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Interpretative Anthropology

  Interpretative anthropology was introduced by the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, whose influential book The Interpretation of Culture (1973) defined culture as a system of meanings in terms of which people interpreted their experiences and guided their actions. The way to understand these meanings was to elicit the full range of associations generated by objects and events. Culture was seen as a network of shared symbols, whose meanings were created by the significances they accumulated in daily life. These ‘networks of significance’ serve to locate individual experience in some kind of framework, as well as to explain it. A famous example used by Geertz is borrowed from the philosopher Gilbert Ryle: a wink and an involuntary eye twitch are physically identical events, but one is loaded with a code of meanings, while the other is not intended to convey any information.

Interpretative anthropology borrowed from hermeneutic trends in philosophy. In anthropology, hermeneutics considers the role of the observer in the interpretation of knowledge. One of Geertz\'s primary concerns was how to avoid imposing meaning from outside. Despite the complexity of cultural systems, he saw them as amenable to interpretation. By paying much more attention to the explanations given by locals, he could synthesize both perspectives.

Interpretative anthropology has led to an increased interest in ‘insider’ explanations over the theorization of ‘outsider’ anthropologists. Earlier functional analysis had tended to impose its own models on the societies under study. Interpretative anthropology emphasized actual descriptions and the significance of the specific terms used, as well as how they could be translated into terms comprehensible to the anthropologist\'s own culture without misrepresenting local interpretations. Despite this, critics have argued that an emphasis on local viewpoints is still problematic if culture is treated as a homogenous whole. CL

See also field work; symbols.



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