“I Don't Do Systems”: An Interview with Clifford Geertz
Micheelsen: If we look at the critique you have encountered, then reservations against interpretive anthropology as a program have been raised by Paul Shankman (Shankman 1984), because of the general particularity of interpretive anthropology, its concept of "Cultural analysis [as] intrinsically incomplete" (Geertz 1993: 29), and with the practical method of "guessing at meaning, assessing the guesses, and drawing explanatory conclusions from the better guesses " (Geertz 1993: 20). Furthermore, Talal Asad has focused on the construction of meaning and power from a historical and institutional perspective, which is a subject he feels you fail to attend to in your work (Asad 1983). How do you respond to this?
Geertz: Well, I do not agree with their critique. If I did, I would change what I am doing. Shankman has a very superficial understanding of what interpretation is. He talks about Wilhelm Dilthey, but he does not really know what went on in that tradition. When Shankman gave his critique, Dilthey was not translated into English, and I doubt that he has read him in German. Therefore, I must admit that I have not given much attention to his critique. Asad is a more significant figure, and here I think there is a real disagreement. I think I have used a historical constitutional framework in my work, which he says I have not. To be honest, I think he is a power-reductionist. He thinks that it is power that really matters and not belief. His notion of definition and his following critique just ignores what I was doing (Asad 1993: 29). I suspect Asad is a Marxist who cannot be material-reductionist anymore, so instead he is a power-reductionist.
Micheelsen: Do you, in opposition to Asad, view meaning as being before power?
Geertz: No. I just do not think that power has any independent existence outside of a cultural or historical context. Moreover, I think there is a tendency nowadays to view human phenomena as a power struggle. From that perspective, any kind of meaning is a cover for a power struggle. Nevertheless, to say that meaning is before power would make me a meaning realist and idealist, which I am not. I just do not think that all significance comes down to the distribution of power.