Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1926-) One of the leading American anthropologists of the twentieth century, best known for his focus on the meaning of religious symbols and for his extensive ethnographic studies of religion in complex societies; since 1970, Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

Geertz received his Ph.D. in Human Relations from Harvard University in 1956 and taught anthropology at the University of Chicago from 1960 to 1970. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Science and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and author of a number of seminal studies focusing on his fieldwork in Indonesia, Java, Bali, and Morocco. Among his most significant publications dealing with religion are The Religion of Java (Free Press 1960), Islam Observed (Yale University Press 1968), The Interpretation of Cultures (Basic Books 1973), Local Knowledge (Basic Books 1983), and Works and Lives (Stanford University Press 1988).

Geertz advocates an interpretive approach to religious beliefs and institutions, and suggests that a major task of anthropology is to "make sense" of cultural systems. Symbols, Geertz cogently argues, play a double role. They simultaneously express images of reality and shape that reality. Religious symbols thus provide a representation of the way things are (what Geertz calls "models of ") as well as guides or programs directing human activity (what he calls "models for "). Religion, for Geertz, consists of a cluster of symbols that make up an ordered whole and provide a charter for the ideas, values, and lifestyles of a society.

In a classic 1966 article, "Religion as a Cultural System," he asserted that the study of religion should be a two-stage operation. The first stage concentrates on an analysis of the system of meanings embodied within religious symbols. The second stage is primarily concerned with relating these systems to social structures and psychological processes. Critics point out that he has devoted considerably more attention to the first stage than to the latter. But there is general agreement that Geertz's approach allows for a more dynamic perspective on religion than did earlier functionalists (A. R. Radcliffe-Brown and Bronislaw Malinowski). This is especially apparent in The Religion of Java , where Geertz outlines three distinctive opposing worldviews and religious traditions—the village (Abangan ), the market (Santri ), and the government bureaucracy (Prijaji )—and successfully establishes an association between specific religious traditions and specific social strata.

For Geertz, religion is understood as a social—not an individual—product, and while religion arises to serve the individual, it also ends up serving society. All of Geertz's publications are ultimately concerned with religion's consequences. Sometimes he focuses on the consequences of religion for the individual; at other times he focuses on religion's social consequences. His perspective changes slightly from study to study and from year to year. As Robert Segal (1998) correctly points out, books such as Islam Observed and Local Knowledge give greater attention to the impact of religion on the individual, while books such as Religion of Java stress its social functions. But Geertz's abiding interest in the consequences of religion is a consistent thread in his many and varied studies of religious institutions and rituals throughout the world.

Stephen D. Glazier


H. Munson, Jr., "Geertz on Religion," Religion 16(1986): 19-32

R. Segal, "Clifford Geertz's Interpretive Approach to Religion," in Selected Essays in the Anthropology of Religion , ed. S. D. Glazier (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1998): 124-139

P. Shankman, "The Thick and the Thin," Current Anthropology 25(1984):261-279.

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