MLA: Critical eye over facts in the field

December 20, 2002

The legendary anthropologist Clifford Geertz has long courted controversy with his views on hard scientific methodology. For him, lit crit and experience in the field are what count. Stephen Phillips reports   

Clifford Geertz can expect a decidedly warmer reception from US linguists gathering at next week’s Modern Language Association convention than he’s received from many within his own discipline’s ranks in a sometimes contentious 50-year career.

In fact, for the 76-year-old Princeton University professor, who will take his place on a panel of academic outsiders hand-picked by MLA president Stephen Greenblatt for their cross-disciplinary contributions to literature, the conference is something of a rally cry to the faithful.

Myriad language scholars credit Geertz’s championing of literary paradigms, such as structuralism and narratology as tools to enhance anthropological understanding, with exercising a liberating effect on their own scholarship and opening up new intellectual horizons.

Not least among those professing indebtedness to Geertz is Greenblatt himself. Taking a cue from Geertz’s observations about the usefulness of using literary criticism techniques to grasp social and cultural issues, Greenblatt’s Renaissance studies have been in the vanguard of the New Historicism movement, which posits that grounding texts in their historical context is the key to interpreting them and that literary works offer critical insights into the cultures that produce them.

“Geertz’s account of the project of social science rebounded with force upon literary critics like me in the mid-1970s,” waxed Greenblatt in an essay published in a 1999 retrospective on the anthropologist’s work, Fate of “Culture”: Geertz and Beyond . “It made sense of something I was already doing, returning my own professional skills to me as more important, more vital and illuminating.”

Reaching for the interpretive arsenal of literary criticism in his anthropological investigations has always seemed natural, Geertz says. “My main argument has been that we can take the models from literary studies that can help us understand other ways of life and culture.”

But it is less about employing particular techniques than applying a certain sensibility, he says. “When you approach another society, you don’t do so as a Martian. You have a sensibility formed in your own culture and literature that plays a great part in forming your views.

“When you seek to apprehend the other culture, it is a complex business that has to do with your own take on things.”

Indeed, while Geertz is bracketed with the University of Chicago’s Marshall Sahlins and the late Victor Turner, latterly of the University of Virginia, as among the most eminent anthropologists of his generation, it is perhaps at his discipline’s interface with literature that his impact has been most profound.

Stanford University anthropology professor Renato Rosaldo once dubbed Geertz the “ambassador from anthropology”. And in this respect he is an heir to the mantle vacated by Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead (an intellectual mentor), whose appeal and influence transcended disciplinary bounds in preceding generations.

Geertz’s academic background singularly fits him for this role. He should feel particularly at home among the MLA delegates. The San Francisco-born scholar originally trained as one of them, majoring in literature and philosophy as an undergraduate at Ohio’s Antioch College.

In fact, he kind of stumbled into anthropology in 1950 when one of his Antioch professors suggested he consider Harvard University’s now-defunct social relations programme, spanning psychology, sociology and social anthropology, for postgraduate study. A meeting with Mead in New York, engineered by an Antioch friend, to discuss the course decided matters, and Geertz decamped to Harvard to specialise in anthropology.

Similarly, he went to Indonesia - the site of the bulk of his fieldwork - only at the suggestion of a Harvard professor who wanted him to help with a social-science study there.

Moreover, the accidental anthropologist spent just two years in a conventional anthropology department (at the University of California, Berkeley) during an academic career built on straddling departmental confines.

After a decade at Harvard, Geertz co-founded the University of Chicago’s Committee for the Comparative Study of Nations, before being appointed the first faculty member of the inaugural School of Social Science at Princeton’s research-only Institute for Advanced Study in 1970.

Geertz considers his chief intellectual legacy to have been as a catalyst for closer ties between the humanities and anthropology.

Hand in hand with his extolling of “models from literary studies” as vehicles of anthropological understanding, Geertz has ranged himself against the hard scientific pretensions of many of his colleagues since his Harvard days. He doesn’t dispute anthropology’s designation as a science, but adds the caveat that taking “human material” as its subject, it ought not to hew too closely to the methodology of natural science.

“Those who want to produce social physics or take a positivist approach to social science are not going to get anywhere,” he says, observing that such efforts have, to date, consistently failed to convince. “It is a promissory note for the future that never gets cashed.”

Meanwhile, he turns the lens of the socio-cultural wing of anthropology with which he is identified against another tenet of his scientific critics - namely, the primacy of biological influences on human behaviour, as opposed to cultural determinants. “So-called evolutionary psychology is as much a social movement as a perspective. Its proponents are militant, polemical, highly organised and intent on getting their own way.

“Some hardline types appropriate science for their own particular view,” he adds. “I don’t feel myself outside of science.”

For his part, Geertz christens the intellectual enterprise in which he is engaged “interpretive anthropology”. He laid his cards on the table nearly 30 years ago in the opening essay, “Thick description” of his landmark study, The Interpretation of Cultures. “Analysis is sorting out the structures of signification - what [Gilbert] Ryle called established codes, a somewhat misleading expression, for it makes the enterprise sound too much like that of the cipher clerk when it is much more like that of the literary critic - and determining their social ground and import,” Geertz wrote.

“Thick description” is the tag Geertz coined for his technique of layered description - most famously employed in his 1972 essay on Balinese cock-fighting - to divine underlying social and cultural dynamics.

His eloquence draws admiring nods from Marc Manganaro, a Rutgers English professor interested in anthropological texts. But it seems to be a question of taste. Scientific anthropologists have charged him with obfuscation and opacity. Geertz declines to be drawn too far into the debate over his methodology, saying he is “less concerned with disputing and insisting than getting on with my work.”

In fact, his work defies categorisation in the neat encampments of sociocultural approaches versus empiricism and positivism, identified along the continuum of anthropological perspectives.

For instance, he shrinks from the subjective stance of some cultural practitioners (whose anthropological accounts document how their own cultural conditioning affects their apprehension of other societies), although his assertion that knowledge is a function of time and place has helped their cause.

Anthropology is about “understanding what is happening in the world”, Geertz says.

Accordingly, objective, systematic fieldwork is an indissoluble aspect, he maintains, and in this he has been no less intrepid than other anthropologists, spending months at a time, sometimes years, in Java, Bali and Morocco.

Moreover, he has caught flak from some in the sociocultural crowd for supposedly not sufficiently acknowledging gender and power in his analyses.

Geertz rejects the accusations, insisting that he has been much influenced by feminism, and he is at pains to reflect political context in his work.

Indeed, his latest project, which he describes as “figuring out how large multiethnic societies can work”, is overtly political. “The nation-state doesn’t seem to be the best model for countries such as Nigeria, India and Indonesia, which are very large and multiracial and ethnic. What political form they can take is a fascinating question,” he says.

Geertz reckons that he will devote the next few years to this theme and is nursing a few ideas for a book. Such a study is particularly timely amid the turmoil ushered in by last year’s terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC. As someone whose life’s work has been studying Islamic cultures, the post-9/11 reckoning with Islam going on in the West, and particularly the US, presents the fascinating anthropological spectacle of the “social construction of a religion in the eyes of observers”.

“People who don’t have one are trying to construct an image of Islam,” he observes. “All kinds of views are being expressed from infrared to ultraviolet.”

It is partly for fear of this happening to his work that Geertz has always resisted the coalescence of a formal school around his thinking. “I’ve organised a school here [social sciences at the Institute for Advanced Study], but I didn’t want to make it a school in that sense,” he explains.

“You can’t codify an approach. It has to be open-ended, coming out of the field work. You can induce a general approach, but to do more than this is to produce dogma. This is what I’m trying to escape.”

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