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Clifford Geertz’s Interpretive Anthropology

Between Text, Experience and Theory


Katarzyna Majbroda

Over the last decades Clifford Geertz’ interpretive anthropology has played an important role in the field of socio-cultural anthropology. The study presents the critical reception of his thoughts in Western countries and Polish anthropology. Interpretive anthropology is based on the category of interpretation and the concept of thick description: the assumed indexical nature of reality and the possibility of unraveling its order through semiotic analysis has influenced the epistemological reflection in anthropology, the approach to theory, fieldwork and the research process.
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Chapter III. Reception of ‘thick description’ in historiography. The case of Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre


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Chapter III.  Reception of ‘thick description’ in historiography. The case of Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre

Geertz and his interpretive anthropology have worked as a source of inspiration in history since the Annales School and Hyden White’s and Frank Ankersmith’s narativism.194 The discipline has been searching for ways of going beyond the boundaries of traditional historiography by turning towards the text as a source of cognition and towards interpretation as a tool enabling the anthropologist to reach past events. As Ewa Domańska remarked, both Geertz’s approach and Hayden White’s theory questioned the objective status of anthropological and historical science, showing that its source is not reality (the past) as such, but its interpretations.’195 The text Historians Tell Talles: Of Cartesian Cats and Gallic Cockfights (1988) by James W. Fernandez seems to show well the impact Geertz’s concepts had on the research practice of historians who turned toward anthropology. It is a polemic article on Robert Danton’s book The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes of French Cultural History (1984). The latter takes into account the review of the book by Rogert Chartier (a historian from the Annales circle) titled Symbols and Frenchness (1985) as well as Darnton’s response called The Symbolic Element In History (1986). The text by Fernandez contributes to the discussion initiated in humanist circles by numerous controversies to do with the book, in particular its most famous essay on ‘the great cat massacre’ by the apprentices of the Parisian...

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