Clifford Geertz; Altered Foundation of Anthropology

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 2, 2006

Clifford Geertz, an anthropologist whose imaginative studies of cultural groups from other countries changed the intellectual underpinnings of anthropology and other social sciences, died Oct. 30 at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia from complications of heart surgery. He was 80.

Since 1970, he had been a resident scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.

With early ambitions of being a novelist, Dr. Geertz brought a distinctly literary sensibility to the study of anthropology with his sophisticated prose and vivid descriptions of social customs abroad. While at the University of Chicago in the 1960s, Dr. Geertz (pronounced "Gurts") was the leader of the "symbolic anthropology" movement, which departed from the idea of relying on established, hard-and-fast facts.

He saw anthropology as more of an imaginative undertaking than a science. All an anthropologist could hope to do, he believed, was to understand the rituals, myths, language and art that govern a society's day-to-day actions.

In his most influential book, "The Interpretation of Cultures" (1973), Dr. Geertz described culture as "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."

This aesthetic understanding of culture gained currency across various disciplines, including sociology, political science, history and literary studies. Dr. Geertz's ornate, allusive accounts of other cultures came to define a new field of study called ethnography. He deliberately chose not to expound grand, universal theories, seeking instead to find meaning in small-scale observations of simple human interaction -- what he called "local knowledge," which was the title of one of his 17 books.

Unlike most other anthropologists of his time, Dr. Geertz did not focus on isolated, culturally primitive groups. Instead, he studied complex societies, first in Indonesia and later in Morocco, that had maintained their traditions for centuries. In his 1968 book, "Islam Observed," he described the cultural influences of Islam on economics, shopping, politics and family structures in those cultures.

He might be best known for the essay "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight," which appeared in "The Interpretation of Cultures." More than a description of a cockfight and the betting that accompanied it, "Deep Play" was a wide-ranging metaphorical interpretation of how the people of Bali saw themselves in relation to violence, social status, morality and belief.

"Every people, the proverb has it, loves its own form of violence," Dr. Geertz wrote. "The cockfight is the Balinese reflection on theirs: on its look, its uses, its force, its fascination."

Clifford James Geertz was born Aug. 23, 1926, in San Francisco and served in the Navy during World War II. He graduated from Antioch College in Ohio with a bachelor's degree in English in 1950, then went to Harvard University, where he received a PhD in anthropology in 1956.

After first visiting Indonesia in 1952, he and his wife were caught on Sumatra during a political uprising in 1958. Sick with malaria, they fled through a jungle until they were rescued by paratroopers "dropping soundlessly from the morning sky," as Dr. Geertz wrote in his autobiographical "After the Fact" in 1995.

In his early jobs in the 1950s at Harvard and the University of California at Berkeley, Dr. Geertz began to borrow from the study of literature, philosophy and history. By the time he was at the University of Chicago, from 1960 to 1970, he no longer saw anthropology as an objective, measurable science. His ideas have been linked to the notion of cultural relativism, which has become a point of contention in recent battles over the direction of the nation's universities.

Other critics took exception to the literary license Dr. Geertz used in his first-person anthropological studies. As one opponent wrote, "Cockfights are surely cockfights for the Balinese -- and not images, fictions, models and metaphors."

In addition to his influential books, which have been translated into 21 languages, Dr. Geertz often wrote for the New York Review of Books and the New Republic. His 1988 book, "Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author," won first prize in criticism from the National Book Critics Circle.

His marriage to Hildred Storey ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 19 years, Karen Blu of Princeton; two children from his first marriage, Erika Reading of Princeton and Benjamin Geertz of Kirkland, Wash.; and two grandchildren.

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