The Interpretation of Cultures

Anthropology Independent Studies
Prof. S. Errington
Copyright © 1997, 2000 B. Collie Collier


In the last 50 to 70 years, anthropology as a discipline seems to have had an explosion of theory as to what precisely it was that ethnologists were studying (although this may simply be an artifact of my lack of exposure to other, earlier anthropological theorists). Geertz' book of essays seems to be his take on the problem, as well as some concrete examples of what it was he believed ethnologists were in fact aiming for. He writes with a sort of cheerful sarcasm on occasion, and makes no attempt to either write himself out of his ethnographies, nor hide his observations behind a smoke screen of pseudo-scientific objectivity.

To Geertz, anthropology seems to be beset by several inherent qualities (or difficulties). The recognition of such is vital to understanding this discipline, whereas a lack of realization of these facts leads ultimately to discreditation of cultural analysis. These qualities reside within the ethnologist, in a sense; the ethnographer must recognize that he is, in actual fact, entextualizing 'fictions,' rather than producing the actual, unembellished truths of the occurrences observed. True, participation within the culture can lead to a sort of "actor's" view of the motivations behind any particular set of actions, but ultimately the ethnologist can only relate the sense he makes of the substantive context the actions he observes or the stories he is told. What he witnesses is culture; what he writes down is a mode of representation, an interpretation. Furthermore, this interpretation (or 'verification') of the facts will of necessity be affected by the ethnologist's own perceptions and cultural beliefs. Recognition must be made of that also, rather than attempting to postulate some complete (and false) objectivity on the behalf of the researcher. Finally, the desires and/or motivations of the ethnographer should, as much as possible, be kept out of the research being done, as searching earnestly enough for a 'noble savage' (for example) almost guarantees it will eventually be created. To Geertz, anthropology is a field of learning, rather than a field of personal dreams.

Geertz also cheerfully savages some of anthropology's still extant or prevailing theoretical frameworks, noting amusingly how difficult it is to toss out permanently discredited theories in the soft sciences. He pays special attention to Levi-Strauss, demonstrating a very clear grasp of Levi-Strauss' intellectual framework at the same time as he dismantles it. To Geertz, cultural analysis is by its very nature neither a generalizable nor a predictive science. Ultimately he disdains the search for some common, over-arching essentialist or intellectual theme in humankind. Rather he suggests ethnographies should maintain their uniquely individual characteristics and contextualizations, and should simply report cultural behaviors and the ethnographer's understanding of the meaning of such actions. As he points out, social actions are comments on more than just themselves, and where an interpretation comes from does not determine where it can be impelled to go. Structuralism's (and several other -isms) pursuit of some sort of common, linking theme in mankind removes the wonderful particularity of each individual variety of cultural response, and replaces it with a dry, false pseudo-intellectualism; it is, as Geertz sarcastically notes, the size-up-and-solve school of thought.

When I first encountered him, I found Geertz to be rather a breath of fresh air in the rarefied theoretical essays I'd been reading. His writing was clear, often humorously illustrated with personal experience, and displayed a strong grasp of the theories he discussed, and he made no attempt to pretend he as the scientist was not affecting his views and interpretive results. Furthermore, he encapsulated nicely some vague uncertainties I'd had concerning the validity of some of the works I'd been reading; for example, how could cultural activities be reduced to binary oppositions, and what was the point of doing so? It is therefore (in its own fashion) just as amusing to see Geertz use (as, for example, in "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight") the very analysis technique he dismisses earlier in the essay -- he ties the culture to the act of cock-fighting, presenting the cock-fight as the society in microcosm.


Last Updated: Wed, Aug 5, 1997