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The Interpretation of Cultures

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In The Interpretation of Cultures, the most original anthropologist of his generation moved far beyond the traditional confines of his discipline to develop an important new concept of culture. This groundbreaking book, winner of the 1974 Sorokin Award of the American Sociological Association, helped define for an entire generation of anthropologists what their field is ultimately about.

480 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1973

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About the author

Clifford Geertz

81 books190 followers
Clifford James Geertz was an American anthropologist and served until his death as professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 87 reviews
31 reviews3 followers
March 18, 2010
The Interpretation of Cultures is an academic classic. The late Clifford Geertz was lauded for his 1973 anthropological volume, and I do not find this to be hype. The book is structured around anthropological description, with Geertz relying on field data he gathered mostly in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Yet, it is certain that, if The Interpretation of Cultures were mere anthropological description, the book probably would not have survived. How many Westerners are truly fascinated enough by the details of Indonesian culture to read 400 plus pages on the topic (certainly not I).

The longevity of the book (excerpts are still read in social science classes) has multiple attributions. First, the book altered how anthropologists perceived their work – The Interpretation of Cultures is an epistemological work. The first chapter, Thick Description: Toward and Interpretive Theory of Culture, is frequently referenced by social scientists. Prior to the publication of Geertz’ work, field researchers often treated themselves as “human recorders”, travelling to unfamiliar locales, penetrating the local world, and recording local “reality.” Geertz, through philosophical argumentation, made a fairly basic point, albeit eloquently enough to garner attention from his peers: it is not possible for social scientists to record a tangible social reality. Really, anthropologists capture reality as it is understood by local actors, and then filter this understanding through their own lens. Anthropology is an interpretation of an interpretation of reality. Geertz makes this point through his oft-cited “winking” example. A wink can mean many things: a physiological tick, a flirtation, a sign of confidence, a caricature of someone else who just winked. The visual “reality”: someone moving their eye in a certain manner, can have numerous social meanings. It is the task of an anthropologist to unearth all these meanings, and their social contexts. Geertz labeled this scientific process “thick description.” To Geertz, the best social science captures complex patterns in detail. Symbols play an important role in this endeavor. If the goal is to understand local meaning, then social scientists should explore the symbolic significance of cultural artifacts (with the term “artifact” admittedly not the mot juste – I mean the term in a very broad sense).

The Interpretation of Cultures is structurally unique. The book includes fifteen chapters. Each chapter is a topical essay. In a preface, Geertz acknowledges that he wrote the essays at different times, not initially intending to combine them into a single book. In some respects, then, The Interpretation of Cultures serves as the collected works of Clifford Geertz. There is some unification to the book. Most obviously, the chapters draw upon the same datasets. Yet, the book is a potpourri of sorts. The essays include theoretical expositions (on religion, on culture, on the human mind), commentary on the social sciences, and presentation of anthropological results. A more careful reader than I could probably find the words to describe how this mélange comes together into a coherent whole that represents an “approach”, a way of understanding the craft underlying anthropological fieldwork. I think, at some level (and Geertz suggests as much in his preface), an effort to make sense of how the essays cohere is almost a metaphor for Geertz’ inductive approach to science – put it all together, back off, try to make sense of the whole, back off again, try to make sense again.
Profile Image for Ashley.
5 reviews13 followers
December 17, 2007
"Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs..."

These cultural "webs of significance" Clifford Geertz speaks of are constructed of religious beliefs and practices, cultural customs, social interactions, attitudes and behavior -- everything around us that we have constructed as rational beings capable of thought and imagination. According to Geertz, the role of the anthropologist is, in a sense, to 'decode' the symbolic meanings of these certain events, practices, customs and interactions that take place within a specific culture, however insignificant they may seem to the observer. Detail is of utmost importance. An anthropologist must become part of the culture -- looking in from the outside he will understand nothing. Of course, in order to reduce the occurrence of the anthropologist's own cultural bias and to attempt to more accurately understand a culture, one could easily say that it is imperative that anthropologists emerge themselves in the customs and practices of that culture. But, even then, is it ever possible for one to grasp an understanding of a culture in which one was not born into? Are humans socialized from birth to perceive all cultural customs and practices through a shady lens, clouded by perceptions of the world they have acquired during childhood?

Geertz believes that, while to some extent it is possible to reach an understanding of a culture outside of our own, it is important to understand that anthropological writing is merely a "thick description," an interpretation of an interpretation. In other words, the anthropologist is interpreting the culture's interpretation of the event that is taking place. There is nothing precise, categorically logical or rational about anthropological writing: Cultural analysis is strictly the process of creating various hypotheses, examining those hypotheses, and then deriving explanations from the best hypotheses. As Geertz says, the analysis of it is not an "experimental science in search of law" but, rather, "an interpretive one in search of meaning." It is the job of an anthropologist to first attempt to understand how an event is interpreted by the culture in which it takes place, then to make an interpretation of that interpretation, and then it is left up to the reader of anthropological writing to interpret the final interpretations. It is difficult, if not impossible, to derive any absolute factual conclusion from data constructed of so many interpretive layers; thus, interpretation is not definitive.

The role of an anthropologist, according to Geertz, is to construct the finest interpretations possible, and most importantly, to be an active participant in the culture, rather than a passive observer.

This book is THE classical text for a modern cultural anthropologist. It's also an excellent book for anyone skeptical of social science in general, and serves as a great introduction for anyone just curious about anthropology.
Profile Image for Kalin.
Author 71 books264 followers
September 11, 2021
TL;DR: Nothing (worth talking about) is simple or straightforward.


This is probably the hardest book I've ever finished reading. And that after two false starts, when I realized I didn't understand enough of it, so I left it for "when I get smarter."

Does that mean I've gotten smarter?

Self-teasing aside, this is a book worth rereading. The first pass gave me an overview of Geertz's ideas. I still didn't understand many of them, or not as fully as I'd have liked to, but now at least I know where to go when I want to go deeper.

The following notes should hopefully steer me:

Profile Image for Sam Grace.
473 reviews48 followers
July 20, 2008
I'm rereading this and am amazed at how much I missed the last time I picked it up. Rather than attempt to break down why Geertz is so great or what he covers in this book, I'm just gonna include a couple of my favorite quotations:

"Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of laws, but an interpretive one in search of meaning." (5)

"...where an interpretation comes from does not determine where it can be impelled to go." (23)

"it may be in the cultural particularities of people - in their oddities - that some of the most instructive revelations of what it is to be generically human are to be found." (43)

In particular his essay "The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man" gave me an entirely new perspective relative to the doctrine of the psychic unity of mankind.

There's no doubt this is academic reading, but if there were ever a book that deserved to be read by everyone interested in culture, this is it.
Profile Image for Tessa.
25 reviews
May 2, 2007
Everyone at the LSE may hate him but what do they know ;-) Geertz really introduced the culture as texts idea which has played a huge role in shaping modern anthropology. Even if you're not into anthro, he's just a wonderfully talented writer and fascinating thinker
429 reviews
August 11, 2014
Geertz said he grew up wanting to be a writer but failed. This is one result of that failure: a very good book of close observation & philosophy masquerading as social science.
Profile Image for Richard.
Author 30 books42 followers
May 12, 2012
Possibly the most influential book of my college years.
Profile Image for Steve.
361 reviews1 follower
July 25, 2021
The Interpretation of Cultures is a collection of Professor Geertz’s writing, something of an introduction to the field of anthropology. I was able to engage with the bulk of this work, which is always a positive for an academic product. He remarked that culture and human evolution are symbiotic, interrelated; take the culture away and we are . . . ?
A cultureless human being would probably turn out to be not an intrinsically talented though unfulfilled ape, but a wholly mindless and consequently unworkable monstrosity. Like the cabbage it so much resembles, the Homo sapiens brain, having arisen within the framework of human culture, would not be viable outside of it.
Do we think this is really the case?

Professor Geertz offers up a whole lot of reflection on Indonesian culture, especially religious practices. Put in association with Benedict R. O’G. Anderson’s work, Imagined Communities, previously reviewed elsewhere, I now wonder if that place is some kind of mother lode for social scientists. This work then delves further into Balinese society, ultimately to cockfighting, which is about as ground level as an observer can get. Do you think the best way to understand Americans today might be to research professional wrestling? If so, to researchers interested in investigating this corner of our culture, I might provide some insight into the careers of Dick The Bruiser or Pretty Boy Bobby Heenan, later known as Bobby The Brain Heenan.

I found the discussion of both ideology and nationalism particularly relevant to our recent political experience. I imagine that many social scientists through the years have presumed that the era of enlightenment would lessen the importance of parochial and ideological movements, that multiculturalism, free trade and globalism would rid us of the pernicious factions, observed historically across so many dimensions. Not so, it turns out. Rather, it seems those in control or seeking control have figured out that these powerful themes remain and have become ever more adept at the subtle practice of mass manipulation to satisfy their narrow agendas.

Somewhere in the middle of this book, I did come to question where the lines are drawn among the social sciences. Psychology, history, sociology, economics, political science, anthropology, and, as Professor Geertz remarked, even soothsaying, all seem to exist in ambiguous corridors of thought. Where does psychology end and economics begin, for example. Maybe there should just be one social science, the sub-disciplines being inventions of the career-minded? Does anyone know where I might obtain a degree in soothsaying? That seems the most practical of all.

Professor Geertz commented on the writing of Claude Lévi-Strauss, noting some of the same themes that crossed my mind when I read Tristes Tropiques, also reviewed elsewhere. Professor Geertz is a much better writer, or maybe his voice carries the weight of greater authority, or both.
What, after all, is one to make of savages? Even now, after three centuries of debate on the matter—whether they are noble, bestial, or even as you and I; whether they reason as we do, are sunk in a demented mysticism, or are possessors of higher forms of truth we have in our avarice lost; whether their customs, from cannibalism to matriliny, are mere alternatives, no better and no worse, to our own, or crude precursors of our own now outmoded, or simply passing strange, impenetrable exotica amusing to collect; whether they are bound and we are free, or we are bound and they are free—after all this we still don’t know.
It’s all part of trying to make sense of our existence, which is why I think I’ll continue to read more books in this discipline. It’s likely I’ll never reach a conclusion.
Profile Image for Plagued by Visions.
184 reviews469 followers
April 4, 2022
Essential reading for those looking to expand their knowledge on the interplay between textual and cultural studies.
Profile Image for yuefei.
77 reviews
December 10, 2022
Skimmed through this for an essay for an introductory social anthropology module. As much as I dislike Geertz's approach to ethnography and his writing style (very typical of an older generation of literary humanists), his model of culture and interpretive approach brought about some important changes in the discipline, and provides a nice framework for understanding what culture is and how it works.
Profile Image for Rosa Ramôa.
1,570 reviews66 followers
January 15, 2015
Antropologia...No livro "A Interpretação das Culturas", no artigo "Jogo Profundo: Notas sobre a Briga de Galo em Bali"...

"O que a briga de galos diz que diz, em um vocabulário de sentimentos - é a emoção do risco, o desespero da perda, o prazer do triunfo. Assim, o que diz não é apenas que o risco é excitante, a perda deprimente, ou o triunfo gratificantes, tautologias banais de afeto, mas que é destas emoções, assim exemplificadas, que a sociedade é construída e indivíduos são colocado juntos. Ir às brigas de galos e participar delas é, para o balinês, uma espécie de educação sentimental."

Clifford Geertz, diz que a Cultura é formada por teias de significados tecidas pelo homem. Significados atribuídos pelos homens às suas acções e a eles próprios...
Ainda sobre os galos,�� um ritual,um passatempo e um fenómeno cognitivo e emocional!Tem vários significados já que existe uma tendência,quase por questões de sobrevivência,do homem atribuir significado a tudo o que faz!!!
Mas as dinâmicas sociais e seus significados não chegam por si só para compreender uma comunidade!Há significados imaginativos e simbólicos que ultrapassam o entendimento de um homem comum...( o homem comum é o que luta com galos).
Profile Image for Ben Haines.
204 reviews2 followers
Want to read
June 21, 2022
Here Clifford Geertz and his famous cockf i ght remain the model, because through his exemplary analysis we are brought to see something of the complexity of the grati-f i cations of ritualized performances, with the modelling of chronic rivalries, the purging of the bitter residue of 490 Notes to pages 338–40 daily politesse, the inversion of aesthetics, the avowal of the unavowable. Clifford Geertz, ‘Deep Play: Notes on the Bali-nese Cockf i ght’, in The Interpretation of Cultures pp. 412–53, esp. 449

From aztecs
Profile Image for Dan Call.
73 reviews
September 24, 2018
Geertz threw down the gauntlet at social science, defining a generation of anthropologists in the process. When I first read this text back in college, I was enticed by the logic and liberation of his “thick description.”
Only later would I realize how big a threat Geertz posed to the inter generational project of legitimizing anthropology to the scientific community. Several of my mentors regarded him with at least a little scorn.
Like all the great ethnographers, he emerged from his fieldwork with not only insights of his host culture, but also with a key for understanding the human condition. Limitations and miscalculations aside, this text matters because, like Boas, Mead, Levi-Strauss, et al, it rebirthed the enterprise.
Profile Image for Marsha Altman.
Author 16 books127 followers
October 16, 2017
Another classic of sociology. That doesn't mean that it's not really hard to get through, and you should definitely read Durkheim, and Weber, and Freud first, since he responds to them.
103 reviews4 followers
December 27, 2020
An absolute powerhouse of a book. Some of the writing can be hard to take in (slog through) given Geertz' extended prose and scholarly prowess, but ultimately his ability to elucidate concrete events and circumstances grounds the book in powerful ethnography. The most captivating of the essays are those which focus on the ground truth of culture in Bali, where Geertz' ethnographies exemplify the notion of thick description. More than that, though, Geertz' clear genius is in proposing (and perhaps laying the groundwork for, though in a very disjointed manner) a rendering of cultural anthropology as a positive science by channeling it through the lens of

Several of the essays, such as "Thick Description," I assume must be somewhat standard reading material in anthropology, and for good reason.

"The Growth of Culture and the Evolution of Mind" is an intriguing essay, and as a synthesis of (at the time) cutting edge ideas, serves as a very representative sample of the trend toward dynamical : semblances of culture in other species (citing DeVore with respect to non-human primates, but see "The Biology of Traditions" by Fragaszy & Perry for a more recent foray); ideas of neural evolution strongly informed by Hebb and others which are still clearly dominant today, including what sounds like an early formulation of 'flow'; early hints of Sutton's "Bitter Truth"; the notion of thinking being a public act, with private thought a derivative (to my surprise I have not seen this idea directly taken up or challenged in the context of social cognition e.g. Michael Tomasello; nor in the contemplative and phenomenological sciences); imaginal thinking as an implement of what we now call 'predictive coding'; reflective thought and its connection to insight and aporia; and ultimately, the very Geertzian conclusion that human cognition relies on "the accessibility of public symbolic structures to build up its own autonomous, ongoing pattern of activity."

"Religion as a Cultural System" is, likewise, a tour de force and a must read for anyone interested in contemplative sciences or religious studies; and I should think very much aligned with what Vervaeke calls "religio" (a sort-of semiotic binding of oneself to the world which is taken to, a priori, orient our mode of perception and action).

"Ethos, World View, and the Analysis of Sacred Symbols" takes this semiotic binding into the concree, with Geertz dissecting many fascinating aspects of Javanese religion.

"Ideology as a Cultural System" is another delightful read, and very enlightening to read. Ideology is perennial. but reading this in 2020 does feel timely. The rest of Part IV is largely focused on the "new states" as of the time of writing (Indonesia, Malaya, Burma, India, Lebanon, Morocco, and Nigeria). This is a very piercing analysis, and a good primer for someone largely unfamiliar with the politics in these countries in the twentieth century.

Part V contains three miscellaneous essays, which are quite a bit lighter and more fun to read. "Person, Time, and Conduct in Bali" is a really compelling breakdown of how the Balinese perceive others; and "Deep Play" as others have remarked, can perhaps only be described as a romp.

"All ethnography is part philosophy, and a good deal of the rest is confession."
Profile Image for Neil.
1,140 reviews8 followers
February 3, 2020
We read excerpts of this book for an online course I was taking in college; I enjoyed the excerpts enough that I decided to finish the book. It took me quite a bit longer to finish than I expected, but there is a lot to digest in this book. It is not a quick 'done and gone' book; it has a lot of depth and humor to it. I also thought it was interesting how he kept pointing out that people who study other cultures and then right about what they observe tend to be blinded by their own . . . "prejudices" or preconceived notions; he admitted he fell into this category as well. He does not hold back with his observations, either, when it comes to looking at other theories as to why people behave the way they do, believe what they do. I never fully realized the diversity of beliefs in the world until after reading this book; the world tends to be lumped into one of seven "major religions" with footnotes for "minor religions" that do not fit into the three major western religions or four major eastern religions, and it is easy to forget (or, not think about) the numbers of other people who have religious beliefs that do not fit into the big (primary) seven.

While he talks about different religious beliefs around the world, doing some unique (and "excellent") comparisons and contrasts, he focuses mostly on Bali, Indonesia, and Morocco, as those are the countries in which he spent most of his time abroad, studying other cultures. He has some interesting viewpoints, observations, and anecdotes throughout the entire book. Also, he came across as trying to be respectful of all religious beliefs, too, which was interesting to read.

One thing that stood out to me over the course of the entire book was when he said "early on" that "we don't know what we think until we see what we say." Probably one of the 'best quotes' in the book, in my opinion. In any case, the book was filled with excellent observations, quotable lines, and memorable observations.

This book was quite readable; that being the case, there was a lot that I am sure went over my head (even if only because I do not normally think in terms of the way the book was written). It gave me headaches more than once while reading, but I think the headaches were worth it (in the end, 'cause I assumed they meant my brain was working 'hard' to understand what was being said and/or presented in the book). Each chapter is broken up into five subsections, and each subsection builds upon the one prior. I would say there were more 'humorous moments' toward the end of the book, because he told more anecdotal stories about his experiences while living amidst the indigenous people he was studying. All in all, it was a fun, fascinating book to read, and I could easily see myself reading it again (partly because of how much I am sure I missed the first time around). I am glad I took the time to finish reading it.
Profile Image for Mindy McAdams.
465 reviews31 followers
July 7, 2018
I came back from Indonesia in 2012 all ready to read Geertz, but I never got around to it until now. This collection of essays around the concept of culture — what is it, and how can/should we study it? — is a classic that holds up very well. (Caveat emptor: I'm not an anthropologist.)

I especially liked "Ritual and Social Change: A Javanese Example." It describes how a funeral in a village became an event of confusion and unhappiness because of changing times — not so much modernization per se as the development of politics. The people of the village always had Muslim funerals, presided over by a man qualified to do so. But as new political parties arose after independence, some parties are distinctly Muslim and some are not. As the family of the deceased belonged to a non-Muslim political faction, it became obvious that they were other than Muslim, and the presiding fellow declined to direct the rituals. But there was no other kind of funeral, and no one to run one, and the family really wanted the typical Muslim affair. It was a fascinating case, as are most of those in the book.

I was disappointed by "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight," which is deservedly famous, but not as interesting to me as many of the other essays here. Anything about ideology and its relationship to culture seemed particularly relevant in today's United States (2018) — sadly enough. Anything about religion was immensely interesting to me. I was also struck, repeatedly, by Geertz's references to other scholars, past and contemporary, and the apparent depth of his familiarity with their work.

I think the dullest essay was "The Integrative Revolution," about the evolution of several of what Geertz called "the new states" (Indonesia, Malaya, Burma, India, Lebanon, Morocco, Nigeria), mainly because it was much less about culture and more about how the states were shaping up as states, post-colonially. That reminds me, though, that I really enjoyed reading what Geertz had to say about Morocco. I might seek out more of what he wrote about that country, where he also did fieldwork.

Overall, I'm very glad to have read this. It's been especially interesting to be reading Benedict Anderson's A Life Beyond Boundaries for the last week as I finished the last few essays in this book.
Profile Image for Carl.
197 reviews47 followers
August 21, 2007
I've read a couple of essays in this book before, and figured that I should reread them, considering how seminal Geertz has been in my own field, and how influential at my university (for example, his influence on the early New Historicists). The most important sections would be (I believe) his introductory essay, "Thick Description: Toward and Interpretive Theory of Culture" and "Notes on a Balinese Cockfight". I believe the latter is one of his best known examples of his "Thick Description" in practice. My late professor Alan Dundes edited a casebook on the Balinese Cockfight which I hope to read (I've heard a presentation on it). Dundes, of course, takes a hard-line Freudian approach in contrast to Geertz' "symbolic analysis". While I admit that Dundes has a tendency to get a bit extreme in his analysis, I thought he made a very good case for his own reading. While Geertz seems to be more concerned with understanding culture according to native competence in the native semiotic milieu, I think there is certainly room for analysis of the unconscious side of culture-- though it is true that there is a lot of room for abuse in that area.
5 reviews
May 15, 2007
Okay, I acknowledge your reservations about Clifford Geertz. Lots of people have reservations about Clifford Geertz. Benedict Anderson, for example, has reservations about Clifford Geertz, as do I. I acknowledge your concern that Geertz's "semiotic approach to the study of culture" may be inherently--irredeemably--slippery, woolly-headed flimflam papered over with a raft of highbrow references and a better than average prose style

But whatever, I defy anyone to read "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight," the final essay in this collection, without laughing aloud. And isn't that why we read anthropology, for the yuks?
Profile Image for Jake Barnett.
24 reviews
March 30, 2020
This book can be a bit dense.

However, if you re-read certain essays you can take away some very important messages from Geertz that have proven to be foundations social anthropology today. His analyses of religion, ideology and the politics of meaning break down the subjects into their respective elements, tracing each one to its sociopolitical roots as a construct of culture. He paints the caveats of biological development in conjunction with the development of culture excellently, presenting that the two are not mutually exclusive.

Would definitely recommend this book to someone who is willing to take their time.
Profile Image for Kent.
127 reviews6 followers
January 11, 2014
While it is beginning to show its age, partially because many of his ideas became a part of the way anthropology, sociology, and history now operate, Geertz's work is still a worthwhile read. Of most importance are his broader chapters (especially chapters 1 and 2) that lay out his views on how to study culture(s). While his chapters based on his own fieldwork are good case studies, they may not be as useful to the general scholar. Geertz does spend a lot of time referencing and arguing against specific social theorists, which can be a stumbling block for those not familiar with their works.
Profile Image for Policythinkshop Blogger.
16 reviews3 followers
April 21, 2012
"Wow! In a world where most people think culture is something you eat or gawk at, Geertz empowers the mind by making it the lens through which culture is seen and understood as a complex web that is dynamic and embedded with aesthetic, meaning and very human narrative."
Profile Image for Miguel Angel.
26 reviews4 followers
February 13, 2014
Symbolic Anthropology at the highest expression. One of the creators. One of the best Anthropologists of all time.
12 reviews
August 19, 2020
This is something that I should definitely re-read. The first reading of this book got over my head and that's an understatement.
Profile Image for Adam.
154 reviews3 followers
June 19, 2020
Roughly equal parts interesting and exhausting, sometimes skewing more towards the latter. As a collection of essays written at different times, the book repeats many points and circles back to discussions, and the overall themes and messages are rendered vague - helped only slightly by the introduction intended to tie the essays together.

Some essays do stand out: 'Religion as a cultural system' offers interesting analysis of the function that sacred symbols play in "synthesiz[ing] a people’s ethos and their world view", as well as providing an anthropological definition of religion no doubt useful to many different academic fields; "(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic." 'Ideology as a cultural system' also stood out to me as still worthy of interest, concluding that "Whatever else ideologies may be – projections of unacknowledged fears, disguises for ulterior motive, phatic expressions of group solidarity – they are, most distinctly, maps of problematic social reality and matrices for the creation of collective consciousness." 'Person, time, and conduct in Bali' is a great exploration of an interesting cultural pattern and example of how human thought itself is "consummately social". Finally, the famous 'Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cockfight' is as interesting as its continued fame would suggest (the latter two essays being the two most readable - but also longest - chapters in the book in my opinion).

Overall, though, to a non-anthropology student like myself, the book seems dated (compiled in the 70s, the essays themselves written in the 60s) and tiring (not helped by my decision to take notes and look up some of the half-explained theories Geertz discusses). To anyone who, like me, is interested by the premise but not shackled into an anthropology course, I would recommend just reading the intro and then the four chapters I mentioned.
Profile Image for Dolf van der Haven.
Author 20 books12 followers
April 25, 2021
I mostly wanted to read this book because of its Indonesian case studies. However, the amount of theory is quite large and a lot of it was quite over my head. Plus he is a fan of using as many dependent clauses in a sentence as possible, as if he is paid by the comma, which, usually, makes reading a sentence, let alone a whole, or partial, paragraph, tiring, if not exhausting. What is interesting in the theory, though, is that Geertz has a first inkling of a more integral view of humanity, where culture and social structure are related to each other and influence each other; where individual morality is related to group ethics; where individual thought is bilaterally related to culture. He doesn't go all the way in this yet, but for early 1970s' thought he was quite modern.
The Indonesian case studies were most entertaining for me. Who knew Balinese people have five different names (none of which is a surname)? And the last chapter is the culmination of it all: cock-fights on Bali (and yes, they are cruel, but this is a book on anthropology, not animal rights). If, like me, you are wary of anthropological jargon, just read the last chapter (or find it online).
Profile Image for James Millikan SJ.
187 reviews22 followers
February 2, 2020
Truth be told, I found the middle sections of this text to be rather underwhelming. The pages and pages of ethnographical investigations were so awash in detail that the notable contributions to social theory were obscured. Geertz states up front that this book is based off a collection of scholarly articles, and I suspect that therein lies the problem: what in journal articles constitutes scholarship and rigor makes for overly-technical and disjointed book-length chapters.

Still, when The Interpretation of Cultures is good, it is really good. The first chapter's treatment of methodological challenges in the social sciences, the sections dealing with philosophical anthropology, and the classic account of cockfights in Bali (even if the literary allusions were a little melodramatic) are among the best examples of cultural anthropology that I have encountered. Recommended, but best read selectively.
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