In what ways do you think Geertz’s work differs from the concept that observers must stand outside the cultures they are observing?

The concept of the interpretation of cultures in anthropology is associated with the work of Clifford Geertz during what has been termed the “interpretive” or “literary’ turn in contemporary anthropology. Many scholars believe that his ideas follow from the late 19th-20th century German concept of Verstehen (loosly translated meaning non-empirical, empathic, or participatory examination of social phenomena) and those of Wilhem Dilthey, Max Weber, and Paul Droysen which opened up numerous possibilities for anthropological work. In what ways do you think Geertz’s work differs from the concept that observers must stand above and outside the cultures they are observing in order to have a clear, total, and true picture of observed reality?

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Geertz's interpretive method is, as you have noted, derived from the German verstehen, which assumes that a social actor's response to a situation cannot be understood without understanding how the actor understands what is going on (the situation plus the actor's own response to it). That said, the understanding in question is, a social and, thus, public phenomenon, embodied in symbols (words, gestures, artifacts) visible to external observers. The purely personal, internal response of the actor is neither accessible to the anthropologist nor of anthropological interest. We work only with what we can see and what we can understand of what people tell us.
I believe Geertz' well known sentence "You don't have to be one to know one" underlines this point excellently.
! :-)

M Izabel said:
Gay people get it right-- "it takes one to know one."
Jan,

Please try to remember that my focus here is not so much on the concept of Verstehen as it is on the work of Clifford Geertz. Geertz’s attitude was described by Paul Ricoeur as linked to a conceptual framework that was not causal, structural or even motivational but rather semiotic (Ricoeur 1991) and that this attitude was most intimately associated with the possibilities of interpretation. My primary interest is in exploring precisely the abandonment of this notion in contemporary anthropology that observers must stand above and outside the cultures they are observing as well as the concept of relativism that this shift in perspective implies.

Pierre Bourdieu most adequately stated:

The distance the anthropologist puts between himself and his object…is also what enables him to stand outside the game, along with everything he really shares with the logic of his object…Nothing is more paradoxical…than the fact that people whose whole life is spent fighting over words should strive at all costs to fix what seems to them to be the one true meaning of objectively ambiguous, overdetermined or indeterminate symbols, words, texts or events which often survive and generate interest just because they have always been at stake in struggles aimed precisely at fixing their ‘true meaning.’ (Bourdieu 1990)

tchau...

Jan Begine said:
In what ways do you think Geertz’s work differs from the concept that observers must stand above and outside the cultures they are observing in order to have a clear, total, and true picture of observed reality?

I'm going to be honest here, I never really went far down Geertz's path, I chose a different one, but I don't see how one can jump from empathy and intuition (Verstehen) to your question.

Standing outside and above the culture one is observing? How does this rhyme with Verstehen? Isn't fieldwork an intersubjective process, a dialogue, a sharing of experience? Maybe I should refrase the question: can the intersubjective nature of fieldwork be ignored in interpreting the data it resulted in?

And if we follow the transcendental approach, if we ignore the intersubjectivity, wouldn't this tell us more about ourselves and our reality then about what we set out to observe?
My primary interest is in exploring precisely the abandonment of this notion in contemporary anthropology that observers must stand above and outside the cultures they are observing as well as the concept of relativism that this shift in perspective implies.

Two thoughts. First, I wonder if "abandonment" is the right word here. Given the current fragmentation of the discipline, it seems entirely possible to me that we are mistaking the current position of a pendulum for an irreversible motion.

Second, the critique of adopting a universal/transcendent/objective, a.k.a. God-like, perspective in anthropological writing does not imply the opposite extreme, that we can, to use an old-fashioned expression, "go native" and reproduce the native's point of view. The natives turn out to be too various and opaque for any such presumption.

The anthropologist, then, is qua participant-observer in a liminal position like that of those being initiated in rites de passage, as described by Victor Turner. We, too, may suffer. We, too, may see monsters. We, too, may, in this way, learn important things about values and structures of which we were previously unaware. We may even experience a communitas that evokes a shared humanity.

There is, however, one important difference. There is no rite of reincorporation waiting for us at the end of the process. We do not, however much we may try, become one of "them." Even if we stay and spend our lives among them, we live and write, both mentally and emotionally speaking, somewhere else, addressing ourselves to other audiences, who live in other places and lead lives different from those we describe, analyze, interpret and, sometimes, even try to explain. Neither God nor native, we are forever stuck in the middle.
Thank you John for your comments...I especially agree with this statement:

"We do not, however much we may try, become one of "them." Even if we stay and spend our lives among them, we live and write, both mentally and emotionally speaking, somewhere else, addressing ourselves to other audiences, who live in other places and lead lives different from those we describe, analyze, interpret and, sometimes, even try to explain."

tchau...
Neil, thanks for the compliment. Now, however, let me toss a question back at you. If there is something to my Turnerian liminal model of the anthropologist's position, where do we go from here? We may be stuck in the middle. Can we get unstuck intellectually?

Neil Turner said:
Thank you John for your comments...I especially agree with this statement:

"We do not, however much we may try, become one of "them." Even if we stay and spend our lives among them, we live and write, both mentally and emotionally speaking, somewhere else, addressing ourselves to other audiences, who live in other places and lead lives different from those we describe, analyze, interpret and, sometimes, even try to explain."

tchau...
John, I have been in Brasil for almost three years conducting ethnographic research. My research focuses on the lives of Brasileiros that live in the bairros and favelas of Brasilian cities. The purpose of my research is to document the manner in which urban life and culture is being dramatically transformed as a result of the tremendous and rapid growth Brasil is experiencing. I attempt to conduct my research from an interpretive stance focusing on the symbolic in anthropological analysis of culture using ethnography as my approach and qualitative observational research methodologies

However, I am not interested in examining abstract entities, looking for right or wrong answers or in search of universal laws. Rather, I am interested in interpreting this culture’s enigmatic symbols, in isolating its elements and specifying the “internal” relationships among those elements. It is for this reason I have remained in Brasil for so long and intend to remain longer because I believe it takes literally years to “peel” through the layers of social camouflage in order to penetrate to the deeper layers of cultural elements and their meanings in this society.

As such, I can only render an opinion based on my experience and can not speak for other anthropologists or their experiences with fieldwork. However, I will attempt to respond by taking my example from the science of seismology.

The interior of the Earth, similar to the other terrestrial planets, is chemically divided into layers; the crust, the upper mantle, the mantle, the outer core and the inner core. Each layer is composed of a variety of mechanical characteristics, chemical composition, and thickness with their distinction being based on chemistry, rock type, rheology and seismic characteristics. Each layer’s behavior is believed to be dictated by incompatible elements that separate the rock with less dense material floating upward through pore spaces, cracks and fissures that later cool and freeze. Exploration of the Earth’s core is generally conducted at the seabed rather than on land due to the relative thinness of the oceanic crust and proximity to the core.

In very much the same fashion, I believe that culture is something that has layers composed of a variety of characteristics, composition and behavior that are dictated by other elements. I believe that in order to give an interpretation or explanation of the “internal” relationships among those elements one must explore and observe processes by tracking position and progress by the signals that is gives off; these signals being symbolic representations of core cultural characteristics.

During my time in Brasil, I, too, have experienced the Turnerian liminal phase of a rite of passage and was only able to acquire superficial information for my research. It was only after I had lived here for years and begun to earn the respect of the people I lived closely with, obtain official documents certifying my immigrate status, and demonstrating to the people that I come in contact with daily of the importance of my research that I was allowed to obtain more in-depth, accurate information. In fact, they began to take an active role in assisting in my research.

Finally, it has always been a personal practice of mine that when things become too convoluted and confusing for me, I return to the basics and start again. Perhaps, as with the founding fathers of the US Constitution who foresaw the perils and dangers of too much government, the forerunners of anthropology understood the problems of being too cerebral when studying the cultures of other people.

tchau...

John McCreery said:
Neil, thanks for the compliment. Now, however, let me toss a question back at you. If there is something to my Turnerian liminal model of the anthropologist's position, where do we go from here? We may be stuck in the middle. Can we get unstuck intellectually?

Neil Turner said:
Thank you John for your comments...I especially agree with this statement:

"We do not, however much we may try, become one of "them." Even if we stay and spend our lives among them, we live and write, both mentally and emotionally speaking, somewhere else, addressing ourselves to other audiences, who live in other places and lead lives different from those we describe, analyze, interpret and, sometimes, even try to explain."

tchau...
Finally, it has always been a personal practice of mine that when things become too convoluted and confusing for me, I return to the basics and start again. Perhaps, as with the founding fathers of the US Constitution who foresaw the perils and dangers of too much government, the forerunners of anthropology understood the problems of being too cerebral when studying the cultures of other people.


Neil, I salute you. To me you are an anthropologist in the best sense of the term. Are you, I wonder, familiar with the work of Paul Stoller. Thanks to the stimulus that you just provided, I went looking for books I might recommend and discovered that he has written a new one that speaks directly to our concerns. The title is The Power of the Between and the online blurb for it reads, in part,

Beginning with his early days with the Peace Corps in Africa and culminating with a recent bout with cancer, The Power of the Between is an evocative account of the circuitous path Stoller’s life has taken, offering a fascinating depiction of how a career is shaped over decades of reading and research. Stoller imparts his accumulated wisdom not through grandiose pronouncements but by drawing on his gift for storytelling. Tales of his apprenticeship to a sorcerer in Niger, his studies with Claude Lévi-Strauss in Paris, and his friendships with West African street vendors in New York City accompany philosophical reflections on love, memory, power, courage, health, and illness.

Serendipitously, I am working today on the history of a long debate about the role of words in advertising. It appears in the comments and conversations included in the TCC Advertising Copy Annual, where it begins in the first volume in 1963 and continues to this day. I am focused on the period from the mid-seventies to 2001, when TV captured the lion's share of ad spend in Japan and print advertising in newspapers began what appears to be an unstoppable decline. I often find myself thinking about what I might have written had I encountered this debate during a first year or two of fieldwork and drew conclusions from that particular moment alone.

Have you published? If so, where can we find your work?
Ah, symbols…they are important aren’t they? John, I have read many of your posts in other forums and for someone with as keen an insight as yours, I consider that a very high compliment. Thank you.

Oddly, my area of study in grad school was Asia. I have visited both Japan and Hong Kong at least four times. However, half way through grad school I became interested in Latin America (central and south) which is partly responsible for my being in Brasil.

Regarding published work, I must warn you beforehand that philosophically I am a devout student of Michel Foucault. I discovered him in grad school and for four years I read nothing but Foucault. It was Foucault’s concepts on “representation” that led me to re-examine Clifford Geertz, et. al., and symbolism. So, the only published work I consider worth mentioning is my research on the biopolitics of Asian immigration post Vietnam era. You can find copies of this work at:

http://www.antrocom.net/mod-subjects-viewpage-pageid-49.htm
https://www.grin.com/login/#user/507145/documents


Again John, thanks for the compliment and good luck with your research.

tchau…


John McCreery said:
Finally, it has always been a personal practice of mine that when things become too convoluted and confusing for me, I return to the basics and start again. Perhaps, as with the founding fathers of the US Constitution who foresaw the perils and dangers of too much government, the forerunners of anthropology understood the problems of being too cerebral when studying the cultures of other people.


Neil, I salute you. To me you are an anthropologist in the best sense of the term. Are you, I wonder, familiar with the work of Paul Stoller. Thanks to the stimulus that you just provided, I went looking for books I might recommend and discovered that he has written a new one that speaks directly to our concerns. The title is The Power of the Between and the online blurb for it reads, in part,

Beginning with his early days with the Peace Corps in Africa and culminating with a recent bout with cancer, The Power of the Between is an evocative account of the circuitous path Stoller’s life has taken, offering a fascinating depiction of how a career is shaped over decades of reading and research. Stoller imparts his accumulated wisdom not through grandiose pronouncements but by drawing on his gift for storytelling. Tales of his apprenticeship to a sorcerer in Niger, his studies with Claude Lévi-Strauss in Paris, and his friendships with West African street vendors in New York City accompany philosophical reflections on love, memory, power, courage, health, and illness.

Serendipitously, I am working today on the history of a long debate about the role of words in advertising. It appears in the comments and conversations included in the TCC Advertising Copy Annual, where it begins in the first volume in 1963 and continues to this day. I am focused on the period from the mid-seventies to 2001, when TV captured the lion's share of ad spend in Japan and print advertising in newspapers began what appears to be an unstoppable decline. I often find myself thinking about what I might have written had I encountered this debate during a first year or two of fieldwork and drew conclusions from that particular moment alone.

Have you published? If so, where can we find your work?
Neil, I checked out the paper. For what it's worth, a few quick impressions. The story in the second half, with your repatriation while the white G.I. and his Vietnamese wife and child were stuck and unlikely to get unstuck, is powerful stuff. The stuff in the first half? I could take it or leave it. Didn't do much for me. There's a kind of academic writing in which a bit of theory is cited and belabored and then applied like a cookie cutter to a case trimmed to fit it that leaves me stone cold.

I expect that you're well beyond that now, given the way you write in this thread. These remarks, then, are mainly for others who might read this thread. I'd like to urge anyone who wants to write interpretively to take seriously the notion that you are writing realistic fiction and try to think of the last time you read a seriously good writer of either fiction or non-fiction who doesn't plunge into the setting or the action straight away.

Since Neil likes geology (at least enough to use the geological metaphor that appears in a previous message), let me offer by way of example a bit from John McPhee, who both tells a great story and teaches a lot of science but starts, in Annals of the Former World, like this,

The poles of the earth have wandered. The equator has apparently moved. The contents, perched on their plates, are thought to have been carried so very far and to be going in so many directions that it seems an act of almost pure hubris to assert that some landmark of our world is fixed at 73 degrees 57 minutes and 53 seconds west longitude and 40 degrees 51 minutes and 14 seconds north latitude—a temporary description, at any rate, as if for a boat on the sea.

Or these lines from the Foreward by Alfred G. Fischer to Privileged Hands: A Remarkable Scientific Life by Geerat Vermeij.

What would the blind lad get out of this trip? That was the question running through my mind as we drove the university vans across the New Jersey coastal plain from Princeton to Long Beach. We were on the first field trip for my undergraduate course in invertebrate paleontology and planned to collect organisms, particularly molluscs and their shells, for later study......Gary immediately felt his way down to the wet sand at the swash line, the line where the waves wash up on the beach, then back up the tide. On his knees, hands buried in the little ridge of drying seaweed, gum wrappers, and plastic bottles, he set to work.

Ten minutes later, when the class regrouped, he was still busy. Raising a shell high over his head, he exclaimed, "I can't believe it! Tell me, is this shell pink?" We assured him that it was indeed, whereupon he added, "What the hell is it doing here? It's a Tellina and has no business being as far north as New Jersey!"


How can you not read the book once you have read this! That, my friends, is great interpretive writing, meaning extracted, layered and conveyed without a trace of godlike author telling you what someone thinks. Returning to our original topic, that is what I believe Geertz was talking about.
Thanks John for taking the time to read the paper. And, afterall it is an academic paper. I am sure that you are aware that there are certain rules one must conform to when writing for an academic audience (...I also gave lectures on this paper at three different universities). I sincerely hope that I am at least on the right road.

tchau...

John McCreery said:
Neil, I checked out the paper. For what it's worth, a few quick impressions. The story in the second half, with your repatriation while the white G.I. and his Vietnamese wife and child were stuck and unlikely to get unstuck, is powerful stuff. The stuff in the first half? I could take it or leave it. Didn't do much for me. There's a kind of academic writing in which a bit of theory is cited and belabored and then applied like a cookie cutter to a case trimmed to fit it that leaves me stone cold.

I expect that you're well beyond that now, given the way you write in this thread. These remarks, then, are mainly for others who might read this thread. I'd like to urge anyone who wants to write interpretively to take seriously the notion that you are writing realistic fiction and try to think of the last time you read a seriously good writer of either fiction or non-fiction who doesn't plunge into the setting or the action straight away.

Since Neil likes geology (at least enough to use the geological metaphor that appears in a previous message), let me offer by way of example a bit from John McPhee, who both tells a great story and teaches a lot of science but starts, in Annals of the Former World, like this,

The poles of the earth have wandered. The equator has apparently moved. The contents, perched on their plates, are thought to have been carried so very far and to be going in so many directions that it seems an act of almost pure hubris to assert that some landmark of our world is fixed at 73 degrees 57 minutes and 53 seconds west longitude and 40 degrees 51 minutes and 14 seconds north latitude—a temporary description, at any rate, as if for a boat on the sea.

Or these lines from the Foreward by Alfred G. Fischer to Privileged Hands: A Remarkable Scientific Life by Geerat Vermeij.

What would the blind lad get out of this trip? That was the question running through my mind as we drove the university vans across the New Jersey coastal plain from Princeton to Long Beach. We were on the first field trip for my undergraduate course in invertebrate paleontology and planned to collect organisms, particularly molluscs and their shells, for later study......Gary immediately felt his way down to the wet sand at the swash line, the line where the waves wash up on the beach, then back up the tide. On his knees, hands buried in the little ridge of drying seaweed, gum wrappers, and plastic bottles, he set to work.

Ten minutes later, when the class regrouped, he was still busy. Raising a shell high over his head, he exclaimed, "I can't believe it! Tell me, is this shell pink?" We assured him that it was indeed, whereupon he added, "What the hell is it doing here? It's a Tellina and has no business being as far north as New Jersey!"


How can you not read the book once you have read this! That, my friends, is great interpretive writing, meaning extracted, layered and conveyed without a trace of godlike author telling you what someone thinks. Returning to our original topic, that is what I believe Geertz was talking about.

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