Clifford Geertz
Born(1926-08-23)August 23, 1926
San Francisco, California, U.S.
DiedOctober 30, 2006(2006-10-30) (aged 80)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Known forThick description
(m. 1948; div. 1981)
Academic background
Alma materAntioch College (BA)
Harvard University (PhD)
ThesisReligion in Modjokuto: A Study of Ritual Belief In A Complex Society (1956)
Doctoral advisorTalcott Parsons
InfluencesTalcott Parsons, Gilbert Ryle, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Max Weber, Paul Ricoeur, Alfred Schütz, Susanne Langer[1]
Academic work
School or traditionSymbolic anthropology, Interpretive anthropology
InstitutionsUniversity of Chicago
Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey
Doctoral studentsLawrence Rosen, Sherry Ortner, Paul Rabinow
InfluencedStephen Greenblatt, Quentin Skinner
Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey

Clifford James Geertz (/ɡɜːrts/ ; August 23, 1926 – October 30, 2006) was an American anthropologist who is remembered mostly for his strong support for and influence on the practice of symbolic anthropology and who was considered "for three decades... the single most influential cultural anthropologist in the United States."[2] He served until his death as professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton.

Life and career

Geertz was born in San Francisco on August 23, 1926. He served in the US Navy in World War II from 1943 to 1945. Geertz received a bachelor of arts in philosophy from Antioch College at Yellow Springs, Ohio in 1950 and a doctor of philosophy in anthropology from Harvard University in 1956.[3]

When in Harvard University, he studied at the Department of Social Relations with an interdisciplinary program led by Talcott Parsons. Geertz worked with Parsons, as well as Clyde Kluckhohn, and was trained as an anthropologist. Geertz conducted his first long-term fieldwork together with his wife, Hildred, in Java, Indonesia, a project funded by the Ford Foundation and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also studied the religious life of a small, upcountry town for two-and-a-half years, living with a railroad laborer's family.[4]: 8–9  After finishing his thesis, Geertz returned to Indonesia, in Bali and Sumatra,[4]: 10  after which he would receive his PhD in 1956 with a dissertation entitled Religion in Modjokuto: A Study of Ritual Belief In A Complex Society.[5]

Throughout his life, Geertz received honorary doctorate degrees from around fifteen colleges and universities, including Harvard, Cambridge, and the University of Chicago; as well as awards such as the Association for Asian Studies' (AAS) 1987 Award for Distinguished Contributions to Asian Studies.[6] He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences,[7] the American Philosophical Society,[8] and the United States National Academy of Sciences.[9] Following his divorce from anthropologist Hildred Geertz, his first wife, he married Karen Blu, another anthropologist.[10]


He taught or held fellowships at a number of schools before joining the faculty of the anthropology department at the University of Chicago in 1960. In this period Geertz expanded his focus on Indonesia to include both Java and Bali and produced three books, including Religion of Java (1960), Agricultural Involution (1963), and Peddlers and Princes (also 1963). In the mid-1960s, he shifted course and began a new research project in Morocco that resulted in several publications, including Islam Observed (1968), which compared Indonesia and Morocco.

In 1970, Geertz left Chicago to become professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey from 1970 to 2000, then as emeritus professor. In 1973, he published The Interpretation of Cultures, which collected essays Geertz had published throughout the 1960s. That became Geertz's best-known book and established him not just as an Indonesianist but also as an anthropological theorist. In 1974, he edited the anthology Myth, Symbol, Culture that contained papers by many important anthropologists on symbolic anthropology. Geertz produced ethnographic pieces in this period, such as Kinship in Bali (1975), Meaning and Order in Moroccan Society (1978; written collaboratively with Hildred Geertz and Lawrence Rosen) and Negara (1981).

Later life

From the 1980s to his death, Geertz wrote more theoretical and essayistic pieces, including book reviews for the New York Review of Books. As a result, most of his books of the period are collections of essays—books including Local Knowledge (1983), Available Light (2000), and Life Among The Anthros (2010), which was published posthumously. He also produced a series of short essays on the stylistics of ethnography in Works and Lives (1988), while other works include the autobiographical After The Fact (1995).[citation needed]

Geertz conducted extensive ethnographic research in Southeast Asia and North Africa. This fieldwork was the basis of Geertz's famous analysis of the Balinese cockfight among others. While holding a position in Chicago in the 1960s, he directed a multidisciplinary project titled Committee for the Comparative Studies of New Nations. As part of the project, Geertz conducted fieldwork in Morocco on "bazaars, mosques, olive growing and oral poetry,"[4]: 10  collecting ethnographic data that would be used for his famous essay on thick description.[11]

Geertz contributed to social and cultural theory and is still influential in turning anthropology toward a concern with the frames of meaning within which various peoples live their lives. He reflected on the basic core notions of anthropology, such as culture and ethnography.

He died of complications following heart surgery on October 30, 2006.[10] At the time of his death, Geertz was working on the general question of ethnic diversity and its implications in the modern world.[citation needed]

Main ideas, contributions, and influences

Cockfight in Bali

Geertz's often-cited essay "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight"[12] is a classic example of thick description, a concept adopted from the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle which comes from ordinary language philosophy. Thick description is an anthropological method of explaining with as much detail as possible the reason behind human actions.[13] Many human actions can mean many different things, and Geertz insisted that the anthropologist needs to be aware of this. The work proved influential amongst historians, many of whom tried to use these ideas about the 'meaning' of cultural practice in the study of customs and traditions of the past.

Another of Geertz's philosophical influences is that of Ludwig Wittgenstein's post-Tractatus philosophy, from which Geertz incorporates the concept of family resemblances into anthropology. Geertz would also introduce anthropology to the "umwelt-mitwelt-vorwelt-folgewelt" formulation of Alfred Schütz's phenomenology,[14]: 367n  stressing that the links between the "consociate", "contemporary", "predecessor", and "successor" that are commonplace in anthropology derive from this very formulation.[2]: 68 

At the University of Chicago, Geertz became a champion of symbolic anthropology, a framework which gives prime attention to the role of symbols in constructing public meaning. In his seminal work The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), Geertz outlined culture as "a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life."[12]: 89 

He was one of the earliest scholars to see that the insights provided by common language, philosophy and literary analysis could have major explanatory force in the social sciences.[12] Geertz aimed to provide the social sciences with an understanding and appreciation of “thick description.” Geertz applied thick description to anthropological studies, particularly to his own 'interpretive anthropology', urging anthropologists to consider the limitations placed upon them by their own cultural cosmologies when attempting to offer insight into the cultures of other people.[11]: 5  He produced theory that had implications for other social sciences; for example, Geertz asserted that culture was essentially semiotic in nature, and this theory has implications for comparative political sciences.[12]

Max Weber and his interpretative social science are strongly present in Geertz's work. Drawing from Weber, Geertz himself argues for a “semiotic” concept of culture:[12]

Believing…that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun…I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretative one in search of meaning. It is explication I am after, construing social expression on their surface enigmatical. (p.5)

Geertz argues that to interpret a culture's web of symbols, scholars must first isolate its elements, specifying the internal relationships among those elements and characterize the whole system in some general way according to the core symbols around which it is organized, the underlying structures of which it is a surface expression, or the ideological principles upon which it is based. It was his view that culture is public, because “meaning is,” and systems of meanings are what produce culture, because they are the collective property of a particular people.[12] We cannot discover the culture's import or understand its systems of meaning, when, as Wittgenstein noted, “we cannot find our feet with them.”[12] Geertz wants society to appreciate that social actions are larger than themselves:[12]

It is not against a body of uninterrupted data, radically thinned descriptions, that we must measure the cogency of our explications, but against the power of the scientific imagination to bring us into touch with the lives of strangers. (p.18)

In seeking to converse with subjects in foreign cultures and gain access to their conceptual world, this is the goal of the semiotic approach to culture.[12] Cultural theory is not its own master; at the end of the day we must appreciate, that the generality “thick description” contrives to achieve, grows out of the delicacy of its distinctions, not the sweep of its abstraction.[12] The essential task of theory-building here is not to codify abstract regularities, but to make thick description possible; not to generalize across cases, but to generalize within them.[12]

During Geertz's long career he worked through a variety of theoretical phases and schools of thought. He would reflect an early leaning toward functionalism in his essay "Ethos, Worldview and the Analysis of Sacred Symbols", writing that "the drive to make sense out of experience, to give it form and order, is evidently as real and pressing as the more familiar biological needs."[12]: 140 


Geertz's research and ideas have had a strong influence on 20th-century academia, including modern anthropology and communication studies, as well as for geographers, ecologists, political scientists, scholars of religion, historians, and other humanists.[15]

University of Miami Professor Daniel Pals (1996) wrote of Geertz that "his critics are few; his admirers legion."[16] Talal Asad attacked the dualism in Geertzian theory: the theory does not provide a bridge between external symbols and internal dispositions. Asad also pointed out the need for a more nuanced approach toward the historical background of certain concepts.[17] Criticizing Geertz's theory of religion in general, Asad pointed out a gap between 'cultural system' and 'social reality' when attempting to define the concept of religion in universal terms.[17] He would also criticize Geertz for ascribing an authorizing discourse around conversations of comparative religion that, Asad argues, does not really exist. Furthermore, Asad criticized Geertz for operating according to a eurocentric view of religion that places import on signs and symbols that may or may not carry through in non-Christian religious cultures.[18]



Main article: List of important publications in anthropology

Bibliography of major works

Complete bibliography

French Edition of Geertz' "Local Knowledge"

See also


  1. ^ Martin, Michael (1994). Readings in the Philosophy of Social Science. MIT Press. p. 213. ISBN 0-262-13296-6.
  2. ^ a b Shweder, Richard A., and Byron Good, eds. 2005. Clifford Geertz by His Colleagues. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  3. ^ Geertz, Clifford (August 20, 2004). "CURRICULUM VITAE Clifford Geertz" (PDF). Johannes Kepler Universität Linz. Archived (PDF) from the original on May 18, 2022. Retrieved October 18, 2022.
  4. ^ a b c Geertz, Clifford. 2001. Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  5. ^ Geertz, Clifford (1956). Religion in Modjokuto: A Study of Ritual and Belief in a Complex Society. Boston: Harvard University Press. OCLC 421067853.
  6. ^ Association for Asian Studies (AAS), 1987 Award for Distinguished Contributions to Asian Studies Archived May 17, 2008, at the Wayback Machine; retrieved May 31, 2011
  7. ^ "Clifford James Geertz". American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Archived from the original on August 22, 2022. Retrieved August 22, 2022.
  8. ^ "APS Member History". Archived from the original on August 22, 2022. Retrieved August 22, 2022.
  9. ^ "Clifford Geertz". Archived from the original on March 30, 2019. Retrieved August 22, 2022.
  10. ^ a b "Anthropologist Biographies - Geertz". Department of Anthropology. Indiana University Bloomington. August 23, 1926. Archived from the original on July 31, 2012. Retrieved August 13, 2012.
  11. ^ a b Geertz, Clifford. 1973. "Thick Description: Towards an Interpretive Theory of Culture." Pp. 3–30 in The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.
  13. ^ Ryle, Gilbert. 1996 [1968]. "The Thinking of Thoughts: What is 'Le Penseur' Doing?." Studies in Anthropology 11. UK: Centre for Social Anthropology and Computing Archived April 12, 2020, at the Wayback Machine, University of Kent. Archived from the original Archived December 21, 2014, at the Wayback Machine on December 21, 2014. ISSN 1363-1098.
  14. ^ Geertz, Clifford. 1993 [1973]. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. London: Fontana Press.
  15. ^ "Clifford Geertz 1926 - 2006". Princeton, New Jersey: Institute for Advanced Study Press. 2006. Archived from the original on January 22, 2013. Retrieved March 3, 2010.
  16. ^ Frankenberry, Nancy K.; Penner, Hans H. (1999). "Clifford Geertz's Long-Lasting Moods, Motivations, and Metaphysical Conceptions". The Journal of Religion. 79 (4). Upper Saddle River, NJ: University of Chicago Press: 617–40. doi:10.1086/490503. ISBN 0-13-158591-6. S2CID 170496549 – via JSTOR.
  17. ^ a b Asad, Talal (1983). Anthropological Concepts of Religion: Reflections on Geertz. Man (N.S.) 18:237-59.
  18. ^ Asad, Talal. 1993. "The Construction of Religion as an Anthropological Category." Genealogies of religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam, pp. 27-54.

Further reading