Culture is a fundamental concept that possesses many different inter-related meanings.

In the opening chapter to The Interpretation of Cultures, entitled “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” Glifford Geertz references Susanne Langer’s book, Philosophy in a New Key, in which she expounds upon the genesis and life cycle of le grande ideas--concepts that accrue sudden and significant force, crowding out almost everything for a while, until they become overused, and lose their meaning. If, however, an idea is strong enough, possesses staying power, and can be reigned in for a particular, rather than a catch all purpose, such concepts become part of our intellectual armory.

Geertz believes that “culture” burst into the intellectual landscape in this manner, and has survived the generalizations of E.B. Tylor’s “most complex whole” and other silver bullet analogies through anthropology’s constant reworking of its significance. He contends that “[c]ulture is a concept around which the entire discipline of anthropology arose, and whose domination that discipline has been increasingly concerned to limit, specify, focus and contain (Geertz, 4).

He fears, however, that a Tylorian legacy still abounds in the field, as evidenced in Clyde Kluckhohn’s Mirror for Man introduction in which the author employs twenty-seven pages to narrow in on and define culture. An extract from this monolithic attempt, however, reveals only theoretical diffusion:

“‘the total way of life of a people’; 2) ‘the social legacy the individual acquires from his group’; 3) ‘a way of thinking, feeling, and believing’; 4) ‘an abstraction from behavior’; 5) a theory on the part of the anthropologist about the way in which a group of people in fact behave; 6) a ‘storehouse of pooled learning’; 7) ‘a set of standardized orientations to recurrent problems’; 8) ‘learned behavior’; 9) a mechanism for the normative regulation of behavior; 10) ‘a set of techniques for adjusting both to the external environment and to other men’; 11)’“a precipitate of history’; and a turning, perhaps in desperation, to similes, as a map, as a sieve, and as a matrix” (Geertz, 6).

In response to this trend to delimit, Geertz proposes his own semiotic concept of culture, which he draws in part from Max Weber:

“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. It is explication I am after, construing social expressions on their surface enigmatical” (Geertz, 5).

Culture for Geertz, therefore, resembles a dynamic and living text, embedded in webs of significance, “an interworked network of construable signs,” which the anthropologist must disentangle and decode through the act of interpretation in order to re-inscribe social discourse.

Thick Description, A Demonstration of the Interpretative Theory of Culture:

Geertz believes that the aim of anthropology is the enlargement of the universe of human discourse. Because of this, culture for him “is not a power, something to which social events, behaviors, institutions, or processes can be causally attributed, but instead “it is a context, something within which they can be intelligibly--that is, thickly described” (Geertz,14). Thus, as “acted document,” culture then becomes a public performance, like a burlesque wink or a mock sheep raid.

Departing from Ward Goodenough who convincingly attests that “culture is located in the minds and hearts of men,” Geertz prefers theoretical muddlement, resisting easy assumptions. Instead, he contends that “[t]hough ideational, [culture] does not exist in someone’s head; though unphysical, it is not an occult entity. The interminable...debate within anthropology as to whether culture is “subjective” or “objective,” together with the mutual exchange of intellectual insults which accompany it, is wholly misconceived” (Geertz, 10). For him, the question of whether culture consists of “patterned conduct or frame of mind, or even the two somehow mixed together” is irrelevant. He favors semiotics (meaning) over ontological status (fundamental categories of being).

While this approach to understanding culture is best demonstrated through the display of cultural analysis, Geertz admits even “thick description” possesses shortcomings; the key characteristics of cultural analysis are also its inherent danger: microscopic, dynamic and incomplete. Because “cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete. And, worse than that, the more deeply it goes the less complete it is,” the interpretative search for “all-too-lying-deep turtles” opens opens the ethnographer to “losing touch with the hard surfaces of life--with the political, economic, stratificatory realities within which men are everywhere contained” (Geertz, 30).

It is thus, importance to impose a meaningful frame.

Expanding Webs of Significance, Infrastructure as Culture:

Geertz claimed, at the time of his writing in the early 70s, that “there are no large-scale anthropological interpretations of whole societies, civilizations, world events, and so on. Indeed, it is such extension of our analyses to wider contexts that, along with their theoretical implications, recommends them to general attention and justifies our constructing them” (Geertz, 21).

Susan Leigh Star in her article the “Ethnography of Infrastructure,” however, challenges Geertz, by employing an ethnographic approach to the study of large-scale technical systems. By looking at computers as a “symbolic sewer,” rather than an information highway, she attempts to reveal the relational within the unstudied (boring and mundane) infrastructure that permeates function.

Yet her process of working with biologists for three years confirms that the question of scale remains a concern. While Star amassed transaction logs, archives of email and other objects to thickly describe, she found it was not possible to scale traditional fieldwork techniques to the study of large-scale systems. Star resorted to inventing new ways of triangulating and bootstrapping data of the culture inscribed in the deepest level of design, which she refers to as her own tricks of the trade. Master narrative plays a key role in reducing her fieldnotes to something manageable and analytical.

Changing (C)ulture through (c)ulture:

My own theory of C/culture is worth articulating here.

Like Goodenough, I believe that one can quietly transform the minds and hearts of (wo)men, Culture (capital C), through culture (lowercase c), in particular, the combination of popular culture, such as multi-media and the arts, in conjunction with emerging technology and persuasive narrative strategies.

The metaphor Marge Piercy invokes in the title of her book of poems, Circles on the Water, serves to demonstrate my theory of social change: a thrown rock causes circles to radiate outward, disrupting apparently stagnant water. Like the rock, the four-pronged strategy which involves the integrated use of popular culture and media, community education and mobilization, unique partnerships and viral/social marketing, can create the similarly concentric circles which represent the causal stages of impact, impact which begins with the individual at the center and which spreads by degrees toward full societal transformation. Such transformation can result from the mere exposure to a music video, a televised ad, an animation or a videogame.

As an example, I will share a personal experience from my former position as Media Director for a global human rights organization. Suresh, a 15-year old boy from rural India, was exposed to Breakthrough’s latest campaign, Bell Bajao (Ring the Bell), through a mid-media video van intervention, consisting of a series of television ads calling upon men and boys to take a stand against domestic violence. In one of the ads, which was also promoted on prime time television in partnership with the Ministry of Woman and Child Welfare, a group of boys playing cricket in a back alley overhear an argument and a woman scream. They stop playing, carry the bat and ball upstairs, and ring the doorbell. When the husband answers, all they say is one word, “ball.” He closes the door to check for the ball, but when he returns, the boys look threateningly at him, and throw the ball up and down in their hands. The husband nods in understanding.

Suresh does react immediately, but like Jane McGonigal’s “experience grenade,” he has internalized the information. Weeks later, when he encounters a neighbor verbally or physically abusing his wife, he gathers a group of friends, and goes to this neighbor’s house, asking to watch their television during the exact time of day when the husband comes home from work. Though a simple action, Suresh’s presence not only deters the husband’s abusive behavior, but also allows him to function as a change agent, activating the raised awareness of his friends. The actual, documented incident, shared on the campaign website is but one of many similar stories, which surfaced as the result of this successful campaign.

As the person responsible for conceptualizing, executing and evaluating our creative change strategies, however, I encountered the challenge of measuring large-scale, long-term sustainable cultural change. Many of the theories are premised on bringing about linear, incremental individual level-changes in people’s knowledge-attitude-practice (KAP), implicitly subscribing to the misguided--but still mostly unquestioned--notion that social change (and by extension culture) can be predicted, controlled, planned and measured with a high degree of certainty.

I encountered a double conundrum: the stacking turtles of interpretative anthropology and the unscalability of cultural analysis to large-scale social change. Echoing Geertz, I was caught in a “strange science whose most telling assertions are its most tremulously based, in which to get somewhere with the matter at hand is to intensify the suspicion, both your own and that of others, that you are not quite getting it right” (Geertz, 29).

Left to ponder only circumscribed hunches.

Related Terms:

Master Narrative


Geertz, Clifford. “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” from The Interpretation of Cultures.
Star, Susan Leigh. “The Ethnography of Infrastructure,” from American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 43, 1999.