Clifford Geertz

Religion as a Cultural System


What Needs to be Accomplished


The approach of Clifford Geertz is that of the interpretive sociology/anthropology broadly in the tradition of Weber, and he is mainly concerned about interpreting and providing a "thick" description of cultural systems so that they can be apprehended by those who are not insiders to that cultural system. Here, Geertz' task is to develop a theory of religion based on the view that it is distinctively a part of the cultural system. He laments the fact that sociological theorizing on religion has not really advanced at all since the works of "four big men" of Durkheim, Weber, Freud and Malinowski, and asserts that in order to advance the theoretical understanding of religion one needs to broadly encompass different frameworks provided by these different theorists and advance them in a coherent fashion. Now, in order to analyze religion as a cultural system, one first needs the working definition of the term culture. Geertz defines this term as "a historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life" (p. 89).


A Word on Relevance to other Works


The basic assumption Geertz' works rest upon is the notion that since people basically act according to the system of meanings they have, it is the job of sociologists/anthropologists to interpret these meanings and provide for their description. However, the key relevance Geertz has to other readings in culture section is that the relationship between system of meanings and actions is not that of one-way street. The system of meanings both act upon and are acted upon by people's actions in a continuous dialog - so that cultural systems both shape, as well are shaped by, individual actions. So, in effect the same concern with dialectical nature of structure and action is seen as the works of Berger and Luckmann, Bourdieu, Sahlins, etc.


Developing a Theory of Religion as a Cultural System


In developing a theory of religion as a cultural system, Geertz starts right out by first providing the definition of religion at the onset. Religion is defined as (1) a system of symbols which acts 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 (p. 90). He then goes on to expound more fully on each of the five parts of the definition in some detail. Here I will note of key ideas from each of these 5 parts.



The first important characteristic of the system of symbols, or in another word the cultural patterns, is that they are the extrinsic source of information. By "extrinsic" it is meant that this source of information results out of cultural constructs, and not innate or genetic characteristics of human beings. The other important point is that this system of symbols is the "model" for empirical reality, in a dual sense. That is, it has the aspects of being "model of" and "model for" reality - model of, in the sense that it helps people apprehend what is the nature of true reality by providing the graspable depiction of that reality, and model for, in the sense that the model also has the function of actually determining people's actions by providing for the blueprints of how things are ought to be conducted. This point is particularly important, for it touches on the same issue of the dialect between structure and actions mentioned in my point #2. Geertz says: "Unlike genes, and other nonsymbolic information sources, which are only models for, not models of, culture patterns have an intrinsic double aspect: they give meaning, that is, objective conceptual form, to social and psychological reality both by shaping themselves to it and by shaping it to themselves" (p. 93).


Religion establishes certain dispositions in people, that is, they do not cause certain activities or occurrences to take place directly, but increases the probability of certain activities or occurrences taking place. The distinction between moods and motivations are made in the pages 96 and 97. Briefly, the difference is that whereas motivations have certain ends in conception and are defined according to that ends they conduce, moods go nowhere and are rendered meaningful only according to the source of that "mood" but not ends they pursue.



Religion, if it is not to be a mere jumbled collection of moralisms, must affirm something; and it must affirm that life we live in is comprehensible, that we are not living in total chaos in which everything is incomprehensible. There are three spheres of life that this threshold of comprehensibility may be broken, and life may come to be seen as incomprehensible: in terms of analytic capacities, in terms of endurance, and in terms of moral insight - which religious systems in turn have to make sure that this threshold is not broken and the life is made meaningful. Or, in another word, the analytic capacity problem may be seen as accounting for the events seen as odd, strange or uncanny; endurance problems may be seen as accounting for the problem of suffering, and moral insight problems may be seen as accounting for the problem of evil. In all of them, the key idea is that religion does not try to directly deny the existence or the reality of undeniable problems, but rather that religion merely tries to deny the notion that there is not any way that these problems may be accounted for in some way.



But how do people come to accept, believe in, this denial of the notion that nothing can be accounted for, in another word, how do people come to accept the world view presented by religion? Geertz' basic answer seems to be that people come to accept this by doing - acting out and participating in religious rituals. In another word, for the participants in religious rituals, religious rituals are not merely the model of reality but also the model for reality. That is, not only religion depicts what they already believe, but it also sets example in what to believe and is therefore the enactments, materializations, and the realizations of certain belief systems.



The power of religion largely stems from its ability to act upon and transform people's conceptions of the everyday, common-sense world. That is, the moods and motivations induced by religion seem so powerful to believers that only they seem to be the sensible version of what things "really are" - and thus when people move out of the world of religious rituals and back into the common sense world it is the latter that is altered. Further, another important point Geertz makes here is that just how each different religious systems act upon the everyday world is entirely particularistic and there is no one single functional assessment of religions that can tell whether religion is good or bad, or whether it is functional to the society or not.




As noted earlier, this is basically an interpretive sociology broadly in the tradition of Weber. Also, it shares some commonalities with those authors concerned with the integration of structure-based sociology and methodological individualism, since Geertz regards the cultural system as involving both the elements of being a repository for social reality as well as guiding and effecting people's actions. Further, there is also the problem of Geertz' denial of the possibility of ever giving a functional assessment of religions leading ultimately to the philosophical existentialism. This point having been mentioned in the summary for the Balinese cockfight essay, I do not go over it again.


Clifford Geertz

Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight


You may be puzzled as to how this piece should be interpreted in the broader scheme of preparing for the prelim, as it is almost entirely ethnographical. Actually, there is a passionately assertive theoretical claim made in this article, which I would discuss in the last critique and relevance section. In the meantime, since I thought it might be helpful to outline the overall theoretical framework Geertz is utilizing, I have decided to first provide for a brief synopsis of the chapter 1 of the book The Interpretations of Cultures - which is an exposition on Geertz' theoretical foundation.


1. First, Geertz is foremost concerned with the interpretive sociology/anthropology of meaning. That is, interpretation of meanings people attach to their actions should be the central focus of the study of culture in the double sense, both because meanings are the results of their actions as well as the causes of actions. In short, this framework is similar to most other cultural sociologists/anthropologists in our prelim reading list, in the sense that Geertz perceives of the meanings as both being shaped by, and shaping, peoples' actions.


2. Insofar as meaning is the central focus of the study, then it follows that the job for the anthropologist/sociologist is the inscription - recording of these meaning systems so they are accessible to outsiders - and what Geertz calls the "thick description" of these meanings. "Thick description" is basically defined as the collection of inscriptions rich and detailed enough to disentangle layers of structure of meanings in a socially constructed web of world.


3. Ethnography Geertz intends to do is fundamentally microscopic - that is, whatever is found is not generalizable beyond the societies in which it was found.


4. Ethnography Geertz intends to do is also fundamentally incomplete - that is, it is essentially a fiction that has no end to it.


Though these theoretical outlines are necessarily rather abstract, we will see that each of the points are well-illustrated in the ethnographic chapter of "Notes on the Balinese Cockfight". Accordingly, here is the summary of the article, organized according to the headlines Geertz himself has provided.

The Raid

No need for discussion here. Read it for fun. According to the Introduction to Anthropology course that I took when I was in college, this anecdote is one of the most affectionately cited story in discussing how anthropologists get accepted by the society they study.


Of Cocks and Men

The cockfight is the coming together of two different system of meanings both extremely important to the Balinese - sheer devotion to their beloved cocks as the symbolism of masculinity, and the intense hatred toward animality and anything associated with animals. Geertz says (my favorite passage in the article): "In the cockfight, men and beast, good and evil, ego and id, the creative power of aroused masculinity and the destructive power of loosened animality fuse in a bloody drama of hatred, cruelty, violence, and death" (pp. 420-1). In short, the cockfight cannot be analyzed from the perspective of one coherent set of meanings, but rather it results of the complex interplay of different meanings Balinese are concerned with.


The Fight

Description on how the fight is actually conducted. Umps and rules never get disputed (American ballplayers may take heed here). Goffman's "focused gathering" notion. I'm sure you don't have to remember anything in this section for the prelim.


Odds and Even Money

Interesting descriptive account of how betting is actually done. Betting is divided into two portions, the collective, quietly arranged center betting and the rather cantankerous side betting involving individual gamblers. Being Closer to even-matched fights makes it to be a "deep" match, which Balinese find to be more interesting and intense. When the fight is deep, there is a tendency for, the higher the center bet, the greater the pull on the side bet toward short odds, and that the higher the center bet, the greater the volume of the side bet, and vice versa. The Balinese make conscious effort to make matches as deep as possible by arranging for even-matched fights.


Playing with Fire

Save for some addict gamblers who are contempted, betting is not about money for the Balinese. Rather, it is about the social honor, prestige and status. It is not that money does not matter - rather, in a sense money matters as precisely because money involved is pretty big, then metaphorically social honor placed on line is also big. Anyhow, social meanings accorded to the event are more important than the material concerns. In fact, this is revealed by the Balinese behavior in actual process of betting. For instance, one almost never bets against one's kinsmen. In inter-village fight, one almost always bets on their own village's cock. Almost all matches are sociologically relevant, that is, seldom two outsider cocks fight or there is a fight of cocks with no clear socially demarcated backing - these matches, when they take place, are naturally considered "shallow". I stop here, but the more elaborate rules are codified in propositions listed in pages 437-41.


Feathers, Blood, Crowds, and Money

So one of the point of the article seems to be that the social meanings are more important than the material or financial concerns - yet Geertz does not stop here, and provides for more insightful analysis in the last two sections of the work. What is the "deep" point of the article? The first key quote is the passage - "the cockfight is a means of expression; its function is neither to assuage social passions nor to heighten them, but, in a medium of feathers, blood, crowds, and money, to display them" (p. 444). The second key passage, also from the same page - "it brings to imaginative realization a dimension of Balinese experience normally well-obscured from view". In short, Geertz is presenting the cockfight as a form of interpretations of life the Balinese have created for themselves, displayed in a manner so that these interpretations are in fact accessible to their own members. Further, these interpretations are not restricted to what is seen as real, but how things are in the imaginative sense. Take notice of the following passage - "The slaughter is the cock ring is not a depiction of how things literally are among men, but, what is almost worse, of how, from a particular angle, they imaginatively are" (p. 446). Finally, the last passage from this section just about says it all as far as what Geertz' central claim is. "Its (the cockfight) function, if you want to call it that, is interpretive; it is a Balinese reading of Balinese experience, a story they tell themselves about themselves" (p. 448).


Saying Something of Something

Once again, rather than provide for my own interpretations, I have decided to extract key passages that speak for themselves in this final section.

"Attending cockfights and participating in them is, for the Balinese, a kind of sentimental education. What he learns there is what his culture's ethos and his private sensibility look like when spelled out externally in a collective context" (p. 449).

"Drawing on almost every level of Balinese experience, it bring together themes - animal savagery, male narcissism, opponent gambling, status rivalry, mass excitement, blood sacrifice - whose main connection is their involvement with rage and the fear of rage, and binding them into a set of rules which at once contains them and allows them play, builds a symbolic structure in which, over and over again, the reality of their inner affiliation can be intelligibly felt" (pp. 449-50).

"In the cockfight, then, the Balinese forms and discovers his temperament and his society's temper at the same time. Or, more exactly, he forms and discovers a particular facet of them" (p. 451).

Now, since Geertz is aware that the cockfight is only a "particular facet of them", like most of other people in our prelim reading list, he asserts for the continuously contested nature of culture. So, he writes,

"What it says about that life is not unqualified nor even unchallenged by what other equally eloquent cultural statements say about it" (p. 452).

Finally, these two passages give a clue in figuring out what Geertz' theoretical and philosophical stance is.

"The culture of a people is an ensemble of texts, themselves ensembles, which the anthropologist strains to read over the shoulders of those to whom they properly belong" (p. 452).

"The guiding principle is the same: societies, like lives, contain their own interpretations. One has only to learn how to gain access to them" (p. 453).


Critique, Relevance


I have noted in the synopsis of the introductory chapter that Geertz is centrally concerned about the interpretations of meanings. We have seen in the last two sections of the cockfight essay that these "meanings" are actually subjective interpretations of lives various peoples provide for themselves and display in various forms, in this case the cockfight. Then, it follows that, in short Geertz' interpretive sociology may be summed up as "interpretations of interpretations". In another word, insofar as these interpretations of life people provide for themselves are the pivotal determinants of their actions, in the sense that these interpretations are both effected by and effect their actions, then it follows that the task for sociologists/anthropologists is to provide for the interpretations of these interpretations in turn.

However, notice that Geertz does not try to answer another crucial question that probably nags the mind of many of the social scientists - why certain people provide for certain interpretations of their life in the first place. The reason that he tries not to answer this question is not that he is unaware of it, but rather that he believes such questions cannot be answered to start out with. In fact, Geertz' stance is very clearly anti-functionalist. Whereas functionalists try to answer this question of why by attributing the origin of the meaning system to the supposed existence of the functional requirements of society, for Geertz such reasoning is entirely fallacious. So, in line with the Weberian notion that science cannot answer questions regarding subjective values, for Geertz there is no objectively identifiable functional reasons as to why certain people interpret their world in certain ways, but rather that the all that scientists can do is to provide for the "interpretations of interpretations" so that outsiders can at least share the same lens in interpreting the world subjectively. In this sense, Geertz' works may be regarded as a variant of an existentialist philosophy - in the sense that he takes it a priori that we cannot answer the question of why people interpret their world in certain ways. There is then a conflict of philosophical nature between works as that of Geertz and the functionalist scholars, or the Marxist scholars who answer this question of why by attributing the origin of the meaning system to the objectively existing conditions in the relations of production. This conflict is obviously purely epistemological in nature. My own opinion regarding this conflict is that such philosophical conflict is entirely futile, as it cannot be answered with empirical scientific method. If you think about it it is really discomforting, that sociology of culture is divided on the basis of a philosophical question that we probably can never give an answer to.

Finally, even when we leave aside this epistemological question and look at this particular essay by Geertz, the problem of the validity of subjective interpretation remains. That is, I cannot see how Geertz can give a definite retort to the criticism "By the way, my interpretation of the cockfights as I have seen them three years ago is entirely difficult from yours... The way I see it the Balinese are concerned with, blah blah blah...". So, again, though this is only my own opinion, while I like this essay in the sense that this is one of the most beautifully crafted piece of ethnographic depictions I have ever seen, still it appears to be misguided in rather fundamental sense as a social science piece.