Clifford Geertz: Ethnographer?

Why was Clifford Geertz such a popular anthropologist? Because he connected anthropology and the humanities? Because he was a great writer? One answer that often comes up is that he was a great ethnographer. I mean, he actually did ethnography. Negara (1980) was a historical anthropology of power that appeared just in time for 1980s-era historical anthropology. Meaning and Order in Moroccan Society (1978) is a massive tome.  Kinship in Bali (1975) was technical and dense, hardly the lackadaisical em-dash filled slackfest some people accused Geertz’s writing of being. Peddlers and Princes and Agricultural Involution (both 1963) are vintage New Nations ethnographies. Religion of Java (1960) seems to rise above its Parsonian roots.

But what does it mean to be a great ethnographer? Geertz had a style — not everyone would call it great — which made you ‘feel you were there’. He went back to the field, even when he was professionally secure enough that he didn’t have to. That counts for something. His work is detailed… although cough perhaps future historians will wonder how much his collaborators/spouses played a role in Keeping Things Rigorous. Maybe above all, Geertz was a successful ethnographer because you could read his ethnography and say: I could do that.

I wouldn’t really say that Geertz was ‘imitatable’ because that implies that those influenced by him merely reproduced him. Maybe it’s better to say that he was ‘exemplary’: He offered a model of fieldwork that you could take up and make your own. His was the ethnographies that launched a thousand culturalist ethnographies. I think this ability to be exemplary is a major force in what makes anthropologists famous to other anthropologists. It’s not just your institutional position (although this helps) or the novelty or accuracy of your ideas (which, sadly, matter less than they should). It’s your ability to fill people’s imaginations with a vision of their future self that seems feasible and desirable to them. They say: “I want to write a study like that — and I can!”

Geertz was maybe a great ethnographer in these senses, but not perhaps as great as Hal Conklin. As Michael Dove notes in his superb obituary of Conklin — and since this is a piece on Geertz, after all, I do feel it would only be appropriate to include a long em-dash bracketed phrase to indicate that I, as a professional consumer of obituaries, do consider Dove’s to be absolutely exemplary — tells the story of Conklin visiting Geertz during Geertz’s fieldwork in Morocco:

After listening to Geertz discussing his work, Conklin asked questions about the type of bamboo growing around the edges of the olive groves, the construction of the wall encircling the town, and the purpose of various odd items being sold in the bazaar. When Geertz could not answer his questions, Conklin said he would “take care of it” and sent Geertz home. He then got some paper from a butcher’s shop, exhaustively mapped the bazaar, and presented Geertz with the completed map.

Conklin’s masterful Ethnographic Atlas of Ifugao was released in 1980, the same year as Negara. The difference between the two is that the Ethnographic Atlas is the result of almost two decades of research, and that you have heard of Negara. I think there is a continuum with fame on one end and specialization on the other. The more and more you can provide genuinely new information, or advance theoretical understanding, the less and less likely people will be t read your work since it is, by definition, highly specialized. The more accessible your work is to Anthropologists Everywhere, less likely it is to have something to say to people who are really stuck into the phenomenon you are studying.

Sometimes I think Geertz was a great ethnographer because he gave people permission to be lousy fieldworkers. He was a lot like Victor Turner in this respect. The both came of age at the same time. Geertz got his Ph.D. in 1956, one year before Victor Turner. Their Ph.D. fieldwork was probably grueling. Turner’s Schism and Continuity was a masterpiece. An incredibly detailed, hyper-specific masterpiece. I sometimes wonder if Geertz, Turner, and other more ‘interpretive’ or ‘symbolic’ anthropologists didn’t just look back on their Ph.D. research and think: Heck no, I’m never doing that again. And then told their students: “You know, just don’t bother. There’s no point. No one will read it anyway.”

Was Geertz a great ethnographer? Yes. Was he a great ethnographer? Probably not. Is that fact a bad thing? Does it matter that it changed how anthropologists evaluate ethnographies altogether? I think so. After World War II, anthropologists like Douglas Oliver and Max Gluckman (sponsors of the research of Geertz and Turner respectively) were part of a giant wave of people seeking to professionalize and scientize and rigorousize anthropology. They pretty much failed. It’s a blessing and a curse that anthropology has been living with, for better and worse, ever since.


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

5 thoughts on “Clifford Geertz: Ethnographer?

  1. I was introduced to both Geertz and Conklin by the late Robert Netting. I’ve enjoyed reading works by both of them (though, for Geertz, mainly his pre-1973 works). Although I learned a great deal from Agricultural Involution, and enjoyed other works (such as The Wet and the Dry), the detail present in Conklin’s work far outstripped anything that Geertz did. Conklin’s work gave me some ideas on how to approach not only the domestication of plants, but, the origins of complexity, and the nature of trade in paleotechnic societies (I am an archaeologist). Although I’ve cited Geertz frequently (and even cribbed an article title from him), Conklin has been far more influential in my thinking.

    I hope that the next generation of anthropologists will show more respect towards the rigour that is present in Conklin’s work, versus the showmanship that is present in Geertz’s work.

  2. What an amazing piece of sexism! If you had read Kinship in Bali (or even just looked at the cover), you would see that Hildred Geertz was the main author. She was a key part of the fieldwork, which was all done in partnership. After they separated, Cliff didn’t do any more fieldwork, but she returned to Bali for an extended period of research, from which she has produced a set of publications (the last published recently before she turned 90).

  3. I have enormous respect for Clifford Geertz as an innovative scholar who brought his background in philosophy to the analysis of ethnographic materials. That being said, I would not call him a great ethnographer for all of the reasons mentioned in previous comments. A couple of additional points here. The conditions of field work in Pare, East Java (for those who do not know that is the actual name of Modjokuto) we not especially harsh. It was, and is, a pleasant little town. The Geertzs lived in one of the most comfortable houses in town (I’ve been there.) That is a trivial matter. A more serious one is that Pare is located only a few kilometers for Kediri, the site of Pondok Pesantren Lirboyo, a major center for the study of classical Arabic Islamic texts. His failure to delve deeply into the pesantren world led Geertz to misunderstand and misrepresent traditional Javanese Islam as “syncretic” and to accept the claims of Muslim modernists inspired by Egyptians Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) and Rashid Rida (1865-1935) that theirs is the “authentic” Islam at face value. This was a serious oversight that has plagued the study of Islam in Southeast Asia ever since. It is also true that Hildred Geertz did much, if not most, of the ethnography on which Kinship in Bali and Negara are based. Among Geertz’s many books, Negara is exceptional because it contains a large number of richly detailed end notes. Geertz did not write them, F.K. Lehman did after being asked to review the manuscript. I know this because Kris was my advisor from the time I was a sophomore at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and he was kind and generous enough to allow me to read the manuscript (with Geertz’s permission).

  4. This is an odd piece, and what is perhaps oddest about it is that the bulk of the essay is devoted to why Conklin was a great ethnographer (which he absolutely was). But there is no attention to Geertz’s work in this essay, just broad characterizations and unsubstantiated assertions. The essay seems to suffer from exactly the failures it attributes to Geertz: it places style before substance and lacks detail. Why was Geertz famous? The answer is partly “fieldwork”. Geertz was a leading proponent of the notion that fieldwork+ethnography is what distinguishes anthropology from other social sciences. His contribution to this was a full-throated defense of the notion that anthropology’s job was to see the other from the other’s point of view, a message that was most useful for anthropologists themselves, not for other audiences (those came later). It was anthropologists who most needed to have their own myths explained to them. And, of course, this was Geertz’s forte — he was focused on the forms of explanation that groups used to understand themselves, because that was his understanding of what culture was. As for ethnography, Geertz was suggesting that it was anthropologists who, based on their ability to hang out, could distinguish between twitching eyelids and the act of “practicing a burlesque of a friend faking a wink to deceive an innocent into thinking a conspiracy is in motion”. He furthermore was convinced of the importance of those winks and their multiple layers of meaning, and he was able to convey the importance to his readers in ways that resonated. They resonated in part because Geertz was a good writer, and, sure, Geertz was well-placed. But there are lots of well-placed scholars who are not Clifford Geertz. So, what about Geertz as a fieldworker? The first rule of the cock fight is that you do not talk about the cock fight… But, lets talk about the cockfight, the iconic cockfight, the beleaguered cockfight. With all of its phailings, it is a good demonstration of the power of Geertz’s ethnography and the way that fieldwork informs his method. It starts from a very specific, hard won appreciation of the specifics of the cock fight, and extrapolates from those specifics. The piece is indeed an exemplary work, demonstrating how to use one’s understanding of culture in order to infer the meaning of a set of culturally specific phenomena, gaining insight through the move from the specifics (this guy takes bets, some bets are larger than others, “the man who wishes to back the underdog cock [leaving aside how favorites, kebut, and underdogs, ngai, are established for the moment) shouts the short-side number indicating the odds he wants to be given”), to midrange inferences like “the higher the center bet is, the greater the volume of side bettting and vice versa”, to the larger explanatory frame of “deep” play. It is through that move, deploying fieldwork-derived specifics in support of an argument about the meaning of the cockfight to the Balinese that Geertz was able to convey a truth about what it means to be Balinese, but also a set of truths about what it means to do fieldwork, to be an anthropologist, etc. In that was it was exemplary. I don’t think that many people read Geertz, that Geertz, and think “I could do that”.

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