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Comparison of interpretive anthropology and scientific anthropology

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 3404 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Interpretive anthropology or scientific anthropology? This is a question which has been argued by many scholars for many decades. Scholars for many years have tried to come up with a conclusion in determining which discipline cultural anthropology should take account in and whether is should be identified symbolically or scientifically. To this present day this question is left unanswered. Cultural anthropology is referred to as the type of anthropology which deals with a variety of different human cultures, and states their differences symbolically. The subject of anthropology generally has two comparable perspectives which are often argued by numerous anthropologists. Anthropology is often regarded as being a scientific discipline while the opposing perspective argues that it is an interpretive discipline because of the way in which individuals and events are defined symbolically. Although each group consists of its own individual groups, the majority of anthropologists have taken a more diverse approach and combined the two disciplines with one another. Anthropologist Eric Wolf concluded a remark which states that anthropology is both the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanistic of the sciences. Wolf argues that the interpretive and scientific perspectives are significantly different from one another and thus this illustrates that cultural anthropology has had difficulty trying to incorporate the two disciplines with one another into one symbolic discipline.

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To conclude this comparison; interpretive anthropologists employ intuitive insight and creative imagination in the attempt to evoke and interpret cultural variability. However, the opposing side; scientific anthropologists create logical analysis and empirical investigation in the effort to describe and explain cultural occurrences. The goal of interpretive analysis is to produce relative interpretations which are informative, while the goal of scientific analysis is to produce causal explanations which are analytical. In this paper I would like to examine and observe the comparison between scientific and interpretive anthropology and state the symbolic differences between the two and thus examine Clifford Geertz’s perspective which states that interpretive anthropology is a science in terms of the history of the philosophy of science and scientific practices.

To begin with the comparison of the two contrasting disciplines one needs to define science and the effects which it has amongst anthropology. Science may be well-defined as an objective and systematic method for acquiring accurate knowledge. Scientific ideas have the ability to come from various sources. Scientists have many demands regarding the scientific knowledge and procedures. Scientists often require that the procedures which are employed in the collection of evidence be replicable by independent observers, as this confirms that the claim to knowledge is openly provable. In many cases scientists demand that the claim needs to be falsifiable in order to ensure that the entitlement of knowledge is testable. The test of falsifiability, which is most closely associated with the philosopher of science Karl Popper, is the single most important rule of science. It is the one standard which assures that all scientific statements are testable, and it is the outstanding feature which distinguishes science from other ways of knowing.

The scientific method consists of a sequence of five steps known as: stating the problem, reviewing the literature, formulating the hypothesis, collecting the data, and stating the conclusion. For every step scientists restrict themselves to openly verifiable procedures replicable by independent observers. To summarize, science is an objective method for acquiring fake propositional knowledge based on the regular application of logic and observation. The essential defining element of science is the requirement that all claims to scientific knowledge be falsifiable. Science does not claim to be a faultless approach to factual knowledge or to be permitted of subjective bias, error, or fraud.  As an alternative, science claims to be a greater approach to factual knowledge which is then better able to perceive and correct subjective bias, error, and fraud than any other approach which has been developed. Anthropologists are capable of understanding the individual they study because not all human behaviour and awareness is culturally determined, nor are all cultures so dissimilar as to be incomprehensible to unknowns. The validity of different ethnographic descriptions and theories of culture can be critically evaluated based upon the degree to which such explanations correspond to an observable, knowable reality. However, this is not stating that scientific anthropologists are not concerned with the ideological setting in which a certain research is carried on and on which particular ideas and concepts arose (Kaplan & Manners 1972). They recognize that theories and ethnographic descriptions are influenced by how the researcher perceives the experimental phenomena under observation.

The question of whether anthropology is a science or not, and how it interconnects with science is relevant, because, to the degree that scientific practises can examine issues beyond ideologies, power structures or interpretation, scientific socio-cultural anthropology can offer understanding and ways of solving problems which are exclusive, captivating and beneficial due to the variety of practices and procedures.

The theoretical approach of anthropology is frequently undergoing transformation as new theories develop, change, and are inevitably re-constructed because the conditions under which those theories were originated to change. Culture, which is referred to as the component of human behaviour is often subjected to illustrate the possibility of becoming an non-existent concept. Culture itself and the study of culture have to experience certain changes and face becoming obsolete. It has been suggested that culture, instead of following a model of physical science has to be treated as a psychological phenomenon (McGee & Warms 2000:467). Thus, interpretive anthropology is defined as the theory which illustrates that culture does not exist beyond the individual; rather it lies in the interpretation of events around that specific individual. Influenced by the works of linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, whose analysis of language as symbols served into the theory which states that culture too is based on the interpretation of symbols (Foley1997:15). This would suggest that culture and language are inseparable by nature if one were to take into account the notion which illustrates the meanings of a word and demonstrates the structured aspects around cultural practice and are therefore constrained to that culture (Foley 1997:16).

During the 1960’s anthropologists Mary Douglas, Victor Turner and Clifford Geertz began to step back from the traditional structuralist views of anthropology as a physical science in order to explore the more psychological and analytical aspects of cultural significance. They had the advantage to define culture symbolically, each giving their own specific interpretation of a given culture. However, the views of symbolic anthropology have been criticized by other anthropologists due to its lack of explanation of the practices used to interpret the meanings of cultural symbols. Therefore symbolic anthropology released the field of cultural interpretation to further theoretical development. (McGee & Warms 2000:468-469) Clifford Geertz in particular has become one of the more recognizable scholars associated with symbolic anthropology. As a result of viewing culture as a “system of public meaning encoded in symbols and articulated through behaviour” (Foley 1997:16) Geertz was concerned with both how symbols transmit meaning and how the individual interprets that same symbols. In his work Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight Geertz attempts to draw lines between the symbolic act of Balinese cockfighting and deeper social structures. (McGee & Warms 2000:497) By suggesting that cockfighting implies deeper social and psychological implications than simple recreational activity Geertz compares it to the importance of baseball to an American audience. “As much of America surfaces in a ball park, on a golf links, at a race, or around a poker table, much of Bali surfaces in a cock ring. For it is only apparent that cocks are fighting there. Actually, it is men” (McGee & Warms 2000:499). While it is usually glared upon to make comparisons between cultures, Geertz validates that by establishing a common idea between American and Balinese cultures might in turn provide his audience with a more clear understanding of his theoretical implications.

Like many other anthropologists, Geertz began to draw upon on Boasian anthropology in order to guide his particular research methods and to be able to illustrate his translation of signifying culture as a significant text. Victor Turner alternatively took a slightly different approach to symbolic anthropology. In contrast with Geertz, Turner was interested in the way symbols were used to perform various social functions, and simply not how they affect the way individuals think. He was concerned with how exactly symbols were able to operate in the overall interest in conserving a society (McGee and Warms 2000:467).

In his article Symbols in Ndembu Ritual, Turner attempts to distinguish his analysis of symbols with more psychologically founded approaches. During his opening paragraphs Turner defines a symbol as “the smallest unit of ritual which still retains specific properties of ritual behaviour” (McGee and Warms 2000:478). According to Turner it is also important to keep interpretative and observational materials separate when examining them. By suggesting that each ritual has is designed with its own meaning he also suggests that certain dominant symbols are able to maintain a constant identity. For example, he mentions the use of fruit bearing trees and female fertility used in ritual context to illustrate the significance of ritual interpretation. Had the fruit bearing trees not been used in conjunction with female fertility, the entire interpretive outcome of the ritual might have been different. Here Turner mentions the limitations of anthropological analysis of such symbols (McGee and Warms 2000:486-487). The interpretation of symbols however, is not limited exclusively to the study of ritual practices, or socially constructed events.

Mary Douglas, another anthropologist known for symbolic anthropology challenges the generalization which suggests that most symbolic anthropologists fail to describe culture as universal (McGee and Warms 2000:468). Like Turner, her work bears the influence of British structural-functionalism yet her work focused largely on the symbolic interpretation of the body and its functions. In External Boundaries, Douglas uses hygiene and pollution as symbolic directors which influence everything from social status to eating practices. According to Douglas “body symbolism is part of the common stock of symbols” and “rituals draw on those commons stock of symbols selectively” (McGee and Warms 2000:472-473). Thus, by Douglas’s theoretical approach rational categories such as the act of various bodily secretions would provide individuals with a psychological ordering of the world (Miller 2002:90). For example, Douglas uses the Indian caste system to illustrate this point. In such a caste system even the division of labour is effected by what the body does and does not come in contact with. The holiest member of such a system comes into contact with nothing that might “pollute” them, where individuals prescribed the job of cleaning away excrement such as blood or feces are considered to be the lowest on the social ladder (McGee and Warms 2000:474-475).

While symbolic anthropology opens numerous of new abstract approaches towards the understanding of culture on a more personal level, one can’t help but feel that some of initial approaches provided by Turner, Geertz and Douglas harbour minor flaws. The largest among these however is their approach to interpretive anthropology as a whole because it leans towards being far too generalized (McGee and Warms 2000:468). According to the works of Douglas, she suggests that social categories are artificial because it is society which imposes them (Hicks 2002:48). Conversely, social categories are constructed by society and have in the process become part of the cultural construction of that society. This is not to say that these different categories cannot be altered, but they cannot merely be dismissed as imagined social constructs either.

The greatest fault to the symbolic approach of anthropological interpretation is that the interpretation of symbols is certain to the individual interpreting them. One researcher may not view the same act in the same way; therefore, the specific interpretation of a particular ritual is inconsistent. Although the solidity of symbolic anthropology has been questioned by scholars critical of its methods, symbolic anthropology is still used as a method of research by cultural anthropologists within the present day. Its approach to studying culture in the terms of symbols is found in research of all kinds. Mary Douglas, or any other symbolic ritual acted out by historical or psychological practice. Each is an equally important component to the complex nature culture. Therefore, by identifying these symbols through observation and interpretation one can only hope to obtain a clearer understanding of the cultural practices around them in their natural context.

Clifford Geertz was mainly recognized for his interpretations of symbolic anthropology. Symbolic anthropology is regarded as a basis to which gives a significant amount of attention to the various roles of different symbols which create public meanings. Taking into account the work of Geertz entitled The Interpretation of Cultures Geertz defines culture as “a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which people communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life” (Geertz :89). This suggests that Geertz understood that the role of anthropologists was to try to signify the importance of symbols from specific cultures. Geertz work known as the Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight characterizes the importance of thick description. Thick description is an anthropological practice which explains in significant amount of detail the reasons behind every human action and behaviour. Geertz argument suggests that anthropology is a process of interpretation, which involves examining layers of meaning defined as fiction. Geertz specifies that anthropology is a form of science because it involves what he states as thick description which is the process of a human behaviour, one which explains not just the behaviour, but its context as well, such that the behaviour becomes meaningful to an outsider.

Geertz argument suggest that interpretive anthropology is a science. One would agree with Geertz perspective and argue that the study interactive, human phenomena can provide the basis for understanding and problem solving and that anthropology’s role as a science is in development. Geertz uses German sociologist Max Weber as a reference in order to develop an argument which illustrates that interpretive anthropology is concluded as a science. Geertz also demonstrates that for individuals who want to understand what science really is, they have to look in the first instance and not at its theories or its findings. Geertz next argues that anthropology is a process of second and third order interpretations, of writing fiction, in the original sense of the word fictio “of something made,” (Geertz, p. 17) which is also science. He argues that it is important not to “bleach human behaviour of the very properties that interest us” (Geertz, p. 17), in order to argue that the “the line between mode of representation and substantive content is as undrawable in cultural analysis as it is in painting” (Geertz, p. 17) but in so doing he doesn’t take into consideration the relevance this lack of bleaching has to his assumptions such as the one based on Weber’s web of significance. Obviously, one’s choice of premise influences one’s argument: a potential theory based on an evolutionary epistemology, or any one of many other premises, might shape a different theory of the way sociocultural anthropology relates to science. He concludes that the role of theory in anthropology is problematic and that there isn’t such a thing as a general theory in anthropology, seeming not to examine in depth the implications because science usually employs processes of induction his has for it as a science.

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In conclusion, the pattern of interpretive anthropology has been established upon two premises. The first premise suggests that evocation and interpretation, rather than description and explanation are sufficient and appropriate goals for anthropology. The second premise suggests that scientific descriptions and explanations of human matters are unachievable. This paper identifies the logical errors of postmodernism and suggests the understanding between scientific and interpretive approaches in anthropology. Although Geertz is a leading supporter of the interpretative approach to the social sciences, providing a rationale as well as a concrete model of what the results of such an approach would entail, his account has serious limitations. In addition, on Geertz’s view social science is subjectively limited to providing interpretations such as thick descriptions and no other tasks are permissible.

Those who visualize a conflict between science and humanism fail to understand the true nature of either.  Central to the philosophy of humanism is the conviction that human beings are uniquely responsible for discerning and defining the meaning of human life and that they should do so through the exercise of skeptical reason while respecting the freedom and moral equality of all individuals.  As such, science is absolutely essential to humanism, for the certain reason that normative conclusions are always founded upon existential premises.

The reason anthropology should not be considered a science is because it doesn’t even try to use the scientific method which is the sole basis of all sciences. It is also why philosophy is not a science. Everything from their literature research to their fieldwork is entirely conjectured. The only method widely accepted in anthropology is participant-observation, which means that the scientist participates in the study. In all other, true scientific fields, this would invalidate the importance of any data because the scientist had manipulated the data. Anthropology is in-depth research into the history of small populations and their religions.


McGee, R. John and Richard L Warms. 2000 Anthropological Theory; An Introductory History. 2nd edition.

Harrison, Faye V. 1997 Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further Toward an Anthropology for

Liberation. 3rd edition. Arlington: American Anthropological Association

William A. Foley. 1997. Anthropological Linguistics: an introduction. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Geertz, C., Shweder, R. A., & Good, B. 2005. Clifford Geertz by his colleagues. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ed. J. Platt 1966. The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Mind. In New Views of the Nature of Man. Pp. 93-118. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Geertz, C. 1973. Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture. In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. Pp 3-30.  New York: Basic Books.

Kaplan D and RA Manners 1972. Culture Theory. Waveland Press Inc., Prospect Heights, IL


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