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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Clifford Geertz and the Disintegration of Social Science

BOOK REVIEW
The Interpretation of Cultures
by Clifford Geertz
p. 1977
Basic Books

      When I'm reading some complex bit of social science theory, I have to remind myself that no matter what discipline, ANY social science didn't exist 200 years ago- they are recent inventions.  It also pays to consider that 99% of the material for ANY social science has been rendered irrelevant by developments that have occurred since the late 1960s.  Specifically, the introduction of ideas outside of the "positivist" "social science as hard science" school of thought- larger known as "relativism."
     The idea that social sciences were an analogue of natural sciences foundered on the rocks of the complexity of human interaction, and attempts to revise various social sciences have in turn been dashed against the entrenched interests of the older generation of social science mandarins.   It's a bit of a sticky wicket, I suppose, but in day-to-day existence it means that you can't count on ANY of the social sciences for ANY insight into human behavior.
      It's a sad state of affairs, and I analogize the state of social sciences to the state of the music industry: Rendered largely irrelevant by updates in technology, and not sure what to do about it AND free falling into oblivion in the mean time.
       One of the revolutionariness in the shift away from positivism into an arena of "relativism" was Clifford Geertz.  Geertz was a trailblazer in the social science of Anthropology, introducing sophisticated ideas about human interaction that had been developed by European philosophers like Wittgenstein, sociologists like Max Scheler and linguists like Saussure into the contemporary american discipline of Anthropology.
      Writing mostly in obscure specialty journals until his Interpretation of Cultures was published 1977, Interpretation of Cultures was itself a collection of the articles he had written up that point, interspersed with bridging chapters.  I think it's fair to say that the implications of Geertz's arguments vis a vis anthropological theory are still being addressed in the realm of professional scholarship, but I don't think he's really been absorbed into the "general reading public" in the way that he should be.
        Unfortunately, Interpretation of Cultures is far from being a good book in and of its own right, and in a sense it contains a symbolic relevance that mirrors Geertz's own discussion about the role of symbols in religion. (now a "sub-field" of Anthropology called "Symbolic Anthropology.")  I actually ended up skipping his 100 page discussion of the idea of ideology and it's relationship to the newly emerging nations of the 3d world in the 1960s- but his "thick description" trailblazer "Notes from A Balinese Cock Fight" and his chapters describing the role of symbols in religion seem as fresh today as they were then.
        Interpretation of Cultures also contains a spirited anti-relativist tirade against his own predecessors: Ruth Benedicts "Patterns of Cultures" comes in for harsh criticism for being too mushy-mushy about describing the relationships between cultures as well as her description of cultures themselves.  Geertz champions the deep, fully descriptive essay at the expense of making universal judgement about the whole of human kind based on observations of one culture.
     Maybe this is why these ideas haven't really penetrated into the genpop: They don't provide any facile or easy answers about explaining human behavior, just suggestions on a method for making observations about phrasing the questions.


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