Clifford Geertz: The Radical Humanist

Adam Kuper in Prospect Magazine:

GeertzClifford Geertz, who died last month at the age of 80 of complications following heart surgery, was perhaps the most celebrated anthropologist of a distinguished generation that included Ernest Gellner and Mary Douglas. However, Gellner and Douglas always regarded themselves as social scientists. Geertz switched sides and became the prophet of a radical new humanism.

Geertz began his professional career as a graduate student in an interdisciplinary social science programme that Talcott Parsons had set up at Harvard. Parsons elected anthropology to be the handmaiden of sociology. It should treat the collective ideas and values that Parsons called culture. After all, people often behaved irrationally, to the despair of economists and policymakers. The job of anthropologists was to decode their symbolic statements, find out what they believed and so explain why they made irrational choices. This was particularly relevant to the study of the new states that emerged after the second world war, where culture seemed to be the main roadblock to rational political modernisation and economic “take-off” (a rocket-ship metaphor much in vogue at the time).

More here.