Clifford Geertz obituary

Fuzz. Fuzz….It Was Covered in Fuzz.

By Lionel Tiger


November 7, 2006

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz of the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton passed away last week. His name will be generally – if often hazily – familiar to literate people who will, however, be unlikely to appreciate the considerable impact he had on our intellectual world. Unhappily, in my opinion (and not only mine) his influence and impact were real but fundamentally unfortunate in the social sciences. He was a major contributor to the willfully fuzzy illogic which continues to plague the social sciences.

        From his exceptionally prominent and privileged position of patronage and influence at the Institute, Prof. Geertz sought to integrate anthropology with the humanities. This had the dolorous result of turning much of what well-meaning anthropologists do into a lame and confused form of literary scholarship. And worse, he widened the strange gap between the social and natural sciences. (What? Is social behavior not as natural as yogurt?) He abetted this pointless isolation just when, among other accomplishments, there were new results of breaking the DNA codes, new understanding of the inner complexity of the brain, and a decisively rich appreciation of the complex social lives of other animals and our evolutionary ancestors.

Before he was appointed to the Institute in l970, I had a call from an assistant to its Director asking my opinion about appointing Geertz the first major social scientist at that very special institution. At the time, Prof. Geertz was writing sensibly and intelligently about the connections between biological and social disciplines. I was enthusiastic about his future there and his broader influence, too, in reuniting the social with the biological sciences.

I was wrong. So wrong.

Once in his Institute catbird seat, he abandoned his earlier refreshing and synthetic perspective and focussed on the links between writing and behavior. He sternly advocated that anthropologists turn to “thick description” (an unfortunately apt term) rather than the terse empirical accounts of ethnographers committed to facts rather than elegant rendition. Meanwhile, he continued to write imposing and influential works on the difficulty of bridging the gaps between the consciousness of individuals and between different societies. He emphasized words about acts rather than the acts themselves. His complex and assertive books and essays help secure his broad reputation as perhaps the leading anthropological thinker of 20th Century Part Two, even if hardly anyone knew exactly why. More than that, he became one of the not-so-secret nominators for the MacArthur Foundation and, along with the annual appointments he could make to the Institute each year, this diligent academic capo rewarded his intellectual followers. He became the anthropological enforcer for the New York Review of Books and, like Steven Jay Gould in biology, intricately upheld a conventional world view which provided intimidating intellectual cover for politically correct thoughts and deeds.

Prof. Geertz influenced the intellectual life of his time because he argued for the comforting and evasive simplification that there could be no facts about social life, only negotiable representations of singular private experiences and social positions. Fuzz. Fuzz. All was imprecise, arguable. There was no glisten to reality; it was covered in fuzz. In Anthropology, the holy intellectual trinity of race/class/gender became the imperative explanatory tools to explain and understand anything; their use was oxygenated by political righteousness and the scientific result was near-paralysis of the American Anthropological Association. At the Institute in Princeton he fought losing battle after losing battle over future appointments with his colleagues such as physicists, mathematicians, and economists. They evidently saw little crisp explanatory promise in the belligerent if elegant imprecision he insisted was the most one could expect from the intellectual life earnestly lived.

Notwithstanding his honors and splendid jobs, he remained eager to be the writer he aspired to be as an undergraduate at Antioch College. Evidently an especially painful professional experience was a New York Times review by Stanford historian Paul Robinson of one of his books which admired the effort but finally asserted that Geertzian prose was spangly flim-flam, with no real there there. His like any other death is mystifyingly sad. But it will be the beginning of an exploration of just what was it about his life and our times that sustained such a static gloomy icon.

Mr. Tiger is the Charles Darwin Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University.


7 thoughts on “Clifford Geertz obituary

  1. Whatever merit Lionel Tiger’s biologistic anthropology may have, his hacking at the fresh corpse of Clifford Geertz is totally inappropriate as an obituary. In waiting until after the death of one to whom the author is extremeoly antagonistic is very reminiscent of Derek Freeman waiting until Margaret Mead was dead and unable to defend herself for his series of personal (and similarly biologistic) attacks.

    • at least freeman waited a while. this is just an insult. I agree with Lars Smith that criticism is important, but in an obituary?

  2. The reason both Clifford Geertz and Margaret Mead were criticized for doing bad science was that they were doing bad science. Neither the critique of Geertz nor of Mead were “biologistic”. For a critique of Geertz, see e.g. Shankman, Paul. 1984. The thick and the thin: on the interpretive theoretical program of Clifford Geertz. Current Anthropology 25(3):261-280.
    Derek Freeman’s criticism of Margaret Mead’s work was published in 1983, five years after she died. Criticism of someone’s work should not necessarily be taken as a personal attack. We shouldn’t stop critiquing bad work because the author is dead.

  3. With respect to Lionel Tiger he has it wrong about Geertz and social science. There is plenty to critique, I agree, but Geertz took his lead from Max Weber and others, who clearly understood what a social phenomena was as oppossed to a biological one, and that the subject matter of a social scientist is in understanding the social institutions that constitute life. If some anthropologists saw Geertz as widening the gap between the social and natural sciences others saw that Geertz recognized that that the gap between the social sciences and the humanities was too arbitrary. Geertz’s mingling with phenomenological philosophy is far more empirically inspired than Tiger recognizes. Geertz sought to include at least in part the role of the subjective in explaining human action. Perhaps accepting the REAL complexities governing human behavior is too much to ask for from Lionel Tiger. While some anthropologists influenced by Geertz did in fact take the field into an extreme postmodern idealism, Geertz himself did not collapse human experience into representational fictions. He retained an actual subject matter for the discipline. Finally, Geertz simply followed his vision of what anthropology is or should be, no different than what other anthropologists aspire to do; the only difference is that he was more successful at it than others.

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