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Clifford Geertz (1926 - 2006)

Lifespan: 1926 - 2006

Related: anthropology - culture - history


Clifford James Geertz (1926 - 2006) was an American anthropologist serving as professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey.

After service in the U.S. Navy in World War II (1943-45), Geertz studied at Antioch College, receiving a B.A. in 1950, and at Harvard receiving his Ph.D. in 1956. He taught or held fellowships at a number of schools before joining the anthropology staff of the University of Chicago(1960-70); he then became professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton from 1970-2000, now emeritus.

Thought and works
At the University of Chicago, Geertz became a "champion of symbolic anthropology", which gives prime attention to the role of thought (of "symbols") in society. Symbols guide action. Culture, according to Geertz, is "a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which people communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life." The function of culture is to impose meaning on the world and make it understandable. The role of anthropologists is to try (though complete success is not possible) to interpret the guiding symbols of each culture (see thick description).

He has conducted extensive ethnographical research in Southeast Asia and North Africa. He has also contributed to social and cultural theory and is still very influential in turning anthropology toward a concern with the frames of meaning within which various peoples live out their lives. He has worked on religion, most particularly Islam, on bazaar trade, on economic development, on traditional political structures, and on village and family life. He is presently working on the general question of ethnic diversity and its implications in the modern world.

Literary scholar Stephen Greenblatt identifies him as a strong influence, and Geertz acknowledges Greenblatt as a faithful interpreter of his work.

From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clifford_Geertz [Oct 2005]

Thick description

Thick description is a phrase invented by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz to describe his own specific mode of practice.

Geertz originally used an example taken from the works of Gilbert Ryle. Ryle pointed out that without a context if someone winks at us, we don't know what it means. It might mean the person is attracted to us, that they are trying to communicate secretly, that they understand what you mean, or anything. As the context changes, the meaning of the wink changes.

Geertz argues that all human behaviour is like this. A thin description would be of the wink itself, however accurately described. The task of the anthropologist, therefore, is to explain the context of the practices and discourse that take place within a society, such that these practices become meaningful to an 'outsider'. This requires thick description.

See contextualism, indexicality. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thick_description [Oct 2005]

The Interpretation of Cultures - (2000) by Clifford Geertz

The Interpretation of Cultures - (2000) by Clifford Geertz [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Elizabeth Colson, Contemporary Sociology
"Clifford Geertz...is one of the most original and stimulating anthropologists of his generations....Geertz writes of issues that touch us all: The meaning of life and death...The problems of coping with a social order, the need to make sense out of it all....[He] also writes with style, verve, learning, and intelligence."

Book Description
Classic essays by one of the most original and stimulating anthropologists of his generation on what culture is, what role it plays in social life, and how it ought to be properly studied.

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