This weeks citation classic:
C. Geertz - The interpretation of Cultures*
(by) Clifford Geertz,
School of Social Science, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton NJ 08540
After some years of publishing empirically oriented books and articles on Bali, Java and Morocco, which mostly specialists read, I collected in this volume the more theoretically pointed and attempted to explain the intellectual orientation lying behind my work in general, with the hope that I might attract a rather wider, if still essentially scholarly, audience. The result was as planned: all sorts of scholars began commenting, positively and negatively, on my work, and a number of general controversies, still unresolved, were opened.
The burden of my argument was that symbolic forms played a critical role in shaping social behaviour and that we lacked as yet very effective means for studying such forms. I proposed a few such means, but my main point was the need for them felt. This theme was then spun out more explicitly for various areas of anthropolofgical research, from hominid evolution, through religious and artistic expression, to political ideology, and ending with what has turned out to be my most famous, or notorious, single piece, my study of the 'Balinese cockfight'.
The argument of this piece, that the cockfight was a symbolic enactment of Balinese status and conflicts, has hardly persuaded everyone, and there has been a small secondary literature that has grown around it, both supportive and critical. Just why this piece has had such resonance (such that I expect to be remembered, if at all, as the man who wrote "that piece on cocks"); I don't quite know, perhaps it has something to do with the drama of it all and the somewhat personal tone of the opening section. The introductory "theoretical" essay, "Thick description", has become a bit of a slogan both within and without anthropology, mostly in service in opposition to "high science" views of social research.
Indded, what has been most surprising, and most rewarding to me, has been the fact that the book has had as significant an impact in neighboring fields - history, philosophy, criticism - as in anthropology as such, for I have never been fully happy wholly enclosed in the "profession" of anthropology, which, like my teacher, Clyde Kluckhohn, I have always regarded more as a poaching license than anything else. That this book was in fact produced after I left a university department of anthropology to go to a research institute where I was the only anthropologist, and still am, is perhaps not an accident.
In any case, the book has been widely translated, praised and attacked by turns, and is still much in print and selling. As a partisan of Belloc's jingle - "When I'm dead/ I hope it might be said:/ 'His sins were scarlet, but his books were read'" - this pleases me.
[For a brief history of popular-culture studies, see the recent review by C. Mukerji and M. Schudson1]
*) published as "This week's citation classic", in: Current Contents/ social and behavioral sciences (Philadelphia/PA/USA: Thomson Scientific Co./ Institute for Scientific Information), vol 33, no. 14 (August 15, 1988), print version, p. 14 (also in:
1) Mukerji, C and Schudson, M. Popular culture. Annual Review of Sociology, 12: 47-66, 1986.
Clifford Geertz: Commentary on a citation classic: the interpretation of cultures, in: Current Contents: social & behavioral sciences (Philadelphia/Pa./USA: Institute for Scientific Information), vol. 33, no. 14 (August 15, 1988), p. 14.
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