In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Clifford Geertz

  • Introduction
  • Ethics and Politics

Anthropology Clifford Geertz
Matthew D. Thompson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0035


Clifford Geertz (b. 1926–d. 2006) has had a tremendous impact on cultural anthropology and, more generally, all of the social sciences and humanities. In particular, Geertz is associated with heralding the “interpretive turn” in anthropology and steering the discipline, or the sociocultural part of it at least, away from research designs patterned on the natural sciences. This amounted to nothing less than the re-imagining of anthropology as engaged in the study of meaning rather than in pursuit of predictive laws. However, many have met this approach with skepticism and questions persist as to how Geertz’s legacy should be evaluated. To his critics Geertz seems only to offer fine-gauge descriptions in the absence of a rigorous methodology, decontextualizing cultural expression by “reading” it as if a text. This debate between interpretive and scientific approaches continues to animate anthropology from the recent outcry over proposed changes to the mission statement of the American Anthropological Association to factionalism among the subdisciplines and questions about the place of applied anthropology in the academy. While some anthropologists have proven ambivalent concerning Geertz’s contributions, those working in disciplines outside of anthropology have engaged his work and have been transformed by it. His landmark publication, The Interpretation of Cultures (1977), is widely regarded as one of the most influential works of social science in the second half of the 20th century. Geertz is distinguished not only by his interpretive method with its focus on the study of symbolic action and meaning, but also by his verbose, witty, and hyper-literate writing style, best represented in the essay form of which he was a master. In sum, his efforts contributed significantly to legitimating the incorporation of humanities research into the social sciences, especially in anthropology. No single thinker or text spawned the postmodern, poststructural anthropology of the contemporary scene, but Geertz is doubtless a key figure.

Academic Overview

As an eminent scholar, Geertz generated quite a bit of attention in his lifetime, particularly late in life when he obtained a kind of Founding Father–like status not only in anthropology, but also in the humanities and social sciences generally. Geertz’s published work is rife with allusions to world literature and his theoretical work drew on a wide range of influences. A partial list of some his most important influences are listed here. In histories of the discipline he is often lumped together with “symbolic anthropology” and the association is not inappropriate. Examples of that school are provided. To illustrate the far-ranging influence of his work, examples of his impact outside of anthropology appear here too. This section offers overviews on Autobiographies, Biographies, and Interviews and Tributes and Appreciations.

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