Clifford Geertz, RIP

(UPDATE: the official release is “here from the IAS website”:
(UPDATE UPDATE: here are obituaries from the “Washington Post”: and “New York Times”:

This from a grad student of mine — I’ve no independent confirmation yet but it seems unlikely to be a hoax. It seems like one of our best-known and best-loved scholars has passed. Here’s the email I was forwarded:

To the Institute Community,
I am very sorry to have to tell you of the sad news of the passing early this morning of Professor Emeritus Clifford Geertz.
Cliff was founding professor of the School of Social Science, who joined the Faculty in September 1970. He was the Harold F. Linder Professor from 1982 until 2000, when he obtained emeritus status. His work spanned the fields of cultural anthropology, religion and social theory, and his most recent research concerned the question of ethnic diversity and its implications in the modern world. Among his many honors, in 2002 he received the Award of Meritorious Achievements from the Indonesian government and in 1992 was awarded the Fukuoka Asian Cultural Prize.
Prior to joining the Institute, Cliff was Professor of Social Anthropology and Chairman of the Committee for the Comparative Study of New Nations at the University of Chicago. He was a visiting lecturer at Princeton University from 1975-2000, Eastman Professor at Oxford University from 1978-1979, and in 1984 a Fellow of the International Interchange Program of the Japan Society.
Cliff will be greatly missed, and we extend our deep sympathy to his wife, Dr. Karen Blu, and to his children, Erika and Benjamin.
Peter Goddard


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

12 thoughts on “Clifford Geertz, RIP

  1. I don’t think it’s a hoax, as I’ve received versions of that email on a couple of different academic listservs. As someone in English, I probably think of Geertz differently than the average anthropologist, but the idea of “thick description” influenced (and influences) not only my own work, but all that’s been written by the literary journalists I’ve taught–all of whom, unbeknownst to themselves, were working with a set of assumptions best described as Geertzian.

  2. This is sad news indeed. During my time at Princeton, Professor Geertz was something like Santa Claus: a quasi-mystical figure who would occasionally grace us with his presence at colloquia, leaving gifts in the form of pithy observations. I remember him at seminars by Handler, Kuper, Ortner and others, inserting commentary on diverse subjects, from the hermeneutic circle to Indonesian kinship. Surely, we will all miss his contributions to our discipline and his calm and, indeed, wise contributions to the American intellectual scene.

  3. Very sad news indeed. Here is a better link for Geertz’s Charles Homer Haskins Lecture: A Life of Learning. A fitting and poignant read at this juncture, almost as if he was delivering his own eulogy…

  4. This is very sad. It was “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” that made me, and many others, want to become an anthropologist.

  5. Could someone please provide independent verification of this? aside from the wikipedia, I haven’t found mention of Geertz’s death anywhere on the internet…and I am pretty sure that his wife’s name is Hildred. She’s on staff at Princeton.

  6. jenny —
    I’ll keep looking for verification, but FYI afaik Clifford and Hildred divorced some time ago — decades, probably, by now. So that is not a reason in itself to disbelieve the email.

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  8. Thanks to all for the clarification and confirmation–though I have to say, I wish it had all just been a hoax. Truly sad news and a real loss for all the human sciences.

  9. The following message about Clifford Geertz’s death was distributed by James Brooks, President of the School of American Research in Santa Fe and a former member of the Institute for Advanced Study:

    “I heard from Karen Blu through Keith Basso last night that Cliff passed away at the Univ. of Penn hospital yesterday, after some months of struggle with a complicated heart condition. His contributions to anthropology and to those of us who strove to make sense of culture through the art of writing is immeasurable, of course. Some of my best memories of the year I spent as his across-the-hall colleague at IAS, however, involve the insights he brought to my understanding of Yankees’ baseball–and his wry embrace of my very young kids as webs of their own significance.”

    Let me echo James’s comments by mentioning that when I was at the Institute in 2001, Cliff and Karen were kind enough to invite me, my wife, and our then two-yr-old daughter to Thanksgiving dinner at their house. (Susan Rodgers, the other anthropologist in residence at the IAS that year, was invited too.) My wife and I had worried about bringing an active toddler to what was essentially a grown-up affair, but Cliff proved as indulgently avuncular as one could imagine, showing our daughter curious things from Indonesia and the like. The event was doubly memorable for me, because the last time I had been in his house was in 1972, when I worked as solo bartender for an Institute party, one of the many jobs I accepted to make ends meet as an undergraduate at Princeton on financial aid. To be there as a colleague–admittedly, not in Geertz’s league, but who is?–was a powerful lesson about the wheel of life.

    One inevitably falls back on cliches in these situations, but there’s little doubt that anthropology has lost a giant figure.


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  11. To many of us, the Balinese cockfight and thick description are what comes to mind when we think of Geertz. But the passage that spoke to me most strongly and has shaped my thinking and writing ever since is the first paragraph in “The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man.”

    Toward the end of his recent study of the ideas used by tribal peoples, La Pensee Sauvage, the French anthropologist Levi-Strauss remarks that scientific explanation does not consist, as we have been led to imagine, in the reduction of the complex to the simple. Rather, it consists, he says, in a substitution of a complexity more intelligible for one which is less. So far as the study of man is concerned, one may go even further, I think, and argue that explanation often consists of substituting complex pictures for simple ones while striving somehow to retain the persuasive clarity that went with the simple ones.

    That challenge, how best to substitute complex pictures for simple ones “while striving somehow to retain the persuasive clarity that went with the simple ones” has haunted and guided me ever since I first encountered it.

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