Published: Apr 14, 2007

Henk Schulte Nordholt

Clifford Geertz, who died on 30 October 2006, was one of the most influential anthropologists of the second half of the twentieth century. He wrote several classics on Indonesia and developed a new brand of anthropology which deeply influenced the social sciences.

After serving the US Navy in World War II he studied English Literature and Philosophy at Antioch College in Ohio. Here he developed his love for literature and German philosophers. In the 1950s he went to Harvard where he enrolled in Anthropology and was selected for the MIT team that was assigned to research on peasant and urban society in Pare, near Kediri in East Java.

Within a very short period of time, Geertz wrote three influential books: The Religion of Java (1960) in which he elaborated the division of Javanese society in three distinct aliran, or ‘currents’, of belief and practice (santri, abangan and priyayi); Agricultural Involution (1963), which was nothing less than a revolutionary analysis of the connections between agrarian development and cultural behaviour; and The Social History of an Indonesian Town (1965) in which he detailed economy, politics and culture in an account of historical transformation.

Despite his conceptualisation of aliran being criticised, The Religion of Java remains a monumental ethnography of a small Javanese town in the early 1950s. Agricultural Involution was even more criticised. This provocative book gave birth to a whole generation of scholars who wrote a new agrarian history of Java. Based on archival evidence, they demonstrated that, for instance, Geertz’ idea of ‘shared poverty’ as a typical feature of Javanese culture was untenable. Geertz wrote in this respect, ‘I danced for rain and got a flood.’

Later in the 1950s he went to Bali. Geertz made a comparative study of Islam in Indonesia and Morocco. In 1960 he moved to the University of Chicago where he was engaged in research on national integration. Here he also wrote a new agenda for the study of religion. Instead of studying formal doctrines or the social context of religion, he focused on the meaning of religious practices, stating that culture, including religion, should be seen as a model of and a model for human behaviour.

Theory of culture

In 1970 Geertz moved to the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton where he would stay till his retirement in 2000. In 1973 he published The Interpretation of Cultures, a collection of previously published essays which brought him international fame and in which he articulated his interpretive theory of culture. He argued that culture imposed meaning on the world. Like a text, culture can be read. As vehicles of meaning, symbols constitute such texts. The anthropologist can read and interpret these texts as well, peering over the shoulders of local people.

Geertz often borrowed concepts from other people — like ‘involution’, ‘thick description’ or ‘deep play’ — and turned these into powerful analytical tools of his own. Gradually he had moved away from empirical research into a realm of writing. In doing so he paved the way for the 1980s literary turn in anthropology. Geertz had never abandoned his literary ambitions. As he once confessed, ‘I don’t want anyone to mistake any of my sentences as having been written by anyone else but me.’

In 1980 he published Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth Century Bali in which he argued that the pre-colonial state in Bali was primarily an expression of ritual display. Ritual was the state, or in his own words, ‘Power served pomp, not pomp power.’ The powerful metaphor of theatre moulded this book, and excluded other perceptions and alternative interpretations. When I conducted my own research on the history of Bali, Negara was a great source of inspiration. I found myself forced to formulate why I could not agree with most of its conclusions. At the same time, however, I was deeply influenced by Geertz’ interpretive approach.

In addition to eliciting admiration, Geertz also received criticism for his complex writing, and for legitimising a new fashion of incomprehensible writings by less talented followers. Nevertheless, ‘Pak Cliff’ was a giant, whose work leaves its imprint on our personal intellectual histories.

Henk Schulte Nordholt ( ) is head of the research department of KITLV (Royal Netherlands Studies) at Leiden.

Inside Indonesia 89: Jan-Mar 2007