The Sins of the Fathers? Clifford Geertz, Intellectual Autonomy, and the Concept of “Cultural System”

Monday, 16 July 2018: 10:42
Oral Presentation
Andrea COSSU, University of Trento, Italy
This paper aims to contribute to an intellectual history of the “cultural turn” by looking at how anthropologist Clifford Geertz made his steps toward interpretive social science in the period that went from the late 1950s to the publication of The Interpretation of Cultures. I reconstruct, with the aid of precious archival resources from a series of archives (including Geertz’s personal papers), two strategies of positioning and differentiation that Geertz pursued: one within his close network of scholars, an intellectual coalition of functionalists and modernization theorists whose center had been the Department of Social Relations; and one from that network when Geertz tried to provide the Institute of Advanced Studies a Princeton not only with an organizational, but also with an autonomous intellectual base.

I show how Geertz first attempted to rework the concept of “cultural system” since the late 1950s as a means to address some inconsistencies of the application of the four-function scheme (AGIL) at the level of the cultural system. This led to a rift with Parsons that involved a different positioning on issues like formalism and interpretivism, and on the social scientific or humanistic character of the socials sciences. This project was abandoned briefly in the early years of the IAS, which saw the explicit attempt to produce a more radical move toward intellectual autonomy, and was completed in the mid-1970s, when Geertz, now secure in his position as a superstar of interpretive social science, returned to the concept of “cultural system”.

In the conclusions, I question current interpretations of Geertz that detach his work from the institutional conditions of its production, and connect the findings of this paper to some more general aspects that deal with the mobilization of ideas and the process through which scholars reach their intellectual autonomy from strong, powerful, intellectual networks.