Notes on the Sociology of Religion (10)

John C. Rankin

Geertz, Clifford, The Interpretation of Cultures (Basic Books), pp. 3-30, 87-142.


  1. Background: a) 1926-2006; b) Ph.D. 1956, Dept. of Social Relations, Harvard; UC Berkeley + Univ. of Chicago; c) field studies in Java (mostly Muslim), Bali (mostly Hindu), Morocco (French, Muslims and Berbers); d) moved from functionalism of Malinowski to semiotics as essential hermeneutic; e) Redefinition of cultures = greatest interest; f) academic context: hermeneutical/phenomenological tradition – go to exotic places w/presuppositions, make guesses to understand hunches, have them knocked down, record everything, especially what does not make sense, and learn accordingly; g) contra European context: cultural anthropology = domain of the humanities; h) key influence of mentor at Harvard, Talbot Parsons (who introduced Max Weber to the Western world). Humans are grouped in three tiers − 1. individual personalities, 2. social system, 3. cultural system, where the deepest tier, where all symbols, myths, folklore and art are found; domain of semiotics in need of thick description; i)  Similar to Malinowski in focus on harmony in culture; j)  contra Marxist preeminence for social system as essence.
  2. Key terms: a) thick description − 1. doing ethnography, not theoretical distance, but in person and “Culture is public because meaning is” (p. 12), 2. “Seeing things from the actor’s point of view” (p. 14), 3. eye-winks + all possible variables of winks upon winks upon winks, 4. “The ethnographer ‘inscribes’ social discourse; he writes them down” – passing event into an account; anthropological writings are interpretations, 5. ethnography = microscopic (study in villages), 6. larger interpretations/misinterpretations made = generalize within, not across cases, 7. tie concrete social actions to symbols, 8. “Not to answer our deepest questions” (p. 30) – turtle under turtle holding up the world…;  b) semiotics − 1. The study of signs and symbols, i] “It is used for any object, act, quality, or relation which serves as a conception – the conception is the symbol’s ‘meaning’ ” (p. 91), ii] symbol = physical, material reality, with meaning added to it, 2. the basis for concept of culture, 3. structuralism = a school of semiotics 4. to understand an unknown culture/religion = learn meaning of symbols + rituals (p. 24); c) religion − 1. Five dimensions = i] a systems of symbols (objective reality; sacred in meaning; religious symbols are sui generis, distinct from the profane; shape public behavior/action), ii] establishes powerful moods and motivations (be particularistic in analysis of “cultural dimension of religion”), iii] formulates concepts of general order of existence (man cannot deal w/chaos (pp.99-100) – limits of analytic capacities, endurance + moral; suffering + problem of evil ), iv] clothed w/aura of factuality (“There arises here, however, a more profound question: how is it that this denial [problem of meaning + inescapability of pain] comes to be believed? How is it that the religious man moves from a troubled perception of experienced disorder to a more or less settled conviction of fundamental order?”; this is the most troublesome question for anthropological analysis + evolutionary psychology as (contra biblical diagnosis of creation, sin and redemption); e) making moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic; d) religion as a cultural system − 1. Primitive religion without “deliberate doubt and systematic inquiry” (p. 112), i] “The religious perspective differs from the common-sensical” (ibid.), ii] “It differs from the scientific perspective” (ibid.), iii but there is a back and forth nonetheless, 2. dualism: “If Rangda is a satanic image, Barong is the farsical one, and their clash is a clash (an inconclusive one) between the malignant and the ludicrous” (p. 114)., 3. “The acceptance of authority that underlies the religious perspective that the ritual embodies thus flows from the enactment of the ritual itself (p. 118) = 4. “For an anthropologist, the importance of religion lies in its capacity to serve, for an individual or for a group, as a source of general, yet distinctive, conceptions of the world, the self, and the relations between them, on the one hand – its model of aspect – and of the rooted, no less distinctive ‘mental’ dispositions – its model for aspect – on the other” (p. 123), 5. a template, a “recommended attitude toward life, a recurring mood, and a perishing set of motivations” (p. 124), 6. “Anthropological study of religion “ = i] analysis of “system meanings embodied in symbols” and 2) “relating of these systems to social-structural and psychological processes” (p. 125), 7. “The powerfully coercive ‘ought’ ” (p. 126) … world view, 8. “so-called problem of evil” (p. 130), 9. “particularly where these symbols are uncriticized… as they are in most of the world’s cultures (p. 126), 10. “Western educated Javanese intellectuals often compare the wajang to a sonata: it opens with an exposition of a theme, follows with a development and complication of it, and ends with its resolution and recapitulation” (p. 134) [creation, sin and redemption], 11. looking at actual behavior of people = power for productive philosophical discussion of ethics (p. 141).
  3. Critiques of Geertz: a) too much in harmony with Malinowski’s harmony, negating conflict,  e.g., Kali as goddess of death v. political power struggle on Java.; b) crypto western/Christian theologian, universalizing religion while saying otherwise, and thus privatizing.


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