Anthropologist Clifford Geertz

Prompt: The idea of this assignment is to use what you have learned so far about the concept of culture to analyze a specific cultural phenomenon or ‘thing’ that you are familiar with as a cultural anthropologist would. Your task is to show how your chosen cultural ‘thing’ illustrates the concept of culture from Clifford Geertz as patterns or “webs of significance.”

I encourage you to experiment with anthropological perspectives and techniques of writing to “make the familiar strange,” as you adopt an ethnographic perspective on your own cultural context. Imagine that you are describing this ‘thing’ to an exchange student who knows little English. You will need to be as descriptive as possible. This new friend knows absolutely nothing about what you are talking about, and keeps giving you confused looks. This ‘thing’ is clearly familiar to you and everybody around you, but not for someone who did not grow up here. Maybe this friend just arrived, and they were curious about the meal you were sharing, or a particular style of fashion, or genre of music, or better yet, a cultural practice that your new friend just does not understand. How would you describe what this ‘thing’ means, and remember, the ‘thing’ is in a web, and interconnected to other ‘things’ that also have meaning. Describe the meaning of the ‘thing’, but also the web of interrelated ‘things’.

Note: I do not expect you to read additional academic sources for this paper– in fact I encourage you to rely on your own subjective experience for data. However, you may find it useful do a little bit of digging to answer questions like: who made this, when did this practice get started, who uses/watches/participates in it, etc. You are not required to use outside material, but certainly free to do so if you’d like. I would like you to cite and reference anthropological concepts from this course. You are required to cite and reference any lecture or article that you use, whether from this class, or outside this class.

Full explanation: In the first lecture on ‘culture’, we learned that culture is best understood not a collection of random elements but a set of patterns that connect those elements into a total way of life. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz gave us an excellent metaphor for these patterns when we wrote:

“Believing… that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning” (Geertz 1973).

For Geertz, ethnographic analysis means revealing the threads of connection between seemingly separate cultural facts, and showing how these threads combine to form a distinctive way of thinking, feeling and being in the world.

Your job in this paper is to apply this notion of culture as patterns or as made up of ‘webs of significance’ to analyze some specific cultural phenomenon—the more specific and concrete the better! Think about how much of Knauft’s book and the other work we’ve read are made up of specific examples; anecdotes, events, and individual people, and see if you can bring in that level of detail.

Getting Started: Think about something from your own ‘culture’ or experience that seems interesting or intriguing—perhaps something you’ve always found a bit odd, or maybe something so normal that you’ve never really thought it about before this course. The ‘thing’ in question might be a cultural practice, an aspect of your own, your family’s or peer group’s behavior, a pop culture phenomenon, meme, podcast, event, public space, ritual, youtube video, song, tv show, social or cultural norm, word or phrase, fashion, food, etc.

Consider what aspects of culture and social organization that we have learned about in the course— for instance, subsistence, exchange, status and hierarchy, kinship and relatedness, sex and gender—might be help to make sense of your cultural ‘thing.’ Try considering aspects that are less obviously connected– test out these different perspectives in your mind to see which one might yield insights.


Explanation & Answer length: 1000 words