The great social anthropologist Clifford Geertz has died. The New York Times has a good, but too brief, obituary, about this intellectual giant. Not only was Geertz a great anthropologist, he was also an insightful sociologist, political scientist and economist. Most famous for his book The Interpretation of Cultures, Geertz's writings extended to subjects as diverse as the nature of charismatic leadership, the social structure and culture of markets, auctions and exchange, the meaning of honor and status in the Islamic world, and the anthropology of academic life.
Part of what contributed to Geertz's wide range was his training. Geertz was one of the last of a generation of social scientists whose intellectual foundations were not rooted in a single discipline, but a broad and wide-ranging exposure to all of the social sciences. As a graduate of Harvard's social relations department, an experiment that sought to unify the major social sciences (except economics) and which has since fragmented into conventional specialized disciplines and sub-disciplines, Geertz's education allowed him to explore many subjects and methods. He thought critically about ideas that have become lemmas in most disciplines. He studied facts without an overarching, grand theory.
One of Geertz's main insights, though he never said it in explicit terms, is that despite the steady march of rationalization, humans’ lives continue to operate within a web of significance and search for meaning. Indeed, the intensity for deriving meaning in life has only increased, not decreased, with bureaurcratization. This is key theme of Geertz's work and I believe it is essential to his worldview.
I was pleased to see in the obituary about the similarities between Geertz's and Max Weber's work. Both men understood that the social scientists attempt to comprehend social reality was an act of interpretation, not just the outlining of the structure of relations in a society. The objects of society depend upon the mind's operation. Society is not "given" to the mind, but interpreted through concepts and symbols. While natural science may yield laws, human beings are richer in culture and free not to obey laws. Human beings move with purpose and creative agency.
Geertz, like Weber, also understood the distinction between Zweckrationalitat and Wertrationalitat, as representing two types of rational action. The former is instrumental action taken in respect ot a goal in which the actor calculates the conditions or means to attain a desired end. The latter is value based. It is action taken for the sake of some over-riding principle, such as aesthetics or religion, independently of its probability of chance.