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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.
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.
Interpretive anthropology is “very practice oriented,” considering human acts as nonwritten texts, “texts [which] are performed” (Panourgiá and Kavouras 2008).Interpretative explanations focus on what institutions, actions, customs, and so on mean to the people involved.What emerges from studies of this kind are not laws of society, and certainly not statistical relationships, but rather interpretations, that is to say, understanding.Parker 1985 identifies Wilhelm Dilthey and Hans-Georg Gadamer as part of Geertz’s genealogy.Bruner 1986 positions the anthropology of experience within the genealogy that has produced interpretive anthropology, and which includes Dilthey.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).Geertz believed that the role of anthropologists was to try to interpret the guiding symbols of each culture., Susanne Langer remarks that certain ideas burst upon the intellectual landscape with a tremendous force.Geertz saw the task of interpretive anthropology as being “fundamentally about getting some idea of how people conceptualize, understand their world, what they are doing, how they are going about doing it, to get an idea of their world” (Panourgiá and Kavouras 2008). [that] annuls history, reduces sentiment to a shadow of the intellect, and replaces the particular minds of particular savages in particular jungles with the Savage Mind immanent in us all.” Boon 1972, reading Lévi-Strauss through Geertz, shows that the two share some of the same genealogy, especially that of philosophy and literature.The book that announced “interpretive anthropology” as a new way of engaging with ethnographic material and producing anthropological knowledge was Geertz 1973, in which Geertz set interpretive anthropology against the structuralist anthropology of Lévi-Strauss 1963, a volume that Geertz criticized heavily for having created “an infernal culture machine . In Geertz 1983, Geertz engaged in an assessment of what had transpired in anthropology since the introduction of the interpretive perspective, paying particular attention to what he termed “local knowledge” as a field of perception separate from local experience.