1) read and summarize Cultural Materialism 2) read and summarize the first chapter of Greetz Clifford at LEAST two paragraphs eachTHE
INTERPRETATION
OF
CULTURES
SELECTED ESSAYS
BY
Clifford Geertz
Basic Books, Inc., Puhlishers
NEW
YORK
©
1973 by Basic Books, Inc.
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 73-81196
SBN: 465-03425-X
Manufactured
76
77
in
the United States of America
10
9
8
7
6
5
4
Contents
vii
Preface
PART
4 Chapter
11
I
Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive
3
Theory of Culture
PART
Chapter
21
II
The Impact of the Concept of Culture on
33
the Concept of Man
Chapter
31
The Growth of Culture and the Evolution
55
of Mind
PART
III
Chapter
41
Religion As a Cultural System
Chapter
51
Ethos, World View, and the Analysis of
Sacred Symbols
Chapter
61
126
Ritual and Social Change: A Javanese
Example
Chapter
87
71 “Internal Conversion” in Contemporary Bali
142
170
CONTENTS
vi
PART
IV
Chapter
8/ Ideology As a Cultural System
Chapter
9/ After the Revolution: The Fate of
Nationalism in the New States
193
234
Chapter 10/ The Integrative Revolution: Primordial
Sentiments and Civil Politics in the New States
Chapter 111 The Politics of Meaning
255
311
Chapter 12/ Politics Past, Politics Present: Some Notes on
the Uses of Anthropology in Understanding
the New States
PART
327
V
Chapter 13/ The Cerebral Savage: On the Work of Claude
Levi-Strauss
Chapter 14/ Person, Time, and Conduct in Bali
-4- Chapter 15/ Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight
345
360
4 12
Acknowledgments
455
Index
457
Preface
When an anthropologist, urged on by an attentive publisher, begins to
gather together certain of his essays for a kind of retrospective exhibi­
tion of what he has been doing, or trying to do, over the fifteen-year pe­
riod since his release from graduate school, he is faced by two tearing
decisions: what to include, and how reverently to treat what is included .
All of us who write social science journal pieces have a nonbook in us,
and more and more of us are publishing them ; all of us imagine that
anything our past self has done our present self could do better, and
stand ready to perpetrate improvements upon our own work we would
never stand for from any editor. To try to find the figure in the carpet
of one’s writings can be as chilling as trying to find it in one’s life ; to
weave, post facto, a figure in -“this is what I meant to say” -is an in­
tense temptation.
I have faced up to the first of these decisions by including in this
collection only those of my essays which bear, directly and explicitly,
on the concept of culture. The majority of the essays are, in fact, empir­
ical studies rather than theoretical disquisitions, for I grow uncomfort­
able when I get too far away from the immediacies of social life. But all
of them are basically concerned with pushing forward, instant case by
i nstant case, a particular, some would say peculiar, view of what culture
is, what role it plays in social life, and how it ought properly to be stud­
ied. Though this redefinition of culture has perhaps been my most per­
sistent interest as an anthropologist, I have also worked with some ex­
tensiveness i n the areas of economic development, social organization,
comparative history, and cultural ecology-concerns which are, save
tangentially, not reflected here. Thus, what is ostensibly a set of essays
viii
PREFACE
emerges, so I hope, somewhat as a treatise-a treatise in cultural theory
as developed through a series of concrete analyses. Not just an “and
then I wrote . . . ” review of a somewhat vagrant professional career,
this book has an argument to make.
The second decision has been a bit trickier to deal with . In general, I
hold to a stare decisis view of published pieces, if only because if they
need very much revision they probably ought not to be reprinted at all,
but should be replaced with a wholly new article getting the damn thing
right. Further, correcting one’s misjudgments by writing changed views
back into earlier works seems to me not wholly cricket, and it obscures
the development of ideas that one is supposedly trying to demonstrate
in collecting the essays in the first place.
However, for all that, there does seem justification for a certai n
amount o f retroactive editing in cases where the substance o f the argu­
ment is not seriously affected but to leave things exactly as originally
written is either to purvey out-of-date information or undercut a still
valid discussion by tying it too closely to a particular set of now faded
events.
There are two places in the essays below where these considerations
seemed to me relevant, and where I have therefore made some changes
in what I originally wrote. The first is in the two essays of Part II on
culture and biological evolution, where the fossil datings given in the
original essays have been defin itely superseded. The dates have, in gen­
eral, been moved back in time, and as this change leaves my central ar­
guments essentially intact, I see no harm in introducing the newer esti­
mations. There seems little point in continuing to tell the world that
Australopithecines go back a million years when archeologists are now
finding fossils datable to four or five million years. The second is in
connection with Chapter 10, in Part IV, “The I ntegrative Revolution,”
where the flow-if that is what it should be called-of new state h is­
tory since the article was written in the early 1960s makes some of the
passages read oddly. As Nasser is dead, Pakistan has split, Nigeria has
been defederalized, and the Communist Party has disappeared from the
Indonesian scene, to write as though these things had not occurred is to
give a sense of unreality to the discussion, a discussion which, again, I
regard as still valid, even if it is Nehru’s daughter rather than Nehru
who now leads India and the Republic of M alaya has expanded i nto the
Federation of Malaysia. Thus, I have in that essay made two sorts of
changes. First, I have changed tenses, introduced clauses, added a foot­
note or two, and so on, in the body of the text to make it read a little
ix
Preface
less as though the last ten years had not occurred. I have not, however,
changed anything of substance so as to improve my argument. Second, I
have added to each of the case histories-and clearly set off from them
-a paragraph summary of relevant developments since the essay was
written, so as to i ndicate that, if anything, those developments demon­
strate the continued relevance of the issues the essay treats in terms of
earlier events, and again to dissipate the Rip Van Winkle effect. Except
for minor typographical and grammatical corrections (and changes in
referencing style for the sake of consistency), the remainder of the book
is essentially unaltered.
I have added, however, a new chapter, the first one, in an attempt to
state my present position as generally as I can. As my views on the
matters the chapters discuss have evolved over the fifteen years they
span, there are i ndeed some differences in the way certain things are
put in this introductory chapter and the way they are put in some of the
reprinted ones. Some of my earlier concerns-with functionalism, for
example-now are less prominent in my mind ; some of my later ones
-with semiotics, for example-are now more so. But the trend of
thought in the essays-which are arranged in a logical, not a chronolog­
ical, order-seems to me relatively consistent, and the introductory
chapter represents an effort to state more explicitly and systematically
what that trend of thought is: an attempt, in fine, to say what I have
been saying.
I have eliminated all the acknowledgments contained in the original
essays. Those who have helped me know that they have and how very
much they have. I can only hope that by now they know that I know it
too. Rather than implicate them in my confusions once again, let me in­
stead take the rather peculiar tack of thanking three remarkable aca­
demic institutions that have provided me with the kind of setting for
scholarly work I am convinced could not be surpassed right now any­
where in the world : The Department of Social Relations of Harvard
University, where I was trained ; the Department of Anthropology of
the University of Chicago, where I taught for a decade ; and The Insti­
tute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where I now work . At a time
when the American university system is under attack as irrelevant or
worse, I can only say that it has been for me a redemptive gift.
C. G.
Princeton
1 9 73
PART I
Chapter
1
/Thick
Description: Toward an
Interpretive Theory of
Culture
I
In her book, Philosoph y in a New Key , Susanne Langer remarks that
certain ideas burst upon the intellectual landscape with a tremendous
force. They resolve so many fundamental problems at once that they
seem also to promise that they will resolve all fundamental problems,
clarify all obscure issues. Everyone snaps them up as the open sesame
of some new positive science, the conceptual center-point around which
a comprehensive system of analysis can be built. The sudden vogue of
such a grande idee, crowding out almost everythi ng else for a while, is
due, she says, “to the fact that all sensitive and active minds turn at
once to exploiting it. We try it in every connection, for every purpose,
experi ment with possible stretches of its strict meaning, with generaliza­
tions and derivatives.”
After we have become familiar with the new idea, however, after it
has become part of our general stock of theoretical concepts, our expec-
4
THE INTERPRETATION OF CULTURES
tations are brought more into balance with its actual uses, and its exces­
sive popularity is ended . A few zealots persist in the old key-to-the-uni­
verse view of it; but less driven thinkers settle down after a while to the
problems the idea has really generated. They try to apply it and extend
it where it applies and where it is capable of extension ; and they desist
where it does not apply or cannot be extended. It becomes, if it was, in
truth, a seminal idea in the first place, a permanent and enduring part
of our intellectual armory. But it no longer has the grandiose, all-prom­
ising scope, the infinite versatility of apparent application, it once had .
The second law o f thermodynamics, or the principle o f natural selec­
tion, or the notion of unconscious motivation, or the organization of the
means of production does not explain everyth ing, not even everything
human, but it still explains something; and our attention shifts to isolat­
ing just what that something is, to disentangling ourselves from a lot of
pseudoscience to wh ich, in the first flush of its celebrity, it has also
given rise.
Whether or not this is, in fact, the way all centrally important scien­
tific concepts develop, I don’t know. But certainly this pattern fits the
concept of culture, around which the whole discipline of anthropology
arose, and whose domination that discipline has been increasingly con­
cerned to li mit, specify, focus, and contain . It is to this cutting of the
culture concept down to size, therefore actually insuring its continued
importance rather than undermining it, that the essays below are all, in
their several ways and from their several directions, dedicated. They all
argue, sometimes explicitly, more often merely through the particular
analysis they develop, for a narrowed, specialized, and, so I i magine,
theoretically more powerful concept of culture to replace E. B . Tylor’s
famous “most complex whole,” which, its originative power not denied,
seems to me to have reached the point where it obscures a good deal
more than it reveals.
The conceptual morass into which the Tylorean kind of pot-au-feu
theorizing about culture can lead, is evident in what is still one of the
better general introductions to anthropology, Clyde Kluckhohn’s Mirror
for Man. In some twenty-seven pages of his chapter on the concept,
Kluckhohn managed to define culture in turn as: (1) “the total way of
life of a people”; (2) “the social legacy the i ndividual acquires from his
group” ; ( 3 ) “a way of think ing, feeling, and believing”; (4) “an abstrac­
tion 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 “store-
Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture
5
house of pooled learning” ; (7) “a set of standardized orientations to re­
current 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”; ( 1 1) “a precipitate
of history”; and turning, perhaps in desperation, to similes, as a map, as
a sieve, and as a matrix. In the face of this sort of theoretical diffusion,
even a somewhat constricted and not entirely standard concept of cul­
ture, which is at least internally coherent and, more important, which
has a definable argument to make is (as, to be fair, Kluckhohn himself
keenly realized) an improvement. Eclecticism is self-defeating not be­
cause there is only one direction in which it is useful to move, but be­
cause there are so many: it is necessary to choose.
The concept of culture I espouse, and whose utility the essays below
attempt to demonstrate, 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 in­
terpretive one i n search of meaning. It is explication I am after,
construing social expressions on their surface enigmatical. But this pro­
nouncement, a doctrine in a clause, demands itself some explication.
II
Operationalism as a methodological dogma never made much sense so
far as the social sciences are concerned, and except for a few rather too
well-swept corners-Skinnerian behaviorism, intelligence testing, and
so on-it is largely dead now. But it had, for all that, an important
point to make, which, however we may feel about trying to define cha­
risma or alienation in terms of operations, retains a certain force: if you
want to understand what a science is, you should look in the first in­
stance not at its theories or its findings, and certainly not at what its
apologists say about it; you should look at what the practitioners of it
do.
In anthropology, or anyway social anthropology, what the practioners
do is ethnography. And it is in understanding what ethnography is, or
more exactly what doing ethnography is, that a start can be made to-
6
THE INTE RPRETATION OF CULTURES
ward grasping what anthropological analysis amounts to as a form of
knowledge. This, it must immediately be said, is not a matter of meth­
ods. From one poi nt of view, that of the textbook, doing ethnography is
establishing rapport, selecting informants, transcribing texts, tak ing ge­
nealogies, mapping fields, keeping a diary, and so on. But it is not these
things, techniques and received procedures, that define the enterprise.
What defines it is the kind of intellectual effort it is: an elaborate ven­
ture in, to borrow a notion from Gilbert Ryle, “thick description. ”
Ryle’s discussion o f “thick description” appears in two recent essays of
his (now reprinted in the second volume of his Collected Papers) ad­
dressed to the general question of what, as he puts it, “Le Penseur” is
doing: “Th inking and Reflecting” and “The Thinking of Thoughts.”
Consider, he says, two boys rapidly contracting the eyelids of their right
eyes. In one, this is an involuntary twitch; in the other, a conspiratorial
signal to a friend. The two movements are, as movements, identical ;
from an l-am-a-camera, “phenomenalistic” observation of them alone,
one could not tell which was twitch and which was wink, or indeed
whether both or either was twitch or wink. Yet the difference, however
unphotographable, between a twitch and a wink is vast; as anyone un­
fortunate enough to have had the first taken for the second knows. The
winker is communicating, and indeed communicating in a quite precise
and special way: (I) deliberately, (2) to someone in particular, ( 3 ) to
impart a particular message, (4) according to a socially established
code, and (5) without cognizance of the rest of the company. As Ryle
points out, the winker has not done two things, contracted his eyelids
and winked, while the twitcher has done only one, contracted his eye­
lids. Contracting your eyelids on purpose when there exists a public
code in which so doing counts as a conspiratorial signal is winking.
That’s all there is to it: a speck of behavior, a fleck of culture, and­
voila!-a gesture.
That, however, is just the beginning. Suppose, he continues, there is a
third boy, who, “to give malicious amusement to his cronies,” parodies
the first boy’s wink, as amateurish, clumsy, obvious, and so on . He, of
course, does this in the same way the second boy winked and the first
twitched: by contracti ng his right eyelids. Only this boy is neither wink­
ing nor twitching, he is parodying someone else’s, as he takes it, laugh­
able, attempt at winking. Here, too, a socially established code exists (he
will “wink” laboriously, overobviously, perhaps adding a grimace-the
usual artifices of the clown) ; and so also does a message. Only now it is
Thick Description : Toward an Interpretive Theory of Cu l t u re
7
not conspiracy but ridicule that is in the air. If the others think he is ac­
tually winking, his whole project misfires as completely, though with
somewhat different results, as if they think he is twitching. One can go
further: uncertain of his mimicking abilities, the would-be satirist may
practice at home before the mirror, in which case he is not twitching,
winking, or parodying, but rehearsing; though so far as what a camera,
a radical behaviorist, or a believer in protocol sentences would record
he is just rapidly contracting his right eyelids like all the others. Com­
plexities are possible, if not practically without end, at least logically so.
The original winker might, for example, actually have been fake-wink­
ing, say, to mislead outsiders into imagining there was a conspiracy
afoot when there in fact was not, in which case our descriptions of what
the parodist is parodying and the rehearser rehearsing of course shift
accordingly. But the point is that between what Ryle calls the “thin de­
scription” of what the rehearser (parodist, winker, twitcher . . . ) is
doing (“rapidly contracti ng his right eyelids”) and the “thick descrip­
tion” of what he is doing (“practicing a burlesque of a friend faking a
wink to deceive an innocent into thinking a conspiracy is in motion”)
lies the object of ethnography: a stratified hierarchy of meaningful
structures in terms of which twitches, winks, fake-winks, parodies, re­
hearsals of parodies are produced, perceived , and i nterpreted, and
without which they would not (not even the zero-form twitches, which,
as a cultural category, are as much nonwinks as winks are nontwitches)
in fact exist, no matter what anyone did or didn’t do with his eyelids.
Like so many of the little stories Oxford philosophers like to make
up for themselves, all this winking, fake-winking, burlesque-fake-wink­
ing, rehearsed-burlesque-fake-winking, may seem a bit artificial. In way
of addi ng a more empirical note, let me give, deliberately unpreceded
by any prior explanatory comment at all, a not untypical excerpt from
my own field journal to demonstrate that, however evened off for didac­
tic purposes, Ryle’s example presents an image only too exact of the
sort of piled-up structures of inference and implication through which
an ethnographer is continually trying to pick his way:
The French [the informant said ] had only just arrived . They set up twenty
or so small forts between here, the town, and the Marmusha area up in the
middle of the mountains, placi ng them on promontories so they could sur­
vey the countryside. But for all this they couldn’t guarantee safety, espe­
cially at n ight, so although the mezrag, trade-pact , system was supposed to
be legally abolished it in fact conti nued as before.
8
THE INTE RPRETATION OF CULTURES
One night, when Cohen (who speaks fluent Berber), was up there, at Mar­
musha, two other Jews who were traders to a neighboring tribe came by to
purchase some goods from him. Some Berbers, from yet another neighbor­
ing tri be, tried to break into Cohen’s place, but he fired his rifle in the air.
(Trad itionally, Jews were not al lowed to carry weapons; but at this period
things were so unsettled many did so anyway.) This attracted the attention
of the French and the marauders fled .
The next night, however, they came back, one of them disguised as a
woman who k nocked on the door with some sort of a story. Cohen was sus­
picious and didn’t want to let “her” in, but the other Jews said, “oh, it’s all
right, it’s only a woman .” So they opened the door and the whole lot came
pouring in. They ki lled the two visiting Jews, but Cohen managed to barri­
cade h i mself in an adjoining room . He heard the robbers plann i ng to burn
him alive in the shop after they removed his goods, and so he opened the
door and, laying about him wildly with a club, managed to escape through a
window.
He went up to the fort, then, to have his wou nds dressed, and complai ned
to the local commandant, one Captain Dumari , sayi ng he wanted his ‘ar­
i.e., four or five times the value of the merchandise stolen from him. The
robbers were from a tribe which had not yet submitted to French authority
and were in open rebellion agai nst it, and he wanted authorization to go
with his mezrag-holder, the Marmusha tribal sheikh, to collect the indem nity
that, under traditional rules, he had coming to him. Captain Dumari
couldn’t officially give him permission to do this, because of the French pro­
hibition of the mezrag relat ionship, but he gave him verbal authorization,
saying, “If you get killed, it’s your problem.”
So the sheikh, the Jew, and a small company of armed M armushans went
off ten or fifteen kilometers up i nto the rebell ious area, where there were of
course no French, and, sneak i ng up, captured the thief-tribe’s shepherd and
stole its herds. The other tribe soon came rid ing out on horses after them,
armed with rifles and ready to attack. But when they saw who the “sheep
thieves” were, they thought better of it and said , “all right, we’ll talk .” They
couldn’t really deny what had happened -that some of their men had
robbed Cohen and killed the two visitors -and they weren’t prepared to
start the serious feud with the Marmusha a scuffle with the invad ing party
would bring on. So the two groups talked , and talked, and talked, there on
the plain amid the thousands of sheep. and decided finally on five-hundred­
sheep damages. The two armed Berber groups then l i ned up on their horses
at opposite ends of the plain, with the sheep herded between them, and
Cohen, in his black gown, pillbox hat, and flapping sl ippers, went out alone
among the sheep, picking out, one by one and at his own good speed, the
best ones for his payment.
So Cohen got his sheep and drove them back to M armusha. The French,
up in their fort, heard them coming from some distance (“Ba, ba, ba” said
Cohen, happily, recalling the image) and said, “What the hell is that?” And
Cohen said, “That is my ‘ar.” The French cou ldn’t believe he had actually
Thick Description : Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture
9
done what he said he had done, and accused him of bei ng a spy for the re­
bellious Berbers, put him in prison, and took his sheep. In the town, his
fam ily, not having heard from him in so long a time, thought he was dead .
But after a while the French released him and he came back home, but
without his sheep. He then went to the Colonel in the town, the French man
in charge of the whole region, to complain. But the Colonel said, “I can’t do
anything about the matter. It’s not my problem.”
Quoted raw, a note in a bottle, this passage conveys, as any similar
one sim ilarly presented would do, a fair sense of how much goes into
ethnographic description of even the most elemental sort-how extraor­
dinari ly “thick” it is. In finished anthropological writings, including
those collected here, this fact-that what we call our data are really our
own constructions of other people’s constructions of what they and their
compatriots are up to-is obscured because most of what we need to
comprehend a particular event, ritual, custom, idea, or whatever is in­
sinuated as background information before the thing itself is directly ex­
amined. ( Even to reveal that this little drama took place in the high­
lands of central Morocco in 19 1 2-and was recounted there in
1968-is to determine much of our understanding of it.) There is noth­
ing particularly wrong with this, and it is in any case inevitable. But it
does lead to a view of anthropological research as rather more of an ob­
servational and rather less of an interpretive activity than it really is.
Right down at the factual base, the hard rock, insofar as there is any, of
the whole enterprise, we are already explicating: and worse, explicating
explications. Winks upon winks upon winks.
Analysis, then, is sorting out the structures of signification-what
Ryle called established codes, a somewhat misleading expression, for it
makes the enterprise sound too much like that of the cipher clerk when
it is much more like that of the literary critic-and determining their
social ground and import. Here, in our text, such sorting would begin
with distinguishing the three unlike frames of interpretation ingredient
in the situation, Jewish, Berber, and French, and would then move on
to show how (and why) at that time, in that place, their copresence pro­
duced a situation in which systematic misunderstanding reduced tradi­
tional form to social farce. What tripped Cohen up, and with him the
whole, ancient pattern of social and economic relationships within
which he functioned, was a confusion of tongues.
I shall come back to this too-compacted aphorism later, as well as to
the details of the text itself. The point for now is only that ethnography
10
THE INTERPRETATION OF CULTURES
is thick description. What the ethnographer is in fact faced with­
except when (as, of course, he must do) he is pursuing the more auto­
matized routi nes of data collection-is a multiplicity of complex con­
ceptual structures, many of them superimposed upon or knotted into
one another, which are at once strange, irregular, and inexplicit, and
which he must contrive somehow first to grasp and then to render. And
this is true at the most down-to-earth, jungle field work levels of his ac­
tivity: interviewing informants, observing rituals, eliciting kin terms,
tracing property lines, censusing households . . . writing his journal .
Doing ethnography is l ike trying to read (in the sense of “construct a
reading of’) a manuscript-foreign, faded, full of ellipses, incoher­
encies, suspicious emendations, and tendentious commentaries, but written
not in conventionalized graphs of sound but in transient examples of
shaped behavior.
III
Culture, this acted document, thus is public, like a burlesqued wink or a
mock sheep raid . Though ideational, it does not exist in someone’s
head ; though unphysical, it is not an occult entity. The interminable,
because unterminable, debate within anthropology as to whether culture
is “subjective” or “objective,” together with the mutual exchange of in­
tellectual insults (” idealist!” -“materialist!” ; “mentalist!” -“behav­
iorist!” ; “impressionist!” -“positivist!”) which accompanies it, is
wholly misconceived. Once human behavior is seen as (most of the
time ; there are true twitches) symbolic action-action which, like pho­
nation in speech, pigment in painting, line in writing, or sonance in
music, signifies-the question as to whether culture is patterned con­
duct or a frame of mind, or even the two somehow mixed together,
loses sense. The thing to ask about a burlesqued wink or a mock sheep
raid is not what their ontological status is. It is the same as that of
rocks on the one hand and dreams on the other-they are things of this
world. The thing to ask is what their i mport is: what it is, ridicule or
challenge, irony or anger, snobbery or pride, that, in their occurrence
and through their agency, is getting said.
This may seem like an obvious truth, but there are a number of ways
Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture
11
to obscure it. One is to imagi ne that culture is a self-contai ned “super­
organic” reality with forces and purposes of its own ; that is, to reify it.
Another is to clai m that it consists in the brute pattern of behavioral
events we observe in fact to occur in some identifiable community or
other; that is, to reduce it. But though both these confusions still exist,
and doubtless will be always with us, the main source of theoretical
muddlement in contemporary anthropology is a view which developed
in reaction to them and is right now very widely held-namely, that, to
quote Ward Goodenough, ·perhaps its leading proponent, “culture [is
located] in the minds and hearts of men .”
Variously called ethnoscience, componential analysis, or cognitive
anthropology (a terminological wavering which reflects a deeper uncer­
tainty), this school of thought holds that culture is composed of psycho­
logical structures by means of which individuals or groups of individu­
als guide their behavior. “A society’s culture,” to quote Goodenough
again, this time in a passage which has become the locus classicus of the
whole movement, “consists of whatever it is one has to know or believe
in order to operate in a manner acceptable to its members.” And from
this view of what culture is follows a view, equally assured, of what de­
scribing it is-the writing out of systematic rules, an ethnographic algo­
rithm, which, if followed, would make it possible so to operate, to pass
(physical appearance aside) for a native. In such a way, extreme subjec­
tivism is married to extreme formalism, with the expected result: an ex­
plosion of debate as to whether particular analyses (which come in the
form of taxonomies, paradigms, tables, trees, and other i ngenuities) re­
flect what the natives “really” think or are merely clever simulations, logi­
cally equivalent but substantively different, of what they think.
As, on first glance, this approach may look close enough to the one
being developed here to be mistaken for it, it is useful to be explicit as
to what divides them. If, leav ing our winks and sheep behind for the
moment, we take, say, a Beethoven quartet as an, admittedly rather spe­
cial but, for these purposes, nicely illustrative, sample of culture, no one
would, I think, identify it with its score, with the skills and knowledge
needed to play it, with the understanding of it possessed by its perform­
ers or auditors, nor, to take care, en passant, of the reductionists and
reifiers, with a particular performance of it or with some mysterious en­
tity transcending material existence. The “no one” is perhaps too strong
here, for there are always incorrigibles. But that a Beethoven quartet is
a temporally developed tonal structure, a coherent sequence of modeled
12
THE INTE RPRETATION OF CULTU RES
sound-in a word, music-and not anybody’s knowledge of or belief
about anything, including how to play it, is a proposition to which most
people are, upon reflection, likely to assent.
To play the violin it is necessary to possess certain habits, skills,
knowledge, and talents, to be in the mood to play, and (as the old joke
goes) to have a violin . But violin playing is neither the habits, skills,
knowledge, and so on, nor the mood, nor (the notion believers in “ma­
terial culture” apparently embrace) the violin. To make a trade pact in
Morocco, you have to do certain things in certain ways (among others,
cut, while chanti ng Quranic Arabic, the throat of a lamb before the as­
sembled, undeformed, adult male members of your tribe) and to be pos­
sessed of certain psychological characteristics (among others, a desire
for distant things). But a trade pact is neither the throat cutting nor the
desire, though it is real enough, as seven kinsmen of our Marmusha
sheikh discovered when, on an earlier occasion, they were executed by
him following the theft of one mangy, essentially valueless sheepskin
from Cohen .
Culture is public because meaning is. You can’t wink (or burlesque
one) without knowing what counts as winking or how, physically, to
contract your eyelids, and you can’t conduct a sheep raid (or mimic
one) without knowing what it is to steal a sheep and how practically to
go about it. But to draw from such truths the conclusion that knowing
how to wink is winking and knowing how to steal a sheep is sheep raid­
ing is to betray as deep a confusion as, taking thi n descriptions for
thick, to identify winking with eyelid contractions or sheep raiding with
chasing woolly animals out of pastures. The cognitivist fallacy-that
culture consists (to quote another spokesman for the movement, Stephen
Tyler) of ” mental phenomena which can [ he means “should”] be ana­
lyzed by formal methods similar to those of mathematics and logic” -is
as destructive of an effecttve use of the concept as are the behaviorist
and idealist fallacies to which it is a misdrawn correction. Perhaps, as its
errors are more sophisticated and its distortions subtler, it is even more
so.
The generalized attack on privacy theories of mean ing is, since early
Husserl and late Wittgenstein, so much a part of modern thought that it
need not be developed once more here. What is necessary is to see to it
that the news of it reaches anthropology ; and in particular that it is
made clear that to say that culture consists of socially established struc­
tures of meaning in terms of which people do such things as signal con-
Thick Description: Toward an Inte rpretive The ory of Culture
13
spiracies and join them or perceive insults and answer them, is no more
to say that it is a psychological phenomenon, a characteristic of some­
one’s mind, personality, cognitive structure, or whatever, than to say
that Tantrism, genetics, the progressive form of the verb, the classifica­
tion of wines, the Common Law, or the notion of “a conditional curse”
(as Westermarck defined the concept of ‘ar in terms of which Cohen
pressed his claim to damages) is. What, in a place like Morocco, most
prevents those of us who grew up winking other winks or attending
other sheep from grasping what people are up to is not ignorance as to
how cognition works (though, especially as, one assumes, it works the
same among them as it does among us, it would greatly help to have
less of that too) as a lack of familiarity with the imaginative universe
within which their acts are signs. As Wittgenstein has been invoked, he
may as well be quoted:
We . . . say
important as
plete enigma
with entirely
the country’s
not k nowing
with them.
of some people that they are transparent to us. It is, however,
regards this observation that one human bei ng can be a com­
to another. We learn this when we come i nto a strange country
strange traditions; and, what is more, even given a mastery of
language. We do not understand the people. (And not because of
what they are saying to themselves.) We cannot find our feet
IV
Finding our feet, an unnerving business which never more than distantly
succeeds, is what ethnographic research consists of as a personal experi­
ence ; trying to formulate the basis on which one imagines, always ex­
cessively, one has found them is what anthropological writing consists
of as a scientific endeavor. We are not, or at least I am not, seeking ei­
ther to become natives (a compromised word in any case) or to mimic
them. Only romantics or spies would seem to find point in that. We are
seeking, in the widened sense of the term in which it encompasses very
much more than talk, to converse with them, a matter a great deal more
difficult, and not only with strangers, than is commonly recognized. ” If
speaking for someone else seems to be a mysterious process,” Stanley
Cavell has remarked, “that may be because speaking to someone does
not seem mysterious enough .”
14
THE INTE RPRETATION OF CULTURES
Looked at i n this way, the aim of anthropology is the enlargement of
the universe of human discourse. That is not, of course, its only aim­
instruction, amusement, practical counsel, moral advance, and the dis­
covery of natural order in human behavior are others ; nor is anthropol­
ogy the only discipline which pursues it. But it is an aim to which a
semiotic concept of culture is peculiarly well adapted. As i nterworked
systems of construable signs (what, ignoring provincial usages, I would
call symbols), culture is not a power, something to which social events,
behaviors, i nstitutions, or processes can be causally attributed ; it is a
context, somethi ng within which
they
can
be i ntell igibly-that is,
thickly-described.
The famous anthropological absorption with the (to us) exotic­
Berber horsemen, Jewish peddlers, French Legionnaires-is, thus, es­
sentially a device for displac i ng the dulling sense of familiarity with
which the mysteriousness of our own ability to relate perceptively to
one another is concealed from us. Looking at the ordinary in places
where it takes unaccustomed forms brings out not, as has so often been
claimed, the arbitrariness of human behavior (there is nothing especially
arbitrary about taking sheep theft for insolence in Morocco), but the de­
gree to which its meani ng varies according to the pattern of life by
which it is informed. Understanding a people’s culture exposes thei r
normalness without reducing their particularity. (The more I manage to
follow what the Moroccans are up to, the more logical, and the more
singular, they see m . ) It renders them accessible: setting them in the
frame of the i r own banali ties, it dissolves their opacity.
It is this maneuver, usually too casually referred to as “seeing things
from the actor’s point of view,” too bookishly as “the
verstehen ap­
proach,” or too technically as “ernie analysis,” that so often leads to the
notion that anthropology is a variety of either long-d istance mind read­
ing or cannibal-isle fantasizing, and which, for someone anxious to navi­
gate past the wrecks of a dozen sunken philosophies, must therefo re be
executed with a great deal of care.
Noth ing is more necessary to
com prehendi ng what anthropological interpretation is, and the degree to
which it
is interpretation, than an exact understandi ng of what it means
-and what it does not mean-to say that our formulations of other
peoples’ symbol systems must be actor-oriented.•
1 Not only other peoples’: anthropology can be trained on the culture of which
it is itself a part, and it increasingly is; a fact of profound importance, but which,
as it raises a few tricky and rather special second order problems, I shall put to
the side for the moment.
15
Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture
What it means is that descriptions of Berber, Jew ish, or French cul­
ture must be cast in terms of the constructions we imagine Berbers,
Jews, or Frenchmen to place upon what they live through, the formulae
they use to define what happens to them . What it does not mean i s that
such descriptions are themselves Berber, Jewish, or French -that is,
part
of
the
reality
they
are
ostensibly
describing;
they
are
anthropological-that is, part of a developing system of sc ientific anal­
ysis. They must be cast in terms of the interpretations to which persons
of a part icular denomination subject their experience, because that is
what they profess to be descriptions of ; they are anthro pological be­
cause it is, i n fact, anthropologists who profess them. Normally, it is not
necessary to point out quite so laboriously that the object of study is
one thing and the study of it another. It is clear enough that the physi ­
A Skeleton Key to Finnegan’s Wake not
Finnegan’s Wake. But, as, in the study of culture, analysis penetrates
into the very body of the object-that is, we begin with our own inter­
pretations of what our informants are up to, or think they are up to,
and then systematize those the line between ( Moroccan) culture as a
cal world is not physics and

natural fact and (Moroccan) culture as a theoretical entity tends to get
blurred . All the more so, as the latter is presented in the form of an ac­
tor’s-eye descri ption of (Moroccan) conceptions of everything from v io­
lence, honor, divinity, and justice, to tribe, property, patronage, and
chiefship.
I n short, anthropological writings are themselves interpretations; and
second and third order ones to boot. (By definition, only a “native”
makes first order ones: it’s
tions,
in
the
sense
that
his culture.)
they
are
2 They are, thus, fictions; fic­
“something
made,”
“somethi ng
fashioned” -the original meaning of fictio -not that they are false, un­
factual, or merely “as if” thought experi ments. To construct actor-ori­
e nted descriptions of the involvements of a Berber chieftain, a Jewish
merchant, and a French sold ier with one another in 19 1 2 Morocco is
clearly an i maginative act, not all that different from constructing simi­
lar descriptions of, say, the involvements with one another of a provin­
cial French doctor, his silly, adulterous wife, and her feckless lover in
2 The order problem is, again, complex. Anthropological works based on other
anthropological works (Levi-Strauss’, for example) may, of course, be fourth
order or higher, and informants frequently, even habitually, make second order
interpretations-what have come to be known as “native models.” In l iterate cul­
tures, where “nat ive” interpretation can proceed to higher levels-in connection
w ith the Maghreb, one has only to think of Ibn Khaldun; with the United States,
Margaret Mead-these matters become intricate indeed .
THE INTERPRETATION OF CULTU RES
16
nineteenth century France . In the latter case, the actors are represented
as not having existed and the events as not having happened, while in
the former they are represented as actual, or as having been so. This is
a difference of no mean importance ; i ndeed, precisely the one Madame
Bovary had difficulty grasping. But the importance does not lie in the
fact that her story was created while Cohen’s was only noted. The con­
ditions of thei r creation, and the point of it (to say noth ing of the man­
ner and the quality) differ. But the one is as much a fictio-“a mak­
ing”-as the other.
Anthropologists have not always been as aware as they might be of
this fact: that although culture exists in the trading post, the hill fort, or
the sheep run, anthropology exists in the book, the article, the lecture,
the museum display, or, sometimes nowadays, the film. To become
aware of it is to realize that the line between mode of representation
and substantive content is as u ndrawable in cultural analysis as it is
in pai nting; and that fact in turn seems to threaten the objective status
of anthropological k nowledge by suggesting that its source is not social
reality but scholarly artifice .
It does threaten it, but the threat is hollow . The claim to attention of
an ethnograph ic account does not rest on its author’s ability to capture
pri m itive facts in faraway places and carry them home like a mask or a
carving, but on the degree to which he is able to clarify what goes on in
such places, to reduce the puzzlement-what manner of men are these?
-to which unfamiliar acts emerging out of unknown backgrounds natu­
rally give rise . This raises some serious problems of verification, all
right-or, if “verification” is too strong a word for so soft a science (I,
myself, would prefer “appraisal”), of how you can tell a better account
from a worse one. But that is precisely the vi rtue of it. If ethnography
is thick description and ethnographers those who are doing the describ­
i ng, then the determ in ing question for any given example of it, whether
a field journal squib or a M alinowski -sized monograph, is whether it
sorts winks from twitches and real winks from m i micked ones. It is not
against a body of uninterpreted data, radically thinned descriptions, that
we must measure the cogency of our explications, but against the power
of the scientific i m agi nation to bring us into touch with the li ves of
strangers. It is not worth it, as Thoreau said, to go round the world to
count the cats in Zanzibar.
Thick Description : Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture
17
v
Now, this proposition, that it is not in our interest to bleach human be­
havior of the very properties that interest us before we begin to exam­
ine it, has someti mes been escalated into a larger claim: namely, that as
it is only those properties that interest us, we need not attend, save cur­
sorily, to behavior at all. Culture is most effectively treated, the argu­
ment goes, purely as a symbolic system (the catch phrase is, ” i n its own
terms”), by isolating its elements, specifying the i nternal relationshi ps
among those elements, and then characterizing the whole system in
some general way-according to the core symbols around which i t is
organized, the underlying structures of which it is a surface expression,
or the ideological principles upon which it is based. Though a distinct
i m provement over “learned behavior” and “mental phenomena” notions
of what culture is, and the source of some of the most powerful theoret­
ical ideas in contemporary anthropology, this hermetical approach to
things seems to me to run the dange r (and increasi ngly to have been
overtaken by it) of locking cultural analysis away from its proper object,
the informal logic of actual life . There is l ittle profit in extricating a
concept from the defects of psychologism only to plunge it i m mediately
i nto those of schematic ism .
Behavior must be attended to, and with some exactness, because it is
through the flow of behavior–or, more precisely, social action-that
cultural forms find articulation . They find it as well , of course, in var­
ious sorts of artifacts, and various states of consciousness ; but these
draw their meani ng from the role they play (Wittgenstein would say
their “use”) in an ongoi ng pattern of life, not from any i ntrinsic rela­
tionshi ps they bear to one another . It is what Cohen, the sheikh, and
“Captain Dumari” were doing when they tripped over one another’s
purposes-pursuing trade, defending honor, establishing dominance­
that created our pastoral drama, and that is what the drama is, there­
fore, “about.” Whatever, or wherever, symbol systems ” i n their own
terms” may be, we gain e mpirical access to them by inspecting events,
not by arranging abstracted entities i nto unified patterns.
A further implication of this is that coherence cannot be the major
test of validity for a cultural description . Cultural systems must have a
minimal degree of coherence, else we would not call them systems ; and,
THE INTE RPRETATION OF CULTURE S
18
b y observation, they normal ly have a great deal more . But there is noth ­
i ng so coherent as a paranoid’s delusion or a swi ndler’s story . The force
of our interpretations cannot rest, as they are now so often made to do,
on the tightness with which they hold together, or the assurance with
which they are argued . Nothing has done more, I think, to d iscredit cul­
tural analysis than the construction of impeccable depictions of formal
order in whose actual existence nobody can quite believe.
If anthropological interpretation is constructing a reading of what
happens, then to divorce it from what happens -from what, in this time
or that place, specific people say, what they do, what is done to them,
from the whole vast business of the world -is to divorce it from its ap­
plications and render it vacant. A good i nterpretation of anything-a
poem, a person, a history, a ritual, an institution, a society -takes us
i nto the heart of that of which it is the i nterpretation . When it does not
do that, but leads us instead somewhere else-into an admiration of its
own elegance, of its author’s cleverness, or of the beauties of Euclidean
order-it may have its intr i nsic charms ; but it is something else than
what the task at hand-figuring out what all that rigamarole with the
sheep is about–calls for.
The rigamarole with the sheep-the sham theft of them, the repara­
tive transfer of them , the political confiscation of them-is (or was) es­
senti ally a social d iscourse, even if, as I suggested earlier, one con­
ducted i n multiple tongues and as much in action as i n words.
Claiming his
‘ar, Cohen invoked the trade pact; recogn izing the
clai m, the sheikh challenged the offenders’ tribe ; accepting responsibil­
ity, the offenders’ tribe paid the indemnity ; anxious to m ake clear to
sheikhs and peddlers alike who was now in charge here, the F rench
showed the i mperial hand. As i n any discourse, code does not deter­
mine conduct, and what was actually said need not have been. Cohen
m ight not h ave, given its illegitimacy in Protectorate eyes, chosen to
press h is clai m . The sheikh might, for similar reasons, have rejected it.
The offenders’ tribe, still resisting French authority, m ight h ave decided
to regard the raid as “real” and fight rather than negotiate . The French,
were they more
habile and less dur (as, under Mareschal Lyautey’s sei ­
gniorial tutelage, they later i n fact became), might have perm itted Cohen
to keep h is sheep, winking-as we say -at the conti nuance of the trade
pattern and its limitation to thei r authority . And there are other possi­
bilities: the Marmushans might have regarded the French action as too
great an i nsult to bear and gone into dissidence themselves ; the French
Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Cu l tu re
19
might have attempted not j ust to clamp down on Cohen but to bring the
sheikh himself more closely to heel ; and Cohen might have concluded
that between renegade Berbers and Beau Geste soldiers, driving trade in
the Atlas highlands was no longer worth the candle and retired to the
better-governed confines of the town . This, indeed, is more or less what
happened, somewhat further along, as the Protectorate moved toward
genuine sovereignty . But the point here is not to describe what did or
did not take place in Morocco. ( From this simple incident one can
widen out into enormous complexities of social experience.) It is to
demonstrate what a piece of anthropological interpretation consists in:
tracing the curve of a soci al discourse ; fixing it into an inspectable
form .
The ethnographer “i nscribes” social discou rse ; he writes it down. In
so doing, he turns it from a passing event, which exists only in its own
moment of occurrence, into an account, which exists in its inscriptions
and can be reconsulted. The sheikh is long dead, killed in the process of
being, as the French called it, “pacified” ; “Captain Dumari,” his paci­
fier, lives, retired to his souveni rs, in the south of France ; and Cohen
went last year, part refugee, part pilgrim, part dying patriarch, “home”
to Israel. But what they, in my extended sense, “said” to one another on
an Atlas plateau sixty years ago is-very far from perfectly-preserved
for study. “What,” Paul Ricoeur, from whom this whole idea of the in­
scription of action is borrowed and somewhat twisted, asks, “what does
writing fix?”
Not the event of speaking, but the “said” of speaki ng, where we understand
by the “said” of speaking that intentional exteriorization constituti ve of the
aim of discourse thanks to which the sagen-the saying-wants to become
A us-sage-the enunciation. the enunciated. In short, what we write is the
noema [ “thought,” “content,” “gist” ] of the speaking. It is the meaning of
the speech event, not the event as event .
This is not itself so very “said” -if Oxford philosophers run to little
stories, phenomenological ones run to large sentences ; but it brings us
anyway to a more precise answer to our generative question, “What
does the ethnographer do?”-he writes.a This, too, may seem a less
than startling discovery, and to someone famil iar with the current “liter3 Or, again, more exactly, ” inscribes.” Most ethnography is in fact to be found
in books and articles, rather than in fil ms, records, museum d isplays, or what­
ever; but even in them there are, of course, photographs, drawings, diagrams, ta­
bles, and so on. Self-consciousness about modes of representation (not to speak of
experiments with them) has been very lacking in anthropology.
THE INTE RPRETATION OF CULTU RES
zo
ature,” an implausible one. But as the standard answer to our question
has been, “He observes, he records, he analyzes” -a kind of veni, vidi,
vici conception of the matter-it may have more deep-going conse­
quences than are at first apparent, not the least of which is that distin­
guishing these three phases of knowledge-seeking may not, as a matter
of fact, normally be possible ; and, indeed, as autonomous “operations”
they may not in fact ·exist.
The situation is even more del icate, because, as already noted, what
we inscribe (or try to) is not raw social discourse, to which, because,
save very marginally or very specially, we are not actors, we do not
have direct access, but only that small part of it which our informants
can lead us into understandi ng.4 This is not as fatal as it sounds, for, in
fact, not all Cretans are liars, and it is not necessary to know everything
in order to understand something. But it does make the view of anthro­
pological analysis as the conceptual manipulation of discovered facts, a
logical reconstruction of a mere reality, seem rather lame. To set forth
symmetrical crystals of significance, purified of the material complexity
in which they were located, and then attribute their existence to autog­
enous principles of order, universal properties of the human mind, or
vast, a priori weltanschauungen, is to pretend a science that does not
exist and imagine a reality that cannot be found. Cultural analysis is (or
should be) guessing at meanings, assessing the guesses, and drawi ng ex­
planatory conclusions from the better guesses, not discovering the Con­
tinent of Meaning and mapping out its bodiless landscape.
VI
So, there are three characteristics of ethnographic description: it is in­
terpretive ; what it is interpretive of is the flow of social discourse ; and
the interpreting involved consists in try ing to rescue the “said” of such
discourse from its perishi ng occasions and fix it in perusable terms. The
kula is gone or altered; but, for better or worse, The Argonauts of the
4 So far as it has reinforced the anthropologist’s impulse to engage himself
w ith his informants as persons rather than as objects, the notion of “participant
observation” has been a valuable one. But, to the degree it has lead the anthro­
pologist to block from h is view the very special, culturally bracketed nature of
his own role and to i magine himself something more than an interested (in both
senses of that word) sojourner, it has been our most powerful source of bad faith.
Thick Description : Toward an Interpretive Theory of Cu l ture
21
Western Pacific remains. But there is, in addition, a fourth characteristic
of such description, at least as I practice it: it is microscopic.
This is not to say that there are no large-scale anthropological inter­
pretations of whole societies, civilizations, world events, and so on. In­
deed, it is such extension of our analyses to wider contexts that, along
with their theoretical implications, recommends them to general atten­
tion and justifies our constructing them. No one really cares anymore,
not even Cohen (well . . . maybe, Cohen), about those sheep as such.
History may have its unobtrusive turning points, “great noises in a little
room” ; but this little go-round was surely not one of them.
It is merely to say that the anthropologist characteristically ap­
proaches such broader interpretations and more abstract analyses from
the direction of exceedingly extended acquaintances with extremely
small matters. He confronts the same grand realities that others­
historians, economists, political scientists, sociologists-confront i n
more fateful settings: Power, Change, Faith, Oppression, Work, Pas­
sion, Authority, Beauty, Violence, Love, Prestige ; but he confronts
them in contexts obscure enough-places like Marmusha and lives like
Cohen’s-to take the capital letters off them. These all-too-human con­
stancies, “those big words that make us all afraid,” take a homely form
i n such homely contexts. But that is exactly the advantage. There are
enough profundities in the world already .
Yet, the problem of how to get from a collection of ethnographic
miniatures on the order of our sheep story-an assortment of remarks
and anecdotes-to wall-sized culturescapes of the nation, the epoch, the
continent, or the civil ization is not so easily passed over with vague al­
lusions to the virtues of concreteness and the down-to-earth mind. For a
science born in I ndian tribes, Pacific islands, and African l ineages and
subsequently seized with grander ambitions, this has come to be a major
methodological problem, and for the most part a badly handled one.
The models that anthropologists have themselves worked out to j ustify
their moving from local truths to general visions have been, in fact, as
responsible for undermining the effort as anything their critics­
sociologists obsessed with sample sizes, psychologists with measures, or
economists with aggregates-have been able to devise against them.
Of these, the two main ones have been: the Jonesville-is-the-USA
“microcosmic” model ; and the Easter- Island-is-a-testing-case “natural
experiment” model. Either heaven in a grain of sand, or the farther
shores of possibility.
The Jonesville-is-America writ small (or America-is-Jonesvi lle writ
22
THE INTE RPRETATION OF CULTURES
large) fallacy is so obviously one that the only thing that needs explana­
tion is how people have managed to believe it and expected others to
believe it. The notion that one can find the essence of national societies,
civilizations, great religions, or whatever summed up and simplified in
so-called “typical” small towns and villages is palpable nonsense. What
one finds in small towns and villages is (alas) small-town or village life.
If localized, microscopic studies were really dependent for their greater
relevance upon such a premise-that they captured the great world in the
little-they wouldn’t have any relevance.
But, of course, they are not. The locus of study is not the object of
study. Anthropologists don’t study villages (tribes, towns, neighbor­
hoods . . . ) ; they study in villages. You can study different things in
different places, and some things-for example, what colonial domina­
tion does to established frames of moral expectation-you can best
study in confined local ities. But that doesn’t make the place what it is
you are studying. In the remoter provinces of Morocco and Indonesia I
have wrestled with the same questions other social scientists have wres­
tled with in more central locations-for example, how comes it that
men’s most i mportunate claims to humanity are cast in the accents of
group pride?-and with about the same conclusiveness . One can add a
dimension-one much needed in the present climate of size-up-and­
solve social science ; but that is all . There is a certain value, if you are
going to run on about the exploitation of the masses in hav ing seen a
Javanese sharecropper turning earth in a tropical downpour or a Mo­
roccan tailor embroidering kaftans by the light of a twenty-watt bulb .
But the notion that this gives you the thing entire (and elevates you to
some moral vantage ground from which you can look down upon the
ethically less privileged) is an idea which only someone too long in the
bush could possibly entertain.
The “natural laboratory” notion has been equally pernicious, not
only because the analogy is false-what kind of a laboratory is it where
n one of the parameters are manipulable?-but because it leads to a no­
tion that the data derived from ethnograph ic studies are purer, or more
fundamental, or more sol id, or less cond itioned (the most favored word
is “elementary”) than those derived from other sorts of social inquiry.
The great natural variation of cultural forms is, of course, not only an­
thropology’s great (and wasting) resource, but the ground of its deepest
theoretical dilemma: how is such variation to be squared with the bio­
logical unity of the human species? But it is not, even metaphorically,
Thick Description : Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture
2.3
experimental variation, because the context in which it occurs varies
along with it, and it is not possible (though there are those who try) to
isolate the y’s from x’s to write a proper function.
The famous studies purporting to show that the Oedipus complex was
batkwards in the Trobriands, sex roles were upside down in Tchambuli ,
and the Pueblo Indians lacked aggression (it is characteristic that they
were all n egative-“but not in the South”), are, whatever their empiri­
cal validity may or may not be, not “scientifically tested and approved”
hypotheses. They are i nterpretations, or misinterpretations, like any
others, arrived at in the same way as any others, and as inherently in­
conclusive as any others, and the attempt to invest them with the au­
thority of physical experimentation is but methodological sleight of
hand. Ethnographic findings are not privileged, just particular: another
country heard from. To regard them as anything more (or anything less)
than that distorts both them and the ir i mplications, which are far pro­
founder than mere primitivity, for social theory .
Another country heard from : the reason that protracted descriptions
of distant sheep raids (and a really good ethnographer would have gone
into what kind of sheep they were) have general relevance is that they
present the sociological mind with bodied stuff on which to feed . The
important thing about the anthropologist’s findings is their complex spe­
cificness, their circumstantiality. It is with the kind of material produced
by long-term, mainly (though not exclusively) qualitative, highly partici­
pative, and almost obsessively fine-comb field study in confined contexts
that the mega-concepts with which contemporary social science is
affticted-legitimacy, modernization,
integration, conflict, charisma,
structure, . . . meaning-can be given the sort of sensible actuality that
makes it possible to think not only realistically and concretely about
them, but, what is more important, creatively and imaginatively with
them.
The methodological problem which the m icroscopic nature of ethnog­
raphy presents is both real and critical. But it is not to be resolved by
regarding a remote locality as the world in a teacup or as the sociologi­
cal equivalent of a cloud chamber. It is to be resolved-or, anyway, de­
cently kept at bay-by real izing that social actions are comments on
more than themselves ; that where an interpretation comes from does not
determine where it can be impelled to go. Small facts speak to large is­
sues, winks to epistemology, or sheep raids to revolution, because they
are made to.
THE INTERPRETATION OF CULTURES
VII
Which brings us, finally, to theory. The besetting sin of interpretive ap­
proaches to anythi ng-literature, dreams, symptoms, culture-is that
they tend to resist, or to be permitted to resist, conceptual articulation
and thus to escape systematic modes of assessment. You either grasp an
interpretation or you do not, see the point of it or you do not, accept it
or you do not. I mprisoned in the immed iacy of its own detail, it is pre­
sented as self-validating, or, worse, as validated by the supposedly de­
veloped sensitivities of the person who presents it; any attempt to cast
what it says in terms other than its own is regarded as a travesty-as,
the anthropologist’s severest term of moral abuse, ethnocentric.
For a field of study which, however timidly (though I, myself, am not
timid about the matter at all) , asserts itself to be a science, this just will
not do. There is no reason why the conceptual structure of a cultural in­
terpretation should be any less formulable, and thus less susceptible to
explicit canons of appraisal, than that of, say, a biological observation
or a physical experiment-no reason except that the terms in which
such formulations can be cast are, if not wholly nonexistent, very nearly
so. We are reduced to insinuating theories because we lack the power to
state them.
At the same time, it must be admitted that there are a number of
characteristics of cultural interpretation which make the theoretical de­
velopment of it more than usually difficult. The first is the need for
theory to stay rather closer to the ground than tends to be the case in
sciences more able to give themselves over to imaginative abstraction.
Only short flights of ratiocination tend to be effective in anthropology ;
longer ones tend to drift off into logical dreams, academ ic bemusements
with formal symmetry . The whole point of a semiotic approach to cul­
ture is, as I have said, to aid us in gaining access to the conceptual
world in which our subjects Jive so that we can, in some extended sense
of the term, converse with them. The tension between the pull of this
need to penetrate an unfamiliar universe of symbolic action and the re­
quirements of technical advance i n the theory of culture, between the
need to grasp and the need to analyze, is, as a result, both necessarily
great and essentially irremovable. Indeed, the further theoretical devel­
opment goes, the deeper the tension gets. This is the first condition for
Thick Description : Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture
25
cultural theory: it is not its own master. As it is unseverable from the
immediacies thick description presents, its freedom to shape itself in
terms of its internal logic is rather limited. What generality it contrives
to achieve grows out of the delicacy of its distinctions, not the sweep of
its abstractions.
And from this follows a peculiarity in the way, as a simple matter of
empirical fact, our knowledge of culture . . . cultures . . . a culture . . .
grows: in spurts. Rather than following a rising curve of cumulative
findings, cultural analysis breaks up into a disconnected yet coherent se­
quence of bolder and bolder sorties. Studies do build on other studies,
not in the sense that they take up where the others leave off, but in the
sense that, better informed and better conceptualized, they plunge more
deeply into the same things. Every serious cultural analysis starts from
a sheer beginning and ends where it manages to get before exhausting
its intellectual impulse. Previously discovered facts are mobilized, pre­
viously developed concepts used, previously formulated hypotheses tried
out ; but the movement is not from already proven theorems to newly
proven ones, it is from an awkward fumbling for the most elementary
understanding to a supported claim that one has achieved that and sur­
passed it. A study is an advance if it is more incisive-whatever that
may mean-than those that preceded it; but it less stands on their
shoulders than, challenged and challenging, runs by their side.
It is for this reason, among others, that the essay, whether of thirty
pages or three hundred, has seemed the natural genre in which to pre­
sent cultural interpretations and the theories sustaining them, and why,
if one looks for systematic treatises in the field, one is so soon disap­
pointed, the more so if one finds any. Even inventory articles are rare
here, and anyway of hardly more than bibliographical interest. The
major theoretical contributions not only lie in specific studies-that is
true in almost any field-but they are very difficult to abstract from
such studies and integrate i nto anything one might call ..culture theory”
as such. Theoretical formulations hover so low over the interpretations
they govern that they don’t make much sense or hold much interest
apart from them. This is so, not because they are not general (if they
are not general, they are not theoretical), but because, stated indepen­
dently of their applications, they seem either commonplace or vacant.
One can, and this in fact is how the field progresses conceptually, take a
line of theoretical attack developed in connection with one exercise in
ethnographic interpretation and employ it in another, pushing it for-
z6
THE INTERPRETATION OF CULTU RES
ward to greater precision and broader relevance ; but one cannot write a
“General Theory of Cultural Interpretation .” Or, rather, one can, but
there appears to be l ittle profit in it, because the essential task of theory
building here is not to codify abstract regularities but to make thick de­
scription possible, not to generalize across cases but to generalize within
them.
To general ize within cases is usually called, at least in medicine and
depth psychology, clinical inference. Rather than beginning with a set
of observations and attempting to subsume them under a governing law,
such inference begins with a set of (presumptive) signifiers and attempts
to place them within an intelligible frame. Measures are matched to the­
oretical predictions, but symptoms (even when they are measured) are
scanned for theoretical peculiarities-that is, they are diagnosed. In the
study of culture the signifiers are not symptoms or clusters of symp­
toms, but symbolic acts or clusters of symbolic acts, and the aim is not
therapy but the analysis of social discourse. But the way in which
theory is used-to ferret out the unapparent i mport of things-is the
same.
Thus we are lead to the second condition of cultural theory : it is not,
at least in the strict meani ng of the term, predictive . The diagnostician
doesn’t pred ict measles ; he decides that someone has them, or at the
very most anticipates that someone is rather likely shortly to get them .
But this limitation, which i s real enough, has commonly been both mis­
understood and exaggerated, because it has been taken to mean that cul­
tural inte rpretation is merely post facto: that, like the peasant in the old
story, we first shoot the holes in the fence and then paint the bull’s-eyes
around them. It is hardly to be denied that there is a good deal of that
sort of thing around, some of it in prominent places. It is to be denied,
however, that it is the inevitable outcome of a clinical approach to the
use of theory.
It is true that in the clin ical style of theoretical formulation, concep­
tualization is directed toward the task of generating interpretations of
matters already in hand, not toward projecting outcomes of experi men­
tal manipulations or deducing future states of a determined system. But
that does not mean that theory has only to fit (or, more carefully, to
generate cogent interpretations of) realities past ; it has also to survive
-intellectually survive-realities to come. Although we formulate our
interpretation of an outburst of winking or an instance of sheep-raidi ng
after its occurrence, sometimes long after, the theoretical framework in
Thick Description : Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture
27
terms of which such an interpretation is made must be capable of con­
tinuing to yield defensible interpretations as new social phenomena
swim into view. Although one starts any effort at thick description, be­
yond the obvious and superficial, from a state of general bewilderment
as to what the devil is going on -trying to find one’s feet-one does
not start (or ought not) intel lectually empty-handed. Theoretical ideas
are not created wholly anew in each study; as I have said, they are
adopted from other, related studies, and, refined in the process, applied
to new interpretive problems. If they cease being useful with respect to
such problems, they tend to stop being used and are more or less aban­
doned . If they continue being useful, throwing up new understandings,
they are further elaborated and go on being used . 5
Such a view of how theory functions in an interpretive science sug­
gests that the distinction, relative in any case, that appears in the exper­
imental or observational sciences between “description” and “explana­
tion” appears here as one, even more relative, between “inscription”
(“thick description”) and “specification” (“diagnosis”) -between setting
down the meaning particular social actions have for the actors whose
actions they are, and stating, as explicitly as we can manage, what the
knowledge thus attai ned demonstrates about the society in which it is
found and, beyond that, about social life as such . Our double task is to
uncover the conceptual structures that inform our subjects’ acts, the
“said” of social discourse, and to construct a system of analysis in
whose terms what is generic to those structures, what belongs to them
because they are what they are, will stand out against the other determi­
nants of human behavior. I n ethnography, the office of theory is to pro­
vide a vocabulary in which what symbolic action has to say about itself
-that is, about the role of culture in human life-can be expressed.
Aside from a couple of orienting pieces concerned with more foun­
dational matters, it is in such a manner that theory operates in the
5 Admittedly, this is something of an ideal izat ion. Because theories are seldom
if ever decisively d isproved in clinical use but merely grow increasingly awkward,
unproductive, strained, or vacuous, they often persist long after all but a handful
of people (though they are often most passionate) have lost much interest in
them. Indeed, so far as anthropology is concerned, it is almost .more of a problem
to get exhausted ideas out of the l iterature than it is to get productive ones in,
and so a great deal more of theoretical d iscussion than one would prefer is criti­
cal rather than constructive, and whole careers have been devoted to h astening
the demise of moribund notions. As the field advances one would hope that this
sort of intellectual weed control would become a less prominent part of our ac­
tivities. But, for the moment, it remains true that old theories tend less to d ie
than to go i nto second editions.
THE INTE RPRETATION OF CULTURES
z8
essays collected here. A repertoire of very general, made-in-the-acad­
emy concepts and systems of concepts-“integration,” “rationali­
zation,” “symbol,” ” ideology,” “ethos,” “revolution,” ” identity,” ” meta­
phor,”
“structure,”
“ritual,”
“world
view,”
“actor,”
“function,”
“sacred,” and, of course, “culture” itself-is woven into the body of
thick-description ethnography in the hope of rendering mere occur­
rences scientifically eloquent .& The aim is to draw large conclusions
from small, but very densely textured facts ; to support broad assertions
about the role of culture in the construction of collective life by engag­
ing them exactly with complex specifics.
Thus it is not only interpretation that goes all the way down to the
most i mmediate observational level: the theory upon which such inter­
pretation conceptually depends does so also. My interest in Cohen’s
story, like Ryle’s in winks, grew out of some very general notions in­
deed . The “confusion of tongues” model-the view that social conflict
is not something that happens when, out of weakness, indefiniteness, ob­
solescence, or neglect, cultural forms cease to operate, but rather some­
thing which happens when, like burlesqued winks, such forms are
pressed by unusual situations or unusual intentions to operate in un­
usual ways-is not an idea I got from Cohen’s story. It is one, in­
structed by colleagues, students, and predecessors, I brought to it.
Our innocent-looking “note in a bottle” is more than a portrayal of
the frames of meaning of Jewish peddlers, Berber warriors, and French
proconsuls, or even of their mutual interference. It is an argument that
to rework the pattern of social relationships is to rearrange the coordi­
nates of the experienced world. Society’s forms are culture’s substance.
VIII
There i s a n Indian story-at least I heard it as a n I ndian story-about
an Englishman who, having been told that the world rested on a plat­
form which rested on the back of an elephant which rested in turn on
6 The overwhelming bulle. of the following chapters concern Indonesia rather
than Morocco, for I have just begun to face up to the demands of my North Af·
rican material wh ich, for the most part, was gathered more recently. Field work
in Indonesia was carried out in 1 952- 1 954, 1 957- 1 958, and 1 97 1 ; in Morocco in
1 964, 1 965- 1 966, 1 968- 1 969, and 1 972.
Thick Description : Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture
29
the back of a turtle, asked (perhaps he was an ethnographer; it is the
way they behave), what did the turtle rest on? Another turtle. And that
turtle? “Ah, Sah ib, after that it is turtles all the way down.”
Such, i ndeed, is the condition of things. I do not know how long it
would be profitable to meditate on the encounter of Cohen, the sheikh,
and ” Dumari” (the period has perhaps already been exceeded ) ; but I
do know that however long I did so I would not get anywhere near to
the bottom of it. Nor have I ever gotten anywhere near to the bottom of
anything I have ever written about, either in the essays below or else­
where. Cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete. And, worse than
that, the more deeply it goes the less complete it is. It is a strange sci­
ence whose most telling assertions are its most tremulously based, in
which to get somewhere with the matter at hand is to i ntensify the sus­
picion, both your own and that of others, that you are not quite getting
it right. But that, along with plaguing subtle people with obtuse ques­
tions, is what being an ethnographer is like.
There are a number of ways to escape this-turning culture into
folklore and collecting it, turning it into traits and counting it, turning it
i nto i nstitutions and classifying it, turning it into structures and toying
with it. But they are escapes. The fact is that to commit oneself to a semi­
otic concept of culture and an i nterpretive approach to the study of it
is to commit oneself to a v iew of ethnographic assertion as, to borrow
W. B. Gallie’s by now famous phrase, “essentially contestable.” Anthro­
pology, or at least interpretive anthropology, is a science whose prog­
ress is marked less by a perfection of consensus than by a refinement
of debate. What gets better is the precision with which we vex each
other.
This is very difficult to see when one’s attention is being monopolized
by a sin gl e party to the argument. Monologues are of little value here,
because there are no conclusions to be reported ; there is m erely a dis­
cussion to be sustained. Insofar as the essays here collected have any
importance, it is less in what they say than what they are witness to: an
enormous increase in interest, not only in anthropology, but in social
studies generally, in the role of symbolic forms i n human life. Meaning,
that elusive and ill-defined pseudoentity we were once more than con­
tent to leave philosophers and literary critics to fumble with, has now
come back into the heart of our discipline. Even Marxists are quoting
Cassirer; even positivists, Kenneth Burke.
My own position in the midst of all this has been to try to resist sub-
THE INTERPRETATION OF CULTURE S
30
jectivism o n the one hand and cabbalism o n the other, to try to keep the
analysis of symbolic forms as closely tied as I could to concrete social
events and occasions, the public world of common life, and to organize
it in such a way that the connections between theoretical formulations
and descriptive interpretations were unobscured by appeals to dark sci­
ences. I have never been impressed by the argument that, as complete
objectivity is impossible in these matters (as, of course, it is), one might
as well let one’s sentiments run loose. As Robert Solow has remarked,
that is like saying that as a perfectly aseptic environment is impossible,
one might as well conduct surgery in a sewer. Nor, on the other hand,
have I been impressed with claims that structural l inguistics, computer
engineering, or some other advanced form of thought is going to enable
us to understand men without knowing them. Nothing will discredit a
semiotic approach to culture more quickly than allowing it to drift into
a combination of intuitionism and alchemy , no matter how elegantly the
intuitions are expressed or how modern the alchemy is made to look .
The danger that cultural analysis, in search of all-too-deep-lying tur­
tles, will lose touch with the hard surfaces of life-with the political,
economic, stratificatory realities within which men are everywhere
contained-and with the biological and physical necessities on which
those surfaces rest, is an ever-present one. The only defense against it,
and against, thus, turning cultural analysis into a kind of sociological
aestheticism, is to train such analysis on such realities and such necessi­
ties in the first place. It is thus that I have written about nationalism,
about violence, about identity, about human nature, about legitimacy,
about revolution, about ethnicity, about urbanization, about stat1,1s,
about death, about time, and most of all about particular attempts by
particular peoples to place these things in some sort of comprehensible,
meaningful frame.
To look at the symbolic dimensions of social action�art, religion,
ideology, science, law, morality, common sense-is not to turn away
from the existential dilemmas of life for some empyrean realm of de­
emotionalized forms ; it is to plunge into the midst of them. The essential
vocation of interpretive anthropology is not to answer our deepest ques­
tions, but to make available to us answers that others, guarding other
sheep in other valleys, have given, and thus to include them in the con­
suitable record of what man has said .
PA R T I I
Chapter 2
/ The
Impact
of the Concep t of Culture
on
the Concept of M an
I
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 imag­
hie, in the reduction of the complex to the simple. Rather, it consists,
he says, in a substitution of a complexity more i ntelligible 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.
Elegance remains, I suppose, a general scientific ideal; but in the so­
cial sciences, it is very often in departures from that ideal that truly
creative developments occur. Scientific advancement commonly consists
in a progressive complication of what once seemed a beautifully simple
set of notions but now seems an unbearably simplistic one. It is after
this sort of disenchantment occurs that intelligibility, and thus explana­
tory power, comes to rest on the possibility of substituting the involved
but comprehensible for the involved but incomprehensible to which
THE INTE RPRETATION OF CULTURES
34
Uvi -Strauss refers. Wh itehead once offered to the natu ral sciences the
maxim “Seek simplicity and distrust it” ; to the social sciences he might
well have offered “Seek complexity and order it.”
Certainly the study of culture has developed as though this maxim
were being followed. The rise of a scientific concept of culture
amounted to, or at least was connected with, the overthrow of the view
of human nature dominant in the Enlightenment-a view that, whatever
else may be said for or against it, was both clear and simple-and its
replacement by a view not only more complicated but enormously less
clear. The attempt to clarify it, to reconstruct an intelligible account of
what man is, has underlain scientific thinking about culture ever since.
Having sought complexity and, on a scale grander than they ever i mag­
i ned, found it, anthropologists became entangled in a tortuous effort to
order it. And the end is not yet in sight.
The Enlightenment view of man was, of course, that he was wholly of
a piece with nature and shared in the general uniformity of composition
which natural science, under Bacon’s urging and Newton’s guidance,
had discovered there. There is, in brief, a human nature as regularly or­
ganized, as thoroughly invariant, and as marvelously simple as Newton’s
universe. Perhaps some of its laws are different, but there are laws ; per­
haps some of its immutability is obscured by the trappings of local fash­
ion, but it is i mmutable.
A quotation that Lovejoy (whose magisterial analysis I am following
here) gives from an Enlighten ment historian, Mascou, presents the posi­
tion with the useful bluntness one often finds in a minor writer:
The stage setting [in different ti mes and places ) is. indeed, altered , the ac­
tors change thei r garb and their appearance ; but their i nward motions arise
from the same desires and passions of men, and prod uce their effects in the
vicissitudes of kingdoms and peoples. 1
Now, this view i s hardly one to be despised ; nor, despite m y easy ref­
erences a moment ago to “overthrow, ” can it be said to have disap­
peared from contemporary anthropological thought. The notion that
men are men under whatever guise and against whatever backdrop has
not been replaced by “other mores, other beasts. ”
Yet, cast a s it was, the Enlightenment concept o f the nature o f human
nature had some much less acceptable implications, the main one being
that, to quote Lovejoy himself this time, “anything of which the intelli1 A. 0 .
Lovejoy, Essays i n t h e History of Ideas ( New York, 1 960), p. 1 7 3 .
The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man
35
gibility, verifiabi lity, or actual affirmation is lim ited to men of a special
age, race, temperament, tradition or condition is [in and of itself)
without truth or value, or at all events without importance to a reason­
able man.”
2
The great, vast variety of differences among men, in be­
liefs and values, in customs and institutions, both over time and from
place to place, is essentially without significance in defining his nature.
It consists of mere accretions, distortions even, overlaying and obscur­
ing what is truly human-the constant, the general, the universal-in
man .
Thus, in a passage now notorious, Dr. Johnson saw Shakespeare’s ge­
n ius to lie in the fact that “his characters are not modified by the cus­
toms of particular places, unpractised by the rest of the world; by the
peculiarities of studies or professions, which can operate upon but small
numbers; or by the accidents of transient fashions or temporary
opinions.” a And Racine regarded the success of h is plays on classical
themes as proof that “the taste of Paris . . . conforms to that of Ath­
ens ; my spectators have been moved by the same things which, in other
times, brought tears to the eyes of the most cultivated classes of
G reece. ” 4
The trouble with this kind of view, aside from the fact that it sounds
comic coming from someone as profoundly English as Johnson or as
French as Racine, is that the image of a constant human nature inde­
pendent of time, place, and circumstance, of studies and professions,
transient fashions and temporary opinions, may be an illusion, that
what man is may be so entangled with where he is, who he is, and what
he believes that it is inseparable from them. It is precisely the consider­
ation of such a possibility that led to the rise of the concept of culture
and the decline of the uniformitarian view of man. Whatever else mod­
ern anthropology asserts-and it seems to have asserted almost every­
thing at one time or another-it is firm in the conviction that men un­
modified by the customs of particular places do not i n fact exist, have
never existed, and most i mportant, could not in the very nature of the
case exist. There is, there can be, no backstage where we can go to
catch a glimpse of Mascou’s actors as “real persons” lounging about in
street clothes, disengaged from their profession, displaying with artless
candor their spontaneous desires and unprompted passions. They may
Ibid ., p. 80.
” Preface to Shakespeare,” Johnson on Shakespeare (London, 1 93 1 ), pp.
1 1 – 1 2.
4 From the Preface to lphigenie.
2
3
THE INTERPRETATION OF CULTURES
change their roles, their styles of acting, even the dramas in which they
play ; but-as Shakespeare himself of course remarked-they are al­
ways performing.
This circumstance makes the drawing of a line between what is natu­
ral, universal, and constant in man and what is conventional, local, and
variable extraordinarily di fficult. In fact, it suggests that to draw such a
line is to falsify the human situation, or at least to misrender it seri­
ously .
Consider Balinese trance. The Balinese fall i nto extreme dissociated
states in which they perform all sorts of spectacular activities-biting
off the heads of living chickens, stabbing themselves w ith daggers,
throwing themselves wildly about, speaking with tongues, performing
miraculous feats of equilibration, mimicking sexual intercourse, eating
feces, and so on-rather more easily and much more suddenly than
most of us fall asleep. Trance states are a crucial part of every cere­
mony. In some, fifty or sixty people may fall, one after the other (“like
a string of firecrackers going off,” as one observer puts it), emerging
anywhere from five minutes to several hours later, totally unaware of
what they have been doing and convinced, despite the amnesia, that
they have had the most extraordinary and deeply satisfying experience a
man can have. What does one learn about human nature from this sort
of thing and from the thousand similarly peculiar things anthropologists
discover, investigate, and describe? That the Balinese are peculiar sorts
of beings, South Sea Martians? That they are just the same as we at
base, but with some peculiar, but really incidental, customs we do not
happen to have gone in for? That they are innately gifted or even in­
stinctively driven in certain directions rather than others? Or that
human nature does not exist and men are pure and simply what their
culture makes them?
It is among such i nterpretations as these, all unsatisfactory, that an­
thropology has attempted to find its way to a more viable concept of
man, one in which culture, and the variability of culture, would be
taken into account rather than written off as caprice and prejudice, and
yet, at the same time, one i n which the governing principle of the field,
“the basic unity of manki nd,” would not be turned into an empty
phrase. To take the giant step away from the uniformitarian v iew of
human nature is, so far as the study of man is concerned, to leave the
Garden . To entertain the idea that the diversity of custom across time
and over space is not a mere matter of garb and appearance, of stage
settings and comedic masques, is to entertain also the idea that human-
The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man
37
ity is as various in its essence as it is in its expression . And with that
reflection some well-fastened philosophical moorings are loosed and an
uneasy drifting into perilous waters begins.
Perilous, because if one discards the notion that Man w ith a capital
“M,” is to be looked for “behind,” “under,” or “beyond” his customs
and replaces it with the notion that m an, uncapitalized, is to be looked
for “in” them, one is in some danger of losing sight of him altogether. Ei­
ther he dissolves, without residue, i nto his time and place, a child and a
perfect captive of his age, or he becomes a conscripted soldier in a vast
Tolstoian army, engulfed in one or another of the terrible h istorical de­
terminisms with which we have been plagued from Hegel forward. We
have had, and to some extent still have, both of these aberrations in the
social sciences-one marching under the banner of cultural relativism,
the other under that of cultural evolution. But we also have had, and
more commonly, attempts to avoid them by seeking in culture patterns
themselves the defining elements of a human existence which, although
not constant in expression, are yet distinctive in character.
II
Attempts to locate man amid the body of his customs have taken sev­
eral directions, adopted diverse tactics ; but they have all, or virtually
all, proceeded in terms of a single overall intellectual strategy: what I
will call, so as to have a stick to beat it with, the “stratigraphic” con­
ception of the relations between biological, psychological, social, and
cultural factors in human life. In this conception, man is a composite of
“levels,” each superimposed upon those beneath it and underpinning
those above it. As one analyzes man, one peels off layer after layer,
each such layer being complete and irreducible in itself, revealing an­
other, quite different sort of layer underneath . Strip off the motley
forms of culture and one finds the structural and functional regularities
of social organization. Peel off these in turn and one finds the underly­
ing psychological factors-“basic needs” or what-have-you-that sup­
port and make them possible. Peel off psychological factors and one is
left with the biological foundations-anatomical, physiological, neurol­
ogical–of the whole edifice of human life.
The attraction of this sort of conceptualization, aside from the fact
THE INTE RPRETATION OF CULTURES
that it guaranteed the established academic disciplines their indepen­
dence and sovereignty, was that it seemed to make it possible to have
one’s cake and eat it. One did not have to assert that man’s culture was
all there was to him in order to claim that it was, nonetheless, an essen­
tial and irreducible, even a paramount ingredient in his nature. Cultural
facts could be interpreted against the background of noncultural facts
without dissolving them into that background or dissolving that back­
ground into them. Man was a hierarchically stratified animal, a sort of
evolutionary deposit, in whose definition each level-organic, psycho­
logical, social, and cultural-had an assigned and incontestable place.
To see what he really was, we had to superimpose findings from the
various relevant sciences-anthropology, sociology, psychology, biology
-upon one another like so many patterns in a moire; and when that
was done, the cardinal importance of the cultural level, the only one
distinctive to man, would naturally appear, as would what it had to tell
us, in its own right, about what he really was. For the eighteenth cen­
tury image of man as the naked reasoner that appeared when he took his
cultural costumes off, the anthropology of the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries substituted the image of man as the transfigured ani­
mal that appeared when he put them on.
At the level of concrete research and specific analysis, this grand
strategy came down, first, to a hunt for universals in culture, for empiri­
cal uniformities that, in the face of the diversity of customs around the
world and over time, could be found everywhere in about the same
form, and, second, to an effort to relate such universals, once found, to
the established constants of human biology, psychology, and social orga­
nization. If some customs could be ferreted out of the cluttered cata­
logue of world culture as common to all local variants of it, and if these
could then be connected in a determinate manner with certain invariant
points of reference on the subcultural levels, then at least some progress
might be made toward specifying which cultural traits are essential to
human existence and which merely adventitious, peripheral, or orna­
mental. In such a way, anthropology could determine cultural dimen­
sions of a concept of man commensurate with the dimensions provided,
in a similar way, by biology, psychology, or sociology.
In essence, this is not altogether a new idea. The notion of a consen­
sus gentium (a consensus of all mankind)-the notion that there are
some things that all men will be found to agree upon as right, real, just,
or attractive and that these things are, therefore, in fact right, real, just,
The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man
39
or attractive-was present in the Enlightenment and probably has been
present in some form or another in all ages and climes. It is one of
those ideas that occur to almost anyone sooner or later. Its development
in modern anthropology, however-beginning with Clark Wissler’s
elaboration in the 1 920s of what he called “the universal cultural pat­
tern,” through Bronislaw Malinowski’s presentation of a list of “univer­
sal institutional types” in the early forties, up to G. P. Murdock’s elabo­
ration of a set of “common-denominators of culture” during and since
Wor ld War 1 1 -added something new. It added the notion that, to
quote Clyde Kluckhohn, perhaps the most persuasive of the consensus
gentium theorists, “some aspects of culture take their specific forms
solely as a result of historical accidents ; others are tailored by forces
which can properly be designated as universal . ”
s
With this, man’s cul­
tural life is split in two : part of it is, l i ke M ascou’s actors’ garb, i nde­
pendent of men’s Newtonian ” inward motions” ; part is an emanation of
those motions themselves. The question that then arises is: Can this
halfway house between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries really
stand?
Whether it can or not depends on whether the dualism between em­
pirically universal aspects of culture rooted in subcultural realities and
empirically variable aspects not so rooted can be established and sus­
tained. And this, in turn, demands ( l ) that the universals proposed be
substantial ones and not empty categories; (2) that they be specifically
grounded in particular biological, psychological, or sociological pro­
cesses, not just vaguely associated with “underlying realities” ; and ( 3 )
that they can convincingly b e defended a s core elements in a definition
of humanity in comparison with which the much more numerous cul­
tural particularities are of clearly secondary importance. On all three of
these counts it seems to me that the consensus gentium approach fails;
rather than moving toward the essentials of the human situation it
moves away from them.
The reason the first of these requirements-that the proposed univer­
sals be substantial ones and not empty or near-empty categories-has
not been met is that it cannot be. There is a logical conflict between as­
serting that, say, “religion ,” “marriage,” or “property” are empirical
univer…
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