Clifford Geertz

  • American cultural anthropologist at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton (1926-2006)

Agricultural Involution

  • Involution: Centuries of intensifying wet-rice cultivation in Indonesia produced greater social complexity without significant technological or political change
    • Outside pressure from the Dutch led to labor intensification, increasing rice per area but not rice per person
    • Geertz credits the term to Alexander Goldenweiser
  • Two dominant forms of agriculture in Indonesia:
    • Swidden: slash and burn
      • Found in less central regions
    • Sawah: irrigated rice paddies
      • Found in Java and Bali
  • Part of the Modjokuto Project, a CIA funded program for CENIS at MIT

The Interpretation of Cultures

Original text:

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List of Essays

Note: Bolded essays are the most important, and knowing their titles will get you points.

  1. Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture
  2. The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man
  3. The Growth of Culture and the Evolution of Mind
  4. Religion As a Cultural System
  5. Ethos, World View, and the Analysis of Sacred Symbols
  6. Ritual and Social Change: A Javanese Example
  7. “Internal Conversion” in Contemporary Bali
  8. Ideology As a Cultural System
  9. After the Revolution: The Fate of Nationalism in the New States
  10. The Integrative Revolution: Primordial Sentiments and Civil Politics in the New States
  11. The Politics of Meaning
  12. Politics Past, Politics Present: Some Notes on the Uses of Anthropology in Understanding the New States
  13. The Cerebral Savage: On the Work of Claude Lévi-Strauss
  14. Person, Time, and Conduct in Bali
  15. Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight

Thick Description

  • Thick description is a method of ethnography that provides cultural context and meaning for actions and words, so it can be understood by outsiders
    • Ethnography: the scientific description of the customs of individual peoples and culture
    • Must consist of both facts and commentary and analysis of aspects of culture
  • First introduced by 20th century philosopher Gilbert Ryle, who used the example of a boy’s twitch and his wink
  • Analyzes webs of significance, which are constructed out of religious beliefs and practices, cultural customs, social interactions, attitudes and behavior

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 in search of meaning.

Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight

  • Cockfights are a form of deep play, games so high-stakes no rational person would play
    • Term coined by Jeremy Benthem in The Theory of Legislation
    • Honor, dignity, and respect are at stake in the game

The Raid

  • Cockfights were illegal in Indonesia at the time (except for a few official ones)

Geertz describes how the first cockfight he watched was disrupted:

…there was a notion that the necessary bribes had been paid, they thought they could take a chance on the central square and draw a larger and more enthusiastic crowd without attracting the attention of the law.

They were wrong. In the midst of the third match, with hundreds of people, including, still transparent, myself and my wife, fused into a single body around the ring, a superorganism in the literal sense, a truck full of policemen armed with machine guns roared up. Amid great screeching cries of “pulisi! pulisi!” from the crowd, the policemen jumped out, and, springing into the center of the ring, began to swing their guns around like gangsters in a motion picture, though not going so far as actually to fire them.

  • Geertz and his wife fled to a local’s home, where they came to Geertz’s defense when the police questioned them
    • Fleeing with the locals even though he had official papers made him “in,” or part of the village

Of Cocks and Men

  • Jane Belo called the “elusive substance” of Bali “The Balinese Temper”
  • Cockfighting is the only activity in Balinese culture that is explicitly men-only
  • The double entendre is present in Balinese too: sabung (or sabungan), the word for cock,

is used metaphori­cally to mean “hero,” “warrior,” “champion,” “man of parts,” “politi­cal candidate,” “bachelor,” “dandy,” “lady-killer,” or “tough guy.”

  • Balinese people have a strong repulsion to animality, which oddly goes against cockfighting
    • Babies are not allowed to crawl for this reason
    • Incest is a lesser crime than beastiality

The Fight

  • Before the match, selected cocks have their spurs (tadji) affixed
  • Occurs in a cock ring, or wantilan
  • Tjeng: the time it takes a coconut pierced with a small hole to sink in water
    • Marked at beginning and end by the beating of a slit gong
    • The cocks cannot be touched by their handlers (pengangkeb) during this time, and the cocks fight
  • After one cock stabs the other, the coconut is sunk five more times before the second (and final) round continues
    • During this time, the handler tries to get it in shape for the next round
  • The rules are recorded on palm-leaf manuscripts (lontar) and enforced by umpires (saja komong; djuru kembar)
  • Erving Goffman called cockfights a “focused gathering”:

A set of persons engrossed in a common flow of activity and relating to one another in terms of that flow

Odds and Even Money

  • There are two bets (toh) made in ringgits
    1. Toh ketengah: single axial bet in the center between the principles
      • Legislative in nature
      • Always fair odds
    2. Toh kesasi: peripheral bets around the ring between members of the audience
      • Ephemeral in nature
      • Uses a series of odds from 10-9, 9-8, all the way to 2-1

Playing With Fire

  • Discusses match deepness and significance

    • “Status gambling” is associated with the large cockfights
    • “Money gambling” is associated with the small cockfights
  • Geertz borrows the term “status bloodbath” from Erving Goffman to describe the sport

Feathers, Blood, Crowds, and Money

  • Can’t climb the social ladder through cockfights

But no one’s status really changes. (page 443)

  • Describes how the Balinese live life in spurts, which is reflected in cockfights

Saying Something of Something

Yet what [the cockfight] says is not merely that risk is excit­ing, loss depressing, or triumph gratifying, banal tautologies of affect, but that it is of these emotions, thus exampled, that society is built and individuals are put together. Attending cockfights and participating in them is, for the Balinese, a kind of sentimental education. What he learns there is what his culture’s ethos and his private sensibility (or, anyway, certain aspects of them) look like when spelled out externally in a collective text (page 449)

  • Quotes Northrop Frye’s The Educated Imagination:

The poet’s job is not to tell you what happened, but what happens: not what did take place, but the kind of thing that always does take place. He gives you the typical, recurring, or what Aristotle calls universal event. You wouldn’t go to Macbeth to learn about the history of Scotland-you go to it to learn what a man feels like after he’s gained a kingdom and lost his soul. (page 450)

  • In the same way, a cockfight is a work of art, that says something deeper than the facts themselves

Negara: The Theatre State

  • Set on the island of Bali
  • Negara means “country” or “seat of political authority” in Indonesian
  • The Balinese state was governed by rituals and symbols rather than by force

The elaborate ceremonies and productions the state created were “not means to political ends: they were the ends themselves, they were what the state was for…”

Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia

Original text:

  • Compares Islam in Indonesia and Morocco

  • Kalidjaga and Lyusi served as figurations of Indonesian and Moroccan spirituality in classical times

    • Analogously, President Sukarno and Sultan Muhammed V are figurations for the industrial revolution
  • Builds on his earlier work The Religion of Java

  • Daniel Martin Varisco wrote Clifford Geertz: Islam Observed Again

  1. Two Countries, Two Cultures
  2. The Classical Styles
  3. The Scripturalist Interlude
  4. The Struggle for the Real

Other Works


  • Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology
  • Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author
  • Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics
  • After the Fact: Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist
  • Peddlers and Princes: Social Development and Economic Change in Two Indonesian Towns
  • Ideology and Discontent
  • Life Among the Anthros and Other Essays
  • Kinship in Bali
  • The Social History of an Indonesian Town
  • Meaning and Order in Moroccan Society: Three Essays in Cultural Analysis
  • Old Societies and New States