropology. In The fate of “culture”: Geertz and beyond. Edited by Sherry B. Ortner, 86–109. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    Here Marcus examines and presses Geertz’s formulation of the complicity of the anthropologist in the representation of his ethnographic object.

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  • Silverstein, Michael, and Greg Urban. 1996. The natural history of discourse. In Natural histories of discourse. Edited by Michael Silverstein and Greg Urban, 1–17. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    Although this volume of essays is not entirely concerned with interpretive anthropology and Geertz, the introductory essay by Silverstein and Urban centers on interpretive social science’s concepts of “text” and “culture,” from the perspective of linguistic anthropology and discourse analysis. They see textuality as discursively produced effect, produced in relation to other discourse and to a discourse history.

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  • Watson, Graham. 1989. Definitive Geertz. Ethnos 54.1–2: 23–30.

    DOI: 10.1080/00141844.1989.9981378Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Watson takes a critical stance against reflexivity, a concept that he sees developed in Geertz that only performs an attention to questions of power between observer and observed without really engaging in a critique of it.

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  • Watson, Graham. 1991. Rewriting culture. In Recapturing anthropology: Working in the present. Edited by Richard Fox, 73–93. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

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    Watson accuses Geertz and interpretive anthropology of ignoring the potentialities of ethnomethodology, which has already done what interpretive (and postmodernist, since Watson seems to see very little difference between the two) anthropology claims to be doing, and has done it in much more radical terms. Watson further accuses interpretive anthropology as holding on to an “absolutist ontology” rather than engaging in a “radical relativism.”

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Collected Critical Volumes

There are two collected volumes of essays that engage in a critique of the anthropological method and epistemology in general, and are critical of interpretive anthropology and Geertz in particular. These two volumes introduced more nuanced ways of engaging with the ethnographic method and the production of anthropological knowledge than what existed in the discipline prior to Geertz and in the wake of Geertz’s critique of those earlier approaches. Clifford and Marcus 1986 explores the ways in which ethnographies are written, specifically how these texts can be considered literary as well as scientific. The essays in this volume trace the historical progression of written ethnography, highlighting the natural interplay between literary tropes and scientific observation. The overarching question is not whether there is space for both of these elements within ethnographic writing, but rather how each anthropologist utilizes these elements to create a meaningful discourse. Fox 1991 constitutes a more programmatic project that seeks to preserve some fundamental objective value in anthropology, while also underlining its basic inadequacies in addressing questions of power and politics. The volume is less concerned with the possibilities of writing future ethnographies and more concerned with the foundational unwillingness of anthropology to address its interlocutors.

  • Clifford, James, and George Marcus, eds. 1986. Writing culture: The poetics and politics of ethnography. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    While authors elucidate the opposing views on the subject, the consensus among them is that the utilization of both literary and scientific writing conventions is not only unavoidable, it is crucial to the creation of meaningful ethnographic texts. The volume contains essays by Mary Louise Pratt, Vincent Crapanzano, Renato Rosaldo, James Clifford, Stephen Tyler, Talal Asad, George E. Marcus, and Michael M. J. Fischer, with an afterword by George E. Marcus.

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  • Fox, Richard, ed. 1991. Recapturing anthropology: Working in the present. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.

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    Contains ten essays by anthropologists who defined the act of anthropological critique in the 1990s: Lila Abu-Lughod’s critique of Geertz’s formulation of culture, Richard Fox on Geertz and interpretive anthropology (Introduction), Michel-Rolph Trouillot on anthropology and the “savage slot,” Sherry B. Ortner on the preservation of the concept of “culture,” José Limon on native anthropology, Paul Rabinow on anthropology and modernity, and Graham Watson on ethnomethodology.

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LAST MODIFIED: 01/11/2012

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199766567-0048

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