Anthropologist, Retracing Steps After 3 Decades, Is Shocked by Change

Article on and interview with Clifford Geertz, by Richard Bernstein

Clifford Geertz, the anthropologist, tells the story of visiting a family in a Javanese town in Indonesia recently when his hosts, remembering that a young American had attended the wedding of their daughter three decades before, showed him a photograph of that event. Mr. Geertz (pronounced GERTZ), one of the most influential anthropologists of recent times, looked at the picture, at first seeing nothing particular in it, only a young, slender foreigner with some Indonesian friends. Then he and his hosts realized something. The foreigner in the picture was Mr. Geertz.

The realization that what started out as a visit was really a reunion took place the year before last in the town of Pare in eastern Java, where Mr. Geertz, older and no longer particularly slender, was visiting the scene of earlier research.

Sharp Change in Views

Mr. Geertz, in fact, has been reflecting in general on anthropology, and particularly on recent visits to places he studied as a young man just starting out. And, while his overall conclusions are complex, his ''restudies'' have left him a bit shaken as he wonders how valid it is for some humans to study others, and whether, in the end, he may have been looking at others all along far more through the uncertain prism of himself than he could have realized.

For Mr. Geertz, a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., the project was unusual. Most anthropological studies are conducted by young scholars. They encounter their subjects for the first time, and most often never return to study them again. Mr. Geertz, who is a sturdy 62-year-old with a gray beard and a shock of gray hair, said he chose to go back to see how things had changed. And so, he spent six months in each of the towns in Java and Morocco, where he had lived and worked for two or three years in the 1950's and early 1960's.

The experience was unsettling, making him question, more than affirm, some of the ideas he had at the beginning of his career. This does not mean that Mr. Geertz has lost faith in anthropology as a discipline, although he says that many people in recent years have had serious crises of faith in it. Many of them, he said, have concluded that ethnographic research is necessarily distorted, full of the values and prejudices of the observer. ''I haven't lost confidence in myself,'' he said in an interview in Princeton, where his office looks over not Javanese rice paddies or Moroccan olive groves, but New Jersey woodland. But he said that he had lost confidence in some generally accepted notions of anthropology.

In a recent talk to an audience of scholars at New York University, Mr. Geertz summed up his observations with the remark that assessing change, figuring out where things are after three decades or so, turned out to be far more difficult and elusive than he expected before he embarked on his return trips.

A 'Shaking Experience'

''For me, it was a rather shaking experience,'' Mr. Geertz said. His visits to Indonesia and Morocco marked ''the reawakening of an imperfectly suppressed conviction that I never have understood and never will understand a damn thing about either of these peculiar places, or, for that matter, myself.'' ''Not only does the object of study change,'' he said, ''but the observer, in this case me, changes as well.'' ''Even the sorts of things that haven't changed are different,'' he said. ''All sorts of tonalities - emotional, moral, personal - have somehow altered.''

This is a remarkable reflection for an anthropologist with Mr. Geertz's reputation. His early field research fertilized a rich collection of books and articles, both describing the places he studied and drawing larger conclusions about the nature of social structure itself. As an early student of complex traditional societies with long histories and many layers of tradition, not of the sort of primitive island tribes visited by earlier anthropologists, Mr. Geertz developed important notions of what he likes to call interpretive anthropology. He looked at ''neglected matters'' such as rituals, myths, and art, and, rather than see them as mirrors of social structure, studied them for their own sake, using them to give a sense of ''what life really seemed like in these places for the people that actually lived in them.''

Now, Mr. Geertz's latest reflections, which he is preparing to put into a new book, seem to take anthropology ever farther from its earliest assumptions, which held that it could follow the methods of physics or chemistry and arrive at scientific knowledge of other cultures.

An Outmoded Notion

Many things have interfered with this notion, Mr. Geertz has found on his return visits. For one thing, the very idea that ''we have the science, you are our subjects'' has become outmoded. It seems to be a relic of an earlier period of Western colonialism, when non-Western peoples were somehow more primitive and had to be studied in a different way than the West itself. Then, there is the emergence of anthropologists from the places once studied, so that the West no longer has a monopoly on the field. There have been new scholarly developments. The very fact of being 30 years older and now established ''with tenure and mortgage,'' as Mr. Geertz puts it, is bound to alter perceptions.

He summed much of this up in a recent book, ''Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author,'' in which, among other things, he raises all of the recent qualms that have surfaced about field research and whether a Western observer can really understand what he calls ''enigmatical others on the grounds that you have gone about with them in their native habitat.''

During his recent visits to Indonesia and Morocco, Mr. Geertz found that the very passage of time had ''colored everything with a certain gravity I hadn't felt when, starting out rather than finishing up, the only direction I could look was forward.''

Village Elders as Source

If he rediscovered himself in a photograph taken 30 years earlier by people he no longer remembered meeting, many of the people he did remember were dead or feeble with age.

This is because as a young anthropologist he naturally tended to talk to village elders, who knew more than others. Returning, he found that he himself, unknown and unheralded in his first visits, had achieved renown in the towns, becoming even a part of recent local history. He was no longer just a young American asking ''too many questions.'' He had become ''very much of a known quantity.''

Mr. Geertz is still not entirely sure what to make of all of this, although he will be trying to puzzle it out as he writes his new book. But, in his talk at New York University, which he later felt made him sound more pessimistic than he really is, he seemed to be trying to lighten a sense of scholarly despair, or, at least, uncertainty, with a belief that anthropology should not be abandoned.

''We are all of many times and, simultaneously, live in different worlds differently changing,'' he said. ''And it is only in the crossings - Indonesia in 1952, Morocco in 1961, both of them in 1986 - that some flickering vision of what might be going on and where over all we might be, have been and may be going, comes uncertainly into view, soon to dissolve again into a ragged multiplicity.''


Anthropologist, Retracing Steps After 3 Decades, Is Shocked by Change, in: The New York Times (New York/N.Y./USA: Times Pub.), ISSN 0362-4331, May 11, 1988, Section B, Page 6.


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