Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Clifford Geertz

I learnt from an obituary in today's The Telegraph that Clifford Geetz, the acclaimed American anthropologist and writer has passed away on 30 October 2006, aged 80. Geertz was Professor Emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, at Princeton, USA.

Through my years of self-education, I had read some of his writings, the last being Works and Lives: The Anthropologist As Author (1988).

I reproduce below an extract from the obituary written by sociologist Andre Beteille.

Geertz was admired as much for the insights he brought to the study of culture as for the quality of his prose. As his writing came to receive increasing attention from authors in a variety of fields, Geertz became interested in what anthropologists do as authors.

Geertz’s style was deceptively simple but it was also artful. Those who were captivated by his prose tended to forget that what is easy to read had often been difficult to write. He was, in fact, a highly disciplined scholar and writer, particularly in the early phase of his professional career when he consolidated his intellectual capital. He has had many imitators, including some in this country, but the imitations almost always lack the discipline and rigour that underlie his elegant prose. The wide literary appeal of Geertz’s later essays has led to the neglect of his earlier ethnographic work. Yet it is the ethnography that provided the basis of his well-deserved reputation as an anthropologist. Geertz was a superb ethnographer.

Geertz began his research at a time when anthropologists studied religion in small, homogeneous and self-contained tribal communities: the Nuer, the Dinka, or the Navaho. It is true that M.N. Srinivas had already made a new departure by undertaking a field study of religion in a community embedded in a larger society. But no matter how complex the traditions of Hinduism, it is a single world religion, and Srinivas did not depart from the prevalent functionalist mode in presenting his findings. Here Geertz broke new ground, at least within his discipline, by pointing out that religion was not only integrative, it could also be deeply divisive.

The Religion of Java, based on his research in Indonesia, is a masterly account of the co-existence and interpenetration of three different religious streams within a single social system. These three streams are described as the abangan, the santri and the prijaji variants. The abangan and the prijaji represent old patterns of life in Java, the former embedded in the animistic practices of peasants and tribesmen and the latter developed through the more elaborate Hinduistic practices of the court and the upper strata. The santri variant derived its beliefs and practices from Islam, and it was the most recent, the most assertive and the most expansionist of the three.

Geertz makes it clear that “the three groups are all enclosed in the same social structure, share many values, and are, in any case, not nearly so definable as social entities as a simple descriptive discussion of their religious practices would indicate.” At the same time, the social structure of the Javanese town of Modjokuto was not free from the strains and tensions of the co-existence of three groups, one of which was clearly expansionist in its orientation. “Antagonism between the three groups is easily enough documented. The strain is clearly the greatest between santris and the other two groups, but significant tension between prijaji and abangan also exists.”

Geertz took great pains to strike a proper balance between the divisive and the integrative roles of religion, keeping always in mind the changes taking place in both religion and society.

Geertz retained his interest in Islam, and later moved to Morocco to study it in a very different social and cultural setting. In 1968, he published Islam Observed, a brief but elegant comparison of Islam in the two countries, underlining with all the skills of an accomplished anthropologist the fact that Islamic beliefs and practices are not all much the same thing wherever you go.

Geertz has been widely and justly acclaimed for advancing our understanding and interpretation of culture. But he has always kept a firm hold on the structure and stratification of the societies whose symbolic systems he has studied.

Read the Wikipedia entry on Clifford Geertz here.

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