Definitions and Discussions of Culture

Clifford Geertz, Emphasizing Interpretation
From The Interpretation of Cultures , 1973


Clifford Geertz (1926-present) is best known for his ethnographic studies of Javanese culture (Java is an Indonesian island south of Borneo) and for his writings about the interpretation of culture. The most influential aspect of Geertz's work has been his emphasis on the importance of the symbolic -- of systems of meaning -- as it relates to culture, cultural change, and the study of culture; notice this emphasis as you read the summaries and excerpts below. Bodley and Geertz can both compared here with Matthew Arnold for for perspective on the great transition which has taken place regarding the concept "culture" in Western thought over the past century; Raymond Williams's perspective might be taken as a middle ground in this transition.


In attempting to lay out the various meanings attached to the word "culture," Clifford Geertz refers to the important anthropological work, Clyde Kluckhohn's Mirror for Man , in which the following meanings are suggested:

1. "the total way of life of a people"
2. "the social legacy the individual acquires from his group"
3. "a way of thinking, feeling, and believing"
4. "an abstraction from behavior"
5. a theory on the part of the anthropologist about the way in which a group of people in fact behave
6. a "storehouse of pooled learning"
7. "a set of standardized orientations to recurrent problems"
8. "learned behavior"
9. a mechanism for the normative regulation of behavior
10. "a set of techniques for adjusting both to the external environment and to other men"
11. "a precipitate of history"
12. a behavioral map, sieve, or matrix


"The concept of culture I espouse. . . is essentially a semiotic one. 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 law but an interpretative one in search of meaning. It is explication I am after. . . . (pp. 4-5)"

Geertz compares the methods of an anthropologist analyzing culture to those of a literary critic analyzing a text: "sorting out the structures of signification. . . and determining their social ground and import. . . . Doing ethnography is like trying to read (in the sense of 'construct a reading of') a manuscript. . . ."

Once human behavior is seen as . . . symbolic action—action which, like phonation in speech, pigment in painting, line in writing, or sonance in music, signifies—the question as to whether culture is patterned conduct or a frame of mind, or even the two somehow mixed together, loses sense. The thing to ask [of actions] is what their import is" (pp. 9-10).

Geertz argues that culture is "public because meaning is"—systems of meaning are necessarily the collective property of a group. When we say we do not understand the actions of people from a culture other than our own, we are acknowledging our "lack of familiarity with the imaginative universe within which their acts are signs" (pp. 12-13).


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