"A great deal of recent social scientific theorizing has turned upon an attempt to distinguish and specify two major analytical concepts: culture and social structure. The impetus for this effort has sprung from a desire to take account of ideational factors in social processes without succumbing to either the Hegelian or the Marxist forms of reductionism. In order to avoid having to regard ideas, concepts, values, and expressive forms either as shadows cast by the organization of society upon the hard surfaces of history or as the soul of history whose progress is but a working out of their internal dialectic, it has proved necessary to regard them as independent but not self-sufficient forces—as acting and having their impact only within specific social contexts to which they adapt, by which they are stimulated, but upon which they have, to a great or lesser degree, a determining influence. 'Do you really expect,' Marc Bloch wrote in his little book on The Historian's Craft, 'to know the great merchants of Renaissance Europe, vendors of cloth or spices, monopolists in copper, mercury or alum, bankers of Kings and the Emperor, by knowing their merchandise alone? Bear in mind that they were painted by Holbein, that they read Erasmus and Luther. Tu understand the attitude of the medieval vassal to his seigneur you must inform yourself about his attitude to his God as well.' Both the organization of social activity, its institutional forms, and the systems of ideas which animate it must be understood, as must the nature of the relations obtaining between them. It is to this end that the attempt to clarify the concepts of social structure and of culture has been directed.
There is little doubt, however, that within this two-sided development it has been the cultural side which has proved the more refractory and remains the more retarded. In the very nature of the case, ideas are more difficult to handle scientifically than the economic, political, and social relations among individuals and groups which those ideas inform. And this is all the more true when the ideas involved are not from the explicit doctrines of a Luther or a Erasmus, or the articulate images of a Holbein, but the half-formed, taken-for-granted, indifferently systematized notions that guide the normal activities of ordinary men in every-day life. If the scientific study of culture has lagged, bogged down most often in mere descriptivism, it has been in large part because its very subject matter is elusive. The initial problem of any science—defining its object of study in such a manner as to render it susceptible of analysis—has here turned out to be unusually hard to solve.
It is at this point that the conception of thinking as basically a social act, taking place in the same public world in which other social acts occur, can play its most constructive role. The view that thought does not consist of mysterious processes located in what Gilbert Ryle has called a secret grotto in the head but of a traffic in significant symbols—objects in experience (rituals and tools; graven idols and water holes; gestures, markings, images, and sounds) upon which men have impressed meaning—makes the study of culture a positive science like any other. The meanings that symbols, the material vehicles of thought, embody are often elusive, vague, fluctuating, and convoluted, but they are, in principle, as capable of being discovered through systematic empirical investigation—especially if the people who perceive them will cooperate a little —as the atomic weight of hydrogen or the function of the adrenal glands. It is through culture patterns, ordered clusters of significant symbols, that man makes sense of the events through which he lives. The study of culture, the accumulated totality of such patterns is thus the study of the machinery individuals and groups of individuals employ to orient themselves in a world otherwise opaque" (Geertz 1973:361-363).
1973 The Interpretation of Cultures. New York:Basic Books
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