Article

Interpretive Anthropology

Neni Panourgiá

in Anthropology

ISBN: 9780199766567
Published online January 2012 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0048
Interpretive Anthropology

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“Interpretive anthropology” refers to the specific approach to ethnographic writing and practice interrelated to (but distinct from) other perspectives that developed within sociocultural anthropology during the Cold War, the decolonization movement, and the war in Vietnam. It is a perspective that was developed by Clifford Geertz as a response to the established objectivized ethnographic stance prevalent in anthropology at the time, and that calls for an epistemology (“culture as text”) and a writing methodology (“thick description”) that will allow an anthropologist to interpret a culture by understanding how the people within that culture are interpreting themselves and their own experiences. Geertz, following Paul Ricoeur, suggested that “a” culture—any culture—is a complex assemblage of texts that constitutes a web of meanings. These meanings are understood by actors themselves (the “natives”) and are subsequently interpreted by anthropologists in the way in which parts of a text are understood by literary critics—by incorporating into the analysis the attendant contexts that make meaning possible for everyone involved in the act of interpretation. Geertz wrote against the prevalent ethnographic practice of observation as if from afar, and advocated instead for the active incorporation of the anthropologist in the ethnographic account. In this way interpretive anthropology called into question Malinowski’s claim of objective and detached observation that had become the modus operandi of anthropology until the 1960s, and in an interesting twist returned ethnographic practice back to the German epistemological genealogy recognized by Franz Boas. Hence, in opposition to Malinowski’s position exemplified in his description of the sexual act among the “savages,” Geertz proposed a Boasian deep participation in the cultural act (e.g., being raided by the police during a Balinese cockfight). Although intellectually neighboring the anthropology of experience proposed by Victor Turner, the cognitive anthropology developed by Steven Tyler, and David Schneider’s symbolic anthropology, interpretive anthropology brought under consideration the intellectual developments outside of the sphere of anthropology (primarily in linguistics, philosophy, and literature) that participated in the figurations by which local systems of meaning were placed under anthropological analysis.

Article.  5000 words. 

Subjects: anthropology ; human evolution ; medical anthropology ; physical anthropology ; social and cultural anthropology

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