Clifford Geertz, Pioneering Cultural Anthropologist

Clifford Geertz, an eminent cultural anthropologist who stressed the importance of understanding the symbols of different societies, died late last month. Debbie Elliott has a remembrance.

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We take a moment now to remember a giant of the social sciences who died late last month. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz never gained the wide renown of, say, Margaret Mead, who wrote about sex and exotic lands for the popular press, but former colleagues say Geertz had a profound influence in academia. Byron Good, a professor of medical anthropology at Harvard Medical School, explains Geertz's contribution.

Professor BYRON GOOD (Harvard Medical School): Clifford Geertz was extremely important in the 1960s, when anthropology was going in a kind of scientistic or formalistic direction. Geertz revived an old tradition of humanistic and holistic anthropology that I think was part of the American tradition.

ELLIOTT: Geertz did field work in Indonesia and Morocco. Perhaps his most influential work was "The Interpretation of Cultures," published in 1973. In it, Geertz laid out his belief that anthropologists should try to understand the rituals, myths, and symbols of different societies. As colleague Byron Good explains, Geertz's understanding of symbols was broad.

Prof. GOOD: He included under the symbolic, ritual activities, religion, politics, the organization of institutions like the state or like government, etc., and he argued that those institutions don't just have some cultural flavoring, but that they're cultural all the way down, if you will.

ELLIOTT: When he went on to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard in anthropology, he brought his literary sensibilities to his academic works. One of his former colleagues, Richard Shweder of the University of Chicago, called us from a remote location in Ecuador when he heard we were paying tribute to Clifford Geertz.

Professor RICHARD SHWEDER (University of Chicago): His voice was a literate, sane, moderate, liberal voice urging people to be aware that diversity is inherent in human nature, and one of the ways to develop a live-and-let-live policy in the world is to, as he called it, take the native point of view and try to represent other people's feelings, wants, values, in such a way that you can come to understand how equally rational and morally decent people can arrive at different conclusions of what a good life looks like.

ELLIOTT: Since 1970, Clifford Geertz had been a resident scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. He died last month at the age of 80.

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