Sociology Index

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Clifford James Geertz

Clifford James Geertz (August 23, 1926 – October 30, 2006) was an American anthropologist and sociologist, who is remembered mostly for his strong support for and influence on the practice of symbolic anthropology, and who was considered the single most influential cultural anthropologist in the United States. He served until his death as professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight" is a classic example of thick description. Many human actions can mean many different things, and Geertz insisted that the anthropologist needs to be aware of this. Historians tried to use these ideas about the 'meaning' of cultural practice in the study of customs and traditions of the past. Another of Geertz's philosophical influences is that of Ludwig Wittgenstein's post-analytic philosophy, from which Geertz incorporates the concept of family resemblances into anthropology. Geertz would also introduce anthropology to the "umwelt-mitwelt-vorwelt-folgewelt" formulation of Alfred Schütz's phenomenology, stressing that the links between the "consociate," "contemporary," "predecessor," and "successor" that are commonplace in anthropology derive from this very formulation. At the University of Chicago, Geertz became a champion of symbolic anthropology, a framework which gives prime attention to the role of symbols in constructing public meaning. In his seminal work The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), Geertz outlined culture as "a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life." Clifford James Geertz figures among eminent anthropologists and sociologists of the world.

Clifford James Geertz was one of the earliest scholars to see that the insights provided by common language, philosophy and literary analysis could have major explanatory force in the social sciences. Geertz aimed to provide the social sciences with an understanding and appreciation of “thick description.” Geertz applied thick description to anthropological studies, particularly to his own 'interpretive anthropology', urging anthropologists to consider the limitations placed upon them by their own cultural cosmologies when attempting to offer insight into the cultures of other people. He produced theory that had implications for other social sciences; for example, Geertz asserted that culture was essentially semiotic in nature, and this theory has implications for comparative political sciences.

Max Weber and his interpretative social science are strongly present in Geertz’s work. Drawing from Weber, Geertz himself argues for a “semiotic” concept of culture. Believing…that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun…I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretative one in search of meaning. It is explication I am after, construing social expression on their surface enigmatical. Geertz argues that to interpret a culture’s web of symbols, scholars must first isolate its elements, specifying the internal relationships among those elements and characterize the whole system in some general way according to the core symbols around which it is organized, the underlying structures of which it is a surface expression, or the ideological principles upon which it is based. It was his view that culture is public, because “meaning is,” and systems of meanings are what produce culture, because they are the collective property of a particular people.