The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Remembering Clifford Geertz (1926-2006)

Geertz was admired as much for the insights he brought to the study of culture as for the quality of his prose. He became the master of the short essay and contributed widely to literary journals such as The Antioch Review, The Georgia Review and The New York Review. Three successive collections of his essays, The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), Local Knowledge (1983) and After the Fact (1995) brought him wide renown as a writer. He became the acknowledged master of what is known as interpretive or symbolic anthropology.

As his writing came to receive increasing attention from authors in a variety of fields, Geertz became interested in what anthropologists do as authors. In 1988 he published, as Works and Lives, the Harry Camp Memorial lectures delivered at Stanford five years previously. In it he discussed the works of four major anthropologists, Lévi-Strauss, Bronislaw Malinowski, Edward E. Evans-Pritchard and Ruth Benedict. The essays were beautifully written, but they also became controversial. Ernest Gellner, who knew and admired Evans-Pritchard, felt that Geertz’s treatment of him was self-indulgent and not very profound.

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. It is important to remember that Geertz was a superb ethnographer at a time when too many persons try to use pretty prose to cover up insubstantial ethnography.

I would like to emphasize the richness and detail of the fieldwork with which Geertz began his career as an anthropologist. In his first major monograph, The Religion of Java, he had described the course of his research in Indonesia. The first phase was devoted mainly to learning Malay, the language of Indonesia, for about ten months at Harvard, followed by a stay in the Netherlands for three months to interview Dutch scholars on Indonesia and do archival work in Leiden and Amsterdam. This was followed by another period of language- training at Djogjakarta, this time for learning Javanese. The fieldwork proper was undertaken in the Javanese town of Modjokuto from May 1953 to September 1954. Several visits were made subsequently to Java, Bali and other locations in the country. Later he moved to Morocco to do fieldwork in a different continent.

Three monographs were published within a span of three years. The first and most substantial, The Religion of Java, came out in 1960; it was followed in 1963 by Agricultural Involution and Peddlers and Princes. The last was a comparative study of two towns, a Javanese market town and a Balinese court town. Agricultural Involution is a brief but masterly exposition of the ecological approach to anthropology, combining observations made in the field with archival research. Peddlers and Princes addressed the problem of economic development on the basis of field studies conducted at two separate locations.

The Religion of Java 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 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 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.

Geertz retained his interest in Islam, and, as I have indicated, 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.

When Clifford Geertz entered the profession, anthropologists were divided between those who used social structure as the basic framework of their study and those who used culture. The former included the great British social anthropologists, Meyer Fortes, Max Gluckman and Evans-Pritchard, who had all been influenced by A.R. Radcliffe-Brown. Cultural, as against social anthropology, had always been the hallmark of the American approach to the subject. 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. Today, when the discipline of anthropology appears to be melting into the freewheeling discourses of cultural studies, it would do well to remember the rigour and discipline that went into the preparation and execution of The Religion of Java.

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