The eminent anthropologist Clifford J. Geertz died on Monday at the age of 80, The New York Times reported this morning.
Mr. Geertz, whose best-known book is The Interpretation of Cultures (Basic Books, 1973), insisted that the tools of literary criticism and interpretation should be brought to bear when studying human social experiences. Throughout his career, he rebeled against both Marxian materialist analyses and Talcott Parsons’s functionalist approach to sociology, both of which he believed were too mechanistic.
So when analyzing, for example, cockfighting in rural Indonesia or nationalist movements in Morocco, he typically presented a huge accumulation of detailed observations before proceeding to make an argument about the cultural symbols and values that were in play at those particular times and locations. He famously referred to his approach as “thick description,” and his vivid prose style drew both praise and scorn from his colleagues.
Mr. Geertz’s work was enormously influential in anthropology and other social sciences during the 1970s, but more recently began to draw attacks from critics who asserted that his method failed to take sufficient account of structures of power and social domination.
In a 2001 essay, Mr. Geertz praised the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, N.J., whose faculty he joined in 1970, for its attempts to “break away somehow from the prevailing paradigms in the social sciences, poor imitations, mostly, of misunderstood physics, and to adapt those sciences to the immediate peculiarities of their supposed subject matter: the human way of being in the world.”
Mr. Geertz’s commitment to “immediate peculiarities” meant that he was highly suspicious of any attempts to describe universal laws of human behavior. In a 2000 book, he wrote, “If you want a good rule-of-thumb generalization from anthropology, I would suggest the following: Any sentence that begins, ‘All societies have’ is either baseless or banal.”
In a 1995 interview with The Chronicle, he said, “Grand, master narratives just don’t appeal to me. I’d much rather zigzag, break off, start again.”
Richard A. Shweder, a professor of human development at the University of Chicago who helped to organize a festschrift for Mr. Geertz in 2002, said in an interview this morning that he was deeply saddened by the news of Mr. Geertz’s death. “This is someone who was always feinting, like a boxer,” he said. “He had a sort of peek-a-boo style. He hated the idea of being pinned down or pigeonholed. He was reluctant to try to systemize or theorize his own approach to social science.”
Despite that elusiveness, Mr. Geertz was almost always gracious with critics, Mr. Shweder continued. At a conference in San Diego in the 1980s, near the peak of his influence, Mr. Geertz faced a barrage of criticism for an entire weekend, Mr. Shweder recalled. “He would listen, and then he would give long replies,” Mr. Shweder said. “He spoke the way he wrote, in lucid, expansive paragraphs. He was very good-spirited about the entire thing.”