Anthropology Interpretive Anthropology
Neni Panourgiá
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0048


“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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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

    DOI: 10.1525/ahu.1985.10.3.62Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    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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