Interpretivist - as exemplified by Clifford Geertz (1926 -
Among his most important works are The Religion of Java (1960) and The
Interpretation of Cultures (1973). Geertz asks: what does "religion" mean
for the participants of a particular religion? And how do I best access that meaning and
accurately present it? Main points:
Religion is defined as a model of the world, general conceptualizations of moral order, a world
view, passively describing it, as well as a model for the world, offering emotional,
affective tone, an ethos, actively bringing forth and creating that world, all of which is
understood as true and real. (Sounds familiar?)
"Model of" - can be seen as a form of continuation of Functional,
Psychoanalytical and Structural orientation, representing "society," "moral
good of superego," and "structures of the mind" (Not exclusive of other
But "model for" is a new and important ingredient added, "create
world." The implications for epistemology and basic ontology are very significant.
(see constructivist). At one level, religious symbols are understood as potent and
animated with power, e.g., medicine bundle, sand painting, or crucifix, while at another
level, entire societies can bring about a conceptualization of the world, e.g., Balinese,
Hinduism or Christianity.
The research focus is on "thick description" of specific and richly texture
cultural events, i.e., the detail of symbolic action and structures, and on eliciting and
interpreting the symbolic meaning from perspective of the participants, i.e., an
"emic" as opposed to "etic" (linguistic model). The shift to an emic
from etic emphasis was influenced by the "Ethnoscience" theories of Ward
Goodenough. Don't impose own categories and images, e.g., evolutionists.
As an emic perspective, acknowledge "relativism," a non-judgmental stance. No
one religion is somehow superior to or more sacred then another, i.e., the peoples feel
their religion is real and true, and the anthropologist is not in a position to questions
one's beliefs as somehow true or false.
Concern about "interpreting" the meaning of a cultural event. Thus not
concerned with issues of origins, evolutionary stages, or functions, either societal or
psychological, nor about analysis and "discovery" of scientific truth or
Problems:? ? ?
The understanding that culture acts as both a model of and model for the world.
The importance of an emic perspective and relativism in comprehending another culture.
The focus on a "text," i.e., "thick description," an interpretive
approach to understanding the human experience.
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