Clifford Geertz (1926-2006)

Daniel Miller, Anthropology UCL
My impression is that students coming into anthropology today, at least in Britain, are not necessarily expecting to read very much of the writings of Clifford Geertz, compared to my time as a student. But his death on Monday should remind us of just how much a loss that is. I have spent my academic life enamoured of fieldwork and ethnography and I suspect the single biggest influence on this was the sheer pleasure of reading Geertz. As far as I know he never would have described himself as particularly associated with material culture per se, (please comment if you know otherwise) but he was the quintessential cultural anthropologist, and his work shows how much that American tradition of cultural anthropology, (to some degree as opposed to European social anthropology) provided in its heyday an almost seamless acceptance of the materiality of peoples lives and the need to give due credit to the form of cultural order and life.
So many of his works could serve as examples of this. Agricultural Involution (1963) provided a wonderful example of how the propensities of rice itself and the agricultural systems associated with it could be the critical determinant of populations and ways of life, and this was long before the idea of an agency of things became popular with the work of Gell and Latour. Both Peddlers and Princes (1963) and his work on the Moroccan market were invaluable studies of trade and exchange. His classic paper Art as a Cultural System in combination with other essays in The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) was one of a series of essays that complement Bourdieu as a basic introduction to the significance of cultural order as embedded and expressed through the order of the material world. Perhaps above all though his book Negara (1980) provides one of the most radical attempts to construct an anthropology based around the potential of aesthetic systems to become the foundational cosmologies of states and peoples. These were my influences and I would be interested to hear from others who may have taken inspiration from different aspects of his work, for example the task of interpretation. I would think for such a consummate scholar the most proper way to pay homage at this point is to read some of his classic works that one might have missed over the years and remind ourselves of the possibility of an anthropological style that was as elegant as it was profound.

1 Comment

  1. Bruce Trigger (1937-2006).
    It is with great sadness to have to report that Bruce Trigger died at the begining of this month.
    Bruce Graham Trigger (born June 18, 1937 died December 1, 2006) is
    a Canadian archaeologist
    Born in Preston, Ontario, he received a doctorate in archaeology
    from Yale University in 1964. His research interests include the
    history of archaeological research and the comparative study of
    early cultures. He taught at Northwestern University for a year in
    1964 and since then has been in the Department of Anthropology at
    McGill University in Montréal. For his in-depth study of the
    ethnohistory of the Hurons, he has been adopted as an honorary
    member of the Huron-Wendat Nation. His book A History of
    Archaeological Thought is a must for anyone who wishes to
    understand the development of archaeology as a discipline. In 2003
    a session at the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) conference
    was dedicated to the research of Bruce Trigger.
    In 2001, he was made an Officer of the National Order of Quebec. In
    2005, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. A Fellow of
    the Royal Society of Canada, he won their Innis-Gérin Medal in
    1985. In 1991, he won the Quebec government’s Prix Léon-Gérin.
    * A History of Archaeological Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
    * Early Civilizations: Ancient Egypt in Context. New York:
    Columbia, 1993.
    * The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas
    [vol. I]. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
    * Sociocultural Evolution: Calculation and Contingency. Oxford:
    Blackwell, 1998.
    * Artifacts and Ideas: Essays in Archaeology. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2003.
    * Understanding Early Civilizations: A Comparative Study. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
    * Ronald F. Williamson and Michael S. Bisson (eds) 2006. The Archaeology of Bruce Trigger: Theoretical Empiricism.
    McGill-Queens’s University Press, Montréal.

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