Clifford Geertz interviewed by Alan Macfarlane in Cambridge, 6th May 2004


0:00:36 Biographical details – early life and education – influential teachers – family

0:09:04 War service in the Navy

0:11:48 End of war writing short stories in San Francisco – Antioch University, Ohio – influential teachers – encouraged to become an anthropologist after reading English and Philosophy but seeing no future in that direction – marriage to Hildred who also majored in English and similarly at a loss – grant to do anthropology at Harvard under Kluckhohn

0:15:50 Margaret Mead – both Hildred and self introduced to her fieldwork methods and encouraged to become anthropologists – both accepted to do anthropology at Harvard

0:17:30 Impressions of Margaret Mead – kindness – made effort to see them in Bali and to introduce them to influential person – Freeman controversy – meeting with Derek Freeman – feels he should have made criticism when Mead was still alive and could defend herself – ‘Coming of Age in Samoa’ written when she was 26 – what he knows of Samoa suggests not all right or all wrong

0:25:08 Harvard – memories of Clyde Kluckhohn – tortured man – grew up in Iowa, adopted by the Kluckhohns – sick all his life – sent to the South when young and became a Navaho specialist – dysfunctional family - hard to deal with but was supportive

0:28:40 Talcott Parsons – benevolent and kind though not a great influence – produced some very good students – very intelligent – caught up in the tension between Kluckhohn and Parsons – interpreter of Max Weber

0:32:44 Influence of Max Weber on self – other influential thinkers including Marx and Durkheim – thinks of himself as a ‘fox’ not a ‘hedgehog’ unlike Parsons

0:34:41 Earlier tradition of American anthropology – Ruth Benedict – Robert Lowie – Alfred Kroeber – Ralph Linton – Edward Sapir – Franz Boas

0:37:51 Harvard PhD – fieldwork ‘rite de passage’ - at that time had to be outside US in another language – Douglas Oliver, teaching at Peabody, invited him and wife to be part of a project to study Javanese kinship and religion for two years – no knowledge of Indonesia beforehand – well financed by Ford Foundation – both joined the group – language training for a year then went to Java – Kluckhohn had suggested them to Oliver

0:40:18 First impressions – first to Leiden to improve Dutch and to meet scholars – ship to Indonesia – day before arrival rebellion against Sukarno government started – tanks on streets – taken to safe house by Indonesian friends – very tense for first few days until Sukarno prevailed

0:42:51 Sent to Jojakarta, Central Java where National University (Gadjah Mada) was founded in Sultan’s palace – beautiful town at that time – idea that they with three professors and thirty students would sit in hotel and interview people who’d be called in – refused to work in this way and found a suitable fieldwork site in Pare where the team stayed for two years – detached themselves from students although some bitterness for a time

0:49:50 Nature of fieldwork – pleasure – war and illness – went off to Bali – later Morocco – challenge is to understand people who are quite different from self –Javanese, Balinese and Moroccans endlessly intriguing – freedom to do it in one’s own way

0:55:11 Never had one single question – a ‘fox’, a pluralist – I think people really are different so not looking for common thread but particular expressions – coming from Literature look at what is extraordinary and different about famous writers – looking for the Javaneseness of the Javanese etc. – interested in peoples’ ways of being in the world – don’t agree with idea that we should study other peoples to better understand ourselves


0:00:20 After Harvard went briefly to M.I.T. then to Indonesia and ended up in Bali then back to think tank at Palo Alto and had job at Berkeley for a year – only time in an anthropology department – taught many courses – period of political unrest. Edward Shils and David Apter forming Committee for the Comparative Study of New Nations at Chicago asked me to join them. Jumped at it as wanted to get back to research. I don’t like lecturing though don’t mind teaching – liked the students. I avoided administration. One of the reasons I left Chicago after ten years was that I was in danger of ending up as chairman of department

0:04:12 Chicago – David Apter worked in Gold Coast, Uganda and Japan as political scientist – Edward Shils – both at Palo Alto with me. David Schneider Tom Fallers and I all left Berkeley for Chicago at the same time. Benevolent department headed by Fred Eggan, Sol Tax etc. really wanted us to change the place. Later joined by Victor Turner – McKim Marriott, Milton Singer was there. Most of my time spent with Committee which had yearly fellows and had weekly seminar. We published things – I was secretary for a long time. Period when I started to work in Morocco

0:07:18 Went to Morocco as couldn’t go back to Indonesia at that time – had two young children at that time. Thought seriously about going to Bengal but here, in Cambridge, ‘Hands Across the Sea’ meeting [A.S.A. Conference in New Approaches to Social Anthropology], someone suggested I go to Morocco – Islamic, peaceful – so instead of going back to Chicago after the meeting I went to Morocco and drove around the country for six weeks visiting small towns. Decided it was a good place to work, got money, went back three or four times during time at Chicago in collaboration with several students. Managed to cover a small town over a decade.

0:09:50 Value in comparison – learnt more about Java by going to Morocco and vice versa – uncontrolled comparisons not just through an American lens – triangulation

0:11:50 Linguistic differences between Java and Morocco with emphasis on hierarchy in the former and gender in the latter – Morocco ‘sedq (loyalty, strength) Java ‘rasa’ (hierarchy, subtlety)

0:14:40 Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies – joined new social science school as first member 1970 – internal disputes

0:20:50 Anthropological journey – who am I among when writing – own emphasis is as a writer rather than as an anthropologist in the traditional sense – initial ignorance of anthropology – put off by Murdock ‘Social Structure’ as totally opposite to anything he wanted to do

0:25:43 Banner bearer for new anthropology – no desire to lead new movement but accept that some people were threatened – never said there were no facts – I am very ethnographic – have become an adjective

0:31:20 Historical pessimism and nostalgia for the past evident in work . Being an anthropologist always marginal – deliberately marginal in rest of life – became an anthropologist when it was no longer possible to study small societies without history – no way to isolate local focus from larger political scene – play between local and general issues all important. Study of Pare in 1950’s at start of this trend in anthropology, now impossible to ignore outside influences – watershed period – upset the old guard

0:39:10 Tried to show how an anthropologist can work in a literate society with much history and still make novel observations – understanding of the structure of society that economists and others often can’t see – value of dialogue between disciplines

0:44:43 Objection to Radcliffe-Brown’s ideas of anthropology and natural science, so what do you search for – in Java tried to find out about political life, main lines of cleavage, differences in world view – gives understanding of what politics is about in Indonesia – in Morocco, a different set of divisions – I would not try to teach them about their society but how to learn about their society and find out for themselves how and who they are

0:49:30 Writing and methodology – dissatisfaction – need to be much more self-reflexive – much done in literary criticism but not much in anthropology – would like to see more on how anthropological texts are constructed, how they make their argument etc. – very few good essays on anthropological writers

0:53:52 Started wanting to be a writer and consider myself to be essentially a writer as well as an anthropologist – I write by hand, sentence by sentence in order – takes a long time – I don’t write drafts – build up paragraphs, correct, rearrange – most I ever get done is a paragraph a day – took two and a half to three months to write the Frazer Lecture [given the following day] - I don’t advise this just fits my temperament – do feel enormous anxiety while writing but enjoy it when its done

0:57:42 Importance of companions (wives) in fieldwork.


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