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Review: Geertz's Ambiguous Legacy

Author(s): Ann Swidler

Review by: Ann Swidler
Source: Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 25, No. 3 (May, 1996), pp. 299-302
Published by: American Sociological Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2077435
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The domestication of critique and the
been sacrificed.We have lost sightof "The
Degradation of Work in the Twentieth interpretiveturn coincide with the separaCentury."Braverman'spoint of departure tion of intellectuals from the working class.
who obtainsfulfillmentLabor and Monopoly Capital described the
was the craftworker
throughthe creationof objects firstcon- eclipse of the industrial craftworker,but it
ceived in the imagination.His point of could as well have been about the eclipse of
conclusionwas the vision of an alternative the intellectual craftworkerwho unites the
a socialismthatwould notrestorethe academy with the working class, who resists
but would instead recombine the intense professionalizationof the univercraftworker
conceptionand executionat the collective sity, who refuses to package the lived
level to forgea classlesssocietybased on experience ofworkersforscholasticconsumpdemocraticplanning.This double critique tion. Once an artisan, now an organic
ofa vanishing
pastand a intellectual, Braverman strove to refute his
utopianfutureeasilydisappearsin a welterof own thesis, to be an exception to his own
theeclipse laws. And here lies Braverman's crowning
of materialistcritique opens the door to and lastingachievement:As a product of the
dissolvedinto a linguis- unityof mental and manual work,Labor and
tic construction,and historyreduced to Monopoly Capital proclaimed itself against
narrative.Experience becomes discourse, the very tendencies it so persuasively described.

Geertz's Ambiguous Legacy


Universityof California,Berkeley
Originalreview, CS 4:6 (November 1975), by
Elizabeth Colson:

His anthropologyis an art,not a science.

To a verylarge extentthereforehis work
does notprovidea model forotheranthropologistsor sociologistsof lesser talentto
follow,since he proceeds froman intuitivegraspofwhatis importantand reaches
his conclusion with a flourishthat conceals the tedium of the procedures.

of Cultures:SelectedEsThe Interpretation
says, by CliffordGeertz. New York: Basic
Books [1973] 1993. $20.00 paper. ISBN:

View, and the Analysis of Sacred Symbols,"

and culminatingin 1966 with "Religion as a
Cultural System,"Geertz asked how particular symbols become real for particular
groups. (The very differentways symbolic
WellbeforeThe Interpretationof Cultures realities become real and the differentkinds
(hereafter,TIC) was published,CliffordGeertz of realities they create has been a continuing
had already changed the way we study preoccupation, in "Ideology as a Cultural
culture. Indeed, the heart of TIC is a System" and the later "Art as a Cultural
collection of beautiful essays, published System" and "Common Sense as a Cultural
between 1957 and the mid-1960s, that System"[collected in Geertz 1983]). Geertz's
provided a new theoretical vocabulary for answer is that "sacred symbols," and espestudyingculture and a new understandingof cially ritual actions, generate an "ethos"-an
emotional tone, a set of feelings,"moods and
what that enterpriseinvolves.
First,Geertz clarifiedthe object of cultural motivations"-that simultaneouslymake the
study: not hidden subjectivities or whole religious worldview seem true and make the
ways of life, but publicly available symbols ethos seem "uniquely realistic" given that
(Keesing 1957). Second, Geertz developed a kind of a world. This theoreticalformulation
rich theoretical language for analyzing cul- seems to explain how symbols,or meanings
ture. Beginningwith the 1967 "Ethos,World embodied and enacted in symbols,generate

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experiential realities that in turn make the

symbols real. This is how "man" can be
"suspended in webs of significance he
himself has spun" (p. 5 [all page numbers
Other importantessays in TIC dealt with
such issues as the incompleteness of "human
nature" without culture to organize action
and experience ("The Impact of the Concept
of Culture on the Concept of Man"), different
conceptions of the continuity of human
personality in differentcultures ("Person,
Time, and Conduct in Bali"), the resurgence
of ethnic particularismsin the new nations
("The IntegrativeRevolution:PrimordialSentimentsand Civil Politics in the New States"),
and the problem of when and why ritual
practices break down or fail ("Ritual and
Social Change: A Javanese Example").
Despite the theoretical and conceptual
advances of these earlier essays, the greatest
impact of TIC came fromthe two essays that
bracketed them-the introductory essay,
"Thick Description," and the concluding
essay, "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese
Cockfight."Whatever their generalizingtheoretical impulse, the earlier essays now
marched under the banner of "interpretation," as contrastedwith "explanation." The
polemical title suggested a rejection of
general theorizing about culture and a
rejection even of broad comparative claims
about why cultures differ.Geertz argued that
"culture is not a power, somethingto which
social events, behaviors, institutions,or processes can be causally attributed; it is a
context,somethingwithinwhich theycan be
intelligibly-that is thickly-described" (p.
14). The analysis of culture is "not an
experimentalscience in search of law but an
interpretiveone in search of meaning" (p. 5).
The enormously influentialessay "Deep
Play" became a new paradigm for how to
study culture: Focus on a single event,
symbol, or ritual,such as the cockfight,and
"thickly"describe it in the context of all the
other symbols,social arrangements,sensibilities, and concepts in terms of which it has
"meaning."This demonstrationof a new kind
of practice in culturalstudysent a tidal wave
across the disciplines by showing how to
take a piece of culture-a ritual,a tall tale, a
performance, a symbol, or an event-and
treat it as a "text." By placing the text in a
context of all the other meanings, experi-

ences, practices,or ideas thatshed lightupon

its meanings,the interpretersof a text could
finda way to explicate the sensibilityof other
times and places, the meanings that organized popular culture, or the conceptual
structures that lay behind great literary
works. Liberated fromthe rigorsof explanation and able to take as a focal text any piece
of the social world, great or small, historians
(Robert Darnton, Natalie Davis, Lynn Hunt,
and many others), literarycritics (Stephen
Greenblatt), and even policy analysts (Constance Perrin) were freed to put culture
We may see some of the strengthsand
weaknesses of the interpretive/textualapproach by seeing what TIC liberated scholars
from. For anthropologists,a Geertzian approach meant liberation,first,fromstandard,
comprehensive ethnography. Second, the
Geertzian focus on culture as importantin
itselfprovided a way out of the battle among
reductionist theories. Rather than having to
explain why matrilocal or patrilateralsocieties produced one kind of birth ritual or
another, or why myths had a particular
structure,or what function some practice
served, anthropologistscould focus on a set
of symbols, practices, or rituals, and their
meaning. The detailed description of kinship
structure,myths,or rituals could be jettisoned, or, rather, these could be reintroduced in much less systematicways as part of
the interpretation-the thickdescription-of
In literary criticism, which had always
studied texts,and which indeed provided the
model for the kind of "semiotic" analysis
Geertz was advocating, Geertz ironically
showed the value of puttingtexts back into
their social and historical "contexts." But it
radically redefinedwhat that context might
be. Rather than locating a great work in the
major intellectualcurrentsof its day,seeing it
as a vehicle for the expression of interests,
ideas, or literaryinfluences,Geertz's method
allowed a text to be related to whatever
other particulartexts seemed to illuminateit.
So even obscure folk culture can reveal the
"semiotic structure" of a culture and thus
shed light on underlying structures in a
literarytext. And any text-the most engaging, exotic or ordinary,high or low, obscure
or well known-can be the entrypoint for

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understandingthe meanings that animate a
cultural system.
In history, first and foremost, Geertz's
work legitimated taking seriously popular
culture, the culture of subordinated groups,
and the symbolsand discourse even of major
political events. Historians were also freed
from focusing on events, or on such hard
realities as birth rates, marriagepatterns,or
material life.The abilityto focus on particular, even obscure texts,and then to ask what
they revealed about the larger complex of
meanings within a society, meant that historians could focus not only on popular rituals,
but also on little-known,unusual, or even
bizarre events,examiningthem forwhat they
reveal about deeper cultural patterns in a
society. The loosening of the strictureson
how central, how repeated, or how institutionalized a practice needs to be to serve as a
text allowed a historian like Natalie Zemon
Davis to move fromstudyingwell-institutionalized ritual practices like charivari to
studyingthe single episode of the disappearance and "return" of Martin Guerre. Robert
Darnton moved fromstudyingthe influence
of popular belief and practice on major social
(the influenceof mesmerism
on Enlightenmentthought,or the influence
of book censorship on French political
thought) to using particular engaging, but
often atypical,events or stories as texts that
reveal the whole structure of meanings
available in a historicalera.
Geertz's revolutionhas also met substantial
resistance. In anthropologythere is by now
an enormous critical literature (see Shankman 1984; Asad 1983; Biersack 1989; Parker
1985; Wikan 1991). Some argue thatinterpretation is insufficient,
that Geertz provides no
criteria for an adequate interpretation,and
thatinterpretationis substantivelyinferiorto
explanation. Geertz has also been attacked
for exoticizing the peoples he studies,
makingthem seem foreignand incomprehensible so that their texts require elaborate
"interpretation."And he has been taken to
task for neglecting or actively obscuring
power, domination,conflict,historicalchange,
and the colonial context of the societies he
studies. He has also had to face the increasing
resistance in anthropology by "natives" to
being "translated"at all, theirinsistence that
indigenous understandingsare privileged.
These are not, however, quite the issues

that have been (or necessarily should be) of

greatest concern to sociologists. Rather,
sociologists can benefitfroma critical assimilation of Geertz at his best. We certainly
need a better understandingof the status of
"interpretation"as an enterprise and of the
relationbetween interpretationand explanation (see Swidler and Jepperson 1994). We
also need to confronta question Geertz and
his imitatorsignore:What about the selection
of texts?Is every text equally important?Or
is there some implicitclaim analystsmake in
choosing a text-perhaps simply that that
text was indeed meaningfulto a particular
group of persons in a particular time and
place? What about "contradictions" among
texts? Geertz's implicit assumption of a
unified semiotic system appears plausible as
long as the analysis focuses on a single text
and arraysother meanings around it; but the
assumptionbreaks down ifgroups participate
in multiple practices that have varying
underlyingmeaning systems.
Where does the interpretive enterprise
lead by itself?If we only want to "translate"
fromanotherculture to our own, what makes
any particularinstance of translationof more
general interest (Alexander 1987)? Geertz's
forays into other cultures certainly are of
broader interest,and not, I think,primarily
because we are eager to understand the
particular meanings that animate Javanese,
Balinese, or Moroccan life. Rather, Geertz's
analyses are importantbecause they develop
an importantset of new concepts, and even
some theories and explanations, that have
not been as fullyexploited as they could be.
We might begin by returningto Geertz's
analysis of the interaction of ethos, worldview, and ritual experience. The question of
how differentorders of realityintersect,and
how differentkinds of Realitiesbecome true
(or remain more or less provisionallytrue)
under differingcircumstances,seems one of
the most critical a serious sociology of
culture mightaddress.
Second, sociologists might follow up
Geertz's interest(in "Internal Conversion in
Contemporary Bali" and, later, in Islam
Observed 1968) in how societies deal culturally with the challenges of modernity.Geertz
builds on a basically Weberian understanding
of rationalization, but he sees it as an
enormously complex, self-contradictory,
sometimes paradoxical process.

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Third, students of culture would also do

well to take the notion of "deep play" (a
theoreticalidea, if ever there was one) more
seriously.In "Deep Play," Geertz is not only
exploring the meanings of the Balinese
cockfight.He is also askingwhat makes some
culturalperformances,some cultural experiences deeper, more intense, more gripping
than others. This is the beginning of an
analysis of why some rituals, texts, or
symbols generate more meaning than others
do. Geertz explores how tension,uncertainty
about the outcome, balanced opponents, and
the ability to symbolize (and sublimate)
significantsocial tensions make some cockfights deeper, more exciting, and more
satisfyingthan others.
Barely breaking the surface of Geertz's
essays, but there, nonetheless, lurks the
question of whether and in what sense
cultures are really "systems" after all. He
recognizes thatmultiplekinds of realitiescan
abide side by side. He also occasionally
addresses great clashes of meanings, when
people's cultural assumptions don't mesh,
and when culture itself is a source of
sometimes violent conflict.If cultural coherence is itselfvariable,Geertz's work provides
a startingpoint forstudyingthis variation.
Geertz's polemical stands-in favor of
interpretationand against explanation, for
description over theory, and against all
general theory-are red herrings.They have
distracted us fromthe depth and originality
of his own theorizing. Sociology has not
faced a crisis of confidence like that of

anthropology;and sociology has always had a

stronger commitment to both theory and
explanation. Perhaps, then, sociologists will
be able uninhibitedlyto assimilate and find
real nourishment in the rich filling of
Geertz's interpretation-sandwich.

Other works cited:

C. 1987. TwentyLectures:SociologAlexander,Jeffrey
ical Theory since World War II. New York:
Asad, Talal. 1983. "AnthropologicalConceptions of
Religion:Reflectionson Geertz."Man 18:237-259.
Biersack, Aletta. 1989. "Local Knowledge, Local
History:Geertz and Beyond." Pp. 72-96 in Lynn
Hunt (ed.), The New Cultural History.Berkeley:
of CaliforniaPress.
Geertz, Clifford.1968. Islam Observed: Religious
Development in Morocco and Indonesia. New
Haven: Yale University
. 1983. Local Knowledge: FurtherEssays in
Anthropology.New York:Basic Books.
Keesing,Roger M. 1974. "Theories of Culture."Pp.
73-97 in Annual Review of Anthropology3. Palo
Parker,Richard.1985. "FromSymbolismto InterpreGeertz."
tation:Reflectionson the Workof Clifford
and Humanism Quarterly10(3):62Anthropology
Shankman,Paul. 1984. "The Thick and the Thin: On
the InterpretiveTheoretical Program of Clifford
25 (June):261-279.
Swidler,Ann and Roland L. Jepperson.1994. "Interpretation,Explanation,and Theories of Meaning."
Paper presented at the American Sociological
Association Annual Meetings, Los Angeles, CA
Wikan,Unni.1992. "BeyondtheWords:The Power of
Resonance." American Ethnologist 19 (August):

A DifferentPoststructuralism

UniversityofNorthCarolina, Chapel Hill

Original review, CS 9:2 (March 1980), by
ArthurW. FrankIII:

Outline of a Theory of Practice, by Pierre

Bourdieu. Trans. by Richard Nice. New York:
Cambridge UniversityPress [1972] 1977. 248
pp. $19.95 paper. ISBN: 0-521-29164-X.

The contributionofBourdieu'sworkis that

in producinga bettergroundedstructuralism,he accomplishesthepracticeofa more
scientificMarxism... The European idiom
Pierre Bourdieu (1988) has described one
of Bourdieu's writingshould not distract central motivation behind his intellectual
NorthAmericansociologistsfromitsextraor- work as a determinationto challenge misleaddinaryimportanceas a theoryof method. ing dichotomies. This determination is no-

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