Clifford Geertz: The Interpretation of Cultures

[Readings] (08.29.08, 3:42 pm)


Geertz approaches culture from an anthropological perspective. This book is a collection of various essays attempting to find a more universal understanding of human culture and nature. Geertz concludes that semiotics and symbolic action is the means for interpreting cultures effectively, since cultures are symbol systems, and actions are symbolic in of themselves.


Geertz opens with the claim that the interpretation of culture is semiotic in nature. Culture is a web of significance. (p. 5) Ethnography is “thick description”, an accounting of facts. Explicating events is to interpret them, but analysis is an interpretation of the signs, codes, and meaning. Culture is an active document. (p. 9) Anthropological understanding of a culture “consists of whatever it is that one has to know or believe to in order to operate in a manner acceptable to its members.” The issue is to bridge cultures identify the causes of conflict and integration. Culture and understanding (or a lack thereof): Wittgenstein claims that we cannot totally understand one another. This is true, but culture is a public meaning and a common interpretation of relevant symbols. (p. 13)

The goal of generalization in cultural interpretation: it is not to generalize across boundaries, but within them. This uses clinical inference to deduct cultural model. Analyze signifiers, predict outcomes, etcetera. This model is EXTREMELY similar to analysis of simulatable models. Treats symbol system as simulatable. (p. 26) The matter of generalizing: in trying to find a universal theory of culture in frame of specific cultures. No true universal generalizations are possible. (p. 40)

Some evolutionary emergence of cultural rituals and meanings: Man as evolved is “unfinished”. Culture completes this picture. “To supply the additional information necessary to be able to act, we were forced, in turn, to rely more and more heavily on cultural sources– the accumulated fund of significant symbols. Such symbols are thus not mere expressions, instrumentalities, or correlates of our biological, psychological, and social existence; they are prerequisites of it. Without men, no culture, certainly; but equally, and more significantly, without culture, no men.” (p. 49) The anthropological take on cognition: Overt, public thought vs internal thought. Compare with Vygotsky. (p. 76) Primarily, thinking is social and overt, requiring objective (in sense of Mead) things. Internal thinking is secondary! (p. 83)

Looking at religion: A bullet point summary: (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the mods and motivations seem uniquely realistic. Treated as a special meaning system. Is this different from other cultural practices? (p. 90) Cultural models are “of” and “for”. Both approaches to models are essentially equivalent, but are viewed in different lights. To make something understandable, one uses a model “of” reality, to provide guidance and instruction, one uses a model “for” reality. (p. 93) Moods and motivations (actions), compare with Vygotsky and Goffman. Moods/actions are imbued with significance and made meaningful by cultural frame. (p. 97) The role of religion in social support: Stabilizes a metaphysical anxiety or confusion. Apathy applies to many things, but certain ones require stability. For instance, the unsolvability of some mathematical axioms was deeply troubling to Russell; this is the sort of anxiety that religion soothes. (p. 100) Religion and suffering: Religion does not teach how to avoid suffering, but how to suffer. The way to suffer and endure hardship is a type of anxiety or unease for which ritual is needed. This is sort of an instructive process. Compare w Goffman and Freud. (p. 104)

In Chapter 6, Ritual and Social Exchange: A Javanese Example, Geertz explains an incident in which the standard ritual process for an ordinarily simple scenario in Javanese culture transformed instead to a huge unsettling debacle. This phenomenon occurred because of large changes to social allegiances and confusion over the ritual process in the particular Javanese village Geertz was working in. The classic functional theory of sociology is inadequate to account for the change of history and culture. Functional theory treats sociological and cultural practices as equivalent, and does not account for how one can change the other. (p. 143) Social and political differences cause complex failure of cultural rite. Changing cultural conditions leave people confused or unprepared for situations. Ritual is normally employed for transgressions, but the failure of ritual leads to mayhem. (p. 163) This is especially telling given Goffman on embarrassment. The cause of this incident traces to a single source: “an incongruity between the cultural framework of meaning and the patterning of social interaction, an incongruity due to the persistence in an urban environment of a religious symbol system adjusted to peasant social structure.” Functionalism fails to discriminate logical-meaningful with causal-functional integration. (p. 169)

On ideology: Geertz poses Mannheim’s paradox: Cannot have a non-evaluative study of ideology. That is, it is not possible to describe an ideology without evaluating it in the context of the presenter’s own ideology. This is an interesting example in of itself. Mannheim was a utopian writer and sociologist “Ideological analysis is always produced by a subject who in turn is subject to the same ideological scrutiny she performs on others.”– Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia p 76-77. In attempting to study an ideology of a culture, we need a mechanism to study meaning. (p. 196)

Theories to describe ideological resolution in culture: interest theory and strain theory. Interest theory sees ideology as Machiavellian in nature , strain theory sees things as a stress minimization problem (p. 202). Both are weak for their refusal to find symbolic formulation of ideology. (p. 207) “Whatever their other differences, both so-called cognitive and so-called expressive symbols or symbol-systems have, then, at least one thing in common: they are extrinsic sources of information in terms of which human life can be patterened–extrapersonal mechanisms for the perception, understanding, judgment, and manipulation of the world. Culture patterns–religious, philosophical, aesthetic, scientific, ideological–are ‘programs’; they provide a template or blueprint for the organization of social and psychological processes, much as genetic systems provide such a template for the organization of organic processes.” (p. 216) Ideologies render incomprehensible situations as being meaningful. Ideology explains what something is (good, bad, etc) via its symbolic association. (p. 220) Classically, this is the example where ideology saves individuals from thinking about things. But thinking really is just consideration of multiple ideologies and manipulating them symbolically.

Culture and computer programs! Geertz talks about computer programs as systems which could be analogous to cultural systems, in as much as models may be described as symbolic blueprints. However, his take is somewhat dubious: suggesting that such a model is dependent on the degree wherein social systems can be rendered in ways that are more than metaphors. (p. 250) METAPHOR connection here is interesting, does Geertz think that this sociology is primarily metaphorical in nature? This viewpoint- that a programmatic construction is possible, seems to be espoused by Talcott Parsons, a neofunctionalist. “The workability of the Parsonian concept of culture rests almost entirely on the degree to which such a model can be constructed–on the degree to which the relationship between the development of symbol systems and the dynamics of social process can be circumstantially exposed, thereby rendering the depiction of technologies, rituals, myths, and kinship terminologies as man-made information sources for the directive ordering of human conduct more than a metaphor.” For Parsons, ideology is a special sort of symbol system.

An anthropological riddle: We wish to understand that culture which is untainted by Western influence, but we cannot understand or communicate with said culture without some influence that we might know their language and communicate with them. (p. 350) Semiotics emerge: The symbolic meaning originates as means of differentiating categories analogically. (p. 354)

Interesting fusion: Alfred Schutz: combines influences of Scheler, Weber, and Husserl with James, Mead, and Dewey. His work is on understanding the “other”, and derives several categories: Predecessors, successors, consociates, and contemporaries. (p. 364) Balinese ritual is of utmost importance for conducting social interaction: “lek” or “stage-fright” is disruption of theatric ritual process. This relates very closely to Goffman’s study of embarassment. (p. 402) The ritual of the cockfight is an expression of character. Highly ritual and formalized, has high symbolic importance. (p. 434) Operates on status heirarchy and loyalty: this is a performance and expression of such loyalty, it is a device ofr expressing social relationships and conflicts: deferences? (p. 441)

Reading Info:
Author/EditorGeertz, Clifford
TitleThe Interpretation of Cultures
Tagsmedia theory, dms, sociology, anthropology
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

1 Comment »

  1. […] To these gaps and failures in the scholarship of public relations I should add all the work of the generation of cultural and literary-minded anthropologists, perhaps starting with Clifford Geertz. […]

    Pingback by The Anthropology of Tiger Woods « Gathering the Light — December 3, 2009 @ 2:40 pm

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