Topic: ArtMusic

Last updated: November 21, 2019

Clifford Geertz is a leading figure in the field of symbolic anthropology, focusing his work on the role and function of symbols in culture and society. He is as a pioneering figure throughout the shift from an interpretive approach to an explanatory approach in academic writing (Segal, 2012). In his book ‘The Interpretation of Cultures’, published in 1973, this idea of ‘symbols’ is paramount.

I will be focusing on Geertz work on religion, particularly this shift from trying to understand the cause of religion before to being concerned with the meaning of religion now (Segal, 2012). I shall attempt to do this by unpacking his definition of the discipline “Religion is (1) a system of symbols which act to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (Geertz, 1973, Page 90). In this essay, I will be looking centrally at his theory of symbols, how this leads onto moods and motivations, provoked by rituals, how science has altered the power of religion and concluding on Geertz’s goal of trying to form a ‘universal’ religious interpretation. While evaluating his definition, I will be referencing various academics and critics of Geertz, as his work on religion has be previously disputed. In Geertz’s definition, he claims religion is ‘(1) a system of symbols’ (GEERTZ, 1973, PAGE 90).

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He understands symbols as being their own entities that make up other areas of life. These symbols can be anything that conveys meaning, such as an object or action. These symbols communicate something about our ‘worldview’, how the world is (CHERNUS, 2011) Alongside this ‘worldview’, another function of religion is teaching us about our ‘ethos’, ‘the tone, character, and quality of their life’ (GEERTZ, 1973, PAGE 89/90).

Geertz explains these two functions by claiming that ‘ethos’ is declared ‘intellectually real’ due to showing a way of life that the ‘worldview’ encourages (GEERTZ, 1973, PAGE 89/90). He writes further about the importance of the term ‘symbol’ and what we should mean by it (GEERTZ, 1973, PAGE 91). We come back to the idea of ‘culture’, and how similarly to this term, ‘symbol’ can be used to describe a magnitude of things (GEERTZ, 1973, PAGE 91). For Geertz, this definition of symbols and their relationship with religion is paramount. However, academics such as Henry Munson Jr (2011) criticises Geertz for his interpretation on symbols. Munson Jr argues that Geertz ‘often reduced the semantic substance of religion as a symbolic system to the overt appearance of behaviour and personality traits as they appear to an external observer’ (Munson Jr, 2011, 19). This is not the first time Geertz’s ideas have been argued to have been ‘reductionist’, Munson Jr relates this pattern of behaviour to Geertz basing his findings of ‘meaningful action’ without giving credit to the ‘structures’ of the meanings, which would be understood by us, the ‘actor’ (Munson Jr, 2011, 19).

Talal Asad, a well-known critic of Geertz, argues that this idea of symbols being ‘external’ and ‘outside the boundaries of the individual’ is peculiar. His argument is ‘are words we say to ourselves in silence not symbols?’ as Geertz might be suggesting (Asad, 1983, pg 240).If symbols are the way we communicate our feelings and beliefs in terms of religious meaning, then moods and motivations are a direct product of this. Geertz interprets that the motivations for people lies in the meanings behind these symbols we interact with (Geertz, 1973). Moods are ‘the way we respond to the world’ and how we feel about it (CHERNUS, 2011) while motives are the ‘values we hold’ and ‘the things we aspire to do’ (CHERNUS, 2011), these two together make up the ‘worldview’ and ‘ethos’. Geertz uses the example of the Christian cross as a symbol which evokes moods and motivations in the way it is ‘talked about, visualized’ (GEERTZ, 1973, PAGE 91).

He goes onto to explain how motivations are ‘made meaningful’ with ‘reference to the ends toward which they are conceived to conduce’ where moods are meaningful due to ‘the conditions from which they conceived to spring’ (GEERTZ, 1973, PAGE 97). We interpret motives and moods differently, we look at moods in terms of where they come from and motives from where they end (GEERTZ, 1973, PAGE 97). Religion, in turn, according to Geertz, provides us with the symbols which induce a mood or motivation within that relates directly to our faith. Asad argues that modern day believers may disagree with this definition of meanings and symbols. Asad argues that even when religious symbols or objects fail to produce a reaction or mood, it does not mean they are no longer religious symbols, they are ‘independent of effectiveness’ (ASAD, 1983, PAGE 242). Furthermore, if Geertz is right in saying that religion forms the ‘mood of the believer’, then how can we decide whether this feeling is actually ‘religious’ or just ‘secular’, what separates these two apart? This is what Asad is asking (ASAD, 1983). Predominantly, Asad explains how, within Geertz’s work, it is difficult to find where religion ‘ends’ and other disciplines, such as culture, begin (Asad, 1983). The question of what does distinguish religion from culture is a fundamental flaw of Geertz’s publishings.

The acting out of a symbol or a meaning portrayed as such is formally known as a ritual. To reinforce a societal ‘worldview’ and ‘ethos’, communities will develop certain kinds of rituals which produce certain ‘moods and motivations’. Rituals usually express an acceptance of authority or a higher power, with this acceptance comes the underlying religious perspective which the ritual embodies (CHERNUS, 2011).

Rituals are usually personalised and contextualised within the society which practice them. We can see the relationship between ‘worldview’ and ‘ethos’ reflected in types of religious rituals (CHERNUS, 2011) by producing these factors with the aid of symbols, Geertz creates a ‘model for and model of aspects of religious belief’ (Burak, 2013). Geertz explains it as “the world as lived and the world as imagined turn out to be the same world” (GEERTZ, 1973), that is portrayed through these rituals. Munson describes this relationship as ‘sacred symbols serve to fuse world view and ethos in the mind of the believer’ (MUNSON JR, 2011, Page 20). This definition of rituals offered by Geertz, is arguably similar to those of the Durkheimian and functionalist thought (Burak, 2013). Geertz’s understanding of how rituals produce ‘worldview’ and ‘ethos’ echoes functionalist understandings of how rituals communicate social solidarity in a community, such as how toteism is portrayed in Durkheim’s ‘Elementary Form of Religious Life’ (1912) (Burak, 2013). A ritual encapsulates religious faith, it is argued that if ‘religion is a cultural system which creates ethos and worldview with an “aura of factuality,” then we can multiply the religions of the world from pop-music to the secular ideologies’ (Burak, 2013) and as such shift from ‘nationalism to science’ (Burak, 2013). However, Geertz does not critically evaluate or study the transformation or ‘ethos’ that comes from rituals.

Do all those who take part in the ritual feel the same? Do they all obey authority? Do they all practice the same level of worship? (Burak, 2013). Additionally, he does not acknowledge that not all religions will have specific rituals or that religion is increasingly becoming more secular. In terms of Geertz definition, as society becomes steadily more secular, his findings and evidence on ‘worldview’ and ‘ethos’ are becoming less and less relevant.

Despite all these reaffirmations from Geertz about the relevance and importance of religion and religious symbols and how this makes us feel, it is clear that religion does not have the power it had during Geertz time of writing. We live in a much more secular society, relying more on science and knowledge to explain how and why we live the life we do, rather than turning to religion. Geertz believes that due to this science vs religion debate, the West has divided knowledge about their belief system. However this is not the case everywhere, therefore it does not ‘hold true in a universal sense’ (Asad, 1983).

Asad, again, criticises Geertz’s view of “perspectives” arguing that it does not take into account modern science and its relationship with religion (ASAD, 1983). Various articles expanding Asad’s criticisms explain how Asad alludes to ‘In today’s Western society religion is now optional, but science is not’ (ASAD, 1983). However, Geertz’s definition of religion is not always met with condemnations, it is argued that ‘Geertz representation of religion from the point of view of science is not designed to reduce religion to science as Anthony Wallace did’ in fact Geertz is seen in this evaluation to emphasise the advantages and limitations of both disciplines, which in the end leads to a better understanding of both individually (WILK, 1986, PAGE 52). Furthermore, it can be seen that just because certain religious faiths have lost their original ‘power’ and persuasion, does not mean they do not still provoke emotional responses from believers, they remain powerful in their own right. Modern day anthropologists argue that religion doesn’t have the same power to influence people that science has. Asad would argue that in Geertz time belief was considered a prerequisite to knowledge, however, these days it is more of a case of knowledge will lead you to faith (or a lack of) (Asad, 1983). Geertz, arguably, phrases his definition in a way that ‘omits the dimension of power’ and ignores varying social conditions for the production of knowledge, such as various socio-political factors (Asad, 1983).

Asad poses the question ‘how does power create religion’ (ASAD, 1983, PAGE 252), all communities have social sanctions and rules that produce and reinforce our knowledge and social practices and how we should respond to these. Asad believes that ‘power constructs religious ideology’ and ‘authorises specifiable religious practices and utterances’ which in the end ‘produces religiously defined knowledge’ (ASAD, 1983, PAGE 252). Asad agrees with Geertz making the connection between religious theory and practice, but feels he interprets it wrong as being ‘essentially cognitive’, Asad believes it is this connection which is ‘fundamentally a matter of power’ which leads to the creation of religion (ASAD, 1983, PAGE 252). Geertz believes that religion is the result of culture. He concludes his thesis by claiming that culture is the foundation from which social processes must be understood.

Geertz’s focus on the cultural side of the argument hasn’t gone unnoticed, Sherry Ortner argues that ‘Geertz heart has always been more with the ‘ethos’ side of culture than with the ‘worldwide’ (MUNSON JR, 2011, Page 20). He is more interested in how something makes a person feel rather than why they feel that way in the first place. In other words, he focuses on agency rather than looking at it alongside structure too. As was stated in the introduction, this is the shift from trying to understand the cause of religion to focusing on the meaning of religion (Segal, 2012). Geertz’s theory has been argued to encourage cultural homogeneity, and through this argument we can interpret Geertz’s goal to make religion a ‘universal’ commodity’. Asad argues that culture in itself is not universal, no two cultures or societies are the same, therefore the idea of a universal definition of religion is equally not possible and unrealistic (ASAD, 1983).

Asad further critiques explains that Geertz’s very own definition of culture is ‘questionable’ (ASAD, 1983, PAGE 238). Asad believes that it is due to this ‘questionable’ conceptualisation that religion will be isolated from various ‘social practices and discourses’ as it will be seen focally as just a cluster of communal symbols and meanings (ASAD, 1983, PAGE 239). Geertz’s definition doesn’t acknowledge religion’s social aspects (Schilbrack, 2005, PAGE 439), he treats this discipline as a template or foundation which is used to shape people’s lives and beliefs, however he does not comprehend how people, in turn, shape religion and its practices (Schilbrack, 2005, Page 439). Geertz’s definition of religion and culture and his goal to make both universal entities is arguably reductionist, and because of this it leads to a static view of both.

On the other hand, it can be contested that Geertz does in fact look slightly into structure and arguing that Geertz’s does not address how people shape religion is not necessarily accurate. Symbols and their meanings are what religion is made up from, it is people who attach meanings to symbols, meaning that people may have an indirect influence on religion which is going unnoticed by these critics. Throughout the years, Geertz definition has been scrutinised by a number of academics and authors. They make reference to his irrational aim of creating a religious universal, and find his definition to be an over-simplification of the topic at hand due to the lack of evidence for structures and other political or historical aspects. However, despite these claims, Geertz and his work are still celebrated and referenced throughout anthropology even today. The fact academics debate his definition, still, is a claim to his importance and prestige in his area of expertise.

He forms an educated, comprehensive and extensive definition of ‘religion’ which sheds light upon different aspects of the discipline such as the role and the meaning of symbols. His definition brings together a number of factors that all interlink and feed into one another, which is key when establishing his argument. Although the criticisms are valid and show how his work can be inconclusive and outdated, I am not unaware of the impact his work has on the field of symbolic anthropology as a whole.


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