Clifford James Geertz (August 23, 1926 – October 30, 2006) was an American cultural anthropologist, famous for his work on cultural symbols and meaning. During thirty years at Princeton University, he studied the cultures of Southeast Asia and North Africa, investigating a wide variety of social structures including economic development, political structures, family life, and religion. His emphasis has been on the symbolism that reveals the frames of meaning through which each culture views the world. His work has contributed greatly to the understanding of how various peoples have interpreted the world of external, physical reality. However, although he studied religious symbolism, he has viewed religion as another frame of meaning through which to interpret the physical world, rather than recognizing the spiritual realm as a different dimension of life.
Clifford Geertz was born in San Francisco, California in 1926. He was the editor of his high school newspaper and wanted to become a journalist and novelist. However, when World War II broke out, he decided to join the U.S. Navy. After the service (1943–1945), he wanted to get away from California, "where I had an excess of relatives but no family. I wanted to be a novelist, preferably famous. And, most fatefully, I had the GI Bill" (Geertz 1999). On the advice of his former high school English teacher, Geertz enrolled at Antioch College, Ohio, where he received an A.B. in 1950, with a major in philosophy. He married soon after, and together with his wife was accepted to Harvard University to study anthropology, receiving his Ph.D. in 1956.
Geertz taught or held fellowships at a number of universities: Center for International Studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1957), Stanford University (1958–1959), and the University of California, Berkeley (1958–1960). In 1960, he joined the anthropology staff of the University of Chicago, where he stayed as a professor of anthropology for ten years—from 1960 to 1970. During those years Geertz studied the culture of Java, publishing several minor works that described in detail Javanese history and economy. In 1960, he wrote his famous The Religion of Java, and throughout the 1960s several other works that dealt with Asian and African cultures. His wife conducted research on kinship and family.
From 1970 to 2000, Geertz served as professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where he published his most famous works. From 2000, he became professor emeritus there. In addition, he served as Eastman Professor at Oxford University from 1978 to 1979. During the 1970s, Geertz started to deal with global principles in anthropology, resulting in his book The Interpretation of Cultures in 1973, which discussed the role of the anthropologist in cultural studies. During this period he made numerous field trips to Java, Bali, Sumatra, Celebes, and Morocco, writing several books on the cultures he met there. During the 1980s and 1990s, Geertz continued to research those cultures, but his focus shifted more toward study of methodological approaches to anthropology and ethnography.
Geertz received a L.H.D. from Bates College in 1980, and numerous honorary degrees and awards.
Geertz died on October 30, 2006, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
At the University of Chicago, Geertz became a "champion of symbolic anthropology," which gives prime attention to the role of symbols in society. Culture, outlined by Geertz in his famous book The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), is conceived of "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 therefore to impose meaning on the world and make it understandable. As Geertz put it:
The concept of culture I espouse…is essentially a semiotic one. Believing, with Max Weber, 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…. (Geertz  2000).
The role of anthropologists is thus to try, as far as possible, to interpret the significant symbols in each culture. The anthropologist is like a literary critic who analyzes a text—he needs to sort out "the structures of signification…and determining their social ground and import… Doing ethnography is like trying to read (in the sense of “construct a reading of”) a manuscript…" (Geertz  2000).
Since every culture has its own web of distinctive symbols and subsequent meanings, the anthropologist needs to understand those meanings in order to understand the culture itself. In order to do that, the anthropologist must isolate the elements of culture, find the relationship among those elements, and characterize the whole system in some general way. The meaning behind those systems is of utmost significance, and is, from Geertz's perspective, the goal of anthropological inquiry.
Geertz conducted extensive ethnographical research in Southeast Asia, especially Java and Bali, and in Morocco in North Africa. He also contributed to social and cultural theory, and was influential in turning anthropology toward a concern with the frames of meaning within which various peoples live out their lives. His work has included research on religion, most particularly Islam, on bazaar trade, economic development, traditional political structures, village and family life, and on the general question of ethnic diversity and its implications in the modern world.
In May 2000, he was honored at a conference entitled "Cultures, Sociétiés, et Territoires: Hommage à Clifford Geertz," held in Sefrou, Morocco. It was particularly gratifying, commented Geertz, because "anthropologists are not always welcomed back to the site of their field studies."
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