Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Reading :: Local Knowledge

Local Knowledge: Further Essays In Interpretive Anthropology
By Clifford Geertz

I picked up this book in grad school. It was on my reading list for the qualifying exams in my Ph.D. program - at that time, rhetoric and professional communication was going through the "social turn," so we were reading a lot of cultural anthropology. But I confess I didn't quite make it through the book back then. I did recently, but it involved a lot of skimming. Honestly, this classic didn't keep my attention. I think there were at least two reasons why.

The first was that these insights, which were fresh when Geertz was first writing, have become pretty well integrated into scholarship in the interim. Geertz studied cultures all over the world, and he notes issues such as multiplicity, associative thinking, and (what some might call) postmodernist blurring of categories. Such issues were still fairly new and contested in 1983 (when the book was published) and even less well known in the preceding decade, when Geertz delivered the lectures on which the chapters were based. But much has been written about these issues since 1983, so the book didn't provide much in the way of additional insights for me.

The second reason the book had trouble keeping my attention was stylistic. As noted above, the chapters were based on lectures Geertz had delivered. I could tell: The chapters were scoped too broadly, covering too much ground, without enough local detail and focus to keep me engaged or to make their arguments concretely. As summaries that connected the dots of Geertz' vast work, they did well, I assume. But I haven't read Geertz's other work, so I was frustrated by how much was glossed over, including (in many cases) methodology. Additionally, like a good lecture text, these chapters did away with strong navigational cues such as headings.

Nevertheless, I appreciate the general arc of the book. In particular, I appreciate how he got across the same lesson that Rogoff later communicated: that we must examine cultures within their own value systems and milieux. Geertz not only preaches this, he practices it.

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