Geertz as Challenge (was "Winks and Twitches> <debate> <long>

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)
Sat, 6 Apr 1996 13:23:09 +0900

Dear Colleagues,

In responding to Bob Graber's remarks about Clifford
Geertz, winks and twitches, I noted that I had not read
Geertz's call for thick description, "as leading to a focus on
subjective interpretations of meaning and, thus, away from
objective science." Here, in a spirit of provocation, I would
like to advance the proposition that anthropologists have
gone astray by reading Geertz as a model when he should
be read as a challenge. Geertz, I have noted, is a great
writer of prolegomena. In essay after essay, he has done a
masterful job of explicating such concepts as "culture,"
"ideology," "art," etc., exposing the variety in their
formulations and pointing in directions which he, himself,
argues would be more fruitful. The business of twitches
and winks is one example.

In the famous essay on "Thick Description," he argues that
culture is neither "subjective" nor "objective" in the usual
naive way in which these alternatives are located on
opposite sides of the classic Cartesian gap between mind
and body."Culture, this acted document,... is public, like
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." How, then, are we to theorize it?

The famous "web of significance" is, like its prototype a
trap. The unwary will focus on "significance" and be lured
by talk of "interpretation" back into the subjectivism that
Geertz explicitly rejects. Here the anthropologist is seen as
expounding the native point of view ("I've been there, I've
lived with this people, I know how they think"). And as
Geertz himself argues repeatedly, in his essay on
Malinowski's diaries for example, this is nonsensical. (It is
also, of course, politically offensive, to those, myself
included, who believe that people should be allowed to
speak for themselves.)

The best we can do is infer from what we see and hear and bring to
our observations by way of background knowledge, what we imagine
is going on. We are then left with a problem that Geertz is very
clear about: "The besetting sin of interpretive approaches
to anything--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

Here is the challenge that I, for one, would like us to spend
more time discussing. My own position is this.

(1) There is a small set of problems for which it is possible
to use statistical methods. It is a precondition for using
these methods that we (a) can distinguish things to count,
(b) are, in fact, able to count them, and (c) able to count
them in ways which produce statistically valid samples.

(2) There is a much larger set of problems where it isn't at
all clear what we are trying to count. (How different is
different enough, for example, in a chain of family
resemblances surrounding a conceptual prototype?) Or
while we have a clear idea of hypothetical differences we
don't command the resources to satisfy (b) and (c).

(3) Computer simulations are a new and exciting way to
examine the implications of complex ideas. They bring us
closer to Geertz' ideal 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." (From the opening paragraph
of "The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of

(4) For much of the data we collect during fieldwork,
however, neither ideas or evidence are clear enough to
support simulation. Here we find ourselves groping toward
clarity by telling stories and speaking in metaphors. And
here is precisely the point at which we lack "systematic
modes of assessment."

I await your suggestions.

John McCreery
April 6, 1996