From Homo Politicus to Immobilized Icon

Clifford Geertz and Shifts in Anthropological Paradigms

In: Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- en volkenkunde / Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia
Brigitta Hauser-SchäublinSenior professor of anthropology, Institute for Cultural and Social Anthropology, University of Göttingen, Göttingen, Germany

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This article analyses Clifford Geertz’s shift from a social scientist who participated during the Cold War in policy-serving research on modernization in Indonesia to an anthropologist who focused on meaning and treated culture as an ensemble of texts to be read over the shoulder of the native. This shift becomes most evident in the different ways in which Geertz represented the social and political organization of the economy in Java and Bali in two of his major works. The results of these studies, though based on the same fieldwork data, are conflicting due to diverging theories and their epistemic design.


This article analyses Clifford Geertz’s shift from a social scientist who participated during the Cold War in policy-serving research on modernization in Indonesia to an anthropologist who focused on meaning and treated culture as an ensemble of texts to be read over the shoulder of the native. This shift becomes most evident in the different ways in which Geertz represented the social and political organization of the economy in Java and Bali in two of his major works. The results of these studies, though based on the same fieldwork data, are conflicting due to diverging theories and their epistemic design.


James Clifford (2012) recently reflected on the book Writing culture (Clifford and Marcus 1986), 25 years after its publication. A historian by formation, Clifford reflects on the contexts in which this publication appeared and emphasizes the historicity and the distance he feels from his own words when re-reading his own writing. He expresses—‘from my shaky perch in the new millennium’—the difficulty of accurately positioning the book in ‘a larger, postwar narrative of political and cultural shifts’ related to decolonization and globalization, in short: the decentring of the West (2012:419–20). Most histories of anthropology try to show how anthropological theories are, among others, the product of their time. This, of course, applies to all anthropological work and its agenda, even if this is inspired by sincere, albeit naïve, motivations of ‘doing good’ in the world, a desire many students express today (Handler 2013; see also Dickstein 2004:308). It is, therefore, important to look back, as Mandler (2013) has done recently by discussing Margaret Mead’s involvement in the politics of World War II and the (early phase of the) Cold War.1 It is especially with hindsight that such entanglements and their shape, the ‘embeddedness in the historical moment’ (Clifford 2012:418), gain a clearer profile.

With shifts in the geopolitical situation, the research topics of anthropologists, their theories and methods, as well as their main sponsors and their goals changed, as the later work of anthropologists formerly indirectly engaged in colonialism or World War II and Cold War anthropology showed (Silverman 2005; Patterson 2001; Price 2008; Isaac 2009; Sackley 2012; Mandler 2012). The involvement of US social sciences (including anthropology) in the Cold War, such as the Strategic Hamlet Program in Vietnam, with its impact on the whole of Southeast Asia (Milne 2008; Salemink 2003); the Camelot Project, with its vast geographic scope (Solovey 2001); the Counterinsurgency Movement in Thailand (Wakin 1992); and, finally, the revelation of this co-operation between social science in the service of the state’s interest and policies have been extensively discussed elsewhere (see, for example, McNamara and Rubinstein 2011; Chomsky 1997; Wakin 1992). A study carried out on behalf of the American Anthropological Association revealed that the CIA had employed perhaps as many as 1,000 social scientists (Beals 1969), among them also distinguished anthropologists.2 After the uncovering of these entanglements and their consequences, most of the anthropologists who had been trapped in them turned to new fields and disregarded the studies they had made before.

This article does not aim at re-entering this well-known issue about the relationship between anthropology and the Cold War in general, but addresses a specific question that goes far beyond the Cold War period and lies at the core of anthropology: the relationship between ethnographic data and theory. What happens to the ethnographic data formerly collected that were published in a way heavily informed by clear-cut theoretical concepts when new paradigms emerge? Do they become useless or do they simply need to be ‘reinterpreted’ so that they can be reused—even if to prove almost the opposite?

I have chosen the example of Clifford Geertz to explore such questions. To the best of my knowledge, he is the only well-known anthropologist who, after the Vietnam debacle, reused the field data he had collected in the course of his earlier, state-funded research in Java and Bali informed by modernization theory. Hardly 20 years later, he deployed the same data to substantiate a different, new theory, semiotics, and produced strikingly divergent results.

I shall investigate how Geertz dealt with this epistemological problem, the reinterpretation of data for almost opposite purposes, and the radical theoretical change he performed. Geertz wrote a lot about his life and work and a great many anthropologists have also extensively discussed his work. Yet, this topic, the epistemological problem, seems to be something of a blind spot in his reflexive work as well as in the major anthropological debates on Geertz and his work. In this article, therefore, I will examine this issue and analyse how Geertz managed to reuse the same data for different purposes—thereby creating conflicting results. I will do so by focusing on two works by Clifford Geertz, namely Peddlers and princes. Social development and economic change in two Indonesian towns (1963a) and Negara. The theatre state in nineteenth-century Bali (1980). Peddlers and princes clearly bears the stamp of the rise of modernization and development theory, as set up by Rostow (1960), and served US Cold War policy. Negara is the outcome of what Geertz (1973) called interpretative or semiotic anthropology. I suggest that the astonishing discrepancy between the ‘early’ and the ‘later’ Geertz (Kuper 1999:82) is related to the changing geopolitical situation in the United States in the late 1950s and the 1970s, respectively, and the way he positioned himself within these historical contexts.3

Although modernization theory and the scholars involved in it have become heavily criticized since the 1970s, though recently with modifications (see, for example, Solovey 2012; Isaac and Bell 2012; Mandler 2012; Latham 2000; Gilman 2003; Ekbladh 2010; see also King and Wilder (2003:78–90) on Southeast Asia), Clifford Geertz was hardly ever included in their criticism, for whatever reasons (Sackley 2012:568).4 Moreover, although Geertz published several books on his personal (retro-)perspective (see, for instance, Geertz 1995, 2000, 2002), he always talked, as I am about to show, about the modernization era as if scholars’ contributions to the US Cold War policy were about the life and work of others, but not his own. This seems to be a major difference between him and Margaret Mead, who spoke about both her successes and (what she conceived as) her failures (Mandler 2013). My own close reading of Geertz’s work on Bali, which took place in the context of my own extensive studies in Bali (Hauser-Schäublin 2003, 2004, 2005, 2008, 2011), in comparison with the works by Schulte Nordholt (1996), Guermonprez (1985), Howe (2001), MacRae (2005), Ramstedt (1998), and Pedersen (2005), revealed substantial inconsistencies that needed to be investigated.

I will start by outlining the larger academic and political setting in which Geertz carried out his fieldwork in Java and Bali before I analyse the major results presented in Peddlers and princes. I will then compare these results with those Geertz offered in Negara and discuss the shift of paradigm, and how the different outcomes relate to the academic and political situation of the time. I will limit my analysis to economic or materialist aspects of life as described by the ‘early’ and ‘later’ Geertz. These aspects were crucial in his 1963a book, which is clearly located in the context of the (pro-capitalist) modernization and development theory focusing on economic growth. The ‘later’ Geertz distanced himself from these ideologies. In Negara, he attempted to show the opposite: The formative or even determining power of ideas and symbols, the power of culture and not economics in shaping human life.

The Political Positioning of the Research in Indonesia

Indonesia had only achieved recognition of its sovereignty (in 1949) a couple of years before Clifford Geertz had the opportunity to carry out fieldwork there. His early work (Geertz 1956a, 1963a, 1963b, 1963c) is based on two field trips to Indonesia:

The first was to Java, as part of the ‘Modjokuto Project’ sponsored by the Ford Foundation under the auspices of the Center for International Studies of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and took place in 1952–1954. The second, also under the auspices of the MIT Center but sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, was to Bali in 1957–1958, during which period a short return visit to the Java research site was also made.

Geertz 1963a:VII

This era, as already described by many authors, was the time when ‘America, in the full flush of victory in World War II, was financing the reconstruction of Europe and promoting the independence of the European colonies in Asia and Africa. It was widely hoped, even expected, that American social science would play its part in delivering a better world, and do its bit to prevent poor countries from slipping into the hands of communists’ (Kuper 1999:80; see also Price 2008). Thus, the ‘emerging’ nations came to play an important role in the power game between the communist and the non-communist blocks. The US interest behind their involvement in Indonesia (and beyond)—‘to contain the Communist threat’ (Solovey 2012:7)—became evident also in the US’s ‘key role in supporting the rebellions of the late 1950s, as part of its efforts to destabilize the Sukarno regime’, and its increasingly left-leaning government (Berger 2003:436–7; Reyna 1998; Wardaya 2001).5

The Indonesia Project of the Center for International Studies (CENIS) of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and its research programmes have to be considered in this political setting—the bi-polar world of the Cold War.6 The US political mission of that time towards the ‘Third World’ can be summarized as promoting and assisting the ‘emerging’ countries in the processes of decolonization, modernization, and nation-building according to Western concepts and models of the nation state (Berger 2003). As Gilman (2003:239) pointed out by summarizing Wallerstein, ‘[m]odernization theory was procapitalist and anti-Communist, favorable to American geopolitical hegemony, and skeptical of working-class radicalism […]’. For this political mission, social scientific research, such as the Indonesian Project of CENIS, was necessary.

As the economist Ben Higgins writes in the foreword to Geertz’s Agricultural involution, the CENIS research on Indonesia (between 1952 and 1959) consisted of the Indonesia Project, directed by Higgins, and the Indonesia Field Team, directed by Rufus Hendon; Clifford Geertz was a member of this team (Higgins 1963:VII–VIII). The aim of the Indonesia Field Team was to gather first-hand information in order to assess the situation in Indonesia and to develop policies.

The background, goals, and outcome of this research differ substantially, depending on whose accounts are studied. Geertz’s chapters ‘Passage and accident: A life of learning’ in Available light (2000), and ‘Disciplines’ in his autobiographical After the fact (1995) deal with it very briefly. According to Geertz, he was told by Douglas Oliver that a team was being sent to Indonesia and two people were needed, one to carry out research on religion and another on kinship. Clifford Geertz accepted (and for his wife also). He describes the project as follows:

What I had gotten us into was the very stamp and image of the Social Relations Idea: a well-financed, multidisciplinary, long-term, team field project directed toward the study not of an isolated tribal culture but of a two-thousand-year-old civilization fully in the throes of revolutionary change. […] The collective aim of the group, though it was generally assumed that it was supposed to have one, was unclear.

Geertz 1995:103

However, as the introductions to some of Geertz’s early books show (Apter in Geertz 1963c; Higgins in Geertz 1963b; Shils in Geertz 1963c), the team apparently shared a political conviction and theoretical orientation which also guided Geertz’s own research and publications (1956a, 1956b, 1963a, 1963b, 1963c). Higgins, for example, outlines how scholars (economists, political scientists, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and geographers) co-operating in the MIT Indonesia Project came more or less to the same conclusion; all the results of the individual projects

fitted together like parts of a jig-saw puzzle. Each of us, using the methods of his own discipline […] had arrived at essentially the same broad analytical framework, and at the same general conception of the task that lies ahead of the Indonesian people if the high hopes of their revolution are to be realized.

Higgins 1963:VIII

The US government as well as private foundations (such as the Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller Foundations; see Patterson 2001:115; Lambert 1989; Price 2003; Wax 2008) put money at the disposition of universities to develop corresponding research projects.7

Geertz himself assesses the funding of research at that time when the United States prospered as unproblematic and reminiscent of a ‘golden age’ (Marcus 2011:133):

And of course we were rich then; richer than anybody else by far. If you could think of anything at all plausible to do, you could get the money someplace—from the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, or the National Institutes of Mental Health, from Ford or Rockefeller or Rand or the Social Science Research Council—to do it.8

Geertz 1995:99–100

As among others Laura Nader, who, like Gunder Frank, belonged to the critically ‘leftist’ US policy camp, recollected, not everyone was able—or prepared—to ‘benefit’ from the wealth available for research. There were anthropologists, such as Kathleen Gough, who were not on the ‘right’ side and were, therefore, ostracized from jobs and universities (Gough 1968; see also Chomsky 1997:176). Leftist discourses were outlawed.9 There were political purges even in renowned universities, and students were questioned about the content of classroom lectures (Nader 1997:108, 120). Nader was a young graduate student when Geertz and others were already engaged in the Indonesian research projects. She speaks of a ‘selective blindness’ (Nader 1997:136) that struck anthropologists as well as other social scientists: ‘An ideology of freedom versus totalitarianism created Cold Warrior academics […] who acquiesced to external funding authorities’ (Nader 1997:113). Nader mentions only in passing that Clifford Geertz had ‘accepted the basic assumption of stability and development; there was no critique in his work’ (Nader 1997:123).

The Grand Theory of Modernization and Economic Progress

Gunder Frank was assessed in one of the FBI surveillance reports as ‘thoroughly anti-American and pro-Communist’ and was considered as a threat, not least due to his dependency theory in which he challenged the capitalistic modernization theory (Price 2007). Frank saw economic underdevelopment in the ‘Third World’ as a consequence of capitalist development in the ‘First World’, and describes the climate at the MIT in the late 1950s as follows:

1958. MIT’s Center for International Studies (CENIS) gave me an office for three months. […] There I met W.W. Rostow and the others. He had just written his Process of development and was working on his celebrated Stages of growth: A non-communist manifesto, not to mention his still clandestine work for the CIA with CENIS Director Max Millikan, A proposal. Key to an effective foreign policy. Although Rostow and Co. dealt with Keynesian type macro economic and even social problems, they did so to pursue the neo-classical explicitly counter revolutionary and even counter reformist cold war ends, which were newly in vogue. The quintessential modernization book, Lerner’s Passing of traditional society: The modernization of the Middle East, appeared at CENIS in 1958 while I was there. At the same time, Everett Hagen wrote his On the theory of social change and David McClelland his Achieving society there, and Ithiel de Sola Pool his right libertarian/authoritarian political works, all of which translated the ‘conditions’ of naked cold war ideological orthodoxy into euphemistically saleable social ‘scientific responses.’ One of these CENIS studies was on Indonesia and resulted in Clifford Geertz’s Agricultural involution.

Frank 1997:80

This quotation also illustrates to what extent politics and scientific research were interwoven through some of the personalities involved in both domains, such as the economist Walt Whitman Rostow, nicknamed ‘America’s Rasputin’ (Milne 2008). Rostow was at MIT between 1950 and 1961; he was a key figure at CENIS. He later also worked as a political advisor for the Kennedy and Johnson administrations; he was one of Johnson’s most influential counsellors on the Vietnam War (Berger 2003:438; Milne 2008).10

In his book (1960), Rostow developed a non-Marxist theory of five stages of economic growth. The first stage consists of ‘the traditional society’, and the last and most developed, ‘the age of high mass-consumption’, the stage which the United States had reached (1960:4–11). His theory is a unilinear model of capitalist development which could/should be applied to those countries in the process of decolonization in order to find their right way. Of special interest—at least for the Indonesia project—were his considerations about the preconditions for a take-off by traditional societies in transition into post-traditional societies (stage two), and the actual take-off (stage three). Rostow defined ‘take-off’ as ‘the interval when the old blocks and resistances to steady growth are finally overcome. The forces making for economic progress, which yielded limited bursts and enclaves of modern activity, expand and come to dominate the society. Growth becomes its normal condition’ (Rostow 1960:7). As a precondition for take-off, he mentions ‘major changes in political and social structure and even in effective social values’ (Rostow 1960:36). Such changes could be induced through quite different stimuli: a political revolution, technological innovation, and specific international environment. Even if the stimuli come from outside, Rostow continues, the existence and the successful activity of a group in society which is prepared to accept innovations is required. Such entrepreneurs should be people who are ready to invest capital; they need to be ‘tolerably successful’ and ‘act with approximate rationality’ (Rostow 1960:50).

The concept of (capitalistic) entrepreneurs is crucial, as I will show later, in Peddlers and princes (Geertz 1963a).

Higgins’s foreword to Geertz’s Agricultural involution (1963b) clearly reverberates Rostow’s ideas: ‘In Indonesia a “big push” is needed, not only from the economic point of view, but from the sociological and political viewpoints as well.’ Concerning the ‘big push’, he reasons as follows:

There seems to be in the history of each country an ‘optimal moment’ for launching development, a short period of time when sociological, political, and economic factors coalesce to provide a climate unusually favorable for a take-off into economic growth. […] a take-off is most likely when the growth of an indigenous entrepreneurial class occurs simultaneously with the appearance of a political elite which has the power and the will to provide a policy framework favorable for the exercise of entrepreneurial talents—whether in the public or the private sector.

Higgins 1963:IX

These decisive ideas drafted by Rostow resonate directly in Geertz’s early work (1963a, 1963b, 1963c).

In the report submitted to the MIT in 1956, Geertz developed a social and economic history of Java which differed substantially in tone and aim from his dissertation on the religion of Java (1960). In this chronologically organized article, he focused on the disastrous consequences of Dutch rule (especially the introduction of the ‘cultivation system’) on the Javanese economy and the reasons why Java would have (at least) difficulties entering economic growth. He concludes:

The extent and excellence of a nation’s resources, the size and skill of its labor force, the scope and complexity of its productive ‘plant’, and the distribution and value of entrepreneurial abilities among its population are only one element in the assessment of its capacity for economic growth; the institutional arrangements by means of which these various factors can be brought to bear on any particularly economic goal is another. The barriers—to put the problem the other way round—to economic growth in such a region as Java is not merely the severe shortage of certain resources (e.g. cultivable land), the lack of industrial disciplines among her population, the primitiveness of her capital equipment or the poverty of her people’s economic imagination; but the rigidity with which such resources, skills, equipment, and creativity that she does possess are locked into a fixed, stereotyped, pattern of employment. It is for this reason that economic development in ‘underdeveloped’ areas implies much more than capital transfers, technical aid, and ideological exhortation: it demands a deep going transformation of the basic structure of society, and, beyond that, perhaps even in the underlying value-system in terms of which that structure operates.11

Geertz 1956b:105–6

Thus, Geertz saw ‘culture’, epitomized as ‘value-system’ (but see the quotation below), as an obstacle to development which could not be overcome only by economic development, but by a ‘deep going transformation’ of society and culture. In commenting and reacting to his book on Agricultural involution (1963), however, he denied indirectly ever having favoured such ideas of radical advice, contrary to his stance thirty years before. Instead, he assigned the attitude of ‘culture-as-obstacle view’ in the service of ‘development’ and ‘modernization’ to others:

[…] indigenous cultural traditions were thought by all but a handful of economists, and probably by most anthropologists, to be a simple obstacle to social change, and especially to that particularly wished-for sort of social change called ‘development’. The traditional family, traditional religion, traditional patterns of prestige and deference, traditional political arrangements were all regarded as standing in the way of the growth of properly rational attitudes towards work, efficient organisation, and the acceptance of technological change. Breaking the cake of custom was seen as the pre-requisite to the escape from poverty and to the so-called ‘takeoff’ into sustained growth of per capita income, as well as to the blessings of modern life in general.

Geertz 1984:511–4

Only some years after After the fact, in 2002, did Geertz acknowledge that the Center for International Studies at the MIT was ‘part of the cluster of social science holding-companies […] set up in 1952 as a combination intelligence gathering and policy planning organization dedicated to providing political and economic advice both to the rapidly expanding US foreign aid program and to those it was ostensibly aiding—the “developing”, “under-developed”, or, for the less sanguine, “backward” countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America’. However, he relativizes once again his involvement in these US policy services by adding that his connection with the MIT’s Center ‘was nominal at best’, and the results the Modjukuto team produced were considered by the Center staff and the team itself as ‘rather to the side of the Center’s mission, inconsonant with its “applied” emphasis and too concerned with what the program-minded types took to be parochial matters’ (Geertz 2002:6–7).

Compliance: In Search of Entrepreneurs

To what extent Geertz complied with the development and modernization theories of his time can be best exemplified by Peddlers and princes (1963a). Geertz starts the introduction by taking Rostow’s key concept of ‘take-off’, to which he attributes ‘two useful functions’, as the point of departure (Geertz 1963a:1). He explains his methodology in the sense of a grand theory as follows:

A really effective theory of economic growth will appear only when the social process and take-off approaches are joined in a single framework of analysis, when the relationships between the broad changes in social stratification, or political structure, or cultural values which facilitate growth, and the specific changes in levels of saving and investment we hold to cause it can be related one to another.

Geertz 1963a:5

He continues by pleading that anthropologists should ‘gradually give a more unambiguous interpretation of their findings in terms of general theoretical problems’ (Geertz 1963a:5). He explains that—from an anthropological perspective—it would be necessary in such a ‘pretake-off society’ to ‘isolate the various processes ingredient in modernization and to consider when and how these processes add up to take-off in economic terms’ (Geertz 1963a:4). Another issue that Geertz carefully elaborates in Peddlers and princes is entrepreneurship (see the quotation of Higgins above), a concept central to the modernization theories of the 1960s and 1970s. In modernization theory, entrepreneurs, in lockstep with a political elite, are seen as those who are able to bridge the gap between traditional and modern society, that is, these are the actors needed—innovators—to achieve modernization (Roberts and Hite 2000:9).

Peddlers and princes is, in fact, a comparative study on entrepreneurship in Java (Modjokuto) and Bali (Tabanan) (see also King and Wilder 2003:81–2; King 1999:239–43). In a Weberian (and Parsonian) tradition, Geertz explains the different types of entrepreneurship he was able to identify in both places as the outcome of culture and religion (Islam in Java, Hinduism in Bali). He wanted to show in what respect entrepreneurship in Java (‘bazaar economy’) and Bali (‘firm-type economy’) differ and which (ideal) type would be more apt to perform the ‘big push’.

Geertz characterizes the Modjokuto entrepreneur as fitting the ‘homo economicus’ pattern, which has ‘a tendency to produce the kinds of attitudes supportive of democratic liberalism, of individual political freedom, and of intellectual autonomy which we [sic] regard as the chief goals of modernization’ (Geertz 1963a:131). By contrast, the entrepreneurs—aristocrats!—in Tabanan follow, as Geertz suggests, the homo politicus pattern. He sees them as an example of the dynamism which could occur when the entrepreneurial and political elites tend to fuse. Geertz’s emphasis on the managerial aristocrats fits very well with the modernization theory of the time: The innovation was to be placed in the hands of market-oriented, large landowners.12 Through such preferential treatment of the aristocrats, the myth of modernization theory that peasants were too conservative in their cultural values to be autonomous agents of rural change, let alone of agricultural innovation, was reinforced (Ross 2008:109).

What did Geertz say about the pre- or early-colonial Balinese state and its political, economic, and social organization, apart from his search for the most qualified entrepreneurs for modernization and development? First of all, Geertz stresses continuity in the nobles’ role in the economic life in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. In spite of the far-reaching interventions of the Dutch, resulting in a disempowerment of the aristocrats and even in mass suicide of the ruling houses, ‘the role of the nobility remains central’ (Geertz 1963a:18); the political affiliations follow traditional allegiances and customary social forms persist rather strongly. Geertz, therefore, saw the entrepreneurial elite—the members of the ruling house—as the outcome of the traditional cultural setting and its leading role in almost every respect. He writes that the Balinese gentry ‘were not simply tribute-takers, but performed altogether crucial, interlocal, political, religious, and economic functions upon which the supposedly self-subsisting village was dependent for its very existence.13 And, far from having no essential effect on rural social structure, they were one of the primary forces determining its ultimate shape’ (Geertz 1963a:101). Consequently, he identified the displaced aristocrats as the nascent entrepreneurial class which readjusts the agrarian economy to the new conditions by creating a firm-type economy, and emphasizes ‘[i]n Tabanan, a modern economy […] is arising more or less directly out of the traditional gentry-peasantry pattern of social relationships’ (Geertz 1963a:82–3).

Geertz emphasizes the overall structure of nineteenth-century Balinese society with the leading role of the gentry: ‘Political, military, ceremonial, economic, kinship, and other ties all bound aristocrat and commoner together into a single structure. And it was these ties—and the loyalties which they created and maintained—which formed the foundation for aristocratic leadership in all matters on a supravillage, translocal scale’ (Geertz 1963a:102). In accordance with the modernization theory and its goal, Geertz even underlines that there existed ‘important gentry-peasantry ties of a more or less purely economic nature’;

the economic life of much of the peasantry was directly intertwined with that of the gentry. In irrigation, too, the lords played an important role in co-ordinating activities between irrigation societies and settling interlocal disputes, granting rights to clear new land, build new dams, and form new societies, and so on. Usually a member of the royal house was appointed general overseer of irrigation for the whole region [sedahan gde or sedahan agung], and each noble house had one or two irrigation officials of its own.

Geertz 1963a: 104–5

The share-cropping principles on the extensive aristocrat landholdings (with the ‘lion’s share’ going to the ruling house), and the taxing of land/yields in general, formed the basis of the economic wealth of the aristocrats. Furthermore, he points out the aristocrats’ role in legal issues and the rights they exercised in inheritance matters, the lord’s role as art patron, and the gentry’s function as ‘mobilizers, generalizers, and integrators’ (Geertz 1963a:103).

Geertz also highlights the nobility’s tendency ‘to control the crafts and monopolize foreign commerce through contracts with Chinese’, and ‘most of the important local markets, sheltered against the wall of a palace, seem to have been gentry owned, managed, and, of course, taxed. As in politics, religion, and art, so in economics the rulers and the ruled represented not parallel but completely intersecting social groups’ (Geertz 1963a:105).

To sum up: The modern (1950s) noble entrepreneurs were the heirs of the pre-colonial aristocrats who were the experienced and ‘sometimes innovative’ managers of the agrarian economy of the Balinese state.

Economics Turned Upside-Down

Negara is the result of a fundamental turn, the turn to semiotic anthropology Geertz had performed and evidenced most clearly in ‘Thick description’ (Geertz 1973). In Negara, he describes and interprets the agrarian economy and the role of the nobility and peasants in it from a surprisingly different angle than in Peddlers and princes. Although not acknowledged in Negara, some aspects of Geertz’s altered perspective may be related to social theories about peasants which had been published previously, such as in Ester Boserup’s (1965) book on agrarian growth and Eric Wolf’s Peasants (1966); the latter work seemed to have influenced Geertz’s terminology. In Geertz’s publications in the 1960s, he consistently used ‘peasants’; in Negara, he prefers ‘cultivators’. This new terminology, in fact, fits the non-materialist perspective Geertz developed in this study and the suggested democratic and egalitarian way of life of the ‘cultivators’ much better; ‘peasants’ would have implied, following Wolf, the recognition of the peasants’ relative positing within an encompassing social order, the state, and the asymmetric power relations. Geertz’s antipathy to materialist and Marxist theories, which emphasize the importance of agrarian economy, modes of production, and corresponding power relations, can be found in many dismissive remarks about the ‘Asiatic mode of production’, ‘Oriental despotism’, ‘hydraulic bureaucracy’, and ‘tyranny’ throughout Negara. It is evident that semiotic anthropology is clearly located in the non-materialist or non-Marxist camp, as was the case with modernization anthropologists (see Silverman 2005).14

Boserup’s theory brought with it a new perspective that turned away from the ‘conservative peasant’ (see above). Instead, she attributed much more agency to the peasants than to modernization theory. This theory also slipped into policies: Population growth was considered as an asset that could stimulate populations to intensify their crop systems themselves, while the government could massively withdraw from the productive sector and let the markets do the work (see Cochet 2004:117–9).

However, let us turn to Negara and examine Geertz’s portrayal of the economy and the role of the aristocrats in it. Instead of characterizing the aristocrats of the 1950s as entrepreneurs who continued in a modern way how their forefathers had acted as managers of an agrarian economy, he describes them as ‘newly bureaucratized lords’ who ‘continu[ed] to expect […] to hold the theatre-state rituals’ as a consequence of Dutch interference (Geertz 1980:255). Instead of emphasizing ecological, economic, and technological conditions, as well as achievements and structural processes, as the prime movers in the development of social complexity and, finally, the state, culture was seen as a ‘causal factor’ (Steinmetz 1999:X). Or, in Geertz’s own, well-known words: ‘It was the theatre state in which the kings and princes were the impresarios, the priests the directors, and the peasants the supporting cast, stage crew, and audience’; in short, ‘[c]ourt ceremonialism was the driving force of court politics’. Therefore, ‘mass ritual was not a device to shore up the state, but rather the state […] was a device for the enactment of mass ritual. Power served pomp, not pomp power’ (Geertz 1980:13; but see King and Wilder 2003:88–9). Geertz (1980:130) no longer speaks of the aristocrats as homo politicus, but moves them, especially the kings, to a theatre stage full of ‘Indic’ symbols. The rulers fade increasingly from politics and economics and become confined to metaphysics—even becoming immobilized as icons (Geertz 1980: 102, 124, 130–131).

It is clear that Geertz reformulated his concept (or the category) of power in Negara, however, without referring to his earlier work and the different conclusion drawn there (Geertz 1963a). He no longer speaks of the aristocrats’ leadership in the agrarian economy.

Geertz attributes a substantially new significance to the peasants, or rather ‘cultivators’, and their egalitarian organizations (seka). Many virtues are attributed to subak, the irrigation associations; they all convey a down-to-earth picture of egalitarianism, collectivism, consensus-oriented and acephalous goal-oriented associations of individual cultivators who were, at the same time, ‘private persons’ (see, for example, Geertz 1980:51). With a side-blow to socialist organizational forms, he adds: ‘The subak was, and is, a technically specialized, cooperatively owned public utility, not a collective farm’ (Geertz 1980:74).

What about leadership and control in the agrarian economy? Here, again, the tenor changed: The subak, idealized as working ‘through discussion and group consensus under the guidance of established tradition’ (Geertz 1980:50), were co-ordinated by sedahan (including even the highest ranking, the sedahan gde; Geertz 1980:255) and, according to Geertz, the meetings mostly took on the usual ‘sense of the meeting’. The sedahan’s role, ‘especially if he was a liked, trusted, and intelligent one’, also included mediation or even arbitration in disputes. ‘But in no way did the sedahans act as judges in the proper sense, as individuals with authority to offer binding, enforceable decisions. When and if they were asked, they merely gave advice, which might or might not be accepted by the parties involved’ (Geertz 1980:84). He then summarizes his view about the organization of irrigation agriculture by alluding to theories by Marx and Wittfogel (1957) that he wanted to rebut: ‘It was not highly centralized political institutions controlling massive waterworks and huge gangs of coolie labor, “Hydraulic Bureaucracies” run by “Asiatic Despots” pursuing “Total Power”, which enabled the Balinese irrigation system to work and which gave it form and order’ (Geertz 1980:77).

A World of Symbols and Imaginations

The question arises, especially when one heeds Rutherford’s (2012) recent quest to reclaim ‘the empirical’ when she calls for a sceptical (‘kinky’) or ethical empiricism: What about the epistemology that allows such a radical reinterpretation of identical data and, therefore, a substantially divergent representation and interpretation of the same culture formerly described in a different way? As is well known, the aim of the symbolic or semiotic approach is to generate a coherent interpretation of culture based on a number of key symbols that are defined and selected by the anthropologist and incorporated into a comprehensive system of symbols (Geertz 1973). In Negara, Geertz (1980:7) informs the reader that the picture he composes of nineteenth-century Bali is constructed based on his fieldwork and the literature. He maintains that the picture, nevertheless, is a collective representation, and that the imaginary is no different from ‘the real’ (Geertz 1980:136):15

Ideas are not, and have not been for some time, unobservable mental stuff. They are envehicled meanings, the vehicles being symbols (or in some usages, signs), a symbol being anything that denotes, describes, represents, exemplifies, labels, indicates, evokes, depicts, expresses—anything that somehow or other signifies. And anything that somehow or other signifies is intersubjective, thus public, thus accessible to overt and corrigible plein air explication. Arguments, melodies, formulas, maps, and pictures are not idealities to be stared at but texts to be read; so are rituals, palaces, technologies, and social formations.

Geertz 1980:135

Interpretative anthropology takes its bearings from literary analysis. In anthropology, unlike in the interpretation of a literary text, author and interpreter are usually one and the same person. In other words, the interpreter explains a text which he himself has produced, irrespective of the Geertzian argument that culture consists itself of an assemblage of texts (cf. Clifford 1983; Capranzano 1986). Due to a lack of space, I am unable to go into detail about Geertz’s hermeneutical approach (but see, for example, Gottowik 1997; Silverman 2005). Nevertheless, it is important to note that Geertz never spelled out the principles from which he selected the key symbols. The use of the chosen symbols to construct the theatre state is a one-way process that cannot be reversed. Consequently, a validation of the interpretation outside the hermeneutic circle determined by the author is not possible (see Reyna 1998). The result—the different representation of the nobility, especially kings, and their relation to economics and worldly power—is, therefore, the outcome of an epistemology that is almost the opposite of the empiricism that the ‘early’ Geertz had applied.

Far-reaching geopolitical shifts took place between the 1950s/early 1960s and the mid 1970s, which Clifford (2012:419) subsumed under ‘the decentering of the West’. In anthropology these shifts, which were linked in one way or the other to events of the Cold War and its concomitants, had far-reaching consequences. They finally resulted in a ‘re-invention’ of the discipline, while anthropology’s focus shifted from public political culture to academy (see Silverman 2005:291, 302–6; Patterson 2001:133–4). The collapse of grand narratives, such as the modernization theory, heralded a new era generally called post-modernism; Reyna (1998:432) identified Geertz’s ‘conjectural hermeneutics’ as a variant of post-modernism.

Several social scientists who had been engaged in modernization research moved to new, politically less delicate topics and alternative projects or theories (Sackley 2012; Gilman 2003:256). Gilman (2003:244–9) identified a number of interrelated phenomena that influenced the shift in the social sciences. The most important factors were probably the following. The Indochinese War and the US intervention in Vietnam proved to be a disaster (see also Vincent 1990). At the universities, especially at the MIT (Chomsky 1997:178), opposition against the Vietnam War arose and the students’ and faculties’ protests shook the campuses. The scandal around the ‘Hamlet’ project in Vietnam (Latham 2000:151–207) and the ‘Camelot’ project erupted (Wallerstein 1997), and with it, a deep disgust over the extent to which anthropology had been used; the way academics had actively served the political interests of the United States and acted against those of other countries and peoples; and how anthropologists had been recruited for work in counter-insurgency (Nader 1997). While the modernists had concentrated on ‘traditional societies’ in the developing world and the way they could be modernized according to a self-declared US ideal or prime example, the urban riots and racial tensions in the US demonstrated that not everything was at its best even at home. The legitimacy for the ideal of state-led development was lost; the Cold War liberalism shattered. Accordingly, modernization theory no longer made sense (Latham 2000:215; Gilman 2003:243).

Additionally, also in the mid 1960s, due to the changed political situation, the star of the modernization theory, under whose spell the CENIS academics had fallen (Gilman 2002:6), began to lose its sparkle. The interest in area studies in Southeast Asia (and beyond) also declined and the failure of the Parsonian approach focusing on social systems led to redirections of social and political scientists (Berger 2003:447). However, Geertz was not the only prominent scholar who performed a substantial theoretical ‘turn’ during this period; among them were also Marshall Sahlins and David Schneider. Sahlins went to Vietnam in 1965 to get a picture of the war and was engaged in the anti-Vietnam protest movements (with the famous teach-ins in the same year) and, therefore, was anything but a US policy-conforming scholar (see Silverman 2005:320; Kumoll 2010:78–81). Kumoll (2010:81) supposes that Sahlins’s culturalist ‘turn’ also has to be seen exactly in the context of the Vietnam War: ‘a scientific realization of his political protest against the Vietnam War and against the universalization of American-dominated modernity’.16 Schneider, who had first produced a conventional, rather positivistic study of kinship (influenced by Murdock) on Yap, applied a symbolic approach in his American kinship (Schneider 1980). In this major publication, he suggested that kinship is nothing more than cultural models; he even denied, as Silverman (2005:287) points out, that kinship exists at all.

Thus, far from completely abandoning the Parsonian approach in its totality, Geertz (and others) moved to the culturalistic side of it, that is, the domain of ideas and values that had already been formulated by Kroeber and Parsons in 1958 (Silverman 2005:285). In fact, Geertz had—though to a varying extent in only a few of his earlier publications—followed this culturalistic approach, too (for example, in Religion of Java, 1960). The ‘cultural’ or ‘mentalist’ side of anthropology that subsequently Geertz, Schneider, and Sahlins developed, each of them in a particular direction, however, has its roots in the Boasian traditions. All three worked together first at Harvard; Geertz and Schneider later moved to Berkeley and then to Chicago, where they met and exchanged thoughts with Victor Turner.17 Geertz, Schneider, and Sahlins became something like the founding fathers of symbolic or semiotic anthropology in the US. As Silverman (2005:287) puts it, these three anthropologists made up ‘a triumvirate of American symbolic anthropology’. They opened up a major stream of studies on the world of ideas and meaning that influenced many disciplines beyond anthropology.

Sackley (2012:593–4) commented on Geertz’s shift: ‘By 1970 […] Geertz left modernization theory through humanistic doors’, with his interest no longer in social engineering. Instead, he focused on elaborating his theory of culture as meaning and became increasingly hostile to positivist social science (Silverman 2005:288; see also Reyna 1998:434).

With regard to the general shift from positivism to interpretivism in the 1960s, Nader suggests that the anthropological move to ‘writing culture’ discussions—and I would add, to interpretivism as well—was an escape and legitimated a retreat from responsibility. Nader quotes Elizabeth Colson, who had already remarked in 1974 that anthropologists had turned to concentrate on symbolic systems because such systems are ‘by definition […] assumed to be impersonal, above the battle, and to operate by their own logic’ (Colson 1974, quoted in Nader 1997:135). Geertz, apparently miffed by her remark, but far from saying something about his radical theoretical and methodological turn, disclaimed Colson’s suggestions as follows: ‘And Elizabeth Colson’s notion, derived from god knows where, that those interested in symbolic systems are so interested because, shy of the dust and blood of social conflict and anxious to please the powerful, they retreat to realms assumed to be impersonal, above the battle, and to operate by their own logic, seems to me idle slander’ (Geertz 1983:183).

The Failure of Others

What did Geertz say about the external factors that induced his realignment? In After the fact, Geertz alludes only more or less parenthetically to the external circumstances. He speaks of an ‘optimum moment’, kairos, when ‘Vietnam, the civil rights movement, the counterculture were […] the point at which the future changed’ (Geertz 1995:110–11):

Things changed, all right, and significantly. But they changed in ways that were connected more with what was learned, and what unlearned, in the years immediately after the war than with the ambient excitements of the society at large […]. The antiwar protest, to some degree the civil rights movement, rather less the counterculture, engaged much of the energies of faculty and students alike. But they were for the most part, even when on occasion they disrupted the normal flow of things and threw the structures of civility into disarray, rather extra-curricular.

Once again, he only talks about the disillusion of others when he writes: ‘Perhaps Shils’ hopes for turning American policy vis-à-vis the Third World towards realism, enlightenment, and sympathetic imagination were somewhat less than completely fulfilled. (This was, again, after all, the time of Katanga, the Tonkin Gulf, Kashmir, and Biafra)’ (Geertz 1995:113). Geertz goes on to emphasize that he had not been working exclusively for the Committee for the Comparative Study of New Nations18 at that time (but does not mention that he had even been its chairman; Sackley 2012:593), but also for the Department of Anthropology of Chicago University where he started with ‘symbolic anthropology’. There, Geertz tells us, he ‘became, almost immediately, deeply engaged […] in what turned out, after a while, to be an extremely influential (and extremely controversial) effort to redefine the ethnographical enterprise whole and entire’ (Geertz 1995:114).

Only in his 2002 article does Geertz say more about the external factors of his reorientation, though again he seems to exclude himself from any involvement in the policy-oriented study of ‘underdeveloped’ countries with the goal to modernize them. The Cold War had moved to Southeast Asia which made further fieldwork there impossible;19 the disillusion of modernization theorists’ assumption about the ‘progressing advance of rationality’ in ‘the Third World’; the debates and conflicts at universities in the United States about anthropologists’ involvement in Vietnam and the suspicion against anthropologists who had carried out research in ‘underdeveloped’ countries and on ‘modernization’. He concluded: ‘Some sort of course correction in our procedures, our assumptions, and our styles of work, in our very conception of what it was we were trying to do, seemed, as they say, indicated’ (Geertz 2002:8–9).


Interdisciplinary development studies today, now defined as ‘global development studies’, are again enjoying an upsurge at US universities (and beyond). Students are increasingly ‘interested in doing good in the world, in service, by working abroad’ (Handler 2013:181–2). They want to acquire ‘skills’ to fulfil this goal, however, with ‘little awareness of their own political and cultural location’ (Handler 2013:181). Handler understands it as the task of anthropology to make this positioning visible and to fit this knowledge institutionally into these ‘global development studies’. Another requirement for those engaged in policy-determined frameworks would be to acknowledge one’s own position in the encompassing political context, at least in retrospective, as Clifford (2012) has suggested. Certainly, the situation of anthropology today cannot be compared with the anthropology of almost 60 years ago. Developmental studies have become more critical and self-reflexive concerning the relationship between state policy and practice. They have explicitly learned the lesson from the Cold War with its ‘science of development’ based on notions of growth, progress, and modernization (Mosse 2005). Moreover, studies on the discipline’s involvement in World War II and the Cold War, such as those by Price and others, have contributed to the awareness of the problem and dangers of state-funded, policy-serving research.

Yet, one of the major questions I raised at the beginning of this article still needs to be answered: How was it possible that Clifford Geertz—the ‘early’ and the ‘later’—could use the same ethnographic data for substantiating completely different conclusions about the same topic and the same culture? As my analysis has shown, these different conclusions are, indirectly, the result of the application of diverging theories, which produced Peddlers and princes, on the one hand, and Negara. The theatre state in nineteenth-century Bali, on the other. Or, to put it the other way round: The choice of data and their interpretation were largely determined by the theories in order to reach the conclusions to which he aspired. These theories were heavily influenced by the geopolitical conditions of the time, the modernization theory as part of Cold War policies in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the post-Vietnam era, when US anthropology underwent a unprecedented crisis (see Gledhill 2002; Nader 1997; Vincent 1990, respectively). Hence, the production of results as an outcome of the theoretical framework could be a consequence of the theory-driven selection and interpretation of data (Hauser-Schäublin 2003). Isaac termed it an ‘epistemic design’ (related to the Design Science Research, DSR), namely the problem ‘how to arrange their [the social scientists’] data so as to make them represent and undergird the theoretical claims about the social world they wished to make’ (Isaac 2012:80, italics in the original). The endeavour ‘to find ways of arranging particular sets of data so that the general processes that explained them could stand forth’ (Isaac 2012:82), therefore, pertains to the scheme-content relationship. According to Isaac, this dualism was at the core of the epistemic design strategies and implicated a particular form of knowledge production. In his 2012 article, Isaac examined the works of Kluckhohn, Parsons, and Bales, and concluded that ‘the scheme-content dualism allowed social scientists to believe they had wide latitude for crafting “content” or “data” into a general theory of human thought and action. This, I propose, is another singular feature of the Cold War social sciences’ (Isaac 2012:92).

Thus, the scheme-content issue, the arranging of particular sets of data in correspondence with the theory chosen, is, I suggest, the major reason why such divergent interpretations became possible. The schemes—and I would say, especially the scheme of semiotic or interpretative anthropology as applied in Negara—were the driving force that produced results corresponding to the ultimate theoretical goal.

My analysis, seen from the perspective of epistemic design strategies, also brings up the problem of the malleability of ethnographic data, their multipurpose theoretical (mis-)use, and the implication these procedures may have for the people about whom anthropologists write, and also for anthropology as a discipline. The malleability of the data was the underlying concern I had when I started comparing Peddlers and princes and Negara and this has remained a concern at the point of conclusion. This issue relates to anthropology in general and is, even today, far from obsolete. This issue needs to be discussed separately, as does the next problem that I can paraphrase only with a closing question: What epistemic design strategies are we anthropologists using today?


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For a critical reconsideration of the notion of Cold War and its genealogy, see Isaac and Bell 2012; for a general definition, see Solovey 2012:7–8.


I will not deal in this article with the many anthropologists who did fieldwork during the Cold War and were state-funded but did not get entangled in policy-making (cf. Lewis 2005). On the other hand, there were anthropologists who complied with state policy expectations and others who consciously resisted; see Price 2011.


Apart from the substantial discrepancies of Geertz’s work to be discussed here, there were other publications by the same author in the 1960s in which he focused explicitly on ‘culture’ and interpretation typical of the ‘later’ Geertz. Thus, apart from shifts and gaps, there are also continuities with which I cannot deal here due to lack of space. Mandler’s (2012:248) statement about Margaret Mead’s involvement in foreign policy—though quite different from Clifford Geertz’s involvement—might apply to Geertz as well: s/he ‘retained freedom of action and achieved closeness to policymaking’ (italics in original).


Even in his (rather Marxist-oriented) Social history of anthropology, Patterson judges Geertz (and others) ‘to be on the side of (secular) angels’ (Lewis 2005:101; see also pp. 103–5).


The coup against Sukarno was also the result of foreign intervention, called ‘patient diplomacy’, carried out by the CIA (Kuper 1999:94–5; see also Gilman 2002:18–9 and footnote 3, about the CIA’s role in supporting Soeharto’s massacres in 1965). Reyna (1998) has dealt critically with this period and explored Clifford Geertz’s attitude towards these massacres as represented in After the fact (1995). Reyna (1998:436) came to the conclusion that Geertz approved of the 1965/66 mass killings by the Indonesian military (supported by the CIA): ‘So the killings were right for the mighty because they were self-defense.’


The MIT undertaking was actually planned as a joint American–Indonesian project, but it failed in the early stages. According to White, there is a Geertzian explanation for this (Geertz 1995:105), which was later consolidated by Inglis (2000:13–4) and then became the generally accepted version. Koentjaraningrat (1975:224) offers a completely different version that shows the American partners in a less favourable light (White 2005:116, note 20; 2006:165).


For a critical evaluation of the relationship between social science and power in Indonesia and the role of the Ford Foundation, see Hadiz and Dhakidae 2005.


In his apotheosis of Geertz, Inglis (2000:30) describes the post-war climate in the US universities as follows: ‘[…] anthropology could offer itself as queen of the human sciences, the more so as the spirit of the times found its large conservatory in Harvard’s Department of Social Relations, followed by the lavish possibilities of the Chicago Committees, especially the eponymous one for the Comparative Study of New Nations. Such institutions at once gave expression to and expressed the cordial hope of public-spirited and liberal-minded scholars that their studies could make a difference to the alleviation of human misery’.


The money for research depended on the sort of research planned and the political vocabulary chosen (Price 2003:375–6; Simpson 1998:XV–XVI).


According to Gilman, CENIS was put up by Max Millikan, who had been assistant director of the CIA, with funding from both the CIA and private foundations (Gilman 2002:17–8, note 3). For a detailed account on the involvement of MIT in Cold War politics, see Needell (1998).


Geertz states in his second autobiographical publication that he became involved in matters of ‘modernization’ only later, after his doctorate in 1956 (Geertz 2002:9).


‘Tabanan’s traditional ruling family—about 6 per cent of its population—overwhelmingly dominates the nascent modern economy of the town’ (Geertz 1963a:120).


The allusion to the ‘supposedly self-subsisting village’ refers to statements made by Dutch writers whom Geertz criticizes heavily.


Even Geertz’s biographer, Inglis, echoes Geertz’s dismissive remarks about Marxist or materialist theories (Inglis 2000:147, 161).


In a review of this book, Schulte Nordholt (1981:475) rightfully pointed out that Geertz describes how the Balinese state was imagined, not how it actually worked.


Sahlins himself seems to support this interpretation in the introduction to Culture in practice (2000; see also Kumoll 2007:43–70, 320–5).


The development of symbolic or semiotic anthropology in the US, however, cannot be separated from interactions with the British orientation of it and its proponents, among them most prominently Victor Turner, who had moved to the United States in the early 1960s.


The Committee’s goal was to seek out the principles underlying the social and political development of the newly independent countries after World War II through comparative analysis (see Apter in Geertz 1963c:V). In After the fact, Geertz turns away from himself and his involvement in this project too, by quoting lengthily from a ‘foundational essay’ written by Edward Shils. He calls Shils’s phrasing from today’s perspective ‘more than a bit embarrassing’ (Geertz 1995:112). What Geertz does not relate is that Shils’s article was the introduction to a volume edited by Geertz (1963c).


Geertz introduces this geopolitical shift of the centre of the Cold War with the following remark: ‘But a funny thing happened on the way to the field. The cold war, previously fought out […] in the client and satellite states of Europe, shifted its center of gravity to the Third Wold, and most especially to Southeast Asia’ (2002:8, my emphasis).

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