Local Knowledge

Further Essays In Interpretive Anthropology


By Clifford Geertz

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In essays covering everything from art and common sense to charisma and constructions of the self, the eminent cultural anthropologist and author of The Interpretation of Cultures deepens our understanding of human societies through the intimacies of “local knowledge.” A companion volume to The Interpretation of Cultures, this book continues Geertz’s exploration of the meaning of culture and the importance of shared cultural symbolism. With a new introduction by the author.


Local Knowledge



Clifford Geertz

“Je demande dans quel genre est cette piéce? Dans le genre comique? il n’y a pas le mot pour lire. Dans le genre tragique? la terreur, la commisération et les autres grandes passions n’y sont point excitées. Cependant il y a de l’intérêt; et il y en aura, sans ridicule que fasse rire, sans danger que fasse frémir, dans toute composition dramatique où le sujet sera important, où le poète prendra le ton que nous avons dans les affaires sérieuses, et où l’action s’avancera par le perplexité et par les embarras. Or, il me semble que ces actions étant les plus communes de la vie, le genre que les aura pour objet doit être le plus utile et le plus étendu. J’appellerai ce genre le genre sérieux.”

Diderot, Théâtre

Preface to the 2000 Edition

It is hard to decide which is the more difficult task: starting a line of thought, or sustaining one. As anyone who has tried to publish a sequel, produce a spin-off, or get money from a foundation for extending a going enterprise rather than for launching a “cutting edge” project knows, the “infinite grandeur of beginnings” gives a force to new departures not available to adjuncts and continuations. It may be better the second time around, but is certainly isn’t easier.

Local Knowledge, with its rather limp promise of “further essays,” was clearly a pushing on from established positions. Published an exact ten years after my The Interpretation of Cultures announced a concern with “webs of meaning,” “thick description,” and “deep play,” “the confusion of tongues,” and “the said of social discourse,” it was neither a rerun nor a new departure; it was an attempt to make good on some broad and incautious claims. Having called various sorts of spirits from the vasty deep, I thought it necessary to show that at least some of them had come.

As I was unable to deliver on everything advertised in my initial promotion—a not uncommon failing in the human sciences—I gathered, in this follow-up volume, only such of my writings that seemed to bear in one fashion or another on the question of the cultural frames of knowing, on, as I put it in one of my subtitles, “the ethnography of thought.” Pieces on Social Thought (“the refiguration of”), Moral Imagination (“the social history of”), and Anthropological Understanding (“the nature of”) were followed by ones on Common-sense, Art, and Authority as culturally constructed conceptual systems, on the contemporary styles of la pensee academique, and finally and most extensively, on the forms and variations of legal reasoning east and west, professional and popular, forensic and jurisprudential. The general philosophical cast of my project, in itself and empirical not a speculative enterprise, thus became more marked and apparent. Or, perhaps, it only became more uncertain: “le perplexity and “les embarras” of Diderot’s “genre sérieux” invoked in my ironical epigraph, were fairly well displayed. As with any science (and, against all the protests of Materialists, Realists, Positivists, Critical Rationalists, and, more recently, crazed Hyper-textualists, I regard my work as some sort of science), the deeper you get in, the odder things begin to look. Whatever we are moving toward, it is not omega, an asymptote, or a theory of everything.

But if Everything In General is out of reach, and likely to stay there, not everything in particular is. The repeating theme that emerges from these miscellaneous “further essays,” and which constitutes amid their miscellany their common aim and subject, has to do with that most ancient, most obsessive, and, as usually framed, most misleading of epistemological concerns: the relation between abstract and concrete knowledge. Generalizations and cases, laws and instances, universals and particulars, knowings-that and knowings-how, synoptic visions and immediate observations, the world around here and the world overall—“erklren” and “verstehen” “savoir” and “connaître” “explanation” and “understanding”—are normally opposed to one another as last analysis metaphilosophical choices, once made, forever in place; fatalities of reason. Here, however, they are regarded as cooked up and concocted interpretive styles, meaning-seeking strategies to be used when usable, to be ignored when not: ways in which, to one end or another, thought is composed, sense made.

The notion that the surer grasp of unshapely and incongruent, even unique, particulars is as proper an aim of science as the abstractive formulation of exceptionless regularities—and is, often enough, more illuminating as well—has grown steadily more acceptable over the last quarter century as rationalism stumbled, positivism evaporated, and “the prism face of Newton” (the image is Wordsworth’s) faded from view. The notion that all knowledge aspires to the condition of mathematical physics, or, even less plausibly, to diagrammatic economics, lacks the air of simple obviousness that it had even a few short years ago. Everything, from the philosophical reconsideration of the nature of natural law to the spread of perspectival, observer-dependent explanation, has strengthened the claims of case-based knowledge to scientific standing. “Heaven in a grain of sand” is no longer just a pantheistic trope.

It is, however, still a trope, and one, in fact, I have abused before to put off difficult questions. Whatever its suggestive power, multum-in-parvo imagery leaves the central issue rhetorically glossed over: how does one move among (across, over, amid, through, between) cases, instances, and granular observations to broader, more elevated—heavenly is too much to expect—perceptions? If anthropologists, to bring the matter directly home, are not to be mere peddlers of singularities—oddities, astonishments, and not-in-the-south exceptions to received opinions—they must contrive to place such singularities in an informing proximity, connect them in such a way as to cause them to cast light on one another. Contextualization is the name of the game.

This is how Local Knowledge (the book) is to be read, how it was intended to be read: as a series of demonstrations of the explanatory power of setting sui generis phenomena in echoing connection. Whether it be a Balinese widow burning, a Moroccan family name, a Navajo hermaphrodite, a Yoruba carving, an Elizabethan pageant, or a Muslim legal procedure, the effort is to preserve the individuality of things and enfold them in larger worlds of sense at the same time. Doubtless, method is undeveloped, technique crude, and success uneven. But it is the sort of thing one can get better at doing, given opportunity to practice. We learn, a poet once said, though he could as well have been an anthropologist, by going where we have to go.

Clifford Geertz


August 1999

Local Knowledge


When, a decade ago, I collected a number of my essays and rereleased them under the title, half genuflection, half talisman, The Interpretation of Cultures, I thought I was summing things up; saying, as I said there, what it was I had been saying. But, as a matter of fact, I was imposing upon myself a charge. In anthropology, too, it so turns out, he who says A must say B, and I have spent much of my time since trying to say it. The essays below are the result; but I am now altogether aware how much closer they stand to the origins of a thought-line than they do to the outcomes of it.

I am more aware, too, than I was then, of how widely spread this thought-line—a sort of cross between a connoisseur’s weakness for nuance and an exegete’s for comparison—has become in the social sciences. In part, this is simple history. Ten years ago, the proposal that cultural phenomena should be treated as significative systems posing expositive questions was a much more alarming one for social scientists—allergic, as they tend to be, to anything literary or inexact—than it is now. In part, it is a result of the growing recognition that the established approach to treating such phenomena, laws-and-causes social physics, was not producing the triumphs of prediction, control, and testability that had for so long been promised in its name. And in part, it is a result of intellectual deprovincialization. The broader currents of modern thought have finally begun to impinge upon what has been, and in some quarters still is, a snug and insular enterprise.

Of these developments, it is perhaps the last that is the most important. The penetration of the social sciences by the views of such philosophers as Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Gadamer, or Ricoeur, such critics as Burke, Frye, Jameson, or Fish, and such all-purpose subversives as Foucault, Ha-bermas, Barthes, or Kuhn makes any simple return to a technological conception of those sciences highly improbable. Of course, the turning away from such a conception is not completely new—Weber’s name has always to be called up here, and Freud’s and Collingwood’s as well. But the sweep of it is. Caught up in some of the more shaking originalities of the twentieth century, the study of society seems on the way to becoming seriously irregular.

It is certainly becoming more pluralistic. Though those with what they take to be one big idea are still among us, calls for “a general theory” of just about anything social sound increasingly hollow, and claims to have one megalomanic. Whether this is because it is too soon to hope for unified science or too late to believe in it is, I suppose, debatable. But it has never seemed further away, harder to imagine, or less certainly desirable than it does right now. The Sociology is not About to Begin, as Talcott Parsons once half-facetiously announced. It is scattering into frameworks.

As frameworks are the very stuff of cultural anthropology, which is mostly engaged in trying to determine what this people or that take to be the point of what they are doing, all this is very congenial to it. Even in its most universalist moods—evolutionary, diffusionist, functionalist, most recently structuralist or sociobiological—it has always had a keen sense of the dependence of what is seen upon where it is seen from and what it is seen with. To an ethnographer, sorting through the machinery of distant ideas, the shapes of knowledge are always ineluctably local, indivisible from their instruments and their encasements. One may veil this fact with ecumenical rhetoric or blur it with strenuous theory, but one cannot really make it go away.

Long one of the most homespun of disciplines, hostile to anything smacking of intellectual pretension and unnaturally proud of an outdoorsman image, anthropology has turned out, oddly enough, to have been preadapted to some of the most advanced varieties of modern opinion. The contextual-ist, antiformalist, relativizing tendencies of the bulk of that opinion, its turn toward examining the ways in which the world is talked about—depicted, charted, represented—rather than the way it intrinsically is, have been rather easily absorbed by adventurer scholars used to dealing with strange perceptions and stranger stories. They have, wonder of wonders, been speaking Wittgenstein all along. Contrariwise, anthropology, once read mostly for amusement, curiosity, or moral broadening, plus, in colonial situations, for administrative convenience, has now become a primary arena of speculative debate. Since Evans-Pritchard and his ineffable chicken oracles and Lévi-Strauss and his knowing bricoleurs, some of the central issues of, as I put it below, “the way we think now,” have been joined in terms of anthropological materials, anthropological methods, and anthropological ideas.

My own work, insofar as it is more than archival (a function of anthropology much underrated), represents an effort to edge my way into odd corners of this discussion. All the essays below are ethnographically informed (or, God knows, misinformed) reflections on general topics, the sort of matters philosophers might address from more conjectural foundations, critics from more textual ones, or historians from more inductive ones. The figurative nature of social theory, the moral interplay of contrasting mentalities, the practical difficulties in seeing things as others see them, the epistemological status of common sense, the revelatory power of art, the symbolic construction of authority, the clattering variousness of modern intellectual life, and the relationship between what people take as fact and what they regard as justice are treated, one after the other, in an attempt somehow to understand how it is we understand understandings not our own.

This enterprise, “the understanding of understanding,” is nowadays usually referred to as hermeneutics, and in that sense what I am doing fits well enough under such a rubric, particularly if the word “cultural” is affixed. But one will not find very much in the way of “the theory and methodology of interpretation” (to give the dictionary definition of the term) in what follows, for I do not believe that what “hermeneutics” needs is to be reified into a para-science, as epistemology was, and there are enough general principles in the world already. What one will find is a number of actual interpretations of something, anthropologizing formulations of what I take to be some of the broader implications of those interpretations, and a recurring cycle of terms—symbol, meaning, conception, form, text . . . culture—designed to suggest there is system in persistence, that all these so variously aimed inquiries are driven by a settled view of how one should go about constructing an account of the imaginative make-up of a society.

But if the view is settled, the way to bring it to practical existence and make it work surely is not. The stuttering quality of not only my own efforts along these lines but of interpretive social science generally is a result not (as is often enough suggested by those who like their statements flat) of a desire to disguise evasion as some new form of depth or to turn one’s back on the claims of reason. It is a result of not knowing, in so uncertain an undertaking, quite where to begin, or, having anyhow begun, which way to move. Argument grows oblique, and language with it, because the more orderly and straightforward a particular course looks the more it seems ill-advised.

To turn from trying to explain social phenomena by weaving them into grand textures of cause and effect to trying to explain them by placing them in local frames of awareness is to exchange a set of well-charted difficulties for a set of largely uncharted ones. Dispassion, generality, and empirical grounding are earmarks of any science worth the name, as is logical force. Those who take the determinative approach seek these elusive virtues by positing a radical distinction between description and evaluation and then confining themselves to the descriptive side of it; but those who take the hermeneutic, denying the distinction is radical or finding themselves somehow astride it, are barred from so brisk a strategy. If, as I have, you construct accounts of how somebody or other—Moroccan poets, Elizabethan politicians, Balinese peasants, or American lawyers—glosses experience and then draw from those accounts of those glosses some conclusions about expression, power, identity, or justice, you feel at each stage fairly well away from the standard styles of demonstration. One makes detours, goes by side roads, as I quote Wittgenstein below; one sees the straight highway before one, “but of course . . . cannot use it, because it is permanently closed.”

For making detours and going by sideroads, nothing is more convenient than the essay form. One can take off in almost any direction, certain that if the thing does not work out one can turn back and start over in some other with only moderate cost in time and disappointment. Midcourse corrections are rather easy, for one does not have a hundred pages of previous argument to sustain, as one does in a monograph or a treatise. Wanderings into yet smaller sideroads and wider detours does little harm, for progress is not expected to be relentlessly forward anyway, but winding and improvi-sational, coming out where it comes out. And when there is nothing more to say on the subject at the moment, or perhaps altogether, the matter can simply be dropped. “Works are not finished,” as Valery said, “they are abandoned.”

Another advantage of the essay form is that it is very adaptable to occasions. The ability to sustain a coherent line of thought through a flurry of wildly assorted invitations, to talk here, to contribute there, to honor someone’s memdry or celebrate someone’s career, to advance the cause of this journal or that organization, or simply to repay similar favors one has oneself asked of others, is, though rarely mentioned, one of the defining conditions of contemporary scholarly life. One can struggle against it, and, to avoid measuring out one’s life with coffee spoons, to some extent must. But one must also, if one is not to become a lectern acrobat, doing, over and over again, the anthropological number (“culture is learned”; “customs vary”; “it takes all kinds to make a world”), turn it to one’s account and build, particular response by particular response, a gathering progress of analysis. All the essays below are such particular responses to such unconnected and, it so happens, extramural invitations. But all are, too, steps in a perseverant attempt to push forward, or anyway somewhere, a general program. Whatever these various audiences—lawyers, literary critics, philosophers, sociologists, or the miscellaneous savants of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (to which two of these essays were addressed)—asked for, what they got was “interpretive anthropology,” my way.

The opening essay, “Blurred Genres,” was originally delivered, appropriately enough, as a lecture to the Humanities Council of the State of Nevada at Reno. The charge was to say something or other reasonably coherent about the relation of “The Humanities” and “The Social Sciences,” a matter anthropologists, considered amphibious between the two, are continually being asked to address, and to which (following the examination-room maxim—if you don’t know the answer, discuss the question) I responded by attempting to cast doubt upon the force of the distinction in the first place. Grand rubrics like “Natural Science,” “Biological Science,” “Social Science,” and “The Humanities” have their uses in organizing curricula, in sorting scholars into cliques and professional communities, and in distinguishing broad traditions of intellectual style. And, of course, the sorts of work conducted under any one of them do show some general resemblances to one another and some genuine differences from the sorts that are conducted under the others. There is, so far anyway, no historiography of motion; and inertia in a novel means something else. But when these rubrics are taken to be a borders-and-territories map of modern intellectual life, or, worse, a Linnaean catalogue into which to classify scholarly species, they merely block from view what is really going on out there where men and women are thinking about things and writing down what it is they think.

So far as the social sciences are concerned, any attempt to define them in some essence-and-accidents, natural-kind way and locate them at some definite latitude and longitude in scholarly space is bound to fail as soon as one looks from labels to cases. No one can put what Lévi-Strauss does together with what B. F. Skinner does in anything but the most vacuous of categories. In “Blurred Genres,” I argue, first, that this seemingly anomalous state of affairs has become the natural condition of things and, second, that it is leading to significant realignments in scholarly affinities—who borrows what from whom. Most particularly, it has brought it about that a growing number of people trying to understand insurrections, hospitals, or why it is that jokes are prized have turned to linguistics, aesthetics, cultural history, law, or literary criticism for illumination rather than, as they used to do, to mechanics or physiology. Whether this is making the social sciences less scientific or humanistic study more so (or, as I believe, altering our view, never very stable anyway, of what counts as science) is not altogether clear and perhaps not altogether important. But that it is changing the character of both is clear and important—and discomposing.

It is discomposing not only because who knows where it all will end, but because as the idiom of social explanation, its inflections and its imagery, changes, our sense of what constitutes such explanation, why we want it, and how it relates to other sorts of things we value changes as well. It is not just theory or method or subject matter that alters, but the whole point of the enterprise.

The second essay, “Found in Translation,” originally delivered to the Lionel Trilling Memorial Seminar at Columbia University, seeks to make this proposition a bit more concrete by comparing the sort of thing an ethnographer of my stripe does with the sort of thing a critic of Trilling’s does and finding them not all that different. Putting Balinese representations of how things stand in the world into interpretive tension with our own, as a kind of commentary on them, and assessing the significance for practical conduct of literary portrayals—Austen’s or Hardy’s or Faulkner’s—of what life is like, are not just cognate activities. They are the same activity differently pursued.

I called this activity, for purposes rather broader than those immediate to the essay, “the social history of the moral imagination,” meaning by that the tracing out of the way in which our sense of ourselves and others—ourselves amidst others—is affected not only by our traffic with our own cultural forms but to a significant extent by the characterization of forms not immediately ours by anthropologists, critics, historians, and so on, who make them, reworked and redirected, derivatively ours. Particularly in the modern world, where very little that is distant, past, or esoteric that someone can find something out about goes undescribed and we live immersed in meta-commentary (what Trilling thinks about what Geertz thinks about what the Balinese think, and what Geertz thinks about that), our consciousness is shaped at least as much by how things supposedly look to others, somewhere else in the lifeline of the world, as by how they look here, where we are, now to us. The instability this introduces into our moral lives (to say nothing of what it does to our epistemological self-confidence) accounts, I think, for much of the sense of believing too many things at once that seems to haunt us, as well as for our intense concern with whether we are in any position, or can somehow get ourselves into one, to judge other ways of life at all. And it is the claim to be able to help us in this that links, whatever their differences in view or method, those such as Trilling, trying to find out how to talk to contemporaries about Jane Austen, and those such as myself, trying to find out how to talk to them about imaginative constructions—widow burnings and the like—that contemporaries are even further away from in assumption and sensibility than they are from Austen.

I referred to this conception of what culture explainers of all sorts claim they can do for us as “translation”—a trope current in my own field since Evans-Pritchard, at least—and, invoking a line of James Merrill’s, argued that though obviously much is lost in this, much also, if ambiguous and troubling, is found. But just what it involves, how it is in fact effected, was left unexamined. In “From the Native’s Point of View,” the piece to which Trilling had in fact originally reacted, I did examine it, and with some particularity, at least for anthropology.

Or at least for my own anthropology. The occasion this time was an address to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in which, as they were giving me an award for my work, I thought I might try to tell them what sort of work it was. The publication of Malinowski’s A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term several years before had fairly well exploded the notion that anthropologists obtained their results through some special ability, usually called “empathy,” to “get inside the skins” of savages. It is not clear how widely this was ever believed (“The more anthropologists write about the United States,” Bernard DeVoto growled when Mead’s


On Sale
Aug 4, 2008
Page Count
464 pages
Basic Books

Clifford Geertz

About the Author

Clifford Geertz (1926-2006) was a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His book Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1988.

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