Djojo on the Corner

Benedict Anderson

  • After the Fact: Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist by Clifford Geertz
    Harvard, 198 pp, £17.95, April 1995, ISBN 0 674 00871 5

More than almost all of its sister disciplines, anthropology in the modern sense has been – until very recently – linked to global imperial power. The big intra-European states of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had their famous sociologists, economists, historians, linguists, philosophers and literary theorists, but only the global powers – Britain, France and the United States – produced the (figurative) ‘big men’ of anthropology who are still read seriously today. One can think of their production as coming in three distinct waves. The first generation came to maturity in the palmy days before the Great War, when the empires were assuming their final consolidated form, and colonialism seemed unchallengeable: in the long decade of 1872-84 were born Marcel Mauss (1872), Alfred Kroeber (1876), A.R. Radcliffe-Brown (1881), and Bronislaw Malinowski (1884), with Ruth Benedict (1887) at the tail end. The second generation were born in the decade 1901-11: Margaret Mead (1901), Edward Evans-Pritchard (1902), Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908), Edmund Leach (1910), Louis Dumont and Max Gluckman (1911). They were formed in the age of Hitler and Stalin, and, in the cases of France and Britain, of impending imperial decline. The last generation came to adulthood during World War Two, and made their careers during the Cold War, the zenith of American intercontinental power, when dying colonialisms were replaced by a vast congeries of ‘new nations’. Thus, between 1919 and 1930 were born the modern – one might also say pre-Post-Modern – masters: Jack Goody (1919), Victor Turner (1920), Mary Douglas (1921), and Marshall Sahlins (1930). Right in the middle came Clifford Geertz, who was born in San Francisco in 1926. In the quarter-century between 1960, when he published his masterly The Religion of Java, and the middle Eighties, he was, after Lévi-Strauss, the most widely-known and influential anthropologist around. After the Fact, a collection of his recent Jerusalem-Harvard lectures, is, as indicated by its subtitle, an informal, if personally reticent, retrospective on a remarkable career, and on the worlds that shaped its characteristic contours.

After teenage wartime service in the American Navy, Geertz went back to school at Antioch College, where he majored in philosophy and English. On graduation, following the advice of Margaret Mead among others, he enrolled for his doctorate at Harvard’s newly-formed, idiosyncratic Department of Social Relations, ruled by the conservative neo-Weberian social theorist Talcott Parsons. Guided by the sweet motto, ‘Toward a Common Language for the Areas of the Social Sciences’, the department attempted to incorporate as an integrated field of study the disciplines of sociology, social psychology, clinical psychology and anthropology. The resident grand maître in anthropology was Clyde Kluckhohn, who, in a manner characteristic of early Cold War imperial America, presided over two huge research projects. One was the comparative study of values in five adjacent, mostly colonised, cultures in the North American South-West. The other was the Russian Research Center, which, Geertz wryly recalls, employed ‘social scientific techniques (refugee interviewing, content analysis) in an effort to penetrate, and foil, Soviet intentions.’

Grandiose and expensive co-operative research projects being the Harvard thing, Geertz and his then wife Hildred found themselves recruited into a nine-person team heading off to study Indonesia, a country which had only just won its independence after a bitter four-year war against its Dutch colonial masters, and of which Geertz ruefully notes he knew little more than the geographical location. Over the next decades, Geertz did the remarkable fieldwork in Java and Bali which produced the five major books on which his long-term reputation rests: The Religion of Java (1960), Pedlars and Princes (1963), Agricultural Involution (1963), The Social History of an Indonesian Town (1965), and Negara (1980). This profusion led to a meteoric academic ascent to a full professorship, at the age of 38 and after only five years teaching, at the University of Chicago, then the most prestigious centre for anthropological studies in the United States. But Geertz’s arrival at Chicago did not occur through conventional disciplinary channels: he was initially recruited and financed by a typically grandiose Kennedy-era operation called the Committee for the Comparative Study of New Nations, organised by the Parsons-derived sociologist Edward Shils and the political scientist David Apter. Geertz quotes from Shils’s amusingly unself-conscious, Cold War-imperial foundational essay:

The categories we employ are the same as the ones we employ in our studies of our own societies, and they postulate the fundamental affinities of all human beings. Their persistent application in research and the diffusion of the results of research into the circles of influential opinion, will, it is hoped, further the process through which that sense of affinity, necessary for constructive policy, is nurtured. Our undertaking does not, however, intend to attain these moral effects through preaching, exhortation or manipulation. We seek to do it through enlightenment. Our chosen instrument of enlightenment is systematic research, conducted under the auspices of the best traditions of contemporary social science.

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