Anthropology and
Religion: Part Two
Born in San Francisco in 1926
B.A. in 1950 in philosophy from Antioch College
Entered Harvard
As second year Graduate student, traveled to island of
Java in Indonesia, spending two years
• Finished Ph.D. in 1956
• Travels to Bali (again, Indonesia) and works as
Major Works
The Religion of Java (1960)
Agricultural Involution (1963),
Islam Observed (1968),
The Interpretation of Cultures (1973)
Kinship in Bali (with Hildred Geertz, 1975)
Local Knowledge (1983)
Works and Lives (1988)
American Interpretivism
• “Believing, with Max Weber, that man [sic] is an
animal suspended in webs of significance he
himself [sic] 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
expressions on their surface enigmatical.”
– Geertz (1994; p. 214)
Three Claims of American
“Social phenomenon--social practices, institutions,
behaviors—are intrinsically meaningful and that their
meanings are construed by the meanings that social
actors give them.
“Social phenomenon can be understood only by
unraveling the meanings that constitute them, a
process that involves understanding the social
phenomenon for the actor’s point of view.
Three Claims of American
3. “Causal explanations, inductive generalizations,
and predications have little or no importance
in the social sciences.”
From Martin M. & McIntyre L.C. , Introduction to Part Three
in Interpretation and Meaning (1994), p. 159.
Interpretative Anthropology
• Religion should be approached from the
standpoint of interpretative anthropology
– rejects structuralism
– focuses on meaning and symbolism as it
relates to the native’s perspective
– allows for many meanings of a symbol
– there is no one “key-to-the-universe” theory
• Reflects the ideas of Boas, Kroeber and Lowie
• But also influnced by Talcott Parsons and Max
Interpretative Anthropology
• Culture is not simply a set of symbols
that fit into a structured analysis but
rather a series of complex “webs”
• Culture is, however, an objective system
for Geertz: real, permanent and
Our Working Definition
"[Culture is] an historically transmitted pattern of
meanings embodied in symbols, 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."
• -- Clifford
“Religion as a Cultural System", 1966.
Interpretative Anthropology
• Viewed “culture” as different from “society”
– Society would only examine micro-dimensions
such as kinship systems, clan structures or legal
– Culture, according to Geertz, was the
interconnected patterns of ideas that manifest
within a collectivity of persons.
• So, how would the anthropologist observe
such interconnection?
Thick Description
• Description on two critical levels:
– Describe what happens
– Describe the intention behind the action
• Relies upon Phenomenonlogy’s
distinction between
– Consciousness (awareness)
– Intentionality (awareness directed at objects
in the world; ”consciousness of”)
Thick Description
• English Philosopher Gilbert Ryle provides an
– One subject demonstrates an involuntary
twitch of the right eye
– A second subject “winks” at the observer
• Which behavior “means” something?
• Thick descriptions look for the meaning and
significance behind an action.
Thick Description
• An exercise:
– Make a list of specific actions related to “Christmas”
(Thin Description)
– Describe the significance or intentions behind these
actions (Thick Description)
– How do you know the significance or intentions of
these actions?
– Meaning must be social/shared rather than
Thick Description
• But cultures are more than mere expressions of
meaning systems (not always so rational)
• Cultures offer conflicting patterns of interaction
• The best an anthropologist can do, therefore, is
carefully guess—based on thick descriptions of
reality—the meanings behind actions and the
interactions of symbols.
Interpretative Anthropology
• Get away from an approach concerned with
limit, specify, focus and containment
• The position of the ethnographer is not to
discover universal theory
• Move from generalizations of a culture as a
• Move toward possible ”anticipations” of
general ideas within a particular culture
Interpretative Anthropology
• Instead, the ethnographer should be
“microscopic” : looking at tiny sections or
fragments of a culture and examining them
with the precision of a chemist
• One must reject the idea of “coherence”
suggested by Weber and Eliade, for instance,
as nothing more than ”bad science”
• Any culture can be observed in this manner.
A New Approach to Religion
• “Religion as a Cultural System” (1975),
Geertz’s groundbreaking essay
• Begins by redefining “culture”
– A pattern of meaning, carried through symbols, by
which a particular people pass along knowledge of
life and express their attitudes toward it.
• So, how would religion function as a cultural
system (one among many)?
Geertz’s Definition of Religion
• “A religion is a system of symbols
• which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and longlasting moods and motivations in men [sic] by
• formulating conceptions of a general order of
existence and
• clothing these conceptions with such an aura of
factuality that
• the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”
(p. 90)
“A religion is a system of symbols”
• Symbols formulate a “basic congruence”
between a particular style of life and a specific
metaphysic. In other words, symbols are
theoretically abstractable from the referent
objects/represented realities.
• Symbols synthesize a people’s ethos – the
aesthetic style, tone, and quality of life, their
worldview, and their most comprehensive
ideas of order.
• Symbols convey ideas in a public form
“A religion is a system of symbols”
• Symbolic structures have an intrinsically
double aspect:
– a model of “reality”
– a model for “reality”
• “they both express the world’s climate and
shape it.”
“which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and
long-lasting moods and motivations in men”
• Religious symbols are intended to induce in the
practitioner a certain distinctive set of dispositions [or
feelings] which lead to a chronic [long lasting]
character to the flow of activity [behaviors both
engaged and avoided] and the quality of life [joy,
content, emptiness, etc.].
• His psychological categories of mood and disposition
(based on the work of Oxford philosopher Gilbert
Ryle) remain rather undeveloped in this essay.
“formulating conceptions of a general order
of existence”
• Representation of transcendent truths; religion
tries of offer ultimate expressions of truth.
• Mitigates chaos due to the limit in our analytic
capacities, limits in the power of own
endurance and the limits in our moral insight
• Humanity generally prefers any explanation—
no matter how inconsistent or simple
minded—to none at all.
“formulating conceptions of a general order
of existence”
• Religion accounts for things that cannot
otherwise be readily explained, providing
answers and strategies for action while
lowering ambiguities.
“clothing these conceptions with such an aura of
• Religious perspective differs from other
perspectives that people employ to construe
their world:
– Common sense - a form of naïve realism
– Science - a mode of understanding based on
disinterested observation and formal concepts
– Aesthetic perspective - a kind of suspension of
naïve realism and practical interest in favor of
sensory contemplation.
“clothing these conceptions with such an aura of
• A religious perspective “moves beyond the
realities of everyday life” to correct and
complete them
• “Rather than detachment, its watchword is
commitment; rather than analysis, encounter.”
• Through ritual the world as lived and the world
as imagined are fused through the agency of
symbolic forms.
“clothing these conceptions with such an aura of
• In this manner, religious doctrine comes across
as being a true way to understand the actual
realities of life
• Religion appeals to authority figures (both
symbolic or real) to add to the ostensible
“truth” of religion
• Rituals reinforce that the religions conceptions
are true and sound.
Comparison of Evans-Pritchard’s and
Geertz’s interpretive styles
• Alien cultures are like foreign
languages, to be ‘translated’
into familiar terms
• Therefore, ethnography is a
matter of placing oneself
(the ethnographer) both into
the head of the native and
into the head of the reader
• Culture is embodied in the
symbols through which
people communicate
• Therefore ethnography
requires an understanding of
the actor’s point of view, not
that of a supposedly
impartial observer

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