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Clifford Geertz on “Ideology” as an Analytical Term, Pt. 1 April 1, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in History of the Human Sciences, Ideology of Science.
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Clifford Geertz (1926-2006)

I suspect most historians, including myself, could not say much about the anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s work and ideas beyond the two-word phrase “thick description”.  Yet, almost all historians will know at least that much.  Further, although he borrowed the phrase from Gilbert Ryle, these historians will likely associate the phrase with Geertz, probably because at some point they have read his 1972 essay “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight”.  As an undergraduate history major, I was assigned it as part of my senior year methods course.

I would argue that most historians know about thick description, as exemplified in “Deep Play”, because it has become integral to our sense of professional identity.  It articulates what we have the ability and freedom to do, which others cannot (or, for ideological reasons, do not) do.   This identity identifies historians as reliable experts at getting beyond the surface features of a culture and teasing out the hidden values and presuppositions lurking within its more visible elements: its texts, its propaganda, its day-to-day practices, its objects, and so forth.

Unfortunately, this skill is often treated as a kind of secret, to which historians simply gain access upon induction into the historians’ guild by reading works like “Deep Play”.  Once in, you need not worry too much about what actually constitutes legitimate and valuable interpretations of past cultures.  (My bête noire is historians’ continued belief that “scientism” and “technological enthusiasm” constitute legitimate characterizations of the rationales in certain technical and political cultures.)

We could doubtless benefit from reading more of Geertz on the proper interpretation of culture.  This post is about his essay, “Ideology as a Cultural System,” first published in Ideology and Discontent, ed. David E. Apter (Free Press of Glencoe, 1964), pp. 47-76, which still bears sober reading a half-century later.

This blog comes to this essay by way of the interest of historians and sociologists of science in the “ideology of science”.  Although our account of this interest is incomplete, we have already marked Morris Berman’s interest in a “legal” ideology of science that licensed a kind of technocratic worldview, and Michael Mulkay and Thomas Gieryn’s interest in scientists’ rhetorical efforts to promote an “ideology of science” that buttressed their authority.  These and many other roads in the history of the cultural analysis of ideology ultimately lead back to Karl Mannheim’s (1893-1947) sociology of knowledge, and in particular his Ideology and Utopia (1929, English translation 1936).  But, following the footnotes, Geertz’s essay is often a stop along the way.

Geertz observed that the term “ideology” had taken on a polemical or “evaluative” connotation, which made it into a diagnosis of social, political, and intellectual pathologies that diverted societies from a sensible appreciation of reality.  In the aftermath of the Second World War, and in the midst of the Cold War and postcolonial political turmoil, there was even a sense that ideology actually “draws its persuasive power from any discrepancy between what is believed and what can, now or someday, be established as scientifically correct” (72).

Geertz’s essay was basically an attempt to define the term “ideology” in a way that could be useful to social scientists.  He singled out The American Business Creed (1956), by Francis X. Sutton, Seymour E. Harris, Carl Kaysen, and James Tobin for its use of this evaluative sense of ideology while professing to use it as a neutral analytical term (though he deemed the book “in many ways excellent,” 47).

Geertz noted the affinities between the evaluative sense of ideology and Enlightenment criticisms of “superstition”, and marked the use of ideology by Marx as a way of labeling distractions from class realities: religion was, of course, the “opium of the people”.

But, then, Marxism was itself recognized as an ideology.  Raymond Aron (1905-1983) pointedly called political ideologies The Opium of the Intellectuals (1955, English translation 1957).  In The End of Ideology (1960), Daniel Bell (1919-2011) declared intellectualized approaches to politics exhausted.  The objective for intellectuals now was to identify dangerous ideological frameworks, and to practice a more modest politics.  Geertz reckoned the intellectuals’ anti-ideological project “reminds one of nothing so much as the literature of militant atheism….  We may wait as long for the ‘end of ideology’ as the positivists have waited for the end of religion” (51).

Mannheim had been led to the conclusion that identifications of ideology were themselves ideological, depending on one’s own sense of reality, threatening analytical nullification.  Geertz called this “Mannheim’s Paradox” (48).* For followers of Mannheim, notably Werner Stark (1909-1985), the task was to extricate oneself from the paradox.  There was still a distinction to be drawn between the “sociology of knowledge” which “deals with the social element in the pursuit and perception of truth, its inevitable confinement to one or another existential perspective,” and “the study of ideology,” which “deals with the causes of intellectual error” (49).

Geertz divided diagnostic accounts of ideology into the “interest” theory and the “strain” theory.  The interest theory goes back to Marx.  In the interest theory, “ideas are weapons” used to promote this or that interested class in a “universal struggle for advantage” (52).  He scathingly criticized the possible psychologies and sociologies that can support the interest theory.  Either they supposed an excessively narrow utilitarian psychology “that sees men as impelled by rational calculation of their consciously recognized personal advantage,” or a “broader, but no less superficial, historicism that speaks with a studied vagueness of men’s ideas as somehow ‘reflecting,’ ‘expressing,’ ‘corresponding to,’ ’emerging from,’ or ‘conditioned by,’ their social commitments.” According to Geertz (53):

Within such a framework, the analyst is faced with the choice of either revealing the thinness of his psychology by being so specific as to be thoroughly implausible or concealing the fact that he does not have any psychological theory at all by being so general as to be truistic.

The strain theory, on the other hand, developed a psychology that was premised on “the chronic malintegration of society” (54), where individuals embrace ideology to “flee anxiety” (52).  Geertz identified it primarily with Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) and the authors of the aforementioned American Business Creed monograph.  According to the strain theory (according to Geertz), “In the modern world at least, most men live lives of patterned desperation” (54).  They attempt to fulfill a certain social function, and when they fail to do so, they are led into a state of existential anxiety, and so they turn to reassuring ideology, “thus insuring the performance of roles that might otherwise be abandoned in despair or apathy” (55).

Of course, strain theorists take an evaluative view of ideology.  Thus, they highlight the irony of when “an ideologist sets out to air his grievances and finds himself contributing, through the diversionary power of his illusions, to the continued viability of the very system that grieves him.”  Geertz observed that strain theorists were aware of, and, indeed, “tend to stress negative outcomes and possibilities rather more than the positive, and they but rarely think of ideology as more than a faute de mieux stop-gap — like nail-chewing.”

But, strain theory’s “analysis of the consequences of [ideological] concern [remained] crude, vacillatory, and evasive” (56).  Within it, ideology was a pathological result of social dislocation, but the contents of ideology were not a subject for serious analysis.  In Pt. 2, we will examine Geertz’s recommended alternative.

To conclude Pt. 1, though, we can note that, though theorists of the “ideology of science” referred to Geertz, they might also be subjected to his critique.  Berman, Mulkay, and Gieryn all view the ideology of science through the frame of the “interest theory” — Berman explicitly saw the ideology as reinforcing a bourgeois capitalist social order (and his notion of ideology was decidedly evaluative), while Mulkay and Gieryn saw it in terms of scientists creating their own authority by drawing intellectual boundaries that distinguished their work.  However, the need for such an ideology of science is supposed by the strain theory — scientists attempt to function as non-ideological arbiters of proper knowledge in a society, but are “chronically malintegrated” into that society, as evidenced by serial controversy.

Sometimes the entire field of STS seems to be built on this last observation.  But in the 1980s, historians of science were torn between honest, Geertzian effort to come fully to terms with the social-epistemological contents of scientific work and knowledge through history, and a satisfaction with “truistic” depictions of scientists navigating within ideological contexts, sometimes participating in them, sometimes trying to ideologically situate themselves beyond them.

*We could also look at the history of Mannheim’s Paradox.  Historians sometimes seem to use it simultaneously to deflate the authority of non-professional historiography, as well as to deflate expectations of their own work’s ability to encapsulate the past by pointing to the “inevitable subjectivity” of historical analysis.

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