An Interview with Clifford Geertz
RICHARD HANDLER Princeton, N.J., U.S.A. 27 VI 91
RH: I'd like to begin by asking what led you to anthropology.
CG: Well, it's sort of a strange story for me, because I didn't have any anthropology until I got to graduate school. I went to Antioch College in Ohio. I was in the Second World War, and after I got back, I went on the GI Bill to Antioch. Without the GI Bill I probably wouldn't have gone to college at all.
At Antioch, there was no anthropology taught. There was some course called that, but it wasn't anthropology. It was Eastern philosophy, or something like that. I didn't take it, anyway. There was hardly any social science. There was a little political science. I took a lot of economics; except for that, I took no social science. I was an undergraduate major at first in English. I wanted to be a novelist, which probably won't surprise people. I was writing novels, short stories, and poetry as well, and I kept doing that for some time. So I started out in English, with a notion of going into journalism, but that image was cracked for me by actually working on the New York Post as a copy boy in the Antioch co-op program. Being a journalist by day and a novelist by night is not a workable proposition.
After a while, I ran out of English courses and shifted my major-mainly because of the influence and intellectual power of an extraordinary teacher named George Geiger. He was a student of [John] Dewey's. He's not very well-known, but he was extraordinary--a marvelous teacher. Anyway, I got my final degree in philosophy. But the point is, I had no anthropology whatsoever. I thought that I'd go to graduate school in philosophy, but I didn't really want to do that because it was too abstract and nonempirical. Geiger, who had similar views, reinforced by the fact that he had graduated in the depth of the Depression and had had to drive a cab for a while, said, "Don't go into philosophy!" He knew Clyde Kluckhohn--how, I don't know--and he knew about the Social Relations Department, which had just then started up at Harvard. So he said, "Why don't you and Hilly [my wife then-who was an English major, I think, all the way through, but who was interested in art, and who also wanted to be empirical] think about Social Relations-actually, about anthropology?"
So that was the first thing that put it in my head, and in Hilly's, and we thought about it. Then a really funny thing happened. I think I may have written about this in an obituary of Margaret Mead [Geertz 1989:340]. Margaret used to be up in the tower in the American Museum of Natural History, and she had all these young women around her-kind of a harem-who worked for her. The ones I knew all thought she was great. One of them was at Antioch. It was, again, a co-op thing, and she had worked there, so she knew Margaret. She herself was not interested in going into anthropology, but she said, "I can get you an interview with Margaret Mead." So we went to see Margaret in the tower. She didn't know us from Adam; all she knew was that we were two young kids from college in the Middle West wanting to go into anthropology. And she spent, I think, five hours with us, showing us her field notes from Bali, all kinds of field notes, urging us to go, and we left persuaded that this was, for us, a chance. She understood what we were about, and that this was the kind of freedom we could have in anthropology--to do anything and call it anthropology (which you still can do!). So we left persuaded, and applied to Social Relations. In those days, there were very few anthropological graduate students in Social Relations. There were a number at Peabody, but only about five or six were admitted every year in Social Relations. Both Hilly and I got in, and went. So that's how I became an anthropologist.
The other funny story is this. I said, "I don't know what this damned field is!" So I went to Widener Library, which is enormous--books by the hundreds in the anthropology section. I just walked in and took a book off the shelf that looked as if it might tell me what this field was all about. I took it home and read it. It was Murdock's Social Structure . And I said to Hilly, "We've made a disastrous mistake! This is not for us." I'm not knocking the book, but it's obviously not my temperament. I told this story years later to Pete [Murdock]. He didn't seem to find it funny, but I thought it was hilarious. But I found out that that wasn't the kind of anthropology that was going on in Social Relations anyway.
RH: When did you start in Social Relations?
CG: In 1950. It was extraordinary. The first year there were four introductory courses in the four fields. I took sociology with Talcott Parsons, and Frank Sutton was involved. I took anthropology from Clyde Kluckhohn, clinical psychology from Harry Murray, and social psychology from Gordon Allport. Then I had two seminars, one in methodology, from Ben Paul, and one in theory in anthropology, from Evon Vogt. Then I took a course in social psychology from Jerome Bruner and David Krech and, in the next year or two, sociology courses from Alex Inkeles. It was an unbelievable richness of teaching and work. A number of people like David Schneider were around-and, of course, George Homans. I took a course with him and David together, while they were preparing their book on Levi -Strauss [Homans and Schneider 1955].
It was an extraordinary program. There's been nothing like it since. I've never been able to figure out why it couldn't reproduce itself. It was a one-generation thing, essentially-one or one-and-a-half. People who were constructed by it, created by it--myself, Bob Bellah, Neil Smelser, the list goes on and on--didn't come back. A number of us were asked, but none came back. It sort of dissolved. But for those few years, it was extraordinarily vital, and for my temperament it was just exactly the place. I took some straight archaeology from Hal Movius, about beakers, which I dutifully did, and it was good, but it didn't grab me. I took some ethnography courses--Oceania from Douglas Oliver--but I didn't have to take a lot of stones and bones.
So I spent two years soaking all this up and working enormously hard, because we loved it--both of us. Then Clyde gave me a job on what was then called the Ramah Project, later called the Rimrock Project, in the Southwest. I didn't actually go out there; it was just a summer's job to go over the field notes that had been collected-they were collected HRAF-style in big files-by all the people who had worked out there and to do a study of drought, death, and alcohol in the five cultures that were being studied. That was the first professional thing I wrote, though it's never been published.
Toward the end of the summer, Doug Oliver came into Clyde's office, where I was working, and said, "How would you and Hilly like to go to Indonesia?" Here I should mention that the day I arrived, John Pelzel, who was an anthropologist of Japan, a very good one, had asked me, "What area do you want to study?" and I remember that as traumatic because I had no idea about the field. I had thought vaguely about going to Latin America, but not much more than vaguely. So when Oliver came in and said, "We have a place for you and Hilly. We need somebody to study religion, and somebody to study kinship and the family. How would you like to go?," I said the equivalent of, "Yes--where is it?"
RH: Where did the funding come from?
CG: It was a joint Harvard-M.I.T. project, but at that time it was largely Harvard-organized. The funding was Ford. The Center for International Studies at M.I.T. was just getting started--it was still on the drawing board--but this project was put into that as the first thing it was going to do. When we went out, there was nothing there. When we came back, it was an established, ongoing organization with a lot of people in it.
RH: So when you went out to do research, you were plugged into a project; you were part of a group. How was that as training?
CG: It was great as training. In the first place, it had a lot of money for those days. Clyde was good at getting money! For a whole year, before we went in, we had intensive linguistic training, first with Isidore Dyen, who at that time was the most famous MalayoPolynesianist linguist. And then Rufus Hendon replaced him after a while, and Rufus also was extraordinary. We had one or two Indonesian informants who would come in, and we had pattern sentences that Dyen had worked out for studying Indonesian. At that time, almost no one knew Indonesian. The country had just become independent at the end of 1950, and this was 1951. We met every weekend, all of us. Intensive isn't the word for it. We studied Indonesian from morning to night each weekend, while we were also still being graduate students.
So we got to know each other rather well before we went. We were a group, though when we went into the field we decided rather early on not to operate as a group. Some of the people never got there. Rufus Hendon was the head of it. He did some research on language but largely didn't involve himself in ethnography. There were Hilly and I, Bob Jay, who worked on village organization, Don Fagg, a sociologist who worked on bureaucracy, Alice Dewey, who worked on the market, and Ed Ryan, who studied the Chinese minority in the town. We started off with notions of exchanging field notes, making the whole thing a collective, group project, but we decided to do our own work. And it wasn't because we fell out. We got along rather well, but we all decided to do our own work and then come back and talk to each other. And that's what we did.
Douglas Oliver was supposed to be the head of it. At the last minute, he said he was ill and couldn't go. So we had to go out--we went to Jogjakarta, a big court and university town--without a leader. This made things extremely difficult, because the project had been planned as a cooperative project not only between Harvard and M.I.T. but between Harvard-M.I.T. and Gadjah Mada University in Jogjakarta. The notion was that there would be an Indonesian graduate student paired with each of the young Americans. This was right after Independence, and the Indonesians were rather suspicious. They thought that they had been deceived because there were three professors on their side and we had no leader-none of us could assume leadership. We were all graduate students, none of us was a professor, and they had three major professors. And they were fierce nationalists. So that made for extreme tension.
The other thing that happened is that we didn't know what arrangements had been made. And the arrangements were that we would all go up into a resort areathe--only place in Central Java that they don't grow rice! It was up in the mountains, and we were all supposed to sit there and call people in and question them, as the Dutch had done. And of course, we had been trained to do everything else! So we said we didn't want to do this, and the whole thing broke down. Then Ed, Hilly, Don, and I took a tour through eastern Java and chose the place we finally wanted to study. By this time the Indonesians had decided they didn't want anything to do with it, so when Rufus came there was some question about whether the project would go on at all. He then went to Jakarta and got a two-hour lecture from the minister of culture-but they let us do it. So we went off to Pare and worked independently of Gadjah Mada, though after a while we reestablished good relations with them.
We did two and a half years' of work in Pare, and then we came back and wrote our theses. It was called Modjokuto in all the published stuff, but I now write Pare--everybody in Indonesia knows the name of it. The people in Pare know that we studied it, and they have the books in translated form, and they read them. The last time I was there, in 1986, one of my oId informants had gone through the Indonesian translation of the social history of the town that I wrote [Geertz 1965]. I had changed the names of the people as well as the town, but he wrote all the right names in and photocopied it and sent it around to everybody.
RH: Did you set out simply to study the village, with Hilly studying kinship and you studying religion?
CG: I was interested in the sociology of religion. That's why Clyde recommended us to Oliver--that Hilly was working on kinship and family, and I was working on religion. They wanted somebody for those slots. But I did have--because you had to have a thesis proposal, a hypothesis (which I don't believe in, and didn't then, but you had to do it)--a test of the Weberian hypothesis, that the strongly Muslim sector would be the functional equivalent of the Protestants in the Reformation.
When I got there, I got interested in so many other things about religion that I didn't do that much, but I still did a little of it, and that's what Peddlers and Princes [Geertz 1963a] comes out of--the peddlers part, anyway, is an attempt to do that. I didn't write the thesis on that, and I didn't spend most of my time on that, but I was interested in it. And the hypothesis turns out, like most hypotheses, to be half true and half not. But that wasn't the first thing I wrote. The first was the thesis on Javanese religion, which was published essentially unchanged [Geertz 1960], except for the last chapter. I studied everything, as we all do, and we were taught to do-that was Clyde's argument-but I was supposed to produce on religion, and Hilly's thesis turned out to be the Javanese family book [H. Geertz 1961].
RH: What led you to write Agricultural Involution [Geertz 1963b]?
CG: As I said, while we were away, the Center for International Studies at M.LT. took form. When I got back, there were all kinds of economists there. Some of them by then were beginning to work in Indonesia, and they gave me a research fellowship the second year I was back. (The first year all I did was write the thesis.) I had been puzzled about the problems that are raised in Agricultural Involution locally, in Pare, because I wanted to see whether anthropology could speak from small problems to large. The economists were interested in development, and so was I. So I shifted away from religion for the moment and wrote Agricultural Involution during that year, when I was surrounded by economists and thinking about economic problems. Then the social history book [Geertz 1965] is in part--at least the first half of it--an attempt to go back and see how it worked out locally as well. Actually, the reverse order is how it happened. I worked off a hypothesis in connection with Pare, then tried to use historical and gen… eral material from elsewhere in Java to see whether I could make it work for Java as a whole.
RH: Writing about development is of course in line with the Weberian program.
CG: Yes, I was still quite a Weberian at that time.
RH: But did you find yourself at odds with these development economists?
CG: Not personally. They were good guys. They were conducting their education in public. They went out first with a very technical approach to things. Then they suddenly found that, well, the politics here isn't like the politics at home, so you have to know something about the political system. Then they saw that the political system is encased in a society and that they needed to know something about the society. So then they got interested a little more in our work-that there were cultural ideas out there, different notions about what was going on. They were rather open-minded in that way; they almost had to be, because they were there as advisors, and they weren't getting anywhere giving advice to the Sukarno government. They were often frustrated by "cultural attitudes," which they didn't understand-not that we understood them, but we were not surprised that they were confronted with them. So in that sense, my constant mission was to try to broaden them-and also, to learn economics from them. I got along with these guys well, although we had lots of arguments. Anyway, that led to Agricultural Involution and later on to Social History. Peddlers and Princes came out of my original notions, after I'd studied Bali. I wrote that somewhat later, when I was at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Palo Alto.
RH: What did you do after you left the Center for International Studies?
CG: I had a year teaching at Harvard, because Vogt was away for a year, and I taught his courses. Then Hilly and I went back to Bali. I was still interested in the cultural dimensions not just of development but of social change of all sorts. I had studied Java, which is mixed--a little Hinduism, a little Buddhism, a little Islam (those are terms I don't like with respect to Indonesia, but you know what I mean--it's a stew). So I thought that the next strategic move, methodologically, would be to go to Bali, which is Hindu, for four months, go to Minangkabau, in western Sumatra, which is Islamic and matrilineal, and then go to the northern Celebes, to the Minahas sa, who are Christian, and have this kind of triangulation on the whole problem of what culture means to development and change.
We went to Bali and did the four months there, and then went to Minangkabau. But when we arrived there, civil war broke out, and we were behind the lines. That's a long story--I've just written about it--but the long and short of it is that we fled across Sumatra to an oil camp. The oil camp was captured by a parachute invasion, and we went back to Bali. So we did a year in Bali in the end, without being able to get to the Minahassa. In that sense it was a failed plan, though I think we were lucky; I don't think it would've worked. It was unrealistic. And my work in Bali would've been quite insufficient if I had just had the four months that I had before going back.
RH: Did the Balinese work involve new language training?
CG: No, I never learned Balinese very well. I worked mostly in Indonesian. I knew Javanese. During the time when we were stranded for eight months in Jogjakarta, before we got into Pare, Hilly and I were studying Javanese extremely intensively. By the time we got to Pare, we spoke Javanese well. We didn't do that for Bali, partly because I thought we were only going to be there for four months. I worked in Indonesian well enough, although I wish I had learned Balinese. But after a year or so, a lot of it seeps in, and you get some idea of what… people are saying. In a couple of cases I worked in a triangular way, with an Indonesian-Balinese-speaker and a monolingual Balinese-speaker. You know--you try all kinds of gimmicks.
I came back to the Center for the Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford in 1958-59. By then I had a job at Berkeley, which I suppose Clyde had arranged. I was at Berkeley in 1959-60. Then I went to the University of Chicago for ten years, from 1960 to 1970.
RH: Why did you go from Berkeley to Chicago?
CG: I wasn't particularly dissatisfied at Berkeley, although I was a little overworked as an assistant professor. But the year we were at Palo Alto, Edward Shils, a sociologist, and David Apter, a political scientist, were planning the Comparative Study of New Nations program and asked me whether I might be interested in it. So, in the middle of the year I was at Berkeley, I got this offer to come to Chicago, where in the first two or three years I wouldn't be doing any teaching at all-I'd just be working in research again, which I really like. I would be half-time in the anthropology department and start teaching after that. So it was mightily attractive, and that's why I went.
When you look at my career, the amount of time I've spent in a wholly anthropological environment is minuscule. Social Relations wasn't one, nor was the year in Palo Alto. There was the year in Berkeley, when I was really drowned in an anthropology department. The one thing I didn't like about Berkeley was that it was so huge that the anthropology department was as large as Antioch! I never got a chance to see anybody else. Then with the Comparative Study of New Nations, again--Tom Fallers was on it, and he was an anthropologist, and McKim Marriott. But there was a law professor, Max Rheinstein, and of course Shils and Apter, and Aristide Zolberg and Leonard Binder, political scientists, and Harry Johnson, an economist who had a lot of influence on it. I learned a lot from him. He was in some ways a hard-line Chicago economist, though he wasn't as conservative politically as some of them. But he had a very powerful mind--so we had a lot to do with each other, as I did with all these people.
The program didn't give degrees, but we had fellows.
The one thing that did happen that was terrific the year I was at Berkeley is that I gave a course on Indonesia, and out of that course I produced a lot of converts--Nancy Tanner, Jim Siegel, Al Hudson. I've never been as efficient at spreading the word as I was that one year. I was working very hard, and I was young and enthusiastic. So in time I brought some of these people to Chicago as fellows. Every year we had five or six fellows. We had a seminar once a week, and it led to the book that I edited, Old Societies and New States [Geertz 1963c].
RH: Before we leave Berkeley too far behind, let me ask you if you met Kroeber when you were there.
CG: I did meet him. Actually, I had heard from him earlier. The first paper I published-not the very first, but the first in an anthropology journal-was the funeral paper in the American Anthropologist [Geertz 1957], and I got a very nice note from him out of the blue-just about three lines-saying that he'd read the paper and liked it very much. Kroeber was of course retired by the time I got there, and he was living up in the Berkeley hills. And I didn't see much of him until I had decided to leave, and he asked me to come up and see him. We had a long talk about why I was leaving. He had some wry things to say about the department, but I tried to assure him that my leaving was due to the nature of the Chicago offer. And he had been teaching at Chicago during the spring, when the weather was good, so he said, "Okay, it makes sense for you." It was a very warm conversation. I had seen him once before, when I was a student and Clyde brought him to Harvard to give a lecture. But by the time I got to Berkeley, he was a fairly distant presence.
RH: Did you have much interaction with David Schneider at Berkeley?
CG: Yes, because I knew David from Harvard. David was on my oral examination committee, for the doctorate. We were good friends already. So I saw a lot of David. The person that I discovered at Berkeley was Tom Fallers. So Tom and I got very close, and David and I already were.
The Chicago experience was extraordinary. Fred Eggan was the benevolent chief of it all-along with Robert Braidwood, Norman McQuown, Milton Singer, and Sol Tax. I've never seen or met a group of senior anthropologists as open to younger anthropologists in my entire life. Their attitude was, "Okay, you want to revolutionize the place? Revolutionize it!" There was a group of young people in addition to David, Tom, and myself--McKim Marriott, Manning Nash, Robert Adams, Clark Howell--who were very lively and who talked to each other. So every week for a year or so we all gathered--the older and the younger--and changed the entire syllabus of the anthropology department, the whole program. We introduced the core courses, which are still there. We introduced the notion that there's more to the history of anthropology than appears in The History of Ethnological Theory [Lowie 1937]--some notion that we had other ancestors besides people just called anthropologists. The point is that they couldn't have been more supportive in allowing the inmates to take over the asylum. Not only did they let us do it, they really were enthusiastic about it.
RH: Against what were you revolutionizing?
CG: It had settled into a four-field approach, with distribution requirements--it was fairly straight anthropological. In all fairness, the way for us had been prepared by people like Singer, and Redfield, who was dead by the time I got there. Fred was very open, but he was in a social-structuralist tradition. Radcliffe-Brown had been there, and that was still very strong when we got there. And I don't think any of us were very excited about Radcliffe-Brown, social structure, and so on. My sense is that of all the leading American anthropology departments, Chicago was the most British, the most socialstructuralist.
RH: Why was Radcliffe-Brown not important to you? Was he not taught at Harvard?
CG: He was taught at Harvard--but sort of negligently, because Clyde didn't like him. But that wasn't the reason I didn't like it. I didn't like it because it was positivist social science. I just didn't believe it. I think some of Radcliffe-Brown is interesting, but it wasn't my kind of social science. Milton Singer and I have been quarreling in a friendly way over this for years. Radcliffe-Brown, Milton says--and I think probably rightly--was trying to put Bertrand Russell's program of rationalist empiricism into anthropology. I came out of a nonscientific background, and I never did buy this stuff. I found the British tradition constricting--and still do.
RH: So you picked up Weber in graduate school.
CG: Yes, Talcott Parsons was teaching. The Structure of Social Action [Parsons 1937] is where I first discovered Weber.
RH: Was Durkheim also taught?
CG: Sure, because, again, of The Structure of Social Action. Clyde always said that Radcliffe-Brown's major contribution to anthropology was his ability to read French, meaning he had stolen it all from Durkheim. That's a bit unfair. But there were some people among the students at Social Relations--especially people from Peabody--who were taken with Radcliffe-Brown. So I remember discussions even then about whether this was the science of the future--you know, his famous statement that social structure is as real as a seashell, that sort of thing. It's a mentality that I don't take to! Some of the students who were Radcliffe-Brownians at Harvard had been undergraduates at Chicago. Chicago was the main dispersal point for British social anthropology--and Fred's terrific book The Social Organization of the Western Pueblos [Eggan 1950] furthered it in the profession generally.
RH: David Schneider once told me that in his younger years the scientific position was rather tyrannically--that's my word--in power.
CG: At which places?
RH: I think he meant in general.
CG: I think it probably was. Perhaps not "tyrannically," but the dream was very much alive--even in Talcott Parsons, who was going to be the Newton of social science. I got along with Talcott very well--he just absorbed me somewhere in the system, and I even taught a course with him. And I liked him a lot. But I never bought that, and I was never forced to buy it. The scientific thing was also, in a different version, in Homans, too. And I took courses from him, and wrote papers attacking his position, and that was all right for him. So it wasn't "tyrannical," but it was very lively. We had choices. I didn't feel I didn't have choices, but I felt I had to fight against it. There weren't as many models to follow then as there are now. And even I felt at the time that maybe there was something to it, that maybe we could build a science of society. I never really bought it, but I entertained the idea-even tried to do it once in a while, with both the Homans and the Parsons systems, but gave it up as an impossible job--for me, anyway.
Both at Harvard and at Chicago what I remember is the openness of it. I got away with murder! I wasn't pressured into any mold that I didn't want to be in, and was allowed to do more or less what I wanted and to have some impact in doing it. When you talk about what we were in revolt against--it's hard to speak of being in revolt against something when the people who were supposedly the custodians of orthodoxy were so supportive!
The Cambridge conference was a great transition point. Now it does come back to me how British the old guard was--especially Fred. He was the one American anthropologist the British all liked, because they felt he was carrying their message over here. So he and Max Gluckman organized this enormous summit meeting in the summer of 1963 [Conference on New Approaches in Social Anthropology, Jesus College, Cambridge, June 24-30]. They brought all kinds of American and British anthropologists together [Conference on New Approaches in Social Anthropology 1965a, b, 1966a, b]. On the American side there were Marshall Sahlins, Eric Wolf, Tom Fallers, David Schneider, Mel Spiro, and others. On the British side there were Michael Banton, Gluckman, Meyer Fortes, and others. We all gave papers, David's "Some Muddles in the Models" [Schneider 1965], my "Religion as a Cultural System" [Geertz 1966], and many others. That was the first time that there really had been that kind of interaction between us and them. There was a little tension-but more tension between Oxford and Cambridge! E-P [E. E. Evans- Pritchard]'s nose was out of joint, and the Oxford people didn't participate much. Anyway, it was a very good conference. I managed to annoy Max Gluckman mightily by what I said, but again, Fred mediated it. I think those articles--those four books--were quite important. They broke down the sharpness of the division between British social anthropology and American cultural anthropology.
RH: At Chicago, did you and the colleagues with whom you were close have a consciousness of the development of a new or renewed symbolic anthropology?
CG: I think that the first people to call it that were outside, but we began to adopt it. The way we mostly thought of it in those times was, again, in terms of the culture/social-structure opposition. We wanted to get culture, however defined, back in the picture. We had different views about what culture meant, but that we held in common--we really felt strongly that the cultural dimension of things needed to be revitalized.
RH: Where were people getting their notions of culture? For example, did you get it from Weber?
CG: And from Talcott, and from Clyde.
RH: Were there any people who were straight Boasians?
RH: How does Ruth Benedict figure in all this?
CG: Benedict was important for David, and for me, but I don't think for anybody else. Tom Fallers was very Weberian. He had been involved with Reinhard Bendix at Berkeley, but he already had had Weber, when he was at Chicago, from people like Frank Knight. And he was a crossover, because he had worked in Uganda with Audrey Richards. So he was very involved with British anthropology, more than the rest of us--more positively inclined toward it, but he also wanted to revise it and culturalize it. But what isn't true is that we all sat down someplace and said, "Let's give birth to symbolic anthropology." And you shouldn't underestimate the power of organizing and teaching the core courses. One was called "The Human Career" and dealt with physical anthropology and archaeology. Then there was a sociocultural-cum-psychological side of it, called "Systems." That was the Parsons notion of systems. We discussed the courses a great deal, for several years. Once we got them in place--which was fairly quickly--and began to teach them, we began to think about students in terms of them and to design examinations in terms of them--I think it did form a universe of discourse. But it didn't form a school.
RH: I've always identified myself as a symbolic or interpretive anthropologist, but I identify strongly with the Boasian tradition. It's easy to see a link between Weber and the Boasians--they both come out of German historicism. But as you tell the story of trying to revitalize the notion of culture, except for some attention to Ruth Benedict the Boasian tradition seems absent.
CG: There was another figure to whom we all paid a great deal of attention--and this comes from Clyde and his view of things--and that's Sapir. Sapir was important to all of us. That's when the Sapir volume came out [Mandelbaum 1949]--when I was at Harvard. And that's actually some of the connection between the old guard and the new guard, because he was important to Fred and Milton as well. It's hard sometimes to cite Sapir, because his influence was so diffuse and essayistic, but he was terribly important. Benedict was somewhat important. Kroeber had some influence. But the straightline Boasian tradition was felt to be undertheorized--although I now begin to think that Boas wasn't quite as bad as I then thought. (We were, if anything, a little overtheorized, especially those of us who came out of Harvard.) The image of Boas himself was of someone who collected fish recipes. There was a feeling that he meant well but that he didn't think much.
RH: What about Margaret Mead?
CG: No, Mead wasn't very important. She later became important to me because of Bali, and I still feel warmly toward her. She was read--everyone was read--but she wasn't important.
When you talk about German historicism--one of the things I tried to do when I got around to teaching the history-of-anthropology section in the core course was what George Stocking was doing--saying that we should look at German historicism, not just the British utilitarians. So I started with Herder. I did a series of seven or eight lectures giving a different genealogy, attacking two notions: one, the notion that anthropology comes mainly out of the British utilitarians, which I think is not the case--or, at least, not my case; maybe it's true for British social anthropology--and the other, the notion that the only ancestors of anthropologists are other anthropologists. Both of these notions I wanted to do away with. So I taught Herder, Humboldt, Dilthey, through that whole tradition, which at that time was unknown, certainly to American anthropologists and probably in general. And that's because I came out of a philosophical background and knew about German historicism, idealism, and the Neo-Kantian movement. So did Kroeber--so there was some influence from Kroeber, as well.
RH: What was the impact of Levi-Strauss at Chicago? I was an undergraduate at Columbia between 1968 and 1972, and I remember that Levi-Strauss's work caused an enormous stir at the time.
CG: It was true at Harvard. Clyde was one of the first to get to know him and his work--he had known him during the war. And Schneider and Homans were very interested in him--they wrote that book [Homans and Schneider 1955] which led to that famous argument with Needham [Needham 1962]. I was in the seminar in which that was more or less hatched. But at Chicago I don't remember too much excitement about LeviStrauss. I guess most of us wanted to go another way. We all read him, and knew about him, but I can't think of a really strong Levi-Straussian around there at the time. Later on, Nur Yalman came, and he was interested in Levi-Strauss and Dumont.
RH: It's interesting that you have a reemergence of symbolic anthropology based on Weber, some of the Boasians, Talcott Parsons--wouldn't Levi-Strauss's attention to myth also fit in?
CG: The attention to myth came later. Totemism [Levi-Strauss 1963] had some effect, but during most of the time I was at Chicago Levi-Strauss was known for his kinship work. La pensee sauvage [Levi-Strauss 1962] was puzzling--it took people a couple of years to understand it. My own opposition to Levi-Strauss is my general opposition to rationalism, but I still think he did more than perhaps any other single person to make the kind of work we do possible. So in that sense, he is part of it--though he may not want to be. But historically, at Chicago, I don't think he was important. After I left, perhaps, he was.
RH: How about saying it this way--that he opened anthropology up by providing a major alternative to British theory?
CG: I think that's true. The main positive thing I have to say about him--and I have a lot positive to say about him--is that he made what I wanted to have happen happen. He made anthropology an intellectual discipline. He made it theoretical, intellectual, philosophical; he related it to general intellectual currents in the world. He got it out of the craft mold. He got it out of the empiricist data-collecting business and introduced a note of French intellectuality--intellectuality in general--into it. And that, I think, is a major contribution. Ever since Levi-Strauss, anthropologists have realized that they're supposed to think. That really wasn't the case before. I'm not saying that none of them did--but that it was a demanding intellectual discipline, that it had broad connections, that its rayonnement was great--that all comes from Levi-Strauss, as much as from any other single figure. Whether he likes what he wrought is another question!
Levi-Strauss got an honorary degree, just before I left Chicago. I was deputized to write the citation. I met him at the airport with Fred. It was the first time I'd met him. We sat and talked for a long time. I had just written "The Cerebral Savage" [Geertz 1967], and I was quite nervous because it wasn't an altogether complimentary article. He was very cordial. We talked about all kinds of things. We had just had a cyclone, and the first thing he asked when he got off the plane was from which direction the wind had come, because it had something to do with the Ojibwa--it was very amusing. But he didn't say anything about my piece. Then, just at the end of our three-hour conversation, he said, "I read your piece in Encounter." And I said the equivalent of, "Yes?" And he said, "Very interesting--a little nasty, but interesting," and dropped the subject. So he was very nice.
RH: It was about this time that you started working in Morocco. How did you decide on that?
CG: In 1965, Indonesia blew up. There were large-scale massacres. By that time, I had two small children. Already by 1963 things were bad in Indonesia, and I had decided that I would not go back there again for a while. For a while I thought to go to Bengal, which would've been even worse! I was going to work on both sides--Pakistani Bengal and Indian Bengal--in my usual uncontrolled-comparison sort of way. So I studied Bengali for a while.
But I was at the famous meeting in Cambridge, and I said to someone, "I'd really like to find a place to match Indonesia." I also wanted to get two places--if you end up with just one country, you get tunnel vision of a sort that I didn't want. And, as I said, I had been toying with the idea of Bengal, but I didn't want to go there either, because I realized it wouldn't be good with my kids. So I said all this to somebody--somebody at the Cambridge conference, but I can't for the life of me remember who. And whoever it was said, "You should go to Morocco. It's politically calm--authoritarian, but calm. It's reasonably healthy--it's dry. It's Muslim--the other end of the Islamic world, and you can compare it with Indonesia." And it just hit me that this was exactly what I wanted to do! So as soon as this summit conference was over, I took off and went to Rabat instead of going home. I leased a Peugeot and drove over the whole countrywhich you can do in Morocco--at about 90 miles an hour, for about a month or six weeks, through almost every small town in the country. I wanted to get another small town to compare with the Indonesian site. And I finally chose Sefrou to work in. I was convinced of it. I came back and told Hilly, "This is a great idea for us," and she was up for it.
I studied classical Arabic in Chicago while I was teaching. Also, there were some Moroccans in the business school studying statistics, from whom we learned colloquial Arabic. Then we went back and spent six months in Rabat learning Arabic, the same way we'd learned Indonesian in Jogjakarta--with the same Indonesian pattern sentences. We worked with relays of college students, so we studied from morning till night. It's a very good way to learn a language.
Then we came back. I didn't want to try again the type of group project we had in Indonesia. I had a different idea in mind, a chain-letter sort of thing: Hilly and I went first; then Larry Rosen came about two months before we left, and he stayed, and we came back about a month or two before he left, and we stayed for another year, and Paul Rabinow overlapped with us, and then Tom Dichter. So the place was covered--Hilly and I went, I think, three times, and then I went back again a couple of years ago. From about 1965 through the early seventies, there was one of us there almost all the time. Again, we didn't work as a collective, we all did our own work. So it was a different kind of group. There were never more than two or three of us there at a time, and most of the time there was only one person there. Dale Eickelman also came. He didn't work in Sefrou. He was a Chicagoan who had tried to get into Syria or Iraq and couldn't, so he came to Morocco. I saw him, and then he got into another town. So there was that kind of student-faculty relationship.
RH: What problems preoccupied you in the Moroccan work? How did you approach it?
CG: I was taken up with this notion of the two ends of the Islamic world--the difference between a society which had been Indic for a thousand years and then became Muslim and one that had been Muslim almost from the start. That was the original problematic of it all, and it led to Islam Observed [Geertz 1968], which I gave as lectures at Yale. Also, it was another place, and I wanted to compare-to study in Morocco the same kinds of things I studied in Java and Bali. So I worked on the market again--that was probably the most sustained research I did there--and Hilly worked on kinship again, and I also worked on religion and economics again. The comparative angle was in my head from the very start, and the book I'm working on now is the summation of that comparison.
RH: Why did you leave Chicago in 1970?
CG: I was offered a job here at the Institute [for Advanced Study] two years before that and turned it down, because I liked Chicago so much. But finally, I was in Morocco, and I was writing to Carl Kaysen--an economist now at M.I.T. who was at that time the director here and who had made me the offer--and I mentioned that I sometimes wondered whether I had made the right decision. He wrote back and offered me the job again. It was too good an opportunity to turn down. I was being asked to found a school of social science--I would be the first person in it--and more or less to shape it to my ends. I would be involved primarily in research, which I really like. As I say, I really did want to stay in Chicago, and it was an agonizing decision. But I had a lot of stuff on Morocco, and if I went back to teaching again, it would have been years before I could've finished it. If I came here, I could do it. But it wasn't so much that-it only happens once in a lifetime, if ever, that you're given carte blanche to make something happen. So I came, and with much travail, have--it now exists!
RH: Tell me about the program you've created here.
CG: The Institute is four schools--Mathematics, Physics, Historical Studies, and Social Science. The School of Social Science cannot represent all of the social sciences--and we don't have to. We took the kind of approach that had come out of Chicago, which was broadly interpretive. The first person that I nominated was Bob Bellah, but there was a great struggle--some people here were very hostile to social science. Kaysen brought it in against their better judgment. And some of that tension remains, although it's not as bad as it was. We prevailed, and Bellah was appointed, but he didn't stay--he went back to Berkeley. Then Albert Hirschman came. He and I brought Michael Walzer, and we three then settled on Joan Scott. We have one more appointment to make.
We decided early on that we wouldn't try to replicate the social sciences in little here. Rather, we would try to take a somewhat orthogonal line and create a school of interpretive social science--which wasn't, again, a school, because we do quite different things and we don't all agree about everything. We also invite fellows each year. When you set up a place like this, you can have, for example, Levi-Strauss in one cubicle, and Kenneth Arrow in the next cubicle, and some other demigod in the next one--who would have nothing much to say to each other. And I decided not to do that but to have people at various levels of accomplishment. We only have about 15 or 20 people a year, so we try to give it some form by having people who are working in similar areas. We have a theme every year, with which about half the people who come are directly involved, and we have regular seminars during the year. That's what goes on here.
RH: Can you comment on the development of anthropology in the last two decades? My sense of it is that symbolic or interpretive anthropology, which comes out of Chicago, to some extent, had by the mid-1970s become, perhaps not dominant in American anthropology, but certainly well established. Then in the 1980s we see not so much a critique of symbolic anthropology as a variety of new directions that take off from it.
CG: You're right that that development occurred, although I don't see the transition as being a sharp one. George Marcus was here when some of the new work began. I was beginning to think about writing Works and Lives [Geertz I988], and I invited Marcus in 1982-83 because he was interested in that sort of thing. He had written, though not yet published, a piece on Bateson [Marcus 1985]. That year we talked about such issues a lot. James Clifford is a little different, because he came in at an angle, from history and literature at Harvard. I had known him before his book on [Maurice] Leenhardt [Clifford I982] came out--a book which wasn't as original as I thought it would be. It was a good study, but there was nothing wildly adventurous about it. But since then he's been writing very interesting things, from a nonpractitioner standpoint--which I think is good. I don't like practitioner history, because it tends to be Whiggish. I think nonpractitioner history is very important to anthropology, and both George Stocking and Clifford, in quite different ways, are doing it.
With regard to the recent opening up of anthropology, I would say something like what David Schneider said to you: what you young chaps cannot understand is how hermetic anthropology was. "Hermetic" isn't quite the right word, but anthropologists read other anthropologists, and it took a struggle to get these collateral figures--Ricoeur, Cassirer, Langer--read. Other people did other ones-even Weber! That was not easy at that time. There was great resistance. Anthropologists read people like Boas and Kroeber and Lowie! Now it's wide open.
RH: The Boasians themselves--particularly Benedict and Sapir--were not people who only read other anthropologists.
CG: No, but that's what had happened since them. And Sapir was almost at the edge for most people. At Harvard he wasn't, because Clyde liked him--and Clyde came in from an angle, too, from classics, so he was a little different. But the heart of the matter is that in those days anthropologists read people who were anthropologists. The notion that you should read philosophers, that Wittgenstein had anything to say that anthropologists might be interested in, would be way off base. Now, of course, it's almost the opposite. And that's what happened in the 1980s--that earlier opening up paid off, and you got the impact of social constructionism, of deconstructionism, of postmodernism, of Foucault, all of it. That's what has led to a certain instability which is now there. But as I spent much of my life trying to cause that uncertainty and instability, I can hardly complain! I don't want to say that it's a fruition of my own thought, but it is part of that movement to make anthropology a more broadly intellectual discipline.
There were always some influences from outside--Freud, for example, was always possible. There were a few others. But it was very hard to convince people to read--Freud, perhaps, aside--people outside of anthropology. Even Freud was resisted fairly well in most places. They didn't read philosophers. They certainly didn't read literary critics--that would've been absurd in those days. I kept trying to tell them to do this. I had been interested in Kenneth Burke since I was in college, because I was an English major--and I was trying to say, "This guy's got something to say." I must say, Talcott got interested in Burke, but in anthropology it was very hard to accomplish that. Anthropology has fears of identity loss all the time, so you get this ideology of anthropology as a discipline.
RH: Are these fears greater than those of other disciplines?
CG: Yes, because anthropology doesn't have a clear intellectual tradition of its own. I'm sure you've been asked a thousand times, "How is anthropology different from sociology?" And the four-field thing makes it a kind of holding company to start with. The four-field notion is a bit of myth, and you have to keep upholding myths, because facts keep breaking in. There's also the enormous multiplicity of what people do. But I'm in favor of identity loss! Every once in a while you see somebody who wants to get us all back together again, but I'm an inveterate pluralist, and I don't think that's a good idea.
RH: Does the current trend threaten the institutionalization of anthropology? Are anthropology departments going to be around in another 50 years?
CG: I think that in the long run it's going to threaten some things that have held anthropology together. I think the four-field notion is under great pressure. Biological anthropologists, archaeologists-people want to connect to other things. Some people do want to connect to biology, or archaeology, or linguistics, but others want to connect to something else--literature, or history. That holding company has certainly weakened, as I wrote a few years ago [Geertz I98S]. There are now more departments that don't do much more than give lip service to the four-field notion. And even where it exists, it's a little unreal--there are just four little departments within the larger one.
The other thing is that originally we studied "primitives." And not only is that not the case anymore, because there aren't any, but also there's been the move to complex societies. The Java study was one of the first ones of this sort. We're studying complex societies, modernizing societies, so that piece of identity is lostthe Trobriand image is no longer really workable. Most anthropologists are working elsewhere--in America, Europe, India, China, Japan. We always did a little of that, but it's become the dominant mode.
So that's out. And there's this fractionization of intellectuallines. To talk about a paradigm for all of anthropology seems to me a joke-nor do I think it would be a good idea. So what is the future of the institutionalization of anthropology? I don't think anthropology is in immediate danger of disappearing from the curriculum. But, if you're tatking about 50 years, or 75, I think anthropology's going to evolve into something different--cultural studies or something--into some other kind of specialty--in the same way that philology evolved. At one time, philology was the major rubric under which literary history went on. It has divided--its descendants are English and comparative literature, some parts of linguistics. But there aren't too many philology departments any more. There isn't even much of a discipline called philology. Another way to say this might be that anthropology will have the sort of status that biology has. It covers everything, but the actual disciplines being pursued will be more specific. I don't know if that's what will happen to anthropology--and I don't like to predict the future in any case! But it's already changed beyond recognition. It just isn't like it was when that summit conference, for example, was held. So whether or not there will be anthropology departments in the year 2050, I don't know, but if there are they won't look like anthropology departments today. My guess is that they won't even be called anthropology departments, although the inertia of academic nomenclature is great. But the philology analogy seems to me about right. And philology still goes on! It made an enormous contribution--it isn't lost. And there has even been a return to some of its concerns. But they appear in comparative literature, in philosophy, in linguistics, in literary theory.
RH: What are you working on now?
CG: Turning some lectures that I gave recently into a book, called After the Fact. It's an attempt to talk, in terms of the Morocco-Indonesian comparison, about the present state of anthropology, what anthropological explanation is, what ethnography is, what culture is. It's a series of chapters with one-word titles-"Towns," "Countries," "Cultures," "Hegemonies," "Disciplines." It's an attempt to say what I think about anthropology now, not abstractly but in terms of the work I did. All the issues that I can think of that are important to me in anthropology I hope to raise in the course of this book. It's not an autobiographical book and it's not a memoir, but it is self-reflexive in the sense that I talk about some of my research experiences. The first person is in it. It's Renato Rosaldo's "situated observer." I try to situate myself, historicize myself.
RH: What do you think of all the recent work on "objectified" culture, exhibits, museums, and so on?
CG: I think it's interesting. I gave a talk at the American Museum of Natural History in New York last year on the Indonesian Festival of the Arts. In this context, I'm interested in the shift between a time when culture was appropriated and brought here and now, when it's being sent. The Festival is an essentially Indonesian enterprise. I'm interested in its connection with internal Indonesian identity struggles, between groups in Indonesia. I think of it as a successor to fairs and expositions but with a different tonality to it.
RH: I got interested in these issues because, working in Quebec, I found that, since the Quebecois were interested in what their culture was and writing about it in social-scientific terms, it wasn't good enough any more simply to try to talk about "the culture"--since they were doing it themselves, using the same concepts! So that's how I got into this, and I've never come out the other end. Perhaps it would've been different for me if I had worked in non-Western places. But the whole world now seems enamoured of this ideology of culture.
CG: It's a matter of self-representation. What's interesting to me about Indonesia is the internal struggle about self-representation. There are three general themes of division. One is Java versus the Outer Islands. Twothirds of the people live on Java, it's a Javanesedominated state, there's a lot of Outer Island resentment against Java. That's one division that works itself out in the Festival exhibits. A second is the high-culture/ low-culture opposition--those who' think it's Indic art and Borobudur that should be presented versus those who think that it should be household goods, textiles, penis shields, whatever. The third is modem/traditional: people who say, "Borobudur has nothing to do with us, we want to be painters like any other painters," modem theater, modem writing, as against traditional things. "Primitivism" enters in here--they don't want to be thought to be a tribal society, so they're unhappy about "tribal" art.
Those three axes--which are played out in Indonesian cultural politics and in real Indonesian politics--interact and overlap, and those conflicts of representation are reflected in the exhibit. And in all the presentations, both in the press and by the people themselves, they want people to understand "the real Indonesia." This is the authenticity problem. And I question that. That's not possible. It's clear here that there's no possibilityof somebody walking through a museum on a Sunday afternoon responding to Javanese images the way
Javanese respond to them. That's crazy! That can't be what's going on. I'm not sure you can ever have a Javanese response to Javanese art if you're not Javanese--maybe you can if you spend ten years there, but you can't do it by watching a wayang show. So then there's the question of annotations, and trying to figure out how to get the real stuff across. There's a lot of concern about that.
RH: You've written extensively on other conceptions of selfhood, of personhood. A few minutes ago you used the phrase "self-representation." Do you think that's what they're up to?
CG: In that case, not individually, but yes--they're interested in the representation of Indonesia as a collective self.
RH: Do they think of it in those terms?
CG: Yes, explicitly. That's what it's all about. They want to establish in foreign eyes, and also in their own, an official cultural identity.
RH: Is the desire to have an official cultural identity something that is absorbed from Western ways of thinking?
CG: I suppose to some degree it is, but it's very alive in Indonesia, because there's now a civil religion called Pancasila which is an attempt to do exactly that-to create a rather Javanized version of an all-Indonesian culture. There have been debates about this going back to the 1920s and 1930s, between extreme traditionalists--that the new Indonesia should be represented in terms of 2,000 years of tradition--and extreme cosmopolitans--who want to join the world of modern societies as quickly as possible. That debate continues. Java, of course, has had a couple hundred years of colonialism, more than most places have. For the Outer Islands it's a bit less. The trouble is that there isn't one thing that they all go back to. Some Javanese would like to go back to Majapahit, but the Sumatrans are not too happy about that idea!
CLIFFORD, JAMES. 1982. Person and myth: Maurice Leenhardt in the Melanesian world. Berkeley: University of California Press.
CONFERENCE ON NEW APPROACHES IN SOCIAL ANTHROPOLOGY. 1965a. The relevance of models for social anthropology. New York: Praeger.
--. 1965b. Political systems and the distribution of power. New York: Praeger.
--'. 1966a. Anthropological approaches to the study of religion. New York: Praeger.
--. 1966b. The social anthropology of complex societies. New York: Praeger.
EGGAN, FRED. 1950. Social organization of the Western Pueblos. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
GEERTZ, CLIFFORD. 1957. Ritual and social change: A Javanese example. American Anthropologist 59:32-54.
--. 1960. The religion of Java. Glencoe: Free Press.
--. 1963a. Peddlers and princes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
--. 1963b. Agricultural involution. Berkeley: University of California Press.
--. Editor. 1963C. Old societies and new states. New York: Free Press.
--. 1965. The social history of an Indonesian town. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press.
--. 1966. "Religion as a cultural system," in Anthropological approaches to the study of religion. Edited by the Conference on New Approaches in Social Anthropology, pp. 1-46. New York: Praeger.
--. 1967. The cerebral savage: On the work of Claude LeviStrauss. Encounter 28(4):25-32.
--. 1968. Islam observed. New Haven: Yale University Press.
--. 1985. Waddling in. Times Literary Supplement, no. 4288 (June 7), pp. 23-24.
--. 1988. Works and lives: The anthropologist as author. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
--. 1989. Margaret Mead, 1901-1978. Biographical Memoirs (National Academy of Sciences) 58:329-41.
GEERTZ, HILDRED. 1961. The Javanese family. New York: Free Press.
HOMANS, GEORGE, AND DAVID M. SCHNEIDER. 1955. Marriage, authority, and final causes. Glencoe: Free Press.
LEVI-STRAUSS, CLAUDE. 1962. La pensee sauvage. Paris: PIon.
--.1963. Totemism. Translated by R. Needham. Boston: Beacon Press.
LOWIE, ROBERT. 1937. The history of ethnological theory. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
MANDELBAUM, DAVID. Editor. 1949. Selected writings of Edward Sapir in language, culture and personality. Berkeley: University of California Press.
MARCUS, GEORGE. 1985. A timely rereading of Naven: Gregory Bateson as oracular essayist. Representations 12:66-82.
MURDOCK, GEORGE PETER. 1949. Social structure. New York: Macmillan.
NEEDHAM, RODNEY. 1962. Structure and sentiment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
PARSONS, TALCOTT. 1937. The structure of social action. New York: McGraw-Hill.
SCHNEIDER, DAVID. 1965. "Some muddles in the models: or, How the system really works," in The relevance of models for social anthropology. Edited by the Conference on New Approaches in Social Anthropology, pp. 25-84. New York: Praeger.
1 © 1991 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, All rights reserved.
An interview with Clifford Geertz (Richard Handler, interviewer), in: Current Anthropology, Vol. 32, No. 5 (Dec., 1991), pp. 603-613.
online source: http://www.jstor.org
JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use.
Current Anthropology is currently published by The University of Chicago Press. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at http://www.jstor.org/journals/ucpress.html.
Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission.
Using this text is also subject to the general HyperGeertz-Copyright-regulations based on Austrian copyright-law (2001), which - in short - allow a personal, nonprofit & educational (all must apply) use of material stored in data bases, including a restricted redistribution of such material, if this is also for nonprofit purposes and restricted to the scientific community (both must apply), and if full and accurate attribution to the author, original source and date of publication, web location(s) or originating list(s) is given ("fair-use-restriction"). Any other use transgressing this restriction is subject to a direct agreement between a subsequent user and the holder of the original copyright(s) as indicated by the source(s). HyperGeertz@WorldCatalogue cannot be held responsible for any neglection of these regulations and will impose such a responsibility on any unlawful user.
Each copy of any part of a transmission of a HyperGeertz-Text must therefore contain this same copyright notice as it appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission, including any specific copyright notice as indicated above by the original copyright holder and/ or the previous online source(s).