Interpretative Anthropology

Interpretative Anthropology


Interpretive Anthropology provides accounts of other cultural worlds from the inside and at the same time reflects on the epistemological groundings of such accounts. It is associated with the Chicago school of anthropology in the 1960s and 1970s, especially with the inflection given to symbolic anthropology by Clifford Geertz. Interpretive anthropology was positioned against purely behaviorist, statistical, and formalist-linguistic approaches to human society because it insisted on the importance of the active negotiation of meaning, the decay and growth of symbols, and the richness of linguistic metaphoricity. The effort to unpack culture as systems of meaning led to parallel interests in the processes of interpretation, and eventually, on the one hand, to a stress on differentiated competing discourses within a culture, hegemonic and counter-hegemonic processes, and critical anthropology, and on the other hand to a stress on ethnography as itself a process of interpretation (M. Fischer 1977).


Victor Turner brilliantly elaborated Van Gennep’s notion of liminality. Building on Van Gennep’s concept that the transitional phase sometimes acquires a certain autonomy from the rest of the ritual, Turner developed a view of a “state of transition,” in which the inhabitants are “betwixt and between” normal social status. Based on his intensive study of life crisis rituals among the Ndembu of Zambia, Turner regarded this liminal or transitional phase as ambiguous, inversive, ludic, and a source of the intensive, effervescent camaraderie that he described as “communitas.”
Turner’s works represent a trend in anthropological studies of ritual that shifted emphasis from seeking for function to meaning in 1960s and 1970s. Symbolic and interpretative anthropology developed out from this trend and have had tremendous influence on anthropological studies of death ritual. They have sought to understand symbols and rituals primarily through the indigenous interpretation of the society in question. Victor Turner defined ritual as an aggregation of symbols, with the symbols being the smallest unit of ritual that still retains the specific properties of ritual behavior. From this definition, we can see a crucial feature of his methodology, which works from discrete ritual symbols (“storage units,” “building blocks,” and “molecules of ritual”) to their incorporation in ritual systems, and then to the incorporation of such systems in the whole social complex being studied. He stressed the common diachronic profile or processual form in rituals, that is, the sequence of ritual acts in social contexts. He treated ritual symbols not as static, absolute objectifications but as social and cultural systems, shedding and gathering meaning over time and altering in form. This emphasis on social process distinguishes him sharply from his own background in British social anthropology, which focused primarily on structure and static functionalism.

Culture as Text

The metaphor of cultures as texts, popularized by C. Geertz (1973), initially only meant that anthropologists read meanings in a culture as do native actors, and (in Ricoeur's 1981 influential version) that social actions leave traces that can be read like texts.

For him "Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun", whose analysis is not an experimental science in search of laws but an interpretative one in search of meaning.
Clifford Geertz

Geertz's ethnography highlighted occasions when actors were at a loss to know how to construct a ritual, or when meanings needed to be renegotiated and established for particular interactions to be accomplished. Interpretive anthropology provided a devastating critique of cognitive anthropology's hopes for objective grids of meaning by showing that these grids were shot through with the analysts' own cultural categories and assumptions, thus vitiating the project. Structuralism was similarly, if less devastatingly, criticized as being too distant from the intentionality and experience of social actors. Interpretive anthropology in turn was itself criticized for seeing meaning wherever and however the analyst wished rather than having any objective method or criteria of evaluation.        
One response to such criticism was to conceive of cross-cultural understanding, like any social understanding, as but an approximation, variably achieved through dialogue: a mutual correction of understanding by each party in conversation to a level of agreement adequate for any particular interaction. Geertz's own version of this argument for cross-cultural work was that ethnography is a translation between "experience-far" and "experience-near" languages. This relativist understanding of the distinction between emic and etic categories avoids the need for, and denies the cogency of expecting, universally objective grids of meaning against which various cultural definitions might be measured. It focuses attention upon the ways in which meaning is established within communicative processes   both those processes that establish relatively stable meanings over time (such as Max WEBER's interest in legitimate forms of domination) and those that are fundamentally renegotiated in each interaction. Others took the idea of dialogue in directions that empirically documented   from the sociolinguistic tape-recording to hermeneutical cultural accounting   how actors negotiate their understandings as well as how they interacted with cultural outsiders. At issue was not merely Max Weber's call for a verstehendes Soziologie, a sociology that gives a central role to actors' own understandings, but also the criterion of methodological individualism, the requirement that any sociological theory be able in principle to explain actions in terms of the intentions and purposes of individual actors. This criterion of acceptability was intended as a guard against essentializing Romantic group-mind characterizations of cultural beliefs and practices, so badly misused by the Nazis as well as ordinary racists, and does not necessarily contradict DURKHEIM'S notions of the social or cultural as an emergent level of organization that cannot be simply reduced to individual intentions.


Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation and maintains an interest in the content as well as the form of what is being interpreted. The term itelf originated with the practice of interpreting sacred texts. It is based on the principal that we can only understand meaning of a statement in relation to a whole discourse or world view of which it forms a part.

In conclusion it can be said that the mix of interests and kinds of ethnography that interpretive anthropology generated   interest in the "native point of view," in the competing discourses within social fields, the ritualized ways in which hegemonic perspectives might be reinforced, in the negotiation of meaning and the changes in the constitution of culture that negotiation can sometimes effect, in the interpretive and dialogic processes both of social action and of ethnographic fieldwork and writing   constitute a transition between the discussions surrounding the ethnographies produced by functionalism and those surrounding the issues of postmodernism. Clifford Geertz (1995) himself is a rebel child of the various functionalisms of anthropology and Parsonian sociology, and father teacher defender to the ethnographers who are challenged by the postmodern. The philosophical issues raised, refined, and elaborated are perennial.

Brief idea of Interpretative anthropology (bilingual, meant for my undergraduate students)
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